It is Tuesday afternoon, New Year’s Day 1833. Samuel Brearley, aged
fourteen, is in Clifton Wood with two of his friends, Simeon and John
Rayner, aged sixteen and eleven respectively. John is bragging about the
rabbit he caught in a snare the previous day and his plans to try and take
‘Not a chance!’ mocks his brother. ‘You couldn’t hit a barn door at
ten paces, you.’
‘Shut your gob,’ says John, cockily. ‘I’m a tons better aim than thee.’
Always the peace maker, their friend Sam is anxious to prevent the
brothers ending up in a scrap. ‘Let’s find out then,’ he says.
He begins scanning the wood for likely targets. ‘Let’s see who can hit
. . .’ His words trail off as he catches sight of something a little way ahead.
‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing to what must surely be a bundle of rags.
Simeon, asserting his status as eldest, walks cautiously forward. His
face drains to a sickening white. He gazes down at the body in its
blood-soaked clothes – clothes he recognises.Transfixed by the
horrific sight he mutters, ‘It’s our Liz.’
* * *
At the inquest four days later, it was to Sam Brearley that the coroner
turned for a description of the murder scene. It may be that Simeon
and John, Elizabeth’s brothers, were too traumatised to speak clearly
of their grim discovery, or perhaps Samuel was a level-headed lad
who could be relied upon to tell the tale plainly and calmly. Certainly
his careful description of the body and its position suggests a boy
of above average intelligence and observation skills. He recalls she
was on her belly, ‘arms crossed and her head was upon her arms’. The
body was facing uphill. He notes the abundance of blood, some of
it ‘a yard above her in the wood’, and ‘some on her back, fair across
her shoulders a great deal’. Other details are that her hair had fallen
loose and her legs were bare, ‘but her gown was not torn at the back
– it was covered in blood’.
Samuel also had the presence of mind to check for footprints,
but ‘the ground was all leaves and I could not tell whether anybody
else had been there. I could not see any footsteps.’ Neither were
there ‘knife, scissors or razor’. His keen eye also noted how ‘her shoe
toes had gone right into the ground’. This, together with the blood
a yard above her, suggests she was dragged further into the wood
from the initial place of execution, presumably so her body would
be less easily seen.
Whatever other thoughts tumbled through Sam’s head, he
wasted no time in alerting the village.