Article MT157

Glimpses into the 19th Century Broadside Ballad Trade

No. 15: Constance Kent and the Road murder1

In this piece a particular case of child murder and ballads based on it are examined and, in order to offer a context, various other examples are referred to below - there were at least twenty occasions when, during the nineteenth century, the perpetrators of child murder were executed.2  This is to exclude 'baby farmers' such as Margaret Waters (hanged in 1870) and Amelia Dyer (hanged in 1896) whose cases are, clearly, to say the least, unusual; and the phenomenon of infanticide involving mothers and nursemaids unable to bear the strain of their situation is but briefly referred to in passing.

Inevitably, in this piece, reference is made to ballads already discussed in the previous piece in the series; and, occasionally, to ballads or cases whose details are not pursued further.  There are many cross-references, some indicated and others left to the perspicacity of the reader.

The circumstances of the case of Constance Kent were that, in brief, in 1860, Francis Saville Kent, the four-year-old half-brother of Constance Kent, was killed.  The child had been taken from his bedroom and was found, with his throat cut, in an outside privy at Road House (sometimes spelt 'Rode' and sometimes referred to as Road-Hill House), close to Frome, Somerset.  There was no sign of blood in the house, but circumstantial evidence depended first on an open window in the drawing-room which, servants declared, had been closed the night before and could have provided ingress and egress for a murderer; and a missing nightdress provided something of a saga.

The nursemaid, Elizabeth Gough, reported the child as not being in his bed at 7:15 in the morning and a search commenced.

Samuel Kent, Constance's father, apparently, drove over the county boundary to Trowbridge to report personally to a Superintendent Foley rather than immediately contacting local police, indicating to his household that he thought the child was merely lost and leaving others to search.  He did, however, stop on the way to inform local police.  Nonetheless he took over an hour to complete the journey of around a mile and gave the information that the child had been stolen or lost wrapped in a blanket - which fact was not known until the body was discovered.  Mr Kent's conduct was never satisfactorily explained.

An Inspector Jonathan Whicher was then brought in from Scotland Yard but he became the subject of direction by local magistrates and was unable to pursue the case effectively (his lack of success stifled his own career and it could be argued that this was not his fault).  For instance, investigation of the case stopped after questioning of Constance, her brother, William, and some servants and did not initially extend to Mr and Mrs Kent; strange, perhaps, in view of Mr Kent's actions as described above and since there was suspicion that Constance disliked her step-mother, originally a governess at the house, whom Mr Kent had married after an affair and after his wife, Constance's mother, had died; and Francis was the child of the second Mrs Kent.  A possible motive could have arisen.  At the same time, in this connection, when, in 1865, when Constance Kent was re-tried for a murder committed five years earlier, a letter was introduced into proceedings in which, referring to her father and her step-mother, Constance Kent wrote:

It has been stated that my feelings of revenge were excited in consequence of cruel treatment.  This is entirely false.  I have received the greatest kindness from both the persons accused of subjecting me to it.  I have never had any ill-will towards either of them on account of their behaviour to me, which has been very kind…3
The 1860 proceedings attracted considerable attention - The Times printed some ten reports between July, when the case opened, and December.  Elizabeth Gough, nursemaid, was herself accused of the murder; but she was once discharged, then re-examined, and, whilst there appears not to have been any report of final dismissal, her supposed guilt was never established and her name disappeared from the reports.4

It did emerge that the boy had not only had his throat cut but had been stabbed in the chest and that a piece of flannel from an old female undergarment had been found with the body: this a supposed link between Elizabeth Gough and the murder, but subsequently thought not to have anything to do with the case.

Meanwhile, chiefly on account of Jonathan Whicher's suspicion, Constance Kent was apprehended though learned counsel acting for the prosecution against Elizabeth Gough and for Constance Kent (at the behest of her father), T B Saunders, declared of her that 'from first to last there was not the slightest ground for justifying suspicion against her'.5  Proceedings, then, came to an unsatisfactory conclusion.

