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Constance Kent and the Road Hill House Murder

Constance KentJonathan Whicher was one of the original members of the Detective Branch which had been established at Scotland Yard in 1842. In 1860 he was called in to assist the investigation into the horrific murder of 4-year-old (Francis) Savile Kent. The child had been taken from the nursemaid's bedroom at night and was found, with his throat cut, in an outside privy in the garden of his family's house the next morning. The murder brought notoriety to the small village of Road (sometimes spelled Rode) in Wiltshire.

When the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, reported the child missing at 7:15am to Mrs Kent, a search commenced for the child, who was found dead in an outside privy with his throat cut and a stab wound to the chest. There was no sign of blood in the house, but the drawing room window had been found open despite the servants having closed it the night before.

The local magistrates soon became impatient for results from the local police Superintendent Foley's investigation, which was largely directed towards the nursemaid Elizabeth Gough who had had responsibility for the child. They asked the Home Office for assistance from Scotland Yard without the agreement of the local Chief Constable, and it was after a second request from them that Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, then the most senior and well known of the detectives at Scotland Yard, was sent.

Whicher concentrated on a missing night dress, possibly blood stained, belonging to Constance, and there was also circumstantial evidence against her. The magistrates directed Constance's arrest and gave Whicher seven days to prepare a case. Mr Kent provided a barrister for his daughter who dominated proceedings. Constance was released on bail and the case was later dropped. The reaction in the newspapers was sympathetic to Constance, Whicher was heavily criticised, notwithstanding the difficulties he had faced, and his reputation never recovered. The nightdress was never found and Whicher returned to London.

Five years later, in April 1865, after a period abroad and in a religious institution in Brighton, Constance attended Bow Street magistrates court and confessed to the murder. Her motive had apparently been to exact revenge against the second Mrs Kent for her treatment of Constance's mother. Constance was subsequently sentenced to death, but this was commuted to 20 years' penal servitude.

The confession from Constance came too late to save the career of Jonathan Whicher who had been pensioned before Constance's appearance at Bow Street confirmed his original suspicion. It is a classic illustration of how early investigations were directed heavily by magistrates, of the influence which well-to-do people could exert over local police officers, and of the importance of immediately searching and questioning the whole household at the scene of a crime, regardless of social status.