The Sawley Murder

On Tuesday 29th June 1852 a Sawley woman was battered to death in her home by a stranger.

John and Sarah Walters lived in Thompsons Barns, a solitary group of three 2-storey buildings around a yard on the lane to Church Wilne, about ¼ mile before Wilne Mills.  The left building (looking from the road) was their house, the other buildings being sheds.

The buildings were owned by Richard Thompson, a Draycott farmer.  John Walters was a farm labourer for Mr Thompson.

The Murder

On Tuesday 29th June 1852, two days after Sarah’s 58th birthday, John was out hoeing turnips in the fields.  Sarah left home around 11am, stopping to see the sexton in Wilne before walking to Draycott to do some shopping.  She mentioned seeing ‘a bad looking fellow’ sitting in the lane near the cottage and being glad to get past him.

On her return she found the man inside her house and left her shopping on the doorstep.  Her husband described her as a courageous and spirited woman and the man later claimed she hit him first.  But he beat her to death with a hatchet, which was later found in the yard.

It was customary for the women of Sawley whose children worked at the Mill to bring them lunch and meet in the lane near the house.  By 1pm that day there were several groups seated in the vicinity and various accounts of what happened next.

According to one of the local boys, he heard a noise and on investigation he saw the windows and furniture smashed and a strange man beating a woman with a hatchet.  The man threatened to ‘stick’ the boy, so he ran to Wilne Mills to raise the alarm.  Another woman had seen the assault and also ran off.  Another boy saw the body being carried across the yard.

One boy related how he threw a stone through a broken windows and knocked the man down, after which others rushed into the cottage and seized him.  The man appeared to be drunk or insane. 


The Inquest

An inquest was held the next day (30th June) at The Oddfellows Arms (the name for the Nags Head at the time) in Sawley.  The foreman was John Smith.   The jury first visited the scene and saw the body before hearing from witnesses.

John Hague, the Sexton of Wilne Church, knew Sarah and John Walters.  She’d called on him that morning before leaving for Draycott at about 11.15.  The next time he saw her was about 1230 (he thought), in the farmyard next to her house, lying under a shed, quiet dead, with a great trough, a tea tray and a small clock on her head.  Afterwards the body was taken into the house.  The prisoner, who only gave his name as Cesear, was in custody. 

Martha Kilburne, the wife of Thomas Kilburne, waterman, was walking from Sawley to Wilne Mills to take her daughter her dinner.  They sat opposite the garden and house door.  She remarked to her daughter that the old woman hadn’t looked out.  She went to the gate to see if she was ill and saw the stranger in the yard, covering something over.   He was scattering something white around.  He said to her twice “Flour, you …… ‘”.   There was nobody else there, so she ran towards Wilne Mills with her daughter.  Returning shortly afterwards she found a great many children there.  The prisoner’s response to her account was “I never see nobody”.

Thomas Hayward lived at Wilne Mills and knew Sarah.  Arriving at the house a little after 1pm, he saw a man throwing things out the window, including a trestle leg.  He didn’t want to go in without help, but he went into the yard, where he saw something on the dung heap, which he thought was a table leg.   On taking hold of it he found it was a woman’s leg.  There was a trough on her head but he knew it was Sarah.  She was quite dead.

George Atkinson, a blacksmith, lived at Wilne Mills.  At 1.10 by the Mill clock he was called to the house.  He found Sarah in the yard covered by a sheet.  The window facing the yard was broken and the stranger was in the house, holding the door shut.  George shouted, “How come you to murder this poor old woman”.  The man opened the door, muttered something over, came out with a besom (brush) in his hand, as though to strike someone.  George grabbed a trestle leg to defend himself.  A boy then threw a stone which hit the man over the left eye and knocked him against a wall.  As he let go of the besom, George grabbed him and was helped by others to take him into the lane.   The man was covered in blood and put his head in the horse trough.  George made him walk to Sawley, where he delivered him to Constable Smedley.  The man didn’t like walking on the road and used abusive language.  He said he came from a town in Northamptonshire and said his name, which George had forgotten (at which the prisoner shouted “Caeser”).  When he asked again why he’d murdered her, the man had said he’d never seen an old woman and knew nothing. 

William Smedley, the constable of Sawley, received the prisoner into custody, charged with murder.  The prisoner insisted his name was Caesar. 

At the inquest the prisoner at first lay on the floor, then got up making faces and laughing.  Some thought he was feigning madness.  He hadn’t shaved for many months.  He had long, lanky hair, a long beard and was wearing a cap, a dirty check or striped shirt, and ragged trousers, but no coat, stockings or shoes.  He refused to speak about the crime or give any name apart from Caeser.  When asked where he was from, he said “out of a bottle of smoke”, then said he was from Suffolk.  He was sent to Derby Gaol under a coroner’s warrant.