The Times noted in November that 'public interest had manifestly decreased'.6  Constance Kent herself - presumably because of the whole unsavoury nature of events, was sent, first, to a religious institution in France and, then, came back to England to enter a similar institution in Brighton - the St Mary's Home for Penitent Females (which included those women who had had illegitimate babies or who had been prostitutes).  The family was, evidently, not popular in the neighbourhood and both Constance and William had been jeered by other children so Constance's absence may have been engineered as an act of prudence.

And so five years passed before there was a dramatic turns of events when Constance Kent volunteered information that she had been the murderess of her half-brother.

The Times reported as follows:

The circumstances of this mysterious murder have never been forgotten, - how, nearly five years ago, the body of a male child, which had been missed from its cot, was found in a privy outside the house, and how, suspicion having been directed towards Miss Kent…she was examined before the local magistrates, at the instigation of Inspectors Whicher and Williamson, and acquitted of the charges…
The re-investigation of the case a year after was mentioned and then, 'Nothing more of a reliable character was heard of the case until yesterday…' - that is, 25th October, 1865.  7  Once more, there was widespread attention and The Times printed another thirteen reports between April and August of 1865.

Arthur Wagner, principal of the religious institution in Brighton, came forward with a confession.  This, he declared, had been provided by Constance Kent in an entirely voluntary manner; and she, when cross-questioned in turn, said that this was so.8  The substance of the confession was that Constance Kent had waited until the family and servants were asleep, had gone down to the drawing-room and opened the shutters and window, had then fetched Francis from his room wrapped in a blanket which she had taken from between sheet and counterpane in his cot (leaving both these undisturbed or readjusted), left the house and killed him in the privy with a razor stolen from her father.  Her movements before the killing had been conducted with the child in her arms.  It had been necessary to secret matches in the privy beforehand for a light to see by during the act of murder.  The murder was not a spontaneous act, it seems, but one of revenge - and it was even suggested that Constance had, at certain times, been mentally unbalanced.

Whatever, Constance then returned to her own room - leaving the drawing-room window open - saw that there were two bloodstains on her nightdress, and so changed nightdresses and washed the one out and left it to dry.  In the morning, she put away the dried nightdress; but later found that the stains had not disappeared, and after a series of moves, eventually burnt it in the kitchen boiler.  No bloodstains were found in the house…and the fact that two only were supposed to have fallen on the nightdress seems odd in view of a cut throat and a stab-wound to Francis' side.9  Nonetheless, it seems to have been generally agreed that, despite the seemingly extraordinary nature of Constance Kent's movements on the night of the murder, the confession contained all the principal matter of the case.  Whether entirely satisfactory or not, the result of Constance Kent's admission and the sentencing brought the case to an end of sorts.  The Gloucester Chronicle expressed the hope that 'we have now heard the last of this case.'10  The North Wilts Herald, hostile enough towards Constance Kent, was inclined to accept the full truth of the confession.11

Constance Kent was not hanged, but sentenced to life imprisonment and she served twenty years in jail, was released, and then disappeared from the records, amidst rumours and speculation.  It may be that the true story of Francis Saville Kent's murder was lost.

Our concern, though, is less to do with the guilt or otherwise of Constance Kent, bewildering as the case still appears, than it is with the perception of printers which may have led to the production of ballads.12

We come to the nub of things in making comparisons between this case and others in connection with which, we note, for example, a ballad from 1820, The Murdered Boy, beginning

You tender hearted Christians all, I pray unto these lines give ear,
And of a cruel murder now you quickly shall hear…
Immediately, a conventional opening, as discussed in the previous piece in the series, emerges.  The story of John Wright is then told, a man who tried to drown his six-year old son and, even when the boy managed to crawl out of the water, threw him in again.  After the boy had drowned Wright 'told what he had done' and was committed to Stafford jail until his appearance 'at the bar' and:
When blood for blood will be required by a just God's
Following the conventional opening, then, there is in content a fairly full description of the crime, rendered appealing by the boy's cries for mercy; and a supposed moral judgement, as quoted, at the end.

