THE last surviving sister of missing Sheila Fox has spoken of her heartbreak after detectives called off the search for her body in a Farnworth back garden.

Rene, aged 69, said she had "aged 10 years" with worry since police told her they had a new lead which could solve the 57-year mystery of her sister's disappearance.

Police forensic officers excavated the back garden of the house in Barton Road, Farnworth, for seven days -- digging to a depth of four feet -- but failed to find any evidence of a burial site. The dig was called off last night.

The decision left Sheila's sister heartbroken. Rene said: "I'm devastated that they haven't found her. I was hoping that she would be there but it wasn't to be.

"I have aged 10 years and haven't been able to sleep since the police told me."

She added: "I'm getting old now and I want to go to my grave knowing what had happened to Sheila. I don't know how long I have left -- I may never know now. But my family will keep trying to find out after I'm gone."

A skip placed at the front of the property last night was filled to the brim with grass and soil excavated from the garden.

The only task remaining today was to fill in the huge hole.

Neighbours, however, were not surprised nothing had been found.

Darren Hill, aged 31, who placed a new sewage pipe through the garden of the house 10 years ago, said: "We dug most of the garden up when we put the pipe in and must have gone about five feet down.

"I'm sure we would have found something then so I'm not shocked to hear the police have been unsuccessful."

Schoolgirl Sheila, aged six, was last seen alive on August 18, 1944, as she walked home from St James' Primary School, New Bury.

The lack of any significant clues means the mystery of what happened to the girl 57 years ago remains unsolved.

Despite a huge search in 1944, her body was never found and no one was arrested or charged in connection with her disappearance.

The hunt was resumed a week ago when police received new evidence from a witness who claimed he saw a man digging in the back garden in the middle of the night around the time Sheila disappeared.

The witness, who was a boy at the time and is now in his 70s, said the memory had been preying on his mind ever since.

It later transpired Richard Ryan, who lived there at the time, had a conviction for rape in 1950 and was charged in 1965 with the indecent assault of a child. Mr Ryan died 12 years ago.

A close family member of Mr Ryan told the BEN this week that they hoped Sheila's body would be found but stressed they did not think the child had been buried in the garden.

Resident Violet Childs, aged 87, said: "It's such a shame they didn't find anything because I'm sure her sister was hoping to lay Sheila to rest."

Police now have the task of filling in the garden and returning it to the condition it was in before the excavation was started.

A spokesman for Greater Manchester Police said: "There was an in-depth examination of the ground, particularly focusing on soil examinations for signs of disturbance.

"During this time there was no evidence to suggest Sheila is or was ever buried there. Due to the amount of time that has elapsed since she went missing and the fact that a thorough investigation was undertaken at the time, we are now limited in ways the investigation can proceed. We still firmly believe there may be a number of residents in the area who have information which could help the inquiry, but do not see the significance. We urge you to come forward now and contact the police."

The number to call is 0161 856 5965, or Crimestoppers on free phone 0800 555 111.