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The tragic family murder that led to mass deaths in Nottingham

todayJune 12, 2022 1

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Public hangings in the 1800s were a source of entertainment and drew huge crowds eager to get a glimpse of the ghoulish spectacle. But the execution of one murderer, who slaughtered his family, led to a much wider tragedy in the centre of Nottingham and eventually resulted in a change of policy at the gallows.

The condemned man was 29-year-old William Saville. Nine years earlier he had been ‘persuaded’ to marry a woman called Ann Ward after getting her pregnant. The wedding took place in Sneinton but the marriage was rocky. Ten years older, Ann, who was missing an eye and had an illegitimate child with another man, wasn’t considered a good catch.

Saville, a violent drunk like his father, regularly beat and kicked his wife, even while she was heavily pregnant. In early 1844 he convinced her that she and the children would be better off in the workhouse. Meanwhile he took up lodgings in Radford, and got a job in a factory as a stocking weaver.

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He turned his attentions to a young female colleague, Elizabeth Tate. Ignoring the fact that he had a wife and family, he proposed and asked her to emigrate to America with him.

However, his plans were left in tatters when his wife threatened to expose him as a married man. He lured her and the three children to a spinney in Colwick Woods, where he pulled out a razor and cut the throats of 38-year-old Ann, 38, Harriet, seven, Mary, five, and Thomas, three, on May 21, 1844.

In a final despicable act he put the razor in his dead wife’s hand to make it appear as if she’d killed the children before turning the razor on herself. The case was reported nationally and hundreds visited the murder site, named ‘Saville’s Spinney’ by locals, to take twigs and leaves as souvenirs.

Two months after the murders his trial took place in July 1844. The court heard evidence that he had confessed the murders to another prisoner. The jury at Nottingham’s Shire Hall (now part of the National Justice Museum) in High Pavement had no trouble finding him guilty after just 18 minutes’ deliberation.



A general view of The National Justice Museum in High Pavement, Nottingham city centre
A general view of The National Justice Museum in High Pavement, Nottingham city centre

Saville was sentenced to hang outside the building – which today is one of Nottingham’s most popular tourist attractions – at 8am on August 7, 1844. The case gained such notoriety that tens of thousands turned out to witness the execution.

Crowds starting gathering the night before and, by early morning, a huge mass of people crammed in the narrow street. Some were fainting, others were lifted to safety.

Frank Earp, of Nottingham’s Hidden History Team, said: “This was no mob baying for blood, but simply the curious come to see a man die at the end of a rope. The larger than usual crowd did not alarm the authorities, who were used to public executions passing uneventfully (except for the condemned). No one knew it at the time, but this would be a day that was to shock and horrify the good citizens of Nottingham more than the murder of the innocent victims of Saville’s crime.”

The time it took for Saville to be led out onto the scaffold to the hanging was just three minutes. As the body fell the crowd began to disperse and that’s when tragedy struck. Many were trampled underfoot, with the surge likened to a dam bursting.

As the crush reached the narrow steps at Garner’s Hill (next to where Nottingham Contemporary stands today) men, women and children cascaded down the stone stairs. An eye-witness account describing the scene said: “Seldom has the eye beheld a sadder spectacle. The mass was literally writhing with agony. Many had dislocated or broken limbs – females could be seen struggling for life, divested almost totally of their exterior garments – and groans, mingled with hurried prayers and curses, resounded on every side.”



Garner's Hill as it once was
Garner’s Hill as it once was

Mr Earp added: “Official records state that no barricades had been put into place to safely control the crowd. Many, who had been standing for hours found it difficult to walk and were swept off their feet and carried along. Whilst those in the centre were carried along, those around the edges were pressed tight against the walls of the houses on either side and began to stumble and fall.

“The occupants of the houses, who had also been watching the execution, now franticly began to yell warning from the windows or to open their doors to relive the pressure.” They included the Lord Mayor Coun Thomas North, who almost threw himself out of his window to prevent the fatal advance.

As other members of the crowd tried to help survivors or search for loved ones, waggons and hand carts arrived to take the hundreds of injured to hospital. Twelve of those who died were named, some belonging to the same family. Reports say mother-of-two Mary Stevenson, of Daybrook, was 23 or 33. Either way she was the eldest. Her sister Ellen Smithurst, 19, was also amongst the dead.

Nine-year-old Thomas Easthorpe, of New Lenton, was the youngest. His sister Mary, 14, was killed. Teenagers aged 13 to 19 were amongst the other victims. Another five, names unknown, were also reported to have died either that day or soon afterwards and according to reports 150 were injured.

A top level inquiry followed. Two more public hangings took place afterwards, one 16 years later, and another in 1864, which turned out to be the last. An estimated 10,000 people attended to see Richard Thomas Parker, aged 29, go to the gallows convicted of the drunken shooting of his parents and the murder of his mother. Both had much tighter crowd control measures and passed without incident.

From then on all executions switched to behind closed doors in the courtyard, where today an actor dressed up as the gaoler takes visitors back to the past with stories of the hangings. Display boards on the walls include the story of Saville, along with other public hangings in the 1800s.

Kathryn Steenson, an archivist at the University of Nottingham, said Saville would have been little more than a footnote in Nottingham’s history had it not been for the terrible events at his execution.

“As to why there were crowds at public executions, it was entertainment, an exciting social event and people went with their friends or family. Adults allowed their children or apprentices to go because they believed witnessing a hanging would show them the consequences of leading an immoral life.

“The crowd at Saville’s execution was especially large because it was an especially gruesome crime. It had gripped Nottingham, and people wanted to see justice done.”

“The most striking fact is that the majority of the dead were barely into their teens. They had been given permission to go to the execution by their family or employers. In our modern society where audiences have to be at least 15 to see strong fictional violence in a film, it is shocking that a hanging was considered a suitable and fun entertainment for a nine-year old.”

Written by: thehitnetwork

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