Dictionary of Sydney

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Kaye, Ruth Emilie

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Kaye, Ruth Emilie

Ruth Emilie Kaye [media]was the pseudonym of Constance Emilie Kent. Born in Sidmouth, Devon in 1844, Constance Kent confessed in 1865 to the killing of her three-year-old half-brother in 1860. She served 20 years in English prisons before changing her name and emigrating to Sydney, Australia in 1886.

The Road murder

Francis Savill Kent, aged three years and ten months, was found dead in a disused, outside privy, his throat cut, on the morning of 30 June 1860, near his home, Road Hill House, Wiltshire. The local police conducted an inept investigation and the Scotland Yard detectives brought in to help were unable to gain a conviction. The father of the child, Samuel Savill Kent, was a factory commissioner, employed in southern counties of England to inspect factories employing women and children. He was not well-liked in the local community but did have important social and political contacts within the coterie of local magistrates and public officials, including those who would sit in judgment on this case. As a result, he was able to intimidate local police and partially subvert the various investigations. The children's nurse Elizabeth Gough was put on trial but to no avail. Constance came under suspicion because of perceived dysfunction in the family and her dislike of her stepmother, the mother of the murdered child, and she was arrested but released because of insufficient evidence. There was no successful prosecution in the case.

A family in flight

The Kent family moved to Wales. Constance was sent to France. In 1865 Constance Kent, now 21, confessed and went to prison for 20 years. Debate has ensued since on whether she was guilty or not. [1]

The mythology of how, when and with whom Constance Kent travelled to Australia has grown since 1987, when Bernard Taylor and his researchers found that she had indeed lived out her latter years in the Antipodes under the assumed name of Ruth Emilie Kaye. [2] The family name is also variously written with an 'e' or without despite Kent family records showing the spelling Savill. William did change his name to Saville-Kent using the hyphen to partially conceal his relationship to that awful past. [3] Despite intense and continuing interest since, no writer has written about Constance's journey away from England with any accuracy, or about her subsequent life in Australia, in any detail. A representative example is the work of Lucy Sussex:

In 1884, William [Constance's brother], who had informally changed his surname to Saville-Kent, his wife (another Mary Ann) and Mary Amelia [4] emigrated to Australia. The two eldest Kent daughters were settled and middle-aged in England, but Acland, Florence and Eveline [5] followed William to Australia the year after. With them went Constance, now known as Ruth Emilie (or Emilia) Kaye. Of the many curious things about the Road Murder, one of the oddest is that a convicted murderess should, so soon after her release, chaperone her victim's siblings on a voyage across the world. They must have been singularly forgiving, feeling her to be no threat. [6]

Most assume she travelled with her half-siblings – as Lucy Sussex notes in the quote above – or with her brother William, returning from one of his trips to England. [7] However, Constance Kent arrived on the Carisbrook Castle on 27 February 1886, just a little more than six months after her release, and she was alone. The Kent children's emigration to Australia was related to their desire to find anonymity and a new life away from and apart from the sensational and horrible events of the murder. They did not want the prying eyes of the public, the press or the police in their lives. Travelling with or being seen near Constance, even under her new alias of Ruth Emilie Kaye, was risky. None of them subsequently showed any such recklessness or boldness in behaviour, character or personality. It was as a single, independent woman that Constance arrived in Sydney and began to carve out a successful career for herself in this new land.

Sister Ruth

Constance quickly established herself in the colony, working first as a volunteer in the typhoid tents in Melbourne in 1888 and 1889. Invited to train as a nurse from 1890 to 1892 at the Alfred Hospital, she took up her first substantive appointment as sister-in-charge of the Female Lazaret at the Coast Hospital, at Little Bay in Sydney in 1894. As she worked her way through 1894 and then 1895, it was clear that Constance was a capable administrator and a proficient nurse. Constance was one of the few appointed to oversee the Lazaret to be well liked by staff and patients alike. She remained at the Coast Hospital for two more years until mid-1898, when she left to take up a position as Matron of the Industrial School for Girls at Parramatta. After Constance left, Matron Jean McMaster wrote in her register that there was a 'period of comparative calm' during the administration of 'Sister Ruth' and that it took some time after she left for suitable staff to be retained. [8]

