William Saville: Murder in a Colwick Spinney

by Frank E Earp

The name of Nottingham man William Saville is writ large in the annals of criminology and social history. It holds against it the direct responsibility for the deaths of at least 21 individuals and the serious injury of many more. However, Saville was no mass-murderer. His crime was the murder of his wife and three children. It was the circumstances of his public execution outside Nottingham’s Shire Hall on the 8th Aug. 1844 which led to the unforeseen deaths and mutilations of his other victims. It also led directly to the change in the local authority’s   policy towards public hangings and indirectly influenced attitudes regarding capital punishment.


Contemporary artist impression of William Saville.
Credit: The Paul Nix Collection

Saville’s whole life is one of tragedy from beginning to end and makes an excellent case study for any budding criminologist or physiatrist. William Saville was born in Nottingham around 1815, into a life of abject poverty. His mother died in 1817, William and his siblings were left to the care of their father Thomas Saville. Although Thomas Saville had a good job as a warehouse-man, he was a drunken bully who frequently spent his hard earned money on Saturday night drinking in the inns and public houses in the City. Such was his addiction to alcohol and other vices, often he did not return home until well into the following week. The children were thus left to fend for themselves. It is reported that they slept on straw covered only by rags and would have gone hungry most days if not for the kindliness of neighbours.

During this period, William was a sickly child and due to the unsanitary living conditions developed what was then termed as a ‘scald head’. In an attempt to cure his condition he was sent to Basford Workhouse. Here William’s health rapidly improved, however, his behaviour is recorded as being unacceptable with bouts of extreme violence. For a time he attended ‘Sunday School’ but not long enough to learn to read or write. On leaving the Workhouse William first became a ‘farm servant’ and later a ‘stocking-weaver’. Again, his behaviour is described as being far from creditable.

William Saville married in 1835 and between and 1844 his wife bore him 3 children. The marriage was not a happy one. At his trial Saville claimed that his wife, who was a few year his senior, had tricked him into marrying her with promises of money and by getting him drunk. However, the reality of the situation was the fact that like his father, William was a violent drunkard who frequently beat and kicked his wife, even whilst heavily pregnant. Contemporary accounts describe him as being shiftless and an accomplished liar. William was most content when others paid for his drink and would enjoy their company until it was his turn to pay. In 1837, William was convicted of stealing a coat and sent to prison for 3 months. During the time of his marriage the family lived at no fewer than 14 houses in Nottingham and surrounding districts as well as addresses in Southwell and Derby. For a few months William even took to the roads and lived as a vagrant.

In the early spring of 1844 William Saville persuaded his wife that it would be better for her and the children to put themselves into the workhouse. This done, he then, under the pretext of being a single man, entered the services of Robert Sutton a stocking weaver in Radford. During this short period of employment, William is described as being an inveterate liar, full of swagger and pretence and prone to bouts of violence and foul language. He boasted of his family’s achievement and how he had a strong desire to immigrate to America. It was noticed that when first starting his new employment, William had but one set of clothing. By the time of his trial a few months later, he had amassed a whole wardrobe. How he had acquired his new cloths is only to be imagined. It certainly was not through his legitimate earnings as most of these were spent on his Saturday night drinking sessions.

From his first day at work William directed his attentions towards a young female colleague by the name of Elizabeth Tate. Using an old-fashioned word appropriate for the time, William began to ‘court’ Elizabeth still under the pretext that he was a single man. Although Elizabeth was later to insist that she rejected his advances and was deeply suspicious of William’s intentions and status, the situation does not seem to be entirely one-sided. Williams intentions certainly seems to have been one of marriage.

From the reports it seems that soon after his family had entered the Workhouse, William was in the habit of sending them a weekly package containing ‘half a pound of sugar, an ounce of tea and four pence’. It is stated that the sugar and tea were to buy his wife’s silence and the money intended for the children. William dutifully packed these gifts on Sunday mornings, but the practise ended after a few weeks. Elizabeth Tate witnessed one such ritual and asked who the parcel was for. William replied that it was for an old woman in Arnold to whom he had promised to make that present every week and that he would continue to make it as long as she lived. It is not clear from the records as to where William conducted his parcel packing or if Elizabeth was the soul witness to the event. Certainly, the arrival of the parcel would have been noted by the staff at the Workhouse. If as seems likely William packed his gifts during his free time on Sunday mornings and the two were alone together, Elizabeth Tate would have been complicate in events which were to follow.

It is likely that Williams wife was aware of his intentions towards Elizabeth and with the regular parcels suddenly stopping after a few weeks she threaten to expose him as a married man. The stage was now set for murder.


Colwick Woods
Credit: Picture the Past

Come away to Colwick wildwood,
Come away to Colwick Lane:
As we wandered there in childhood,
Let us wander there again.
Edward Hind 1853.

