Contemporary portrait of Constance Kent
|Born||5 February 1844|
|Died||10 April 1944(aged 100)|
Constance Emily Kent (6 February 1844 – 10 April 1944) was an English woman who confessed to a notorious child murder that took place when she was 16 years old. The Constance Kent case in 1865 raised a series of questions about priest–penitent privilege in England. In later life Kent changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye.
Sometime during the night of 29 June and the morning of 30 June 1860, Francis "Saville" Kent, almost four years old, disappeared from his home, Road Hill House, in the village of Rode (spelled "Road" at the time), then in Wiltshire. His body was found in the vault of an outhouse (a privy) on the property. 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 the body was almost decapitated. The boy's nursemaid, Elizabeth, was initially arrested.
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. This difference in class was used as subplot by Wilkie Collins in his detective novel The Moonstone (1868).
Constance 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 this resolution, and he gave evidence of this statement before the magistrates. But he 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.
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.
There was much speculation at the time that Constance Kent's confession was false. Many supposed that her father, Samuel Savill (or Saville) Kent, a known adulterer, was having an affair with the toddler's nursemaid and, in a fit of rage, murdered the child after coitus interruptus. It fitted 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.
In her book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House (2008), however, author Kate Summerscale comes to the conclusion that if Constance Kent's confession were indeed false and merely an act to shield another person, it was not for the benefit of her father but for her brother, William Saville-Kent, with whom she shared a very close brother-sister relationship which was even deepened by her father turning his paternal attentions away from the children from his first marriage to the children he had with his second wife. William Saville-Kent was indeed suspected during the investigations but was never charged. Summerscale states that if Saville-Kent were not the culprit solely responsible for Francis Saville Kent's death, he was at least an accomplice to Constance Kent.
Constance Kent never recanted her confession, neither after her father's nor her brother's death. 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 towards her murdered half-brother. As a result of her research, Summerscale comes to the conclusion that the murder of Francis Saville Kent was – no matter whether it were committed by Constance Kent or William Saville-Kent, 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 Saville Kent was his reported favourite.:298–301
At the Assizes, Constance Kent pleaded guilty, and her plea was accepted so that Wagner was not again called. The position which Mr Wagner 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 Mr Wagner 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.
...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.
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.
Lord Westbury's statement in the House of Lords drew a protest from Henry Phillpotts, the Bishop of Exeter, who wrote 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 who wrote a pamphlet on the question of priest–penitent privilege. 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.
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.:278 In Noeline Kyle's book A Greater Guilt, she discusses the work Constance Kent was engaged in while incarcerated, and what Kyle describes as the myth of the mosaics.
Kent emigrated to Australia early in 1886 and joined her brother William in Tasmania, where he worked as a government adviser on fisheries.:288–9 She changed her name to Ruth Emilie Kaye and trained as a nurse at The Alfred Hospital, Prahran, Melbourne, before being appointed sister-in-charge of the Female Lazaret at the Coast Hospital, Little Bay, in Sydney. She worked for a decade at the Parramatta Industrial School for Girls from 1898 to 1909, 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, serving there from 1911 until she retired in 1932.
Constance Kent died on 10 April 1944, aged 100, in a private hospital in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield. The Sydney Morning Herald reported (on 11 April 1944) that she was cremated at nearby Rookwood Cemetery.
In arts, media, and entertainment
- The British 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).:217–8
- Wilkie Collins used elements of the case in The Moonstone (1868).
- Charles Dickens based the flight of Helena Landless in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) on Kent's early life.
- The Constance 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.
- Sharyn McCrumb's novel Missing Susan (1991) refers to this case.
- Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008) about this case was read as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week from 7 to 11 April 2008. It won Britain's Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (25 April 2011) is a dramatization of the case on ITV.
- 1861 England Census Record for Constance E Kent – Ancestry.co.uk
- Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or the murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-8215-1.
- Nolan (1913)
- Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade No. 15: Constance Kent and the Road Murder
- Saville, variously spelt "Savill" or Savile" was the maiden name of Samuel's mother, but "Saville" was the version adopted for the baptismal names, although some surviving records record "Savill": Summerscale (2008: 72); Kyle (2009: 127)
- Davenport-Hines (2006)
- Altick (1970: 131). Altick quotes from a letter Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins at the time of the confession.
- Courtney (2004)
- Badeley (1865)
- Kyle (2009)
- "Book of the Week: The Suspicions of Mr Whicher". BBC Radio 4 Programmes. Retrieved 19 October 2010.
- "Kate Summerscale Wins U.K.'s 30,000-Pound Samuel Johnson Prize" – Bloomberg.com, 15 July 2008
- Altick, Richard (1970). Victorian Studies in Scarlet: Murders and Manners in the Age of Victoria. New York: Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-33624-5.
- [Anon.] (1984) Australian Gemmologist, 15(5): February, 155
- [Anon.] (2002) Protist (Germany), 153(4): 413
- Atlay, J. B. (1897). "Famous trials: the Road mystery". Cornhill Magazine 2: [3rd] ser., 80–94.
- Badeley, E. (1865). The Privilege of Religious Confessions in English Courts of Justice Considered, in a Letter to a Friend. London: Butterworths.
- Bridges, Y. (1954). Saint – with Red Hands? The Chronicle of a Great Crime. London: Jarrolds.
- Courtney, W. P. (2004) "Badeley, Edward Lowth (1803/4–1868)", rev. G. Martin Murphy, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, accessed 22 July 2007 (subscription required)
- Davenport-Hines, R. (2006) "Kent, Constance Emilie (1844–1944)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, accessed 29 August 2007 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
- Harrison, A. J. (1997). Savant of the Australian Seas: William Saville-Kent (1845–1908) and Australian Fisheries. Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association.
- — (2005) "Kent, Constance (1844–1944)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, Melbourne University Press, pp352–353
- Hartman, M. (1977). Victorian Murderesses. London: Robson Books Ltd. pp. 94–101, 107–12, 118–29. ISBN 0-86051-343-2.
- Jesse, F. T. (1924). Murder and its Motives. London: Harrap. pp. 74–116.
- Kyle, N.J. (2009). A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent & the Road Murder. Brisbane: Boolarong Press. ISBN 978-1-921555-34-3.
- Nolan, R. S. (1913) "The Law of the Seal of Confession", Catholic Encyclopaedia
- Rhode, J. (1928). The Case of Constance Kent. London: Geoffrey Bles.
- Roughead, W. (1966). Classic Crimes 1: Katharine Nairn, Deacon Brodie, The West Port Murders, Madeleine Smith, Constance Kent and The Sandyford Mystery. London: Panther. pp. 137–70.; originally in The Rebel Earl and Other Studies, (Edinburgh: W. Green & Son, Limited, 1926), as "Constance Kent's Conscience: A Mid-Victorian Mystery", p. 47–86
- Stapleton, J. W. (1861). The Great Crime of 1860.
- Summerscale, Kate (2008). The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Or the murder at Road Hill House. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-8215-1.
- Taylor, B. (1979). Cruelly Murdered: Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House. London: Souvenir Press. ISBN 0-285-62387-7.
- Wagner,A.R.& Dale,A (1983). The Wagners of Brighton. Phillimore. pp. 105–118.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.