On 3 November 1818, three men set off from Woolaston together in a boat, making their way down the River Severn to Bristol. The three were William Burton and William Syms, and the owner of the boat, named Hurd. After transacting some business in Bristol for a few days, the men had intended to go home, but the weather was bad, so they spent a night at a public house in Pill. Syms had plenty of money to buy drinks, and was seen to put three five pound notes in his left breeches pocket. Burton was broke, but managed to down eleven pints of beer.
On the following morning, Hurd decided to stay behind to carry out some more business, and Burton and Syms set off for home. They were seen in the boat together, leaving Pill, but only Burton arrived back at Woolaston. When Burton was questioned about the whereabouts of Syms, he gave contradictory answers, first saying that he had stayed behind at Pill, then that he had asked to be dropped off at Eastern Point, and had spoken about going to America. It was noticed that Burton, an ex-sailor who was always short of money, now had plenty to spend.
About a fortnight after Burton came home alone, the body of William Syms was found floating in the river, about twenty miles up stream from Woolaston. His skull was fractured and the left pocket of his breeches was turned inside out. Burton was taken into custody and questioned. He said a sailor he knew in Bristol had lent him £8, but it was proved that he had come home with far more money than that. Burton was committed to Gloucester Gaol on 22 November, to await trial. William Syms was buried in the parish church at Alvington, near Woolaston, on 1 December 1818. He was twenty-four years old.
St Andrew’s Parish church, Alvington. Burial place of William Syms. (www.geograph.org.uk. Copyright Stuart Wilding, 2006. Licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.)
The trial of William Burton took place on 6 April 1819, at the Gloucestershire Assizes. The prosecution called twenty-three witnesses to give evidence; the defence called none, but cross-examined all of the prosecution witnesses. Despite this, the jury took only five minutes to find Burton guilty of the murder of William Syms. The judge sentenced him to be hanged, after which his body was to be delivered for dissection.
In the condemned cell at Gloucester Prison, William Burton persisted in claiming his innocence. On the morning of his execution, which took place on 8 April, two days after his trial, he barricaded himself inside his cell and the prison officials had to break through the wall of the neighbouring cell to get him out. He was hanged on the roof of the prison gatehouse.
Hanged at Gloucester by Jill Evans (The History Press, 2011).
Original information from the Gloucester Journal.