Matron Kaye

Throughout her 11 years at the Industrial School from 1898 to 1909, Constance was known as Miss Kaye or Matron Kaye. This posting fulfilled her ambitions to earn a good salary and gain prestige in the community, and she would have been pleased with its location in the growing suburb of Parramatta. The buildings and grounds of the school were large and commodious, if somewhat forbidding for inmates. As Matron, Constance was allocated spacious and comfortable lodgings. She was, for the first time since arriving in Australia, afforded the luxury of servants attending to her domestic and personal needs. Senior girls were assigned to clean her rooms, and prepare and cook her food.

As Matron and second-in-charge of the Industrial School, Constance supervised the work of the kitchen, the laundry and every aspect of the health and welfare of the girls. She was also given additional duties, reflecting her close involvement with the daily regime of the girls. She was involved in organising and facilitating their evening activities, consisting of 'readings, recitations and vocal and instrumental music'. [9] As a young woman, Constance had been taught the 'accomplishments' at various private schools in England and France. She could read music, knew well the works of significant composers, and she was familiar with English poetry and literature. Constance had read widely as a child, her favourite books focusing on the heroines of her age, such as Florence Nightingale. She had scandalised her family by reading Darwin's On the Origin of Species while still at school.

Constance also gave a series of 'plain talk' lectures to the older girls. These talks were aimed at circumventing the 'sexual delinquency' thought to be rampant among the older girls committed to the school. Although never stated outright, after 1900 the Industrial School for girls was in reality a 'lock hospital'. [10] The girls were examined by a visiting surgeon for any 'infectious or contagious complaint' on admission, and the superintendent wrote at length about the 'immorality' of girls in his care. He also wrote of the excellent nursing care provided by Matron Kaye as each girl arrived and was placed in her care.

Constance received news in October 1908 that her brother William had died in England. William had once been her best friend. As children, they had been inseparable. After the death of their mother, they had watched with dismay as their stepmother turned their childish world upside down. William died of heart failure on 11 October 1908 shortly after an operation for a blockage of the bowel. His wife and his sister Mary Ann Alice were at his bedside. He was 62. William had lived an eventful life. His career, first at the British Museum and then in fisheries management in Australia, was extraordinarily successful. He travelled widely collecting specimens for his work and wrote several books and numerous scholarly articles. [11]At the same time as William died, a new Superintendent arrived at the school. Alex Thompson, a career bureaucrat, arrived at the same time as another change in government policy, which included the appointment of officers possessed of 'qualifications necessary' to improve the character of the training offered at the school. [12] He was effusive in his praise of the younger Edith Bubb who replaced Constance in August 1909. Not that Thompson complained about Constance. She left the position of her own accord. Her age (she was now 55) may have been a factor in her decision, leading her to seek a less demanding occupation.

Constance left to establish 'Devon Electric Treatment' at Mittagong. This move reflected both her interest in the alternative therapies of Albert Schuch and her political interest in the Henry George movement. Constance was a supporter of George's Australian branch of the Free Trade and Land Valuers' League. Constance was at Mittagong for a year before taking up an appointment as Matron of the Pierce Memorial Nurses' Home at East Maitland. She retired from this position in 1932, and in the late 1930s she left Maitland to reside at Albert Street, Strathfield, Sydney at the Loreto Rest Home. She died here on 10 April, 1944 and was cremated at Rookwood the next day.

There were several press and other publications about the Road Murder which would have been seen by Constance while she was in Sydney. In 1899 the Sydney Truth printed a sensational piece which was reprinted in other newspapers. Sir Willoughby Maycock's Celebrated Crimes & Criminals (1890) and James Beresford Atlay's Famous Trials of the Century (1899) both had chapters on the Road Murder and Constance Kent's part in it. It was John Rhode's The Case of Constance Kent however, published in 1928 by Geoffrey Bles, that provided the impetus for a 3,000-word letter mailed from Sydney in 1929. Bernard Taylor argues that there is no doubt Constance Kent read Rhode's book and then sat down to pen the letter, named the Sydney Document by the Detection Club who acquired it in 1933.[13] The Sydney Document takes Rhode to task for focusing on the alleged 'insanity' of Constance's mother and is a forceful critique of the stepmother. Constance was good with words (she wrote more than 40 long and eloquent petitions while in prison) and this long essay not only details much of the acrimonious relationship between herself and the stepmother but also describes her part in the murder (an account very similar to that of her confession and other court records from 1865). In these reflections on her childhood, growing up and the murder, Constance presents herself not as a victim, but rather as incorrigible, smart, fearless and intelligent. She describes a child well able to outsmart those around her:

