William Hughes and the Pottery Cottage Massacre

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A violent criminal escaped prison by stabbing two guards, then took an entire family hostage in their rural home before killing four of them, in a case that shocked England.

This and FOURTEEN other true crime stories and mysteries can be found in Orrible British True Crime Volume Three.

The bullet bounced off

There have been numerous mass murderers, serial killers, and violent criminals throughout the history of Britain. Many, like Dennis Nilsen, Jack the Ripper, the Dunblane Massacre, and Harold Shipman, are well known.

Then there are those like William Thomas Hughes, who tend to get overshadowed by the more written about infamous names and monikers. His tale involves a life of crime, a prison break, mass murder, a high-speed car chase, and hostage taking.

He was considered so maniacal that when an officer shot him in the head, the bullet appeared to bounce off, making Hughes even wilder. His crimes are somewhat lost to the annals of British true crime but his case is begging to be retold.

From the 12th to 14th of January 1977, Hughes escaped from custody, stabbed two prison officers, took an entire family hostage, killed four of them, kidnapped the sole surviving family member, went on the run, and was hunted down by police before being shot dead.


The village of Eastmoor on the outskirts of Chesterfield town in England, is so small that you could drive through it without even knowing it’s there. It’s home to sprawling country homes, cottages, and farmland, seated right on the Eastern edge of the Peak District National Park. But it will be forever linked with the crimes committed by Hughes.

Born William Thomas Hughes in 1946 in Preston, Lancashire, he was the first of six children to parents Thomas and Mary. From an early age, he was antisocial, performed poorly at school and was known to bully other children.

There was no seemingly obvious reason as to why Hughes became antisocial, though some suspected that being the eldest of six children, he felt isolated and was able to get away with more while his parents were focused on his younger siblings.

He left school at 15 with low grades and no idea what he wanted to do. As such, he flittered between various dead-end jobs and struggled to hold down any of them, instead preferring a life of crime. As a juvenile, he spent time in youth detention for robbery and violence.

When he was 20, in 1966, he was jailed for the first time for assault but was out within a few months. He married a younger woman while in Preston and had one child with her but the relationship went sour when Hughes became violent towards her and slept with other women.

In March 1976, he left his wife and moved to Chesterfield with his new girlfriend to start afresh but the violence followed, as it inevitably always would. Within a few weeks he was known to have been violent towards his new partner. Then in August of that year, his crimes escalated.

Category C prisoner

In Chesterfield on 21st August 1976, Hughes was out drinking in town when he went to a nightclub and met a young couple. There was an altercation between them and the couple left the club, but Hughes followed them into a nearby park.

He hid in the shadows and watched them have sex behind the public swimming baths. As they were lost in the moment, he crept up behind them and hit the man over the head with a brick multiple times, then dragged the woman to the nearby riverbank and raped her.

The next day, police appealed for information about the incident and many witnesses came forward to state they had seen Hughes leave the club and follow the couple into the park. Fortunately, the couple survived the attack but were left with life-changing injuries.

Hughes was arrested and charged with rape and violent assault, then remanded in custody until a trial date could be set – but that’s when it all started to go wrong. When Hughes was transported to HMP Leicester, the police and prison service failed to pass over his previous records.

It meant that Hughes became a Category C prisoner; a low-risk criminal. This was despite the nature of the crimes he was on remand for, and his previous convictions for violence. His previous records, along with a pre-trial report stating Hughes to be of a violent nature were put together but were not forwarded to HMP Leicester until after he had escaped.

While in prison, he told fellow inmates that he was going to escape and head back to Lancashire to kill his ex-wife. One reported it to the guards but it fell on deaf ears. It seemed that the authorities were enabling Hughes without even knowing it.

William Thomas Hughes.

Violent escape

On 3rd December 1976, while working in the prison kitchen, Hughes stole a boning knife, which is used to cut through the ligaments on raw meat. He managed to hide the knife in his cell despite various searches by the guards.

Then on 12th January 1977, Hughes was scheduled to appear at Chesterfield court for the fifth time since he had been remanded. The previous four times had gone off without a hitch and so the prison guards became lapse with Hughes’s security, believing him to be no cause for concern.

There were some unfortunate coincidences that led to the escape. On that fateful day, the weather conditions were bad as heavy snow had fallen across the country. The near 55-mile route had multiple hold-ups and was generally difficult to navigate.

The prison service hired a taxi to take Hughes and two prison officers, Don Sprintall and Ken Simmonds, to the courthouse. Due to the set-up in the taxi, Hughes was only handcuffed to Simmonds by one wrist on the back seat.