Another ballad described the murder of George Ansell by George Partridge at Polstead in 1828; a ballad in which a contemporary event is referred to - one of the most famed of the century, the Red Barn murder, to be left as subject for another time…

Where Corder on his victim late,
      Did mark the guilty wound…
The course of events is recounted in some detail.  George Ansell, a farmer's boy, was out 'to fetch the cows' and was missed.  His body was found with throat 'cut from ear to ear'.  George Partridge was suspected and a clasp-knife, 'stain'd in a crimson gore' found on him.
The worthy rector sought the wretch
      With prayer and peace to bless,
And to the worthy man he did
      His guilty deeds confess.
Then was Partridge apprehended,
      And unto gaol was sent,
Within the gloomy walls to lie,
                  His crimes for to lament.
The sentence was passed and a warning issued to 'Young men': before any execution took place.

In another ballad, there is an almost absolute concentration on the mind of the perpetrator, Keene, who murdered 'a smiling boy' near to Guildford in 1852…

Oh! What a wretched man am I,
On earth I'm sure I can never be,
For murdering that darling boy,
I'm doomed to die upon the tree.
I took that infant's life away,
My sufferings no tongue can tell,
I took him from his Mother's side,
And threw him down that fatal well.
We note the employment of 'wretched' and the image of a 'tree' - by now familiar description; but the extent of reference to remorse is unusual.  After the lines given above there are two more stanzas with similar sentiments…
My guilty deeds I must confess,
      Look down on me God from on high:
I am not fit on earth to live,
      I'm a disgrace unto the land,
Doomed by the laws of God and man
And 'I tremble, I am almost wild…'.

As in the previous ballad discussed and as found below as well, a contemporary note is sounded…

To die upon Horsemongers tree,
      There I must end my wretched life,
Where one morn I chanced to see,
      The wretched Manning and his wife…
One more detail, found also in several other ballads, may be mentioned.  Keene declares that
I see the hangman's knot approach,
      I see the sad and awful drop…
Also in the ballad on Keene, 'The hangman's grasp I sorely feel'.  In the Lamentation of R.  Coates (below) we find
I hear the hangman now approaching,
                        The solemn bell for me does toll…
This apprehension of the hangman, physical and mental, can be found also in a ballad on Palmer the poisoner (1856) who declares: 'I see the hangman, I view my grave…', and in the Francis Warne ballad mentioned elsewhere here and in the previous piece in the series…where:
…Warne saw the Hangman,
On Springfield's gallows high…
Similarly, although it is not a particularly common observation, there are other ballads that refer to spectators as here: thousands crowd around Keene (above) just as in a ballad on the fate of Thomas Hocker (1845) '…gaping thousands round appear'; and in one of the Drory ballads encountered in discussion in the last piece in this series, 'numbers are flocking my end to see'; in The Lamentation of Henry Groom (1851) 'A public spectacle I'm doomed to be'; in the case of Joseph Castle (1859) he was 'Hanged by the neck to public gaze'13; in that of Alexander Thomson (1864) '…on a Public scaffold you must give up your life…'; and in the Fanny Adams case (1867) 'thousands will see' her murderer, Frederick Baker, 'on the scaffold'.  There is also an implied warning in that Coates 'From virtuous ways…did desert' which is as good as a direct warning as found in many ballads.  The formulaic nature of phraseology, sometimes conflicting with circumstances described, is clearly established.

Another ballad giving a contemporary reference as it helps to cement the context Is that of a Disley printing concerning John Mapp's murder of Catherine Lewis 'at the parish of Longden' near to Shrewsbury in 1867.  This event is compared to 'the Alton tragedy', Frederick Baker's murder of Fanny Hall during the same year, where, just as in this case, the child was 'cut and mangled'.  A Baker ballad - the only one found so far despite the notorious nature of the crime - itself is prefaced with a short prose account of the event and begins in conventional fashion:

