Constance Kent

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Constance Kent
Contemporary portrait of Constance Kent
Constance Emily Kent

(1844-02-05)5 February 1844
Sidmouth, Devon, England
Died10 April 1944(1944-04-10) (aged 100)
Other namesRuth Emilie Kaye

Constance Emily Kent (6 February 1844 – 10 April 1944) was an English woman who confessed to a notorious child murder of her half-brother that took place when she was 16 years old. The Constance Kent case in 1865 led to high-level pronouncements there was no longer any ancient priest–penitent privilege in England and Wales. In later life Kent changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye, living to 100; she served a 20-year prison term.

Early life[edit]

Kent was born in Sidmouth, Devon in 1844, the fifth daughter and ninth child of Samuel Saville Kent (1801–1872), an Inspector of Factories for the Home Office and former partner in a firm of dry-salters and dealers in preserved meats and pickles, and his first wife Mary Ann (1808–1852), daughter of prosperous coachmaker and expert on the Portland Vase, Thomas Windus, FSA, of Stamford Hill.[1][2]


Sometime during the night of 29 June and the morning of 30 June 1860, Francis Saville Kent, who was almost four, disappeared from his father's residence, Road Hill House, in the village of Rode (spelt "Road" at the time), then in Wiltshire. His body was found in the vault of an outhouse (a privy) on the property.[3] The child, still dressed in his nightshirt and wrapped in a blanket, had knife wounds on his chest and hands, and his throat was slashed so deeply that he was almost decapitated.[4] The boy's nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, was initially arrested.[5]

Elizabeth was released when the suspicions of Detective Inspector Jack Whicher of Scotland Yard moved to the boy's 16-year-old half-sister, Constance. She was arrested on 16 July but released without trial owing to public opinion against the accusations of a working-class detective against a young lady of breeding.[6] This difference in class was used as a subplot by Wilkie Collins in his detective novel The Moonstone (1868).[7]

After the investigation collapsed, the Kent family moved to Wrexham and sent Constance to a finishing school in Dinan, France.[8]: 209


Kent was prosecuted for the murder five years later, in 1865. She made a statement confessing her guilt to an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, the Rev. Arthur Wagner, and expressed to him her resolution to give herself up to justice. He assisted her in carrying out the resolution, and he gave evidence of this statement before the magistrates but prefaced his evidence by a declaration that he must withhold any further information on the ground that it had been received under the seal of "sacramental confession". He was but lightly pressed by the magistrates, as the prisoner was not contesting the charge.[9]

The substance of the confession was that she had waited until the family and servants were asleep, had gone down to the drawing room and opened the shutters and window, had then taken the child from his room wrapped in a blanket that she had taken from between sheet and counterpane in his cot (leaving both these undisturbed or readjusted), left the house and killed him in the privy with a razor stolen from her father. Her movements before the killing had been conducted with the child in her arms. It had been necessary to hide matches in the privy beforehand for a light to see by during the act of murder. The murder was not a spontaneous act, it seems, but one of revenge, and it was even suggested that Constance had at certain times been mentally unbalanced.[10]

There was much speculation at the time that her confession was false. Many supposed that her father, Samuel Savill (or Saville) Kent,[11] a known adulterer, was having an affair with the toddler's nursemaid and murdered the child in a fit of rage after coitus interruptus.[12] The theory fit a pattern with the senior Kent, who had romanced the family nanny Mary Drewe Pratt while his first wife Mary Ann Kent, née Windus (Constance's mother) was dying, and subsequently married Pratt (who was Francis' mother). Many were suspicious of Mr Kent from the start, including the novelist Charles Dickens.[13]

In her book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (2008),[8] however, author Kate Summerscale comes to the conclusion that if her confession was indeed false and merely an act to shield another person, it was for the benefit of not her father but her brother, William Saville-Kent, with whom she shared a very close sibling relationship, which was further deepened by her father turning his paternal attentions away from the children of his first marriage to the children he had with his second wife. William was indeed suspected during the investigations but was never charged. Summerscale suggests that if William was not the culprit solely responsible for Francis's death, he was at least an accomplice to Constance.