It is hard to imagine a more picturesque spot anywhere so close to the City of Nottingham than Colwick Woods. However, in May of 1844 a small spinney on the western edge of the Wood was to become the scene of a horrific murder. Did this discourage the throng of visitors who flocked to Colwick to enjoy the Wood in their leisure time? The answer is no! Hardly had the blood dried on the grass, when in a bazaar and macabre ritual, literally thousands of people descended on the scene of the murder, collecting souvenirs of grass, brushwood and bark from the tree under which the murder took place. From that day forth, the site became known as ‘Saville’s Spinney’ after the murder victims, Anne Saville and her three children, two boys and a girl, aged seven, five and four.

Real or imaginary, unrequited or encourage, the relationship between William Saville and Elizabeth Tate had reached a crisis point. At least for one party, William Saville, the ‘sticking point were his wife and three children languishing in a Nottingham Workhouse. Whatever passed between husband and wife on those days in May before that fateful day must remain forever a mystery. However, it is clear that a meeting was arranged between the two for the 21st of that month. Perhaps it was under the pretext of an outing, a brake from the Workhouse routine, or as some accounts would have it a visit to William Saville’s relations who lived on Station St. in Arnold, that Anne Saville and the children were lured to meet William under a tree in a spinney in Colwick Wood. Whatever the supposed purpose of the meeting, it is clear that William had murder on his mind. He was carrying a ‘cut-throat razor’ in his pocket. By his nature, his work colleagues had declared that rather than Saville his name should have been ‘Savage’ and savage he was that afternoon in May. He used the appropriately name razor to viciously cut the throats of all four members of his family.

Covered in his victim’s blood, William Saville beat a hasty retreat back along the little path that led into the spinney. It may have been that he would have gotten-away with his crime and perhaps gone to America with Elizabeth Tate. However, Saville was unaware that there had been an eyewitness to the events. Here, as all accounts of the case state, ‘legend’ enters the story, – and this account will be no different. An errant unnamed local schoolboy had decided to play truant that spring day and indulge in the boyish sport of ‘bird nesting’. By some quirk of fate and the fact that he had spotted a nest in the very tree under which the murder took place, sometime earlier he had climbed high into it branches. Not wishing to be discovered he had remained silent when Anne and the children arrived. No report gives details of events which followed the arrival of William Saville, but it is clear that he witnessed every savage stroke of the razor. The boy was clearly traumatised by the events as it is stated that ‘it was a long time before he dared to come down from his lofty perch’. History does not record what happened next, however it is a matter of fact that the boy reported the crime and William was quickly apprehended.

With William Saville in custody at the Shire Hall (now the Galleries of Justice Museum) news of the murder reached the public and the case reached celebrity status, – as indicated in the bazar events at the murder scene mention earlier. By the 1st June accounts of the murder were being published in local newspapers as far afield as Carlisle. With all of the evidence collected and an eye-witness present at the scene the outcome of the subsequent trial was inevitable. William Saville was found guilty of the murders of his wife and children. The judge donned his ‘black cap’ and 29 year old William Saville was sentenced to be ‘hung by the neck until dead’. The date set for the execution was the 7th August. 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 Old Shire Hall 2014. The site of Saville’s Execution.
Credit: Joe Earp- Nottingham Hidden History Team

Quite how the William Saville case achieved such notoriety is unclear, but events at the trial seem to have attracted a large attendance in the public gallery. Certainly, this was to be a foretaste of things to come. I have not been able, or have had time to trace official court records of the time and cannot give a blow by blow account of the trial. However, from accounts available all those mentioned so far, – including Elizabeth Tate and other fellow works from Sutton’s factory, – gave evidence for the prosecution. The chief witness of course must have been the little boy ‘up the tree’. Saville himself is said to have conducted himself with some degree of dignity throughout the trial.

Saville’s guilt for the crime was without doubt and the judge passed the appropriate sentence of death by hanging. The date for the execution was set for Wednesday 7th August, -some accounts give 8th It is hard to imagine now, but public hangings were very much still the ‘order of the day’ at this time and the old adage that; ‘justice must not only be done but seen to be done’, still prevailed. In Nottingham the site for the gallows was on the very steps of Shire Hall. Evidence of this can still be seen today. Square holes, now filled with blocks of stone, mark the spot where the scaffold frame supporting the gibbet once stood.

Although the time of the execution had been set for 8 am, crowds had already started to gather in the narrow road in-front of Shire Hall, – High Pavement, – the evening before. By early morning, eyewitnesses to the event report seeing a seething mass of humanity crammed together in the narrow confines. Occasionally the crowed would let-out a collective groan and sway a little; otherwise it is reported as being calm. This was no mob baying for blood, but simply the curious come to see a man die at the end of a rope.

“Eight was the hour of execution, but every available space was occupied long before it arrived.  Occasionally, there came a cry from the mighty surging mass that a man, woman, or youth, was fainting, or being crushed to death; and if the sufferer was fortunate enough not to be entirely bereft of strength, he or she was lifted up, and permitted to walk or creep to the extremity of the crowd on the shoulders of the people”.