You tender mothers pray give attention,
      To these few lines which I will relate…
There is a chorus, somewhat unusually directed at the murderer -
Prepare for death, wicked Frederick Baker,
      For on the scaffold you will shortly die,
Your victim waits for you to meet your Maker, -
      She dwells with Angels and her God on high.
Baker is described also as a 'monster' and a 'malefactor'; and the ballad declares that 'In that heart of stone ' there was not 'a spark of pity'.  There is a familiar journalistic touch - the place of murder in a hop-garden - but only the word 'mutilated' offers any idea of the nature of the crime.  The parents are described as being heart-broken; Baker, as noted above, will be hanged and many thousands, as already noted, will see him on the scaffold; there is a reference to the possibility of the Lord's mercy; and in a flurry of imaginings, Baker 'must' be haunted by visions -
She points at him, and cries, oh tremble, murderer!
      'Tis I, your victim here - that little child!
- before 'The hangman comes', 'the drop is falling' and Baker 'fills a murderer's grave'.

In the Mapp ballad, details of the murder are given: 'He cut and strangled her'; threw her body in a hovel; scattered her clothes 'over ditch and field'; her brooch was found; and he 'took her ribbon from her Sunday hat'.  The ballad observes:

Oh! how could anyone so vile engage,
To kill a child but nine years of age…
and 'he had a heart far harder than steel'.  There is a brief chorus.  The language, in general, is perhaps a little bathetic - a modern viewpoint, mind - even by broadside standards…
Mapp was apprehended and sent to gaol,
And in a dungeon now does bewail;
On the tree, a forfet (sic) he must pay his life,
His murdered victim haunts him day and night.
The 'haunting', as noted in the previous piece in the series and as already found here in the Baker ballad above, is a feature that recurs in other ballads including the next to be considered.  Here, though, in the Mapp ballad, it is offered, unusually, through a third person viewpoint.  Much more often, the hauntings as supposedly experienced by the murderer emerge through a first-person view (for instance, in The Lamentation of Henry Groom (1851), in The Lamentation of Francis Price…who murdered his sweetheart, Sarah Pratt in 1860 and, where child murder is concerned, in the Mobbs ballad and the Coates lamentation, both discussed below).

There are no warnings in the Mapp ballad and no appeals to God's mercy but it does indicate that 'Not a spark of pity will there be for he…'.  Again, as evidence to help set the context, this observation can be found in other ballads.  In Gleeson Wilson's Lamentation (1849), he declares,

I am sure there is no one on earth for me will heave a sigh,
I have committed such horrid murders no one can pity me…
In the case of Francis Warne (1864), 'For him there is no pity…'.  Of Mary Ann Cotton (1873),
No one can pity, no one can bless,
Mary Ann Cotton for her wickedness…
Fish, the Blackburn murderer whose case is examined below in more detail, declared that 'No one on earth will pity me' (1876).

It is not that sentiments such as those just described are in necessarily wholesale evidence but that they help make up a fairly consistent armoury of possibilities outside of which ballad-makers rarely stray.

Ballads on the murder of Thomas Newbury, aged 10, by William Mobbs in Buckinghamshire in 1870 underline the point.  A first declaims

A sad, cruel dreadful deed,
      To you I will unfold,
The murder of a little boy,
      As base as e'er was told…
The piece takes the form of prose introduction set before the execution and has conventional lines and sentiments, like 'As base as e'er was told' above; and a chorus.  Thomas Newbury had his throat cut - 'What motive had the murderer…' - 'the wretched murderer'; and because of the crime, evidently, fathers wept and mothers grieved.  True to the journalistic touch, Mobbs was suspected because
His slop, his shirt, his trousers,
      Were covered with human blood…
The fatal knife was found, and
To slay a little innocent boy,
      Whate'er could him possess,
And cause such agony and grief,
      Such anguish and distress…
A second ballad has a prose introduction, in this case indicating that an execution had been carried out, and begins with a conventional opening - 'Good Christians all of each degree…' and follows with 'hauntings'.  The viewpoint is, again, that of the murderer -
His looks of anguish I shall ne'er forget
Before my eyes I see them yet…
The ballad continues,
…I am guilty found, and doom'd to die
Within a prison cell I lie,
May God forgive the deed I've done,
And save me through his blessed son…
Mobbs grieves for his parents and gives a warning to 'young men', before appealing once more for God's mercy (in this ballad, the boy's name is actually given as 'Newton').

