We’ve got a long history of treating robbers as heroes round these parts; Robin Hood got a bleddy statue, for gawd’s sake. It’s only fitting that our first recorded thief was quite the celebrity on the open roads. In the late seventeenth century, highwaymen ruled Britain’s streets, hiding in the shadows before startling travellers and stealing their money. John Nevison was the best known Nottinghamshire highwayman; he and a band of six outlaws would meet at the Talbot Inn in Newark before disappearing into the night to steal along the Great North Road.
Nevison was quick and clever, and many of his exploits were falsely credited to the better-known street robber, Dick Turpin, including the famous “ride to York” which earned Nevison the nickname “Swift Nick” from reigning monarch King Charles II. Eventually, Swift Nick and his gang were apprehended after being outed by one of their own, but he managed to break free from the coppers and continued to rob for the next four years until he met his fateful end at the gallows in Tyburn in 1684.
The oldest explanation as to why people commit crimes is the theory of demonology: the perpetrator suffering from a possessed mind or body. This theory dates back to Ancient Greece, and focuses on the individual rather than their environment or any social forces. Apply this theory to our next criminal and it might offer an explanation for his outlandish behaviour.
At just fourteen, William Byron inherited the grand title of Baron Byron and moved into the ancestral home of Newstead Abbey. At sixteen, he was made a Navy Lieutenant, quickly rising through the ranks and gaining noble titles, before marrying a wealthy heiress and becoming great-uncle to our beloved Lord Byron. It’s clear he lived a life of luxury which, supposedly, should not have pushed him to murder his own cousin. On a January evening of 1765, Byron began a heavy drinking session with William Chatsworth. The pair began to squabble over the quality of the game on their respective land, and Byron became so enraged with Chatsworth that he plunged a sword straight into his cousin’s stomach.
Chatsworth died a day later, and the only cost to Byron was a small fine from his peers in the House of Lords. He then, oddly, mounted the murder weapon above his bed. Things quickly went downhill for the “Wicked Lord”; he shot one of his staff after a dispute while travelling, exhibited several violent outbursts and enjoyed using cannons for particularly dangerous games of battleships over his estate.
Regarding criminality, Sigmund Freud stated that what’s learned in early childhood can influence future behaviour, and that bad parenting was more likely to equal criminal behaviour. The story of our next criminal, William Saville, not only supports Freud’s musings, but acts as a cautionary tale about our fascination with true crime, and how it can become dangerous. Saville is responsible for the deaths of at least 21 people and the injury of many more, despite only physically killing four people himself.
Born in 1815 into a life of poverty, Saville had a tough upbringing; his mother died soon after his birth, and his father preferred a stiff drink and a fight to looking after his kids. This rocky childhood arguably caused Saville to experience bouts of extreme violence and deceitful behaviour later in life. He married in 1835 and had three kids, but wasn’t too happy about it. He claimed his dearly beloved tricked him into marrying her with promises of booze and money, and took to beating her to vent his frustrations.
The final straw in their relationship came after Saville was caught cheating, and his wife threatened to expose his sin. In May of 1844 in Colwick Woods, under a tree, Saville murdered his family. And he would have got away with it if it wasn’t for a pesky kid; a local schoolboy who had decided to play truant, climbed the very tree under which the murder happened, and witnessed the entire ordeal.
The news of Saville’s crimes spread far and wide in Nottingham, and thousands gathered to witness his execution on 8 August 1844 outside Nottingham’s Shire Hall. The crowd were elbow to elbow, so when the bolt was removed and the body fell, there was a stampede and many were forced down the steps of Garner Hill – where the Nottingham Contemporary sits now – to their death.
In January 1946, a boy was born on the Bestwood Council Estate who would grow up to study medicine, open his own clinic in Yorkshire, and become one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history. Harold Shipman was responsible for the deaths of more than 250 people in Yorkshire, and is the only British doctor to have been found guilty of murdering his patients.
If Freud’s theory of a troublesome childhood is correct, Shipman is one of the exceptions. Growing up, he attended High Pavement Grammar School and was an accomplished youth rugby player. He had three happy, healthy siblings and he was close to his parents, who were devout methodists. Shipman was particularly close to his mother, who passed away when he was just seventeen; the result of a doctor administering morphine into her blood to treat her lung cancer. The same method later used by Shipman to kill his victims. The disgraced doctor was sentenced to life imprisonment in January 2000, but hanged himself in his cell at HMP Wakefield in 2004.
Modern criminal psychologists now reference ideas developed by neo-Freudian theorists to explain criminality. It’s common belief that criminal behaviour is the result of inflated egos, the chasing of immediate gratification or feeling a lack of guilt over one’s actions. It’s also thought that, by nature, criminals may lack empathy and display traits that suggest impulsiveness, being self-centred or being driven by fear, anger or greed.
Possibly the most notorious on this list are the Gunn Brothers: extortionists, thieves, drugs dealers, and Bestwood cartel leaders. Much has been said of the ruthless nature of the brothers; stories of nailing their victims to trees and taking to their knuckles with bats still ring around the city. By infiltrating the police force, the brothers were able to continue their reign of terror from the mid-nineties until late 2006, when Colin Gunn and several supporters were jailed for conspiracy to murder.
In late 2004, Nottingham was struck by its first serial killer, an accolade that Mark Martin had been known to boast about during his trial. Nicknamed the “Sneinton Strangler”, Martin seemed to have a fascination with violence and the suffering his victims endured, and was found guilty of the murders of three homeless women. At his trial, the judge told the court how Martin had committed these crimes for nothing more than his own “perverted gratification” and had since been boasting to a fellow inmate that there was “no difference between taking one life and taking 21.” Martin was sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2008 and is one of around fifty prisoners in the UK unlikely to ever be released.
Nottingham may have earned a reputation as the “crime capital” for a little while back there, but we’re not all bad. While we’ve produced a big batch of good ’uns that have positively impacted both our hometown and the wider world, it’s important we remember this notorious bunch; not to celebrate or justify their actions, but because they’re part of the city’s history, no matter how gruesome it may be.