The Trial

The prisoner was identified as Daniel Freeman, aged 34 (though he looked younger) and 5ft 5” tall, with a swarthy complexion and grey eyes.   He was indicted for the murder of Sarah Walters and tried at Derby Assizes on 22ndJuly. 

It was thought the murder happened around 1.30pm.  Sarah’s body was cold when found.  She had been beaten about the head and face.  The floor of the house was covered in blood and there was human hair on the wall.  The murderer had dragged the body by the heals to the barn across the yard and stretched it on the dung heap.  He sprinkled the naked parts with salt and flour, then covered the body with broken furniture from the cottage, stalks of wallflowers he’d cut, and miscellaneous articles from the house, before putting an inverted pig trough on her head.   Part of a leg was left exposed.  He then brushed the blood away from the yard with the besom before returning to the cottage to continue breaking things.  When caught he was violent at first but then became more rational.

When first asked to plead he appeared unable to understand the question and Douglas Fox, surgeon of Derby jail, was called.  He said the prisoner was an imbecile, but not so insane as to not know the consequences of his acts.  Later that day he was able to plead not guilty.

Sergeant Miller, acting on behalf of the prisoner, ascribed the commission of the act to the ungovernable frenzy of a madman.  He said Daniel’s mother was dead and that his father had been insane.  Daniel had previously been in an asylum.  

It transpired that a day or two before he’d been found wandering almost naked near Ashby de la Zouche.  The local doctor had pronounced him insane and cautioned the staff at the workhouse to keep strict guard over him, lest he should do mischief to himself or others.  But he was allowed to leave and found his way to Sawley the next day, where he was seen begging a short time before the murder. 

The jury found Freeman guilty but recommended him to mercy on grounds of imbecility.  Judge Mr Justice Coleridge sentenced him to death but hinted that the death sentence would not be carried out and that he would be kept ‘in durance’ to prevent future harm.   The judge censured the officers of the Ashby Union for allowing a person of weak mind to go about.   He said that if it arose from trying to save a few shillings and pence, they were responsible in the sight of God for the acts the prisoner had committed.

The Murderer

Daniel Freeman was from Glaston, near Uppingham (Rutland), where he was baptised in March 1820. His father, Joseph Freeman, was a farmer. His mother was Mary and he had a brother, Joseph.
He’d been charged with vagrancy several times. In 1843 he was declared a rogue and vagabond at Beverley, Yorkshire and faced transportation, but was committed to the Lunatic Asylum in York.
In 1848 he was convicted of larceny in in Bourne, Lincolnshire.

After his trial in Derby in 1852, he was sent to Millbank and then Pentonville prisons in London. In 1854 he was in prison in Portland, and then Dartmoor, before being sent to the prison hulk ‘Defence’ (launched as HMS Defence in 1815) anchored in the Thames off Woolwich. But the Defence was destroyed by fire later that year. His behaviour in the prisons was always described as good or very good.
He was then back in Millbank Prison before (in 1859) being sent to Bethlehem Hospital (Bedlam).

John Walters

John Walters was born in Draycott in 1795.  His father (also John) was a ropemaker.  He married Sarah (nee Burton) at Wilne church on 25th July 1819. 

On 28 Feb 1858, 6 years after his wife’s murder, John married again to Eliza Plackett (nee Smith).  He was about 63, she was about 31.  The marriage was in Nottingham St Mary’s church (lace market) and they both said they lived in Barker Gate.  Eliza claimed to be a widow, but it appears she was still married.

She moved into the house on Wilne Lane with him.  In 1861 they were there along with John’s widowed mother, Elizabeth Walters.  Elizabeth died in 1864, aged 90, and was buried at Wilne.

We’re not sure what happened to John and Eliza after that.  They seem to have left the Wilne Lane house by 1871. 

The victim was born as Sarah Burton in Draycott in 1794.  Her parents were Thomas Burton & Anne (nee Statham) who’d married 25 Jul 1819 in Wilne church.



Eliza Smith was born in Sawley about 1825.  Her parents were Joseph (a waterman) and Sarah.  In 1847 she married Nahum Plackett (1823-1890) in Breaston.  But they soon split up and by 1851 he was an ironstone miner lodging in Sandiacre and later moved back to Breaston.  Elzia may have been lodging in the Nottingham lace market district in 1851.  There’s no evidence they divorced, which in any case was almost unheard of at the time, especially for working people.

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