For further comparison, and still with high moral content, in the printed form found in several ballads discussed in the previous piece (although lacking a header illustration), there is a brief prose account and a copy of verses on the case of Maria Ann Taylor (1836) who murdered her infant child.  The circumstances as recounted in the prose extract might have evoked pity: a seduction and then dismissal from his house of her father, all at the age of 17.  This was not, though, quite how the verses have it…

Lured by the love of glittering gold,
      On pleasure firmly bent,
My child's life I did destroy,
      By which I do repent.
'Glittering gold' may be taken as a kind of euphemism but draws attention to one of the more common reasons for murder given in ballads - we recall others such as jealousy and the hand or influence of Satan.

Even in a short and simple piece 'I an unhappy death must die' and a warning is given, a farewell issued, and

…'Tis my doom to suffer here,
                  That justice may be done.
The case of Margaret Bell, another woman who murdered her own child (in 1853), provoked at least two ballads, both told in first-person voice.  The Lamentation…opens with a warning 'To shun paths of vice which leads on to crime' and goes on to recount 'the weight of my sins', the drowning of her child, 'For which I must die on the gallows tree'.  The detail includes reference to sleeping in a bleachfield after the deed, how a worker found the child's body and how Margaret Bell was brought back to Paisley to await execution.  The piece closes with the proposed date of execution, 26th January.  It is well within the general formulaic nature of murder ballads

The second ballad, Margaret Bell's Lament, is altogether more lyrical in tone:

Adieu unto Barrhead, and to Neilston also
Where the river Levern it sweetly does flow,
My poor aged mother, forever farewell,
An exile for life is your poor Margaret Bell.
But the most striking point is contained in that final line.

Evidently, so the ballad says, Margaret Bell was deserted by her lover and was impoverished, before she took the drastic measure to kill her child - to an extent mirroring the situation in which Maria Ann Taylor found herself.


The thoughts of my badness my tongue cannot tell,
Kind heaven pardon me, poor Margaret Bell.
Although sentenced to die, Margaret Bell was apparently respited partly through petition 'to the Queen's Majesty'.  Thus, unlike the first ballad above, this one includes a small shred of prospect…
Now all you good people who took my cause in hand,
I'll think on your kindness when in a foreign land.
This is not quite the conventional ballad found elsewhere, then (and the whole tragic history of infanticide by distraught mothers is worth sympathetic study), and is offered as something of a contrast in the context here.14  Further, the difference in outcome as outlined in the second ballad reminds us of the progressive nature of issue described by Mayhew…ballad as commentary15; and warns us that ballads printed before execution may sometimes have been the result of a printer's misjudgements or misinformation (and commercial motive) when sentences were then commuted.

In respect of punishment there is another ballad which stands out from the general run although some features parallel those under discussion.  John Moss, a young boy in Sunderland, was starved to death by his father and his father's paramour, Ellen Calder, in 1876…the

…poor unfortunate little angel
Has met a sad and fearful death…
The ballad emphasises that, day after day, John Moss was deprived of bread whilst the children of Ellen Calder were well enough fed.  Sometimes neighbours would feed the boy.  Eventually,
Thank God the poor child is in heaven,
For they starved him till his spirit fled,
He has gone to rest with his dear mother,
And join the souls of the silent dead.
The first line here is echoed in several other ballads as discussed below.

Further, in another echo, the father and his paramour 'must be cruel and hard-hearted'.  At this point, the perpetrators had not been tried but will

…answer for the crime of murder,
An outrage in this Christian land.
Once more, these sentiments appear in other ballads, as will be seen.

In fact, the jury threw out the original charge and then, in 1877, returned a verdict of manslaughter for which both the accused were sentenced to fifteen years' penal servitude.

