Constance Kent was the half-sister of Francis Saville Kent aged four whose body was found in a disused privy at his home, Road Hill House, in Wiltshire in 1860. The child’s throat was cut. Inspector Whicher of Scotland Yard was sent for to investigate. His enquiries led to the arrest of sixteen year old Constance Kent, but she was set free. Inspector Whicher resigned, believing firmly in her guilt. Five years later, Constance confessed and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Despite her confession, there continued to be rumours that the nursemaid had strangled the child before cutting his throat and putting him in the privy. This theory was based on the rumour that the nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, had been having an affair with the boy’s father, and the couple had been interrupted. Dickens believed this and wrote to Wilkie Collins with his take on the matter:
Mr Kent intriguing with the nursemaid, poor little child awakes in crib and sits up contemplating blissful proceedings. Nursemaid strangles him then and there. Mr. Kent gashes body to mystify discoverers and disposes of same.
A somewhat cold-blooded response from Dickens here, I think.
The nursemaid had been accused but there was no evidence against her. The family life at Road Hill was rather dreadful. The murdered child’s mother was Mr. Kent’s second wife who had been the children’s governess. His first wife, the mother of Constance and her brother, William, had gone mad after the birth of her third child, yet she had six more children by Mr. Kent. One does wonder about his relationship with Elizabeth Gough. Constance was deeply unhappy at home. It seems that her father favoured the children of his second marriage. Constance had run away with William three years before the murder, disguising herself a s a boy, but they were found and taken home. Interestingly in Dickens’s last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Helena Landless runs away with her brother because of their cruel stepfather. Helena disguised herself as a boy, like Constance, in one of her brother’s suits.
Constance Kent served twenty years in prison before emigrating to Australia to live near her brother, William. She became a nurse and worked until 1932. She died in 1944, aged 100.