Sprintall sat in the passenger seat and spoke to the taxi driver about the conditions. Hughes had already been searched but he had managed to conceal the boning knife in his clothing. With one arm free, Hughes was able to pull off a violent escape.

Due to the length of time the journey was taking, Hughes begged to stop and use a public toilet, where he removed the knife from his clothing. Within moments of getting back into the car, Hughes reached forward and stabbed Sprintall in the back of the neck, splashing blood onto the car window.

Almost immediately, he stabbed Simmonds in the neck, who struggled to stop the flow of blood. Hughes ordered the taxi driver to pull over. He unlocked his handcuffs and dragged the two seriously injured guards out of the car then drove off leaving all three of them on the roadside.


Less than a mile later, and due to the heavy weather conditions, Hughes crashed into a border wall and exited the car, eloping on foot to Beeley Moor, a small village in the Peak District. The prison service and police were made aware of the escape within minutes and emergency services flooded to the location where the guards were bleeding into the snow.

Less than half hour later, the taxi was found by the wall, abandoned. A manhunt got underway led by Chief Inspector Peter Howse, who would later tell his story in a book, describing how the events haunted him for the rest of his life.

Due to the heavy snow, any footprints were covered up quickly, and search dogs failed to pick up a scent. Because the conditions were so severe, Peter and the team believed that Hughes would have hidden in and around Beeley Moor, as it would have been treacherous to walk over the moorland in the other direction.

The team searched over 250 properties within the first few hours and found no sign of Hughes. Peter struggled with resources and wanted to search more properties and locations but simply didn’t have the manpower to do so.

A search radius was set up where it was believed Hughes would be, but unbeknownst to Peter and the team, Hughes had traipsed over the moorland. After four miles in deadly conditions, Hughes arrived in the village of Eastmoor and chose one property to hide in. Before the police were even looking for him, Hughes had already taken a family hostage.

Pottery Cottage

Pottery Cottage

The Pottery Cottage was originally named Northend Farm and was a working pottery barn for most of its life. In October 1969, Solihull-born grocery shop owners, Arthur Minton, and his wife Amy, retired and sold their business before purchasing Northend farm and moving to Eastmoor.

Along with one of their daughter’s, Gillian, and her husband Richard Moran, they set about converting the property into two living units, and proudly renamed the site; Pottery Cottage. Gillian and Richard had adopted a baby girl two years earlier and named her Sarah.

Richard was born in Ireland and served in the Irish Army for a short amount of time before leaving for a sales job where he met Gillian, who was an accountant’s secretary.

At the time that Hughes changed their lives forever, all five were living at the cottage. Arthur was 72, Amy, 68, Richard, 36, Gillian, 29, and Sarah, 10. Only one would survive.

At around 10am, Hughes approached Pottery Cottage, freezing and exhausted. After a quick search of the outside of the property, he found two axes in the shed. With one in each hand, he entered the cottage through the back door to find Arthur and Amy preparing vegetables for the evening meal.

He was surprisingly honest and told them he was on the run from police and needed a place to stay only until nightfall when he would leave them alone. He promised not to hurt them but took control of one of their vegetable knifes for good measure.

Psychological games

Hours passed until 3pm when Gillian arrived home from work. Amy told her the truth that Hughes was on the run from police and that he promised not to harm them. Sarah arrived home from school half hour later and was told by Gillian that Hughes’s car was broken and he was waiting for help.

It would have been a strange scene with no sign of what was to come. Gillian and her mother made small talk over coffee, Arthur was sat in his armchair watching TV and Sarah was happily running around the house as if nothing was untoward.

Then, at around 6pm, Richard returned home, and Hughes’s demeanour changed. When Richard walked through the front door, he saw Hughes holding a knife to his wife’s throat. Hughes ordered Richard onto the floor where he tied him up.

Following suit, he restrained Gillian and Amy. Arthur resisted but was eventually tied and gagged. Hughes dragged them into separate rooms, and walked Sarah through to the annex where she was locked in.

On the first night, Hughes made tea for everyone but decided to rape Gillian shortly after. That night, Gillian heard a commotion from the downstairs living room where Arthur had been tied to his armchair. She realised he was being beaten, and less than an hour later, Arthur’s cries subsided.

At 7.30am the next morning, a lorry arrived at the cottage on a routine trip to empty the septic tank. Hughes ordered Gillian to sign the papers or he would kill her family. She noticed that Arthur had been covered with a jacket and couldn’t see his face, but Hughes told her he was sleeping, and that Sarah was still asleep in the annex – he was lying.

Discovery of victims

Hughes ordered Gillian to phone her work and Sarah’s school to say they were ill, then told Richard to do the same thing for his work. Hughes even made Gillian head to the local shop to get cigarettes and newspapers, and to note where the roadblocks were.

When she returned, she noticed that her father was no longer in the armchair, with Hughes claiming he was back in his own bedroom. On that second day, he untied Amy, Richard, and Gillian, and allowed them to eat and sit at the table. He told them Arthur and Sarah would remain separated from them.

Hughes had planned to leave on the second night but the weather had become worse and the driving conditions were impossible. He decided that as he was in control of the cottage, he would remain for one more night.

The following morning, on the 14th, he ordered Richard and Gillian to go shopping for supplies and they thought about telling the police but were worried what would happen to the family members in the house. They returned to the cottage, and Richard was ordered to go to his place of work and clean out the petty cash, before returning later that evening.

Hughes tied up Richard and Amy again and said he was going to take Gillian as a hostage. When the car wouldn’t start, he told Gillian to get help from the neighbours but she told them about the hostage situation and Hughes overheard.

As Gillian got back into the car, she noticed Amy stagger out of the house holding her neck before falling to her back on the frozen ground. Hughes had cut her throat in retaliation for Gillian telling the neighbours.

The neighbours alerted police who arrived at Pottery Cottage around 9pm. Amy was found dead on her back in the garden, partially covered with snow, and her throat cut. When they entered the cottage, they found three more bodies. 

Richard had died from knife wounds to the chest and neck, as had Arthur, who had been killed on the first night and covered up by Hughes. But perhaps the most difficult sight was that of 10-year-old Sarah, who had been sexually assaulted then stabbed in the chest and neck. She too, had been murdered on the first night.

Final moments

Realising what had gone down, Chief Inspector Peter Howse called for as much assistance as possible, even involving two Army helicopters but they had to be grounded due to the weather. The police finally spotted Hughes driving the Moran’s car.

A high speed car chase ensued that took them across Derbyshire and into Cheshire, which ended when Hughes crashed the car into a garden wall in the tiny village of Rainow, in the valley of the River Dean.

Hughes held an axe to Gillian’s head, demanding a new vehicle to escape in. Peter led the negotiations and managed to provide a new vehicle for Hughes but Gillian refused to move, having reached breaking point. 

With armed police surrounding him, Hughes saw no way out. He raised the axe, ready to kill Gillian, but Peter jumped through the car window and covered her. It gave time for an armed officer to shoot Hughes in the head.

Hughes staggered back but didn’t fall, instead becoming enraged at the headshot. He lifted the axe again and was shot three more times before finally collapsing to the ground. He died of his injuries right there in the snow beside the wall he had crashed into.

His death was notable as the first time that British police has shot dead a fugitive, and the first time an officer from Derbyshire police had shot anyone dead.

One of the worst

An inquiry into the incident criticised many aspects of the case, including search procedures at HMP Leicester, and the lack of information and incomplete records between police and prison departments. The inquiry ended with 17 different recommendations, all of which were accepted and made law by the government.

Despite the police coming under fire for searching a geographically limited area, Peter Howse was recommended for commendation after jumping in front of Gillian to protect her from the axe. He later received the Queen’s Commendation Award for Brave Conduct.

Hughes was due to be buried at a cemetery in Chesterfield but outraged locals protested as they didn’t want him buried in their town. They threatened to dig up the grave if he was buried there, so authorities decided to cremate him privately.

Prison guards Don Sprintall and Ken Simmonds survived being stabbed in the neck and returned to work soon after. For Gillian, her life changed immeasurably. Hughes had physically and psychologically abused her, playing games in the house telling her that Sarah was alive when she wasn’t.

At the funeral of Sarah, Richard, Arthur, and Amy, Gillian had a police escort to keep the intense media pressure off her. Later in 1977, she sold her story to The Daily Mail which was released in eight parts. She never spoke to the media again and remained silent of the nightmare that robbed her of everyone she loved.

Hughes was a career criminal enabled by a system that led to multiple murder. Throughout his life, he raped at least three women, seriously injured four people, killed another four, and tore apart a community. He is one of the worst criminals to have ever walked the streets of Derbyshire and Cheshire, and perhaps, the entire country.

This and NINETEEN other true crime stories and mysteries can be found in Orrible British True Crime Volume Three.

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