…she was sent to some relatives, of her step-mother, they were extremely proper & she delighted in shocking them, it was only too easy, she was considered blasphemous because she would always speak of Sara Bernhardt as La Divine Sara, she was not with them long as she was considered incorrigible.

A final confession

In the few weeks before her death in April 1944, Constance Kent contacted her niece Olive Bailey, [14] asking her to visit her in Strathfield. During one of these visits she told Olive who she was and the story of Constance Kent and the Road murder:

Olive did not know the facts until long after her mother died. She was contacted by the matron and asked to come down to Loreto as Miss Kaye wanted to see her. I gather it was then that Constance revealed the secret. [15]

Of course, we do not know what Constance told Olive. Did she tell her the 'facts' of the case as we know of them now? That the child was murdered, that she confessed in 1865 and was in prison for 20 years? Did she confess to Olive that she was guilty, or that some other party was involved? This we cannot know, but my guess is that Constance told Olive the 'facts' as she had recounted them as she stood in the dock in 1860 and in 1865, and that the secrets of the actual events of that night died with her, never to be revealed.

Was she guilty? There are proponents who would answer yes, [16] and those who are as determined to answer no. [17] It is 150 years since the murder and of those who were resident at Road Hill House that night, Constance Kent was the last to die. We can point to her obvious personal and professional success after she left prison – especially the 16 years she worked in senior public service positions with the New South Wales government. In her work as a nurse and a public servant Constance appeared to have a natural talent for administration and the supervision of others. In addition, in her interaction with patients and with the young women at Parramatta, there is no hint of meanness, anger, malice, cruelty or even unkindness. There is no record of inappropriate behaviour. On the contrary, Constance was praised for her skill and her ability to do her work. She was not mad and nor did she exhibit visible aspects of an unstable or unbalanced character.

Any writer on this event can only refer to the same lengthy trial transcripts and depositions of witnesses, and similar newspapers reports of the time. There is no new evidence, no lost letters to be found and no one to re-interview about the crime. What is puzzling however is that no previous writer has interrogated the night of the murder or later events in the light of Constance Kent's 1865 confession and its meaning for the case. Summerscale views the confession as an act of great sacrifice. [18] Taylor argues it is simply a means of covering up the truth. I think Constance Kent's confession was a real event and it has to mean something. We cannot dismiss it as a whim, or a rant or as simply Constance's way of protecting her family or liberating William. It may have contained elements of all of these things of course; protection for the family, a way of supporting William and an act of great sacrifice. Constance Kent was only 21 and when she confessed she thought she would die in a hangman's noose. In fact, everyone thought she would die. The sentence for murder was death by hanging and she would not, indeed insisted she should not, plead insanity or any other case for remission. She did not know when she confessed that her sentence would be commuted. It was a daring and risky act.

So why did she confess? I agree with Taylor and others that she was guilty and also that her brother William played some part in the murder. He was a strong lad of 15, able to carry out such a physical act, and, like Constance, had a real hatred of his stepmother. How the actual murder was enacted remains a mystery but it is certain that Constance's part in it and her confession are central. In all her years growing up in that middle-class family Constance had played a leadership role. She had been the persuader, leading William in many of their childish pranks. It was she, too, who would not apologise and or say she was sorry for any of her rash or silly actions. And I think this act of horror, of murder, was also her idea. It was her idea (whether carried out with William or not) to kill the child as an act of revenge against the stepmother. It was not William's idea, after all he was a follower and he followed her as he always did. She believed that because of her act of thinking of the idea of murder, of revenge, and of (possibly) convincing William to help her do it that she was truly, irretrievably guilty. Her confessions, the first in 1865 and the second on her deathbed, her writing of the Sydney Document and the more than 40 petitions while in prison, her career as a public servant, her mental and physical toughness and her obvious competence as a professional and in her personal life, and the detail of her long life lived in Sydney, Australia reveal a woman of talent and fortitude. Her final words in the Sydney Document are prescient as a final note on how Constance Kent constructed herself and the way she wanted to be remembered:

After her release she changed her name and went overseas and single handed fought her way to a good position and made a home for herself where she was well liked and respected before she died.