A Disley ballad, The Horrid Murder At Purfleet, recounts the story of Alice Boughen when, in 1872, aged 6, she was murdered by Richard Coates (the name is given as 'Coote'), a gunner appointed schoolmaster at an establishment for the education of the children of soldiers at Purfleet Garrison, Essex.

Poor darling Alice Boughen,
      Thy fearful end all must deplore,
Poor child she was outraged & murdered,
      At Purfleet, on the Essex shore.
This is a ballad which, like several referred to in the previous piece in this series, is one where 'Your blood with horror must run cold…'.  However, the piece, amidst repeated emphasis on this same horror, has very little of it in substance, despite its claim to set out 'The facts of which you soon shall hear'; in some contrast, say, to lines in a ballad on Kohl's murder of Furhop (1865) where
So dreadful the smell when the head was found,
With the eyes, battered in, as it lay on the ground,
The skull it was fractured, the brain did protrude,
His sufferings was dreadful, so basely illused.
These lines do underline the capacity of ballads to indulge in horror as well as to skip over details…

There is also one line in the Coates ballad where the death, it is suggested,

…filled each heart with sorrow,
A fearful spectacle they say
(my italics)…just that small proviso, disclaiming first-hand observation, mirrored in phrases discussed in the previous piece such like 'as we hear'.

The piece, again, predates sentence, although of Coates it says that:

…there is no doubt he is the author,
Of this sad and dreadful crime.
It concludes with more piety:
While the spotless soul of little Alice,
      Is taken to a better land
May perdition light upon the monster,
      Who has disgraced the name of man.
'Monster', within the restricted palette of description as discussed in the preceding piece in this series, is a frequent description, found in ballads on the Bacon murders (1856), on John Jones (murderer of seven people in 1870), on the murder of Maria Clousen in Eltham (1871), on the murder of Ciara Bruton (1872), on Wainwright (1875), on the murder of Emily Holland by Fish (1876), on the murder of Sarah Thrussell's child by George Hill (1876 - see also below), and on John Aspinall Simpson (1881).  The 'better land' is echoed in several ballads in terms of the victim resting with the Saviour or in heaven - as in the cases of Fanny Hall above and Emily Holland (murdered by William Fish) below, for instance.

A second Coates ballad, a 'Lamentation', begins:

O listen to the sad lamentation,
      Of Richard Coates who soon will be
In Springfield gaol as I will mention,
      Deprived of life on the gallows tree…
There is a chorus beginning 'Poor Alice Boughen, thy fate was dreadful…' and, in puzzling anticipation, a line declaring that Coates was already 'deprived of life on the gallows tree' - whereas the rest of the ballad would appear to anticipate the drop.

Since this is a lamentation, it is not a surprise to find an indulgence in dejection and remorse, here embracing familiar 'hauntings':

Her little hands now point towards me,
      Her form now in my cell I see.
She's always present, she never leaves me,
                  Until I die on the gallows tree.
The murderer asks if 'such a villain' can ask for mercy and calls on his God; and then abjures others…
… all young men pray take a warning
      By Richard Coates - his dreadful fate,
Behold me on that fatal morning,
                  Repenting when it is too late…
But, in connection with the timing of issue, in a brief prose introduction, Coates was 'charged with the wilful murder of Alice Boughen' and that he was 'taken into custody', clear indication that the ballad was put out prior to any execution.  In this latter respect, there are, as it happens, two Coates ballads entitled Execution of the Purfleet Murderer.  The first begins:
Richard Coates, that cruel murderer,
Now is cold, within his grave…
The second begins:
Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol,
A murderer, when dying, his crime doth bewail…
In the first ballad:
You never heard or ever read of
      Such treatment to a little child…
The particular piece goes on to describe how Coates had given a confession to the chaplain; offers details of his actions after the murder when attempting to dispose of the body; and declares that he might have done well in the army; that he has disgraced his father and mother; and that we should all take warning.  Further, 'Heaven help his poor old mother…' - one is reminded of ballads offering the same sentiment as found in the Cadwallader Jones ballad discussed in the previous piece in the series.

