William Saville was incarcerated in a cell deep below County Hall. It was carved out of the sandstone on which the Hall was built. His cell was roughly six feet wide and four feet across . All the walls had been chiselled out of the soft yellow Bunter sandstone and in one respect Saville was lucky; the walls were currently dry but in winter would be damp and cold to the touch. A small arch shaped window afforded a small amount of light into his new abode. He slept in a hammock that was strung from iron rings set into the wall. This bed and his food all had to be paid for but Saville’s expenses were being met. It was tradition to sell your hair or even teeth upon arrival in the gaol if you were without money. Saville had a story he could tell and sell and there was no shortage of willing patrons who wished to help him, not the least of which was the prison chaplain. His cell would normally be shared with at least two others but he was the sole occupant as he was committed for a murder trial. He was allowed out once a day to exercise in a small yard with a turnkey keeping watch on him. His chances of escaping from gaol were slim, even if he could scale the high brick wall of the yard: a long drop into Narrow Marsh below could prove fatal. He slowly became accustomed to the monotony of prison life but his notoriety meant that he was never lonely. The turnkeys constantly checked on him and he was visited often by the Chaplain and Gaolers wife.
On Monday 2nd June the prisoner requested a relative, his sister, be sent for as he was concerned for some of his belongings and also wanted to contact his Lodge of Oddfellows. On Wednesday 4th June new witnesses appeared at the County Gaol and after their depositions were recorded in the police office, they were taken down several flights of steps to view the prisoner. After the turnkey opened his cell door, he was commanded to leave his hammock and stand in the doorway. A lit oil-lamp was held up to his face and the witnesses were all asked if they recognised the man. Three of the four stated he was the man they had seen. One of the witnesses had observed the man after he had returned from Colwick.
The Nottingham newspapers were all printed as usual on Friday 7th June and were all immediately snapped up. The Nottingham Journal had only a snippet of news for its well-heeled patronage. In the local news column under a heading titled “The Colwick Murders” it squashed one particular rumour that had been circulating in the town and gave details of some new witnesses,
“Saville maintains the same indifferent and hardened demeanour which was exhibited for the most part of the Coroner’s Inquisition. The report that he has made a confession is entirely false. New evidence has been obtained against the prisoner. Two boys who saw him sitting with his wife and young child on the spot the murders were committed while the other children were playing at some distance, and who heard a scream shortly afterwards, have identified the prisoner.”
The Nottingham Review in contrast commented on the murder scene, the prisoner and the arrival in Nottingham of the ballad sellers. On page 5 under a heading titled “Recent Tragedy at Colwick” it informed its readers,
“The craving after the horrible is still maintained by a large portion of the population. Efforts have been made to gratify the lovers of the marvellous and ballad singers daily ply our streets, singing pathetic strains in commemoration of the horrible transactions. Much ingenuity is shown by these men in making their rhymes saleable and many of them carry large boards having elegant landscape illustrations of the tragedy and surrounding district.”
Ballad Sellers had indeed descended upon Nottingham and in large numbers. They usually operated in pairs and their first order of business was to create a canvas daub of the murder scene and chief characters which was then propped on a large board resembling an easel. The more creative were able to create their own ballads made up from news about the murders and these were set to popular songs or even hymns of the day. Ballad sheets would be printed off by local printers and the events were set to rhyme. Sometimes woodcuts would be used to place an image or two in the sheet and sometimes these images were recycled. One of the ballad sellers would usually play an instrument, likely a fiddle or whistle whilst the other ballad seller would sing out the words of the rhyme. Popular sites for this activity were spread around the town and often near a popular Inn. The most popular and lucrative pitches were all around Nottingham Market Square and market days were known to be good for sales. The sheets sold for a penny each and the sellers usually carried a stock of previous popular sheets. Some ballad sellers were known as death hunters as the most popular ballad sheets were about murderers. Nottingham had not seen a good murder story since John Jones was hanged for the murder of Mary Hallam in Mansfield in 1842. The savage and bloody murders at Colwick promised to be a popular topic for setting to rhyme and there was no shortage of customers for the ballad sheets. Many were taken away to a nearby Inn or Tavern where soon afterwards the refrain could be heard accompanied by shouting, clapping and stamping.
The Nottingham Review then went on to provide its readers with a description of the spinney location.
“If the prisoner be the murderer he would have to take his family down one of the most rural of the green lanes of Old England, having on his right a view of the Trent and its valley for many miles and on his left a continual line of high hills, covered with wood and evergreens altogether forming one of the prettiest walks in the neighbourhood. After proceeding with his babes about three miles of this road, passing towards the end through three or four fields abounding in wild flowers, they came to a small spinney at the foot of a high hill which separates the parish of Carlton and Colwick. Here they rested and the elder children ran about gathering wild flowers.”
Having painted a delightful picture of the landscape before the awful tragedy, the Nottingham Review then revealed how the spinney had now changed,
“The immediate neighbourhood of the murder, the spinney is now no more beautiful. The brushwood, the herbage and the trees for several yards have been cleared away by the thousands of visitors who have since been at the place, and carried away with them some token to recall to their remembrance the circumstances of the tragic occurrence.The bloody grass, the bark of the trees and all the shrubbery disappeared first but now even several trees have been wholly cleared off by visitors carrying away with them large portions of both boughs and trunks.”
The Nottingham Review then completed its editorial by finishing with some news about the prisoner,
“The only care the man seems to have, lest his working implements and a bed, in the possession of a relative, should not be procurable by him when acquitted by a jury. At the beginning of the week he sent for a relation and requested they would go around to the different lodges in the Order of OddFellows to which he belonged, for the purpose of procuring the means of the employment of counsel to plead for him at the ensuing assizes. Saying that he thought with able assistance his innocence would be readily proven. On Wednesday fresh witnesses were taken to the County Gaol. Three of four recognised his immediately. One of them observed the prisoner after he was returning from Colwick.”
Some of this news indicated a source within the gaol and the review did not openly identify the prisoner as the murderer as the Journal had done. Astute readers of the Review could but conclude one thing about the prisoner upon reading the final paragraph; these were hardly the actions of a guilty man. Indeed some of the readers had attended the Inquisition and noted his cool and calm manner. Some dared to take this further in polite conversation; had the police got the wrong man?[i] [ii]
TO BE CONTINUED
Copyright@ Michael Sheridan 2013 All rights reserved.