A RETIRED gardener from Farnworth who was with Queintin Smith when he was savagely murdered said he would not be surprised if Sheila Fox died at the hands of the same killer.

David Lee, now 62, recalled today how he was stabbed by the man who beat his best friend to death 53 years ago and said people always suspected it could have been the same person.

Many also feared the killer was a local man, living in the New Bury area.

There was also a stabbing attack on a six-year-old girl, Patricia McKeown, of Ramsey Avenue, 12 months after Sheila Fox went missing.

Speaking yesterday at his home in Chetwyn Avenue, Bromley Cross, Mr Lee said he remembered the tense atmosphere that followed the disappearance of the little girl who lived a few houses down from him.

He said: "After Sheila Fox disappeared we were always told not to speak to strangers. We were told to be very careful.

"I remember some people suspected it was a local man. There's a good possibility it could have been. There's also a possibility it could have been the same man who killed Queintin."

Mr Lee can vividly remember the day his best friend was stabbed and beaten to death when they were playing out at 5.30pm on April 12, 1948, after finishing school at Highfield County.

He said: "Queintin lived opposite the railway line and we used to play near the ponds around there and do what kids do.

"This time we lit fires on the railway embankment and I can remember this chap coming up to us and saying he belonged to the railway.

"He said we couldn't light fires there and said we would have to go with him.

"We walked over to another embankment and the last thing I remember was him saying to me 'you lie down there'."

Mr Lee was stabbed in the chest and across his groin area. He somehow managed to run the half a mile home, before collapsing at the gate of his home in Macdonald Avenue.

He was taken to hospital to receive stitches to his wounds and remained there for 10 days.

He said: "At the time I couldn't remember Queintin being with me. I was shocked when they told me in hospital that he had been killed."

As the biggest man-hunt in the history of Lancashire police was launched, using 110 officers, Mr Lee was guarded by detectives for 18 months, with the killer still at large.

He was taken to jails across the country to see if he recognised the culprit. Peter Griffiths, a 22-year-old Welsh guardsman found guilty and hanged for the murder of three-year-old June Ann Devaney in Blackburn, was also a suspect and Mr Lee had to attend an identity parade, but said he was too tall.

Mr Lee, who lives with his wife Pauline, aged 58, said he thought about his friend Queintin now and again and wondered who the killer was.

He added: "Queintin was a very intelligent young lad who liked his pet dog. I always think about it when those other murders come on the television.

"But I don't think about it too much, though, or I'd never have a proper life. The man who did it will be dead by now anyway."

Mr Lee was left with a nervous disposition after the attack and never spoke about the murder. Strangely, a road accident in the early 1970s made him more relaxed.

He said he was surprised to hear the news that police were digging up a back garden, searching for the remains of Sheila Fox.

"I was shocked to hear about it," he said. "It seems quite strange this is happening now after such a long time. Why someone kept it to themselves for so long I don't know.

"I never knew her or her family, but we always knew what happened to her."