There is then an injunction for all to

…take a warning,
      By his sad and fearful end,
Don't give way to unholy passion,
      Nor against the laws offend,
Try to be honest and sober,
      I'm sure you'll find it is the best,
In the world let's do our duty,
                  As we hope in heaven to rest…
…it would be easy enough to pour scorn on the sentiments; but, in an everyday world, this is surely the same moralistic tone that ordinary conversation adopts in the absence of a true understanding of any one misdeed; and, as such, would as like as not touch a vein of recognition.

In the end, given the title of the piece here, it is strange that there is nothing about the execution itself.

The second ballad has some prose details of the case and the convict's last days and intimates that it is contemporary with the hanging…'Upon Easter Monday within Chelmsford gaol' where Coates 'Upon the dark scaffold drew his last breath'.  A prose inclusion indicated that the sentence had been 'carried into effect within the walls of the gaol' on Easter Monday.  The piece also suggests, in not uncommon fashion as noted in the previous piece in this series, that Coates was 'by Satan beguiled' and, like the first piece here which claimed to be concerned with the execution itself, wonders:

It is dreadful to think there could be a man,
Who in his senses this murder could plan…
This is a sentiment found elsewhere - the Mapp ballad discussed above offers an example. As in the previous Coates piece under discussion Coates' attempts to dispose of he body are recounted and there are lines telling how Coates, repeatedly, denied the crime.  Then:
As he walked from the cell through the sweet morning air,
At the end of the prison the gallows was there;
'Twas the last time he'd gaze on that beautiful sky;
As he walked to the spot where he knew he must die…
The hangman was ready, deep sounded the bell;
'Twas barely a moment before the drop fell
The murderer, Coates, from the world he was torn,
His body was there, but his dear life was gone.
Finally, with regard to Coates, he was hanged on 29th March 1872 and the particular ballads take their place among other ballads appearing after the spectacle of public hanging was abolished.

Mary Ann Cotton's case (1873, again, then, post-abolition), referred to briefly in a previous piece in this series, was very different.  She was hanged for multiple poisoning which included the killing of children:

Her poor little childrens' lives she betrayed,
For the sake of the money the burial clubs paid,
She stood by and saw them struggling with pain,
Her crime she repeated again and again…
The ballad opines that there was 'No feeling of pity' in her 'hard heart' and that she was 'unfeeling'; and (reminiscent in sentiment of the second Coates ballad above) how could mothers act so? There is a strong moral comment:
The man or the woman who God's laws offends,
And by secret poison encompasses their ends,
From the strong hardy man to the infant at birth,
No one is safe while they stay on the earth.
When murder's committed in a moment of rage,
We often can pity and petition to save,
But Mary Ann Cotton who in Durham did lie,
Every-one knew she deserved to die.
A second Cotton ballad asks:
Oh, have you heard of these fearful murders,
      That have disgraced this Christian land…
A chorus indicates that:
Her friends, her husbands and dear little children
      She poisoned them all for the sake of gold.
For 'gold' read, more prosaically but perhaps even more chillingly, burial money, that sum paid in to an account for future decent offices.  We have already encountered the constant motives - searching for money ('glittering gold' in the case Maria Ann Taylor above; merely 'money' in the case of William Stevenson, murdered at Sibsey in Lincolnshire in 1859); jealousy; drunken-ness; and the hand of Satan.  The piece concludes as if it is post-execution and with a familiar acknowledgement that there will be no pity for her…
This fiend, murderess, now is hung,
      No pity, no sorrow can we find,
And now the gallows has claimed its victim;
                  She'll not leave one friend behind…
Both Cotton ballads are strictly third-person accounts.  Only once is there speculation about the mind of Mary Ann Cotton - in the first ballad, which asks 'What did she think as she lay in her cell…'.  The ballad lines hoped for repentance; but there is no confession nor are there last words.