Just before 8 am Saville was led out onto the scaffold and the halter placed around his neck. According to eyewitnesses, the whole affair took around three minutes; “When the bolt was removed and the body fell, the immense crowd of many thousands of men, woman and children began to move away….” Official records state that no barricades had been put into place to safely control the crowd. The sudden surge into movement was like a dam bursting. The confines of the narrow street funnelled the crowed along, forcing individuals to move in the direction of the mass. 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. Amongst these individuals was the Lord Mayor, pioneering pit owner and Liberal Councillor Thomas North.

“The inhabitants, at the windows on each side the street, observed the overwhelming rush, and foreseeing the consequence, screamed out to those in the rear to stay their progress.  The mayor was especially active, and though the almost threw himself out of his window for the purpose of staying the fatal advance….”.

But these efforts were too little too late. The ‘head’ of the mass had already reached the even narrower ally of Garner hill with its steep flight of steps leading down to Narrow Marsh. Forced into this side street, disaster overtook the crowd as the bodies of men women and children tumbled down the stone steps. It was all over in minutes.


Garner Hill, 1915.
Credit: nottshistory.org.uk


The site of Garners Hill Today (2014)
Credit: Joe Earp- Nottingham Hidden History Team

We do not have to imagine the scene of disaster which followed the execution of William Saville on that fateful August morning in 1844. An eye witness account provides us with the harrowing detail; “There the struggling mass lay-men, women, and children, promiscuously heaped together, and each moment receiving additions to its number. The shrieks of the female sufferers were fearful, though not protracted, for a very brief interval brought on either insensibility or the silence of death.  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.”

Everywhere along High Pavement the doors of the houses were flung open and the occupants rushed out to aid the victims. Those of the crowd who had escaped the disaster now turned back to either help the survivors or in a desperate search for friends and loved ones from whom they had become separated. From the rest of the town waggons and hand carts began to arrive to ferry the many hundreds of injured to the towns General Hospital and other places where they would be able to receive medical attention.

Three people were found to be dead or died soon after arrival at the hospital. They were 33 year old mother of 2, Mary Stevenson from Daybrooke, 13 year old Mary Percival of Convent Street Nottingham and 19 year old Millicent Shaw of Kimberly. Mary Stevenson was the oldest to die in the crush. Her 19 year old sister, Ellen Smithurst, also of Daybrooke, was one of the eight dead or dying taken to ‘The Watch House’ (Police Station?). Nine year old Thomas Easthorpe of New Lenton, – the accidents youngest victim, – and his 14 year old sister Mary, were also listed amongst the dead at the Watch House. The others were; 14 year old James Marshall of Isabella Street Nottingham, Eliza Hannah Shuttleworth aged 12, of Albert Street, Greyfriars Gate Nottingham, 22 year old James Fisher from Bulwell, 14 year old John Hednell (Bednell?) from ‘Old Radford’, and 16 year old Hannah Smedley from Carlton. Thomas Watson, aged 14 ½, was taken to his home in Kent Street Nottingham where he subsequently died.

A further 5 persons are known to have died from their injuries that day or sometime later. Their names are not listed. However, one newspaper gives a list of the more seriously injured taken to the General Hospital. Amongst these, 3 are recorded as in a dangerous condition; “1. John Spinks aged 70, watchman at Messrs, Thackeray’s mill, New Radford. This man has had his thigh amputated, and is doing as well as can be expected, but is considered in a very dangerous state. 2. William Piner aged 36, New Radford, very dangerous. 3. William Brewer aged 13, New Lenton, very dangerous”. The same paper reports that there was a further 30 seriously injured at the ‘Dispensary’. Another of the seriously injured, James Whitehead, aged 43, from Preston in Lancashire was taken to the Union Workhouse. The same paper goes on to state; “It is (however,) computed that there are no less than one hundred and fifty persons more or less hurt, whose names we are unable to ascertain”.

There followed an enquiry into the tragedy at the highest level. It was to be another 16 years before another public execution took place on the steps of Shire Hall and the last, another 4 years later in 1864. Both passed without incident. The lessons in crowed control and management had been learnt at a terrible cost. All subsequent executions at the site took place in private in the building’s courtyard.

Whilst the tragedy was taking place outside, having been removed into the building, the corpse of William Saville, – or at least his head, – was being examined by ‘Prenologist’ William Small. There followed weeks of debate in both local and national newspapers and in the Prenological Journal, as to the state of Saville’s mental health and the rights and wrongs of executing mental unfortunates.

The name Saville still clings to the area around Colwick Wood. In 1848, just 4 years after the murders, the Nottingham to Lincoln railway line was opened. This line crossed over the lane which led into Saville’s Spinney. The new crossing was given the name Saville’s crossing. In 1907 a young girl was killed by a train whilst using the crossing. Partly as a result of this a new bridge was built over the line which it is still known today by it old name.

The mortal remains of the murderer, William Saville still lie within the courtyard of Shire Hall and the flagstone that once marked his grave now stands propped up against the wall. Shire Hall is reputed to be one of the most haunted places in the Country. Chief amongst its ghosts is the restless spirit of William Saville.

About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
This entry was posted in Nottinghamshire Crime and Punishment, Nottinghamshire People, Legends and Characters. Bookmark the permalink.

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