She never recanted her confession, even after her father's and her brother's deaths. She also kept her silence about the motive for the murder. In all of her statements, she emphasised and insisted that she bore no hatred nor jealousy toward her half-brother. As a result of her research, Summerscale comes to the conclusion that the murder of Francis was, no matter whether it were committed by Constance or William, either alone or by both of them, an act of revenge against Samuel Saville Kent for turning his attention to the children of his second marriage, of whom Francis was his reported favourite.[8]: 298–301

Press excitement[edit]

At the Assizes, Constance Kent pleaded guilty, and her plea was accepted so that Wagner was not again called. The position that he assumed before the magistrates caused much public debate in the press. There was considerable expression of public indignation that it should have been suggested that he could have any right as against the state to withhold evidence on the ground that he had put forward. The indignation seems to have been largely directed against the assumption that sacramental confession was known to the Church of England.[9]

Parliamentary comment[edit]

Questions were asked in both Houses of Parliament. In the House of Lords, Lord Westbury, the Lord Chancellor, in reply to the Marquess of Westmeath, stated that:[9]

...there can be no doubt that in a suit or criminal proceeding a clergyman of the Church of England is not privileged so as to decline to answer a question which is put to him for the purposes of justice, on the ground that his answer would reveal something that he had known in confession. He is compelled to answer such a question, and the law of England does not even extend the privilege of refusing to answer to Roman Catholic clergymen in dealing with a person of their own persuasion.

He stated that it appeared that an order for committal for contempt of court had in fact been made against Wagner. If that is so, it was not enforced.[9]

On the same occasion, Lord Chelmsford, a previous Lord Chancellor, stated that the law was clear that Wagner had no privilege at all to withhold facts which came to his knowledge in confession. Lord Westmeath said that there had been two recent cases, one being the case of a priest in Scotland, who, on refusing to give evidence, had been committed to prison. As to this case, Lord Westmeath stated that, upon an application for the priest's release being made to the Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, the latter had replied that if he were to remit the sentence without an admission of error on the part of the Catholic priest and without an assurance on his part that he would not again in a similar case adopt the same course, he (the Home Secretary) would be giving a sanction to the assumption of a privilege by ministers of every denomination which, he was advised, they could not claim. The second case was R v Hay.[9]

Lord Westbury's statement in the House of Lords drew a protest from Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, who wrote to him a letter strongly maintaining the privilege which had been claimed by Wagner. The bishop argued that the canon law on the subject had been accepted without gainsaying or opposition from any temporal court, that it had been confirmed by the Book of Common Prayer in the service for the visitation of the sick, and, thus, sanctioned by the Act of Uniformity. Phillpotts was supported by Edward Lowth Badeley[14] who wrote a pamphlet on the question of priest–penitent privilege.[15] From the bishop's reply to Lord Westbury's answer to his letter, it is apparent that Lord Westbury had expressed the opinion that the 113th canon of 1603 simply meant that the "clergyman must not ex mero motu and voluntarily and without legal obligation reveal what is communicated to him in confession". He appears, also, to have expressed an opinion that the public was not at the time in a temper to bear any alteration of the rule compelling the disclosure of such evidence.[9]


Constance Kent was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life in prison owing to her youth at the time and her confession. She served twenty years in a number of gaols, including Millbank Prison, and was released in 1885, at the age of 41. During her time in prison, she produced mosaics for a number of churches, including work for the crypt of St. Paul's cathedral.[8]: 278 Noeline Kyle, in her book A Greater Guilt, discusses the work Constance Kent was engaged in while incarcerated, including cooking, cleaning and laundry work, and what Kyle describes – in light of a lack of evidence of Kent's making of any mosaics and the fact that "none of the true crime writers on this topic ... say where this information is sourced from" – as the myth of the mosaics.[16]

Later life[edit]

Kent emigrated to Australia early in 1886 and joined her brother William in Tasmania, where he worked as a government adviser on fisheries.[8]: 288–9 She changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye and trained as a nurse[12] at The Alfred Hospital in Prahran, Melbourne, before being appointed sister-in-charge of the Female Lazaret at the Coast Hospital, Little Bay, in Sydney. From 1898 to 1909, she worked at the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls. She lived in the New South Wales country town of Mittagong for a year, and was then made matron of the Pierce Memorial Nurses' Home at East Maitland, New South Wales, serving there from 1911 until she retired in 1932.[16]


Constance Kent died on 10 April 1944, aged 100, in a private hospital in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield. On 11 April 1944, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that she was to be cremated at the nearby Rookwood Cemetery.[17][18][19]

In arts, media and entertainment[edit]


  • The anthology horror film, Dead of Night (1945), included in its five separate stories a section called "Christmas Party" with Sally Ann Howes. This story is loosely based on the Constance Kent case; "Christmas Party" was an original screenplay based on an original story by the screenplay author Angus MacPhail. While playing hide-and-seek in an old house, Howes hears a child sobbing and comes into a bedroom where she meets a little boy named Francis Kent whose sister Constance is mean to him. Howes comforts the child, and then leaves him when he is asleep. Then she finds the others from the party and learns that Francis was killed by Constance over 80 years before.


