In the early hours of Saturday 30th June 1860 a three year old boy, Francis Saville Kent, was taken from his bed in the nursery at Road Hill House, Road, Wiltshire. Later that day his body was found with its throat cut lying at the bottom of the servants’ privy in the garden. Apart from an open window in the drawing room of the large house the rest of the building was securely locked which suggested to the local police that the murder had been committed by someone living in the house. Immediate suspicion feel upon 22 year old Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid who had been sleeping in the nursery at the time of the boy’s disappearance. She was an intelligent and attractive young woman - even though one of her front teeth was missing - and it was hinted in the local village that she was having an affair with the master of the house, Samuel Kent. Gossip suggested that maybe the child awoke to find his father Samuel in bed with Elizabeth and to prevent their affair being discovered she murdered the boy. Even Charles Dickens agreed with this view.
“The father was in bed with the nurse: The child was discovered by them, sitting up in his little bed, staring, and evidently going to “tell Ma”. The nurse leaped out of the bed and instantly suffocated him in the father’s presence. The father cut the child about to distract attention…”
Elizabeth Gough, the nursemaid, was a baker’s daughter and lived at 51 North Street in Isleworth.
At the request of local magistrates the Home Secretary sent Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher to Road to investigate the crime. One of the first things that he did was to contact Isleworth police for a character reference for Elizabeth Gough. On the 19th July they reported that Gough was “well known to be respectable, quick, kind, good tempered and very fond of children”. Finding no evidence ‘that she was acquainted with any male person, either at Road or in the neighbourhood,” the detective turned his attention to Constance Kent, the 16 year old daughter of Samuel Kent’s first marriage to Mary Ann Windus. Constance was deeply resentful of his second wife Mary Drewe Pratt - who was Saville’s mother. Was teenage resentment of the stepmother a strong enough motive for murder? The public who kept up with the development of the investigation thought not. Through many letters to the Police Commissioner at Scotland Yard they continued to accuse Elizabeth Gough of the crime. A tailor from Cheshire wanted Gough put under ‘strickt servilance’ - a curate from Lancashire went further…
Is it not possible that the nursemaid may have had a paramour…so well acquainted with the premises that he could gain ready access in the night..?
On 27th August 1860, fed up with the accusations, actual and implied, Elizabeth Gough returned home to Isleworth with William her father, the baker. Barely a month later E.F Slack a solicitor from Bath, working on behalf of the Home Secretary Sir George Cornewall Lewis, announced that Constance Kent was quite innocent and on his suggestion Elizabeth Gough was arrested and brought before magistrates at Trowbridge. She looked careworn and anxious. The other house servants spoke in Elizabeth’s defence, as did Saville’s mother, Mary Kent, who said,
“This girl, to the best of my belief, was particularly kind to the child, and seemed fond of him; he was very fond of her.”
With no real evidence against her Elizabeth Gough was released to wild applause. She immediately returned home to Isleworth on the Paddington train. At every stop on her journey people gathered to watch her pass. The 1861 census records Elizabeth, living back at home in North Street, Isleworth, as ‘a servant, out of place’.
In spite of her dismissal by the court Elizabeth was still being harassed by the Wiltshire police. First they reported to Scotland Yard that she had been sacked from service in Knightsbridge for ‘harbouring soldiers’. Detective Inspector Whicher soon disposed of that as being ‘incorrect’. Then he received a report that a servant called Elizabeth Gough with a missing front tooth had been dismissed for ‘misconduct’ from a house in Eton near Windsor. The Eton employer came to Isleworth to identify the girl but discovered that Elizabeth Gough, the baker’s daughter with the missing front tooth was not the same Elizabeth Gough with a missing front tooth that he had sacked!
With little evidence the Road Hill House murder investigation eventually petered out. Five years later on the 25th April 1865 Constance Kent, now 21 years old, confessed to the murder of her brother, Francis Saville Kent. The broadsheet balladeers summed it up rather neatly…
His little throat I cut from ear to ear, Wrapped him in a blanket and away did steer To the water closet which soon I found, In the dirty soil then I pushed him down. My father married a second wife, Which filled my bosom with spleen and strife.
Constance Kent was found guilty and sentenced to death. Queen Victoria spared the young woman from the gallows - and her sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life - which in actuality meant 20 years hard labour. Back in Isleworth, Elizabeth Gough, the baker’s daughter, was facing a life sentence of her own. Marked by the continuing accusations against her she was struggling to earn a living as a dressmaker and needlewoman. In a letter to the Times Joseph Stapleton recognised that because of the finger pointing she had been deprived of profitable domestic employment for 5 years and invited readers to contribute to a fund he had set up for her. He wrote of her …
… uniform modesty and purity of character, her fidelity to her master and his family, her unwavering courage and simple truthfulness in her time of trial and peril.
Elizabeth Gough, the baker’s daughter from Isleworth, did find some happiness in the end. On 24th April 1866 at the church of St Mary Newington in Southwark she married John Cockburn, a wine merchant. The marriage didn’t last long. The 1871 census records Elizabeth as a widow with a young son Wilfred, living with her family at 8 South Street, Isleworth. She died in September 1879 at the age of 42. Constance Kent, whose 5 year silence about the murder of her brother had fuelled all the gossip and speculation that had dogged Elizabeth throughout her entire life, died in Australia in February 1944 just two months after her 100th birthday. She received a congratulatory telegram from King George 6th.
To find out more about this fascinating crime and investigation read The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It has been in the non-fiction top ten list for months - and no wonder!
– from Martyn Day