Noeline Kyle, A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent and the Road Murder, Boolarong Press, Salisbury, Brisbane, 2009

'Constance Kent and the Road Murder', Late Night Live, ABC Radio National website, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2009/2752376.htm, viewed 2 August 2011


[1] Noeline Kyle, A Greater Guilt: Constance Emilie Kent and the Road Murder, Boolarong Press, Salisbury, Brisbane, 2009

[2] Bernard Taylor, Cruelly Murdered: Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House, Souvenir Press, London, 1979

[3] Handwriting Collection, Letter from Elizabeth Kent, 29 January 1919, Natural History Museum, London.

[4] Mary Amelia Savill Kent was aged five on the night of the murder. She married Alfred Hutchinson in 1899 at Croydon, Sydney and had one daughter Olive. Olive married Charlies Bailey in 1936 and they settled in Newcastle, New South Wales.

[5] Acland Savill Kent was born one month after the murder. He arrived in Australia in 1885. He died in 1887 at Bendigo, Victoria. Florence Savill Kent was born one year after the murder. She never married and died at Newcastle, New South Wales in 1957. Eveline was aged two in 1860. She married Frederick Johnson and died in 1940 at Melbourne, Victoria

[6] Lucy Sussex, 'Atonement: The Mystery of Constance Kent,' in Kerry Greenwood (ed), On Murder 2: True Crime Writing In Australia, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2002, pp 264–265

[7] William Saville-Kent travelled to Australia in 1884 to take up the position of Commissioner of Fisheries with the Tasmanian government. He returned permanently to England in the early 1900s

[8] Nurses Register, 1891–1917, Prince Henry Hospital Archives, Nursing & Medical Museum Prince Henry, Little Bay, p 304

[9] Superintendent's Report, 1899, Industrial School for Girls, Parramatta, Votes & Proceedings, New South Wales Legislative Assembly, 1900, vol 6, p 483; Noeline Kyle, 'Agnes King inter alios: Female Administrators in Reformatory Schools', Journal of Australian Studies, November 1984, pp 58–69

[10] G Scrivener, 'Rescuing the rising generations': Industrial Schools in New South Wales, 1850–1910', PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney, 1996; Noeline Williamson (now Noeline Kyle), 'Reform or Repression? Industrial and Reformatory Schools for Girls in New South Wales, 1866 to 1910', Honours thesis, University of Newcastle, 1979

[11] Anthony J Harrison, Savant of the Australian Seas: William Saville-Kent (1845-1908) and Australian Fisheries, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart, 1997, p 135; William Saville-Kent, The Great Barrier Reef: its products and potentialities, John Currey O'Neill, Melbourne, 1972, (first published 1893); William Saville-Kent, The naturalist in Australia, Chapman & Hall, London, 1897

[12] Superintendent's Report, Industrial School for Girls, Parramatta, 1909

[13] Bernard Taylor, Cruelly Murdered: Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House, Souvenir Press, London, 1979 p 59

[14] Olive's mother was Mary Amelia Savill Hutchinson (née Kent)

[15] Typescript of interview notes by Shirley Richards with Olive Bailey, 1989

[16] Yseult Bridges, Saint – with Red Hands? A reissue of a chronicle of a great crime – the Case of Constance Kent, MacMillan, London, 1970, (reprint of The Tragedy of Road-hill House, by Yseult Bridges, first published 1954, Rinehart, New York)

[17] Bernard Taylor, Cruelly Murdered: Constance Kent and the Killing at Road Hill House, Souvenir Press, London, 1979

[18] Kate Summerscale, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective, Walker & Company, New York, 2008