#Murder in the sand dunes

On Thursday February 20th 1908 a schoolmaster named Spurgeon was walking on the cliffs at Southbourne in Bournemouth when he noticed the clothing of a young lady between two sand hills.  On investigating he discovered that she was face down so he quickly rushed to tell the Coastguard half a mile away.  The body was that of Miss Emily Sherriff, a dressmaker, who had gone missing from her lodgings in Palmerston Road, Boscombe two days earlier.  She was found to have a muff over her face and had two handkerchiefs stuffed inside her mouth. 
Southbourne Cliff
Police investigation quickly lead them to picture dealer and ex-guardsman, John Francis McGuire, who had been seeing Miss Sherriff regularly.  Like Emily, he was in his early twenties, but according to Miss Lily Hatch, her close friend of 12 years, the relationship the couple had, was like that of brother and sister.  Emily had last been seen alive by her landlady, Mary Lane, at 1 pm on Tuesday when she seemed very distressed by a note that had been left for her.  At 6.30 Emily went out but did not follow her usual habit of leaving her key under the door mat.  On Wednesday a telegram was delivered for Miss Sherriff but as there was no sign of her, Mrs Lane forwarded it to Mr McGuire’s mother.

By Wednesday afternoon, Mrs McGuire, Miss Hatch and John Francis McGuire were outside the door of Emily’s bedroom.  McGuire forced it open but they could find no clue as to the whereabouts of Miss Sherriff.  After her body was found on Thursday an examination revealed several serious injuries caused by blows made by foot, knee or a blunt instrument.  It was later reported that some of her jewellery had gone missing.

The trial of John Francis McGuire, which commenced in late March, was full of conflicting evidence.  McGuire said that he had last seen Emily on Monday 17th February and that he had returned to his home in London on Tuesday and yet a witness saw him catch a tramcar in Southbourne at 8.12 on Tuesday 18th February, quite close to where the body had been found.  He had in fact been seen in London on the Tuesday by a shoe black who knew him well.  The shoe black stated that McGuire gave him 2 letters earlier in the day asking him to post them after 8 pm. that evening.  There was evidence that McGuire did sleep in London that night but train timetables proved that he could have caught a train to London from Bournemouth at 8.45 pm. 

There was considerable disagreement amongst the jurors and so the prosecution was withdrawn on July 2nd and the magistrate released McGuire.  Within a few days McGuire was charged at Barnet of desertion from the British Army.  He had joined the Royal Horse Artillery in 1901 but later transferred to the Royal Horse guards.  In 1904, he was court martialed for stealing a pin from a corporal’s kit and was dismissed from the army.  One month later he joined the 2nd Life guards, but deserted in 1906.  Now that he had been discovered he was imprisoned for 84 days.

McGuire may not have been convicted of murder but his life lurched from one misdemeanour to another.  After his imprisonment had ended towards the latter part of 1908 he moved to Mundesley-on-sea, Norfolk where he and a young lady took a furnished cottage.  Calling themselves Captain and Mrs Francis, they paid no rent and were soon in debt with local tradesmen.  Finally, McGuire jumped on a train to London, with no ticket, leaving the young woman destitute.  We pick up his story again in February 1909 when he was taken into custody in Westminster with another man for fraudulent conspiracy to obtain goods from a firm of house furnishers, earning himself 12 months’ imprisonment.

But what of poor Emily?  She can be found in a list of 36 unsolved murders between 1890 and 1908.  There is no doubt that John Francis McGuire was a cad and a wastrel.  He said at his trial for conspiracy that he had had no home since he was 14 (when he joined the army) but his mother was a friend of Emily Sherriff so at that stage of his life he appeared to be cherished.  Many of the witnesses at the murder trial were unreliable so no clear verdict could be declared.



  1. A fascinating story although it would seem poor Emily's murderer was never caught.

  2. Intriguing story, Elizabeth! What do you think? Was McGuire guilty of Emily's murder all along?

    1. There is very strong circumstantial evidence, but maybe I am being judgemental. They needed DNA!