  • Mary Elizabeth Braddon used elements of the case in Lady Audley's Secret (1862).[8]: 217–8
  • Wilkie Collins used elements of the case in The Moonstone (1868).[12]
  • Charles Dickens based the flight of Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) on Kent's early life.[12]
  • Elbur Ford's novel Such Bitter Business (1953), was based on Constance Kent. Published in the U.S. in 1954 under the title Evil in the House. Elbur Ford is a pen name of Eleanor Hibbert
  • Norah Lofts' novel Out of the Dark (1978), in which Constance is called Charlotte Cornwall, is based on the murder case as recounted here.
  • The Kent case plays a central role in William Trevor's novel Other People's Worlds (1980)
  • Francis King's novel Act of Darkness (1983) is a fictional re-imagining of the Constance Kent case, transferring the setting to 1930's India.
  • James Friel's novel Taking the Veil (1989) is inspired by Kent's life.[12]
  • Sharyn McCrumb's novel Missing Susan (1991) refers to this case.[12]
  • In Elly Griffiths' sixth Ruth Galloway novel, The Outcast Dead (2014), detectives Tim and Judy note the similarities between a child abduction case they are assigned to and this case.
  • Andrew Forrester examined the case in fictional form, in his 1864 short story collection “The Female Detective”. The story is “Murder, or No Murder”.
  • Agatha Christie, in her novel The Clocks, has Poirot mention the motive behind the killing as "a puzzle" which "was clear as soon as I read about the case", although he does not express a definite opinion.

Non-fiction studies[edit]


  • The eight-part BBC series about three female murderers, titled A Question of Guilt (1980), features Prue Clarke as Constance Kent and Joss Ackland as Samuel Kent.
  • An episode of the Investigation Discovery channel series Deadly Women, "A Daughter's Revenge" (2010), features a segment on Constance Kent who is portrayed by Miranda Daisy Herman.
  • The television film The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House (25 April 2011, ITV) is a dramatization of the case.
  • The Swedish crime TV series Veckans Brott (2012) had six special episodes about English murders, one of which was about the murder at Road Hill House.


  1. ^ A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent and the Road Murder, Noeline Kyle, Boolarong Press, 2009, pp. 29, 233
  2. ^ The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or the murder at Road Hill House, Kate Summerscale, Bloomsbury, 2008, p. 71
  3. ^ "Jonathan Whicher and the Road Hill House Murder". History by the Yard. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  4. ^ Sweet, Matthew (3 May 2008). "The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: or, the Murder at Road Hill House, By Kate Summerscale". Independent. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  5. ^ "The Baker's Daughter from Isleworth". St Margarets Community. 19 March 2009. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  6. ^ Ross, Suzanne. "Road Hill House Murder" (PDF). Wiltshire Online Parish Clerks. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  7. ^ Wilkinson, Emily Colette. "A Murder Most Mysterious". VQR. Retrieved 30 August 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or the murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-8215-1.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Nolan (1913)
  10. ^ Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade No. 15: Constance Kent and the Road Murder
  11. ^ Saville, variously spelt "Savill" or Savile" was the maiden name of Samuel's mother, but "Saville" was the version adopted for the baptismal names, but some surviving records record "Savill": Summerscale (2008: 72); Kyle (2009: 127)
  12. ^ a b c d e f Davenport-Hines (2006)
  13. ^ Altick (1970: 131). Altick quotes from a letter Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins at the time of the confession.
  14. ^ Courtney (2004)
  15. ^ Badeley (1865)
  16. ^ a b Kyle (2009)
  17. ^ "Centenarian Dead". Sydney Morning Herald. 11 April 1944. Retrieved 1 April 2021.
  18. ^ "Road Hill House Murder" (PDF). Wiltshire Online Parish Clerks (OPCs). Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  19. ^ "Constance Emily Kent". Find a Grave. Retrieved 24 August 2017.
  20. ^ "Book of the Week: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher". BBC Radio 4 Programmes. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
  21. ^ "Kate Summerscale Wins U.K.'s 30,000-Pound Samuel Johnson Prize" –, 15 July 2008