Gwen Scarff was 20, pregnant with her second child, and planning to leave her home town when she was murdered with a spanner.

Her killer got away with the crime.

The 20-year-old's battered body was found in congealing pools of blood in a field of scrub at Lake Terrace Rd, Burwood, on the outskirts of Christchurch, in 1927. It was thought she was killed in the early hours of June 15.

Her skull was fractured from one or more of the 18 blows inflicted with an engineering spanner. A doctor said she would have been alive for some hours after the attack. The bloodied tool was found in a gorse bush near the scene of the killing, but it didn't yield any fingerprints.

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Murder weapon: the spanner used to kill Gwen Scarff in 1927. Photo / Truth, National Library
Murder weapon: the spanner used to kill Gwen Scarff in 1927. Photo / Truth, National Library

Scarff's body was found by a 15-year-old boy who was herding cows.

Charles William Boakes, 37 at the time, was accused of the murder, but after a sensational Supreme Court trial in which a key crown witness recanted his evidence, a jury found him not guilty. No-one else was ever charged over Scarff's death.

Ellen Gwendoline Isobel Scarff was a daughter of Walter Scarff, who ran a transport business and was a member and in later years chairman of the Heathcote County Council. Scarff Place in Cashmere is named after him.

Boakes was married and had children. A taxi driver for the White Diamond company and a former bus driver, he had previously driven a truck for Walter Scarff.

Charles William Boakes was found not guilty of murder. Photo / Truth, National Library
Charles William Boakes was found not guilty of murder. Photo / Truth, National Library

He had known Gwen since she was five.

When 17, Gwen gave birth to a child and claimed the father was Boakes. The child didn't survive infancy. When Gwen was murdered she was about four months' pregnant.

She had been working as a cook for a woman who lived at MacMillan Ave on Cashmere Hill.

Another servant had seen her taking medicine that made her sick.

The crown case hinted that Boakes had obtained drugs for Scarff that were intended to end the pregnancy. But tests on bottles obtained by the police found no trace of poisons or any substance that could induce an abortion - and Boakes denied supplying drugs.

Several days before she was killed, Scarff had left her job and booked into the Federal Hotel under the name of Armstrong.

The police said Boakes told them he had never had intercourse with Scarff and did not know of her second pregnancy, according to a Press Association report of the preliminary hearing of the case against him.

Scarff had told him of trouble with her parents and had said, "We are going up to the North Island next week."

"Boakes asked: "Who are 'we'?" but Scarff wouldn't tell him.

Any statement she had made about him being unhappy at home or about a supposed plan to set up a home for her in Hastings were lies. He had never seen the spanner used to kill her.

Before Boakes was charged Christchurch was buzzing with rumours about him.

The Truth newspaper published interviews with him, omitting his name.

"Intended eloping with lover," the tell-all paper's headline shouted, following with "Taxi-man friend tells 'Truth' his story" and "How Gwen Scarff confided to Sydenham woman her blind infatuation for married man."

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Boakes happily gave Truth his alibi: he was at work, at home with his family and in bed with his wife overnight during the period in which Scarff was thought to have been fatally attacked.

At the Supreme Court, prosecutor A. T. Donnelly told the jury the case was circumstantial - there was no direct evidence - and relied on the relationship between Scarff and Boakes.

"... the relationship between them was so long, so continuous and so unbroken, and, further, is so exclusive of any other man having had any relationship with her that the only reasonable inference is that he must have been the man who killed her."

Acquitted of murder: Charles Boakes, head down, with detectives James Bickerdike (rear) and Bruce Young. Photo / NZ Herald, National Library
Acquitted of murder: Charles Boakes, head down, with detectives James Bickerdike (rear) and Bruce Young. Photo / NZ Herald, National Library

But a blow to the crown case was the recanting of Sidney Charles King, a chemist assistant who claimed he made his original statement only because he was bullied into it by Detective Sergeant James Bickerdike.

King's police statement said he had sold abortion pills to Boakes. They were ineffective so he supplied another drug.

But by the time of the Supreme Court trial, King had consulted a lawyer and wrote a new statement saying the old one was a lie. He knew Boakes but hadn't supplied him with drugs.

He had said he had supplied drugs because Bickerdike claimed he held information about King, threatening him with unspecified charges if he didn't agree. Once he had agreed, detectives dictated his statement and he wrote it down and signed his name.