The butler didn’t do it

Bee Wilson

  • The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale
    Bloomsbury, 334 pp, £14.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 7475 8215 1

‘The word “clue”,’ Kate Summerscale writes, ‘derives from “clew” meaning a ball of thread or yarn.’ In mid-Victorian England, clues were satisfying objects to be grasped, then unknotted or unravelled. Clues pointed the way to go. On his way into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, Theseus unravels a ball of red thread given him by Ariadne, so that he can find his way out again, gathering the thread as he goes. By the 19th century, it was thought desirable to untangle a clue – separate out the thread from the ball – rather than gather it up as Theseus had done. In David Copperfield, Mr Wickfield tells David he will ‘unravel’ a clue. In Great Expectations, Dickens refers to a napkin being wielded like a ‘magic clew’, leading ‘the way upstairs’. In The Moonstone, Gabriel Betteredge laments ‘a clue that had broken in our hands’. If there were clues, there were also pseudo clues, leading down blind alleys, pointing away from the truth.

The Road Hill House case of 1860, like The Moonstone (1868), which was partly inspired by it, entailed countless clues and pseudo clues. It was one of the nastiest murders of the day, provoking national hysteria and press speculation which rumbled on for years afterwards. The Bath Chronicle called it ‘a deed that sends a shudder through every English home’. Road Hill was an elegant country house belonging to Samuel Kent, a 59-year-old factory inspector. He lived there with his second wife and their three young children, plus four children from an earlier marriage and assorted servants. On a hot July morning, the family woke up to find one of its youngest members missing from his cot: Saville Kent, a sunny three-year-old with curly yellow hair, was later found shoved down a servant’s privy, his lips blackened, his throat slit, his body coated in excrement.

In the days that followed, no one connected with the affair seemed innocent. Why, on hearing that the boy was missing, did Samuel Kent ride to the nearby town of Trowbridge? The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, said that she had noticed Saville’s absence soon after 5 a.m. Why did she wait two hours before alerting the boy’s mother? Some thought Gough didn’t weep enough in the days after her charge’s death. She became the local police’s chief suspect. ‘The female suspects in the case were constantly scrutinised for kisses and tears, the tokens of innocence,’ Summerscale writes. Then there was William Nutt, the local shoemaker, a father of six, who discovered the body in the privy. Nutt had predicted that the child would be found dead. Suddenly, he seemed a shifty figure, ‘bumble-footed’, with a weird way of holding his arms. Highly suspicious!

The murder put everything in the household in a new light. Common domestic objects became charged with meaning. ‘The observers, like paranoiacs, saw messages everywhere. Objects could regain their innocence only when the killer was caught.’ Local constables scrutinised Road Hill’s carving knives, its routines, its sleeping arrangements. A piece of bloodied newspaper was found at the scene – the Morning Star. Yet Mr Kent read only the Times, the Frome Times and the Civil Service Gazette. Did this mean anything? Another clue was the household laundry book, with which the police became fixated.

The Road Hill case was dense with fabric. The setting of the murder happened to be clothmaking country, a land of sheep and wool mills. The family’s dirty laundry lay at the heart of the investigation, their washerwoman was a key witness, and the investigation threw up three clues of cloth: a flannel, a blanket and a missing nightdress.

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