Even today, violent death in a small community tends to leave a substantial psychic scar and it is not surprising that a brutal slaying committed in Clifton in the early 19th Century remained ingrained in the folk memory for many decades after the fact. The murder in question occurred sometime between nine o’ clock on the night of New Year’s Eve 1832, when the twenty year old victim, Elizabeth Rayner, was last seen, and three o’ clock on the following day, when her corpse was discovered by three children, including her younger brothers John and Simeon.
According to a report in the Halifax Guardian dated 6th January 1833, the body was found in Clifton Wood, only two hundred yards from her home on Well Lane, a point which some sources locate near where Westgate turns onto Coal Pit Lane. Her throat had been cut, possibly by a left-handed assailant. However, no murder weapon was ever discovered and an inquest held several days later at the Armytage Arms by local magistrate, Sir George Armytage (of Kirklees Hall) established the circumstances of death but failed to identify a culprit.
Despite a reward of £200 being offered for information, nobody was ever prosecuted for the crime. Yet both local and family tradition hints at suspicious circumstances surrounding this failure to bring the murderer to justice, perhaps even a conspiracy. A curious fact of the case is that whilst Liz Rayner was unmarried, she was discovered to be pregnant when they examined the body. Rumours abounded that the identity of the murderer was well known amongst the community but for whatever reason was never officially revealed.
In a recollection of his childhood in Clifton during the late 19th Century, published in the Brighouse Echo on 4th October 1957, local worthy Albert Baldwin relates how many years after the murder, a relative of Liz by the name of Jack Rayner (possibly the brother John who found the body) ran a sweet shop from a cottage on Towngate. He often used to regale customers with the story of the murder and how he recalled hearing a “soughing noise like the squeal of a hare in distress” around the time when the killing must have occurred.
Baldwin explains that the spot near where the body was found was still regarded with anxiety by local folk, many of whom had not the courage to pass by it along Coal Pit Lane after dark. Given that this must have been so many years after the event, it cannot have been from fear that the murderer was still at large, but rather that the spot was considered to be haunted by the unquiet spirit of the murdered girl. He also mentions that a strange sound like the “squeal of a hare in distress” was often heard in the vicinity and regarded with some dread.
Even more curious is an apparition which has been encountered by at least five of the descendants of Elizabeth Rayner’s brother, John, and which was last seen at a house in Bradford Road during the mid-1980s. It is described as tall, cloaked silhouette, not unlike the figure on the Sandeman’s Port logo minus the hat. Given the attire of the figure and its connection with the family, some of the witnesses have speculated whether it might not be the spectre of their ancestor’s murderer, continuing to victimise the Rayner lineage even in death.
Anna Best’s book “Borrowers of the Night: The Clifton Wood Murder” contains a much greater wealth of detail concerning the incident. More information can be found on her blog, whilst her book is available here.