One hundred and fifty years ago, in 1866, the Lancaster Guardian devoted many pages to the barbarous murder of Elizabeth Nelson ‘in defence of her chastity’.
The murder scene was in Green Lane, a quiet and overgrown lane in the parish of Scotforth, but now right at the heart of the campus of Lancaster University.
Elizabeth Nelson was 31 years-old and a domestic servant at Mr Whalley’s, Richmond House, in Slyne Road, Lancaster.
On Thursday evening, January 11, 1866, at about 5.30pm, when it was already dark, she left the house with a bonnet to deliver to a house in Middle Street and a mysterious letter addressed to a Mr Miller, which had arrived a few days earlier.
George Miller was a farm servant at Burrow, where Mr Whalley also had a farm, just south of Scotforth village, and almost opposite the modern site of the university. He had been paying her some attention, and it seems likely she was taking the opportunity of renewing the acquaintance by delivering his letter in person, although it was dark, cold and a long way to walk.
She got to Middle Street about 6.15pm but did not stay. She may have been seen by Mr Welch of Burrow House as he drove back from Lancaster in his cart. If so, he was the last person, other than her assailant, to see her alive.
It began to snow about 8pm that evening. A farm worker called Thomas Wilkinson was heading up Green Lane towards Hazelrigg next morning at 9am when he found a body lying partly covered in snow.
He called a fellow farm worker who went to fetch the policeman at Galgate, Sergeant Harrison. The body was taken to the Boot & Shoe Inn in Scotforth, and Sgt Harrison called on three local women to lay it out.
He later said he thought she had died of a fit, but it became apparent during the washing that she had been assaulted.
A post mortem examination by Dr Hall revealed she had been strangled and raped, or sexually assaulted.
The washing removed most of the forensic evidence, which in any case would not have been much use at that time. A Galgate silk-spinner returning home that Thursday evening heard a scream about 7.30pm, which probably gives the time of the murder.
It was conjectured that Elizabeth had met someone whom perhaps she knew, who had misdirected her up this quiet lane and assaulted her.
The letter addressed to George Miller was found near the body, still undelivered.
Suspicion fell on two young men from nearby farms, Joseph Dunderdale and John Cottam, but the former was quickly released.
His companion had a rather conflicting and unsatisfactory story of where he had been at the crucial time, and evidence was also produced that he knew the victim.
He was examined by magistrates at Lancaster but there was no clear evidence to connect him with the murder and he was finally discharged. Forensic evidence was in its infancy and experts could not distinguish human from animal bloodstains then.
Later on it emerged that there had been an attempted rape on a servant girl from a local farm some three months earlier at the same place, by a ‘little man, in dark clothes, wearing a cap or wide-awake’. Cottam was only 4ft 7 ins tall (1.4 metres).
The unfortunate Elizabeth Nelson was buried at Aughton church. No-one has ever been convicted of her murder.
The full story has been retold in a booklet by Andrew White, former Head of Museums at Lancaster, entitled ‘The Scotforth Murder’. Copies can be obtained from the Market Bookstall in Market Square price £4 or by post from Dr Andrew White, 1 Monteagle Drive, Hornby, Lancs LA2 8LD, price £5.