Another case of child murder, in 1876, was that of William Fish, one ballad amongst others as discussed here being printed by Disley (Horrid Murder…):

Once again a dreadful outrage
      Stains the annals of our land…
This concern for the reputation of the country is found elsewhere, for instance in a ballad on John Jones (1870):
Would any suppose in this Christian country,
      Such a cruel murder there could be…
and in the Mary Ann Cotton case (1873)
Oh, have you heard of these fearful murders,
      That have disgraced this Christian land…
and in the John Moss case above; and in The Liverpool Tragedies - the case of John Gleeson Wilson - where 'The like was not recorded in British history'.

Fish, a barber in Blackburn, apparently enticed Emily Holland, aged 7, into his shop, violated and murdered her and then dismembered her (in the manner of Frederick Baker's dismemberment of Fanny Adams in 1867 - discussed above - which gave rise to such awful phraseology).  In terms of the format of the particular Fish ballad (Horrid murder of a child at Blackburn), we find, like that of all four Coates ballads, a chorus; some familiar terminology 'an unmanly murder', 'that fatal day', 'her precious life'; and a familiar religious reference - 'She's now in heaven with the Saviour…'.  The Fish piece, though, also has a speculation:

None can tell the parents (sic) feelings,
      Stricken down with grief and pain…
This, as we have seen, is the kind of sentiment expressed not infrequently, as in the cases of Fanny Hall above and in that of Cadwallader Jones.

The piece anticipates trial, sentence and execution and it is notable that a bloodhound had been used to track the remains and, a little unusually in view of a regular lack of use of the specific detail of any one case - the telegraph, say, as found in the Tawell murder - this detail has been seized upon:

Now the remains have been discovered,
      By a bloodhound they were gained…
For other Fish ballads it is, again, to Harkness that we turn (even though, as in the Coates ballads, there is no imprint - the same sort of numbering sequence obtains).  The first, Horrible Murder of Emily Holland… claims attention thus:
Oh! Listen, you fathers and mothers,
      Oh! Listen awhile unto me,
It is of a most cruel murder,
      That has been committed we see.
A poor little innocent creature,
      Has met such a terrible fate
By the hand of some cruel monster,
      Who her body did sad violate.
There is a chorus - 'O God look down on the parents…'.  Fish, 'we are told' cut the body into parts.  Further, 'O cruel indeed was the monster'; 'grief and consternation' has spread the country round; 'The villain now is brought to justice; and:
Oh, who could believe such a villain,
      Existing on England's fair shore,
To deprive the heart-broken parents,
      Of the lov'd one they'll never see more…
One notes 'England's fair shore', in line with references to England as a 'Christian country'… faith in the superiority of English life and, by implication, in its systems of justice, found elsewhere as noted above.  Finally, God's mercy is appealed to.

In the second Harkness printing, Horrible crime at Blackburn:

A murder so wicked and so cruel,
It is seldom our lot for to tell…
A chorus proclaims that Emily Holland is 'Safe in the arms of the Saviour…' (like John Moss and like Fanny Hall); but that beforehand she had been violated and cut into pieces.  Fish, it is declared, confessed to the murder - a detail not found hithertoo.  The bloodhounds are mentioned.  The ballad wonders…
The murderer is the father of a family,
      He has two little children of his own,
Supposing thy received the same treatment
      That to his little victim he has shown…
God will punish - God is invoked, often, in the twin or separate role of punish-er and dispenser of mercy.

One can imagine why Harkness thought it proper to issue more than one ballad since his press was so near to Blackburn and the two ballads follow proceedings as evidence was uncovered, a sign, one supposes, of commercial opportunism.  Both pieces, almost needless to say, fail to cover the execution itself.  Another Fish ballad, however, has as its title Execution of Fish, The Murderer

The Blackburn tragedy it is ended,
      The murderer now has met his fate…
William Fish died 'upon the gallows tree'.  The viewpoint switches to that of Fish himself - 'No tongue can tell how I have suffered…' and, as in other ballads,
The spirit of my murdered victim
      In my dreams at night I see…
He warns all young men, he recalls the use of bloodhounds, he bids farewell