ON New Year’s Day 1833 the blood-covered body of a young woman was found in Clifton Wood.
Her name was Elizabeth Rayner, she was in the early stages of pregnancy and her throat had been cut. A well-liked 20-year-old village lass, she had last been sighted walking past the Black Horse pub in Clifton just a few hours before the end of the old year.
Yet, despite a substantial reward being offered at the time, her murder was never solved and her tragic death remains a mystery to this day.
It was a story that intrigued Anna Best when she was growing up - and now she has reopened the mysterious case of Elizabeth Rayner and written a book about the grisly murder.
Anna’s book ‘Borrowers of the Night’ looks at the official documents relating to the crime and weaves them with fictional accounts of what may have happened on that night. It creates a fascinating picture of village life in the early 19th century and the social and economic conditions that prevailed.
Anna, who was brought up in Rastrick and educated at Brighouse Girls’ Grammar School, is a distant descendant of Elizabeth Rayner’s family and grew up hearing stories of ‘the Clifton Wood murder’.
“I thought it was just a tall tale passed down by my gran but when I found out there really had been a murder I just became fascinated by the whole saga,” said Anna. “What I find particularly intriguing is that, despite the fact that Sir George Armytage of Kirklees Hall managed to find reward money totalling £200, an awful lot in those days, no-one came forward. Did people stay silent to protect the murderer? How did they react to having a killer - or killers - in their midst? I felt there had been some sort of cover-up and it spurred me on to find out more.”
Anna, who teaches at Calderdale College, trawled through the official records - depositions to the coroner’s court, transcripts of the inquiry into the crime, census documents and newspaper reports. Intrigued by the inconsistencies she found, she became obsessed by the story of love, resentment and jealousy.
“It’s a convoluted web of intrigue and I hope people will enjoy trying to unravel it as much as I have,” said Anna.
What is known is that Elizabeth was a slight, striking girl with red hair who lived with her parents, Williams and Betty Rayner, and her brothers and sisters at Well Lane, Clifton. She was about four months pregnant when she was murdered. Two of her brothers were playing in Clifton Wood on New Year’s Day 1833 when her body was found. She was lying on her stomach in her blood-covered dress, her hair loose and her arms crossed.
Immediate suspicions of suicide were discounted because of the absence of a knife or blade with which she might have inflicted the wounds on herself and investigations revealed that her body had been dragged into the wood.
A coroner’s inquiry into the tragedy was opened at the Black Horse just three days later. “It’s intriguing to imagine the gossip, rumour and speculation there must have been in Clifton at the time,” said Anna. “After all this time the case of Elizabeth Rayner seemed to have gone completely cold but I wondered if it was possible, more than 180 years later, to throw a little light on it.”
l ‘Borrowers of the Night’ by Anna Best, published by Bank House Books, is available from Just Books, Brighouse, Amazon and the publishers. Anna will sign copies at the Black Horse pub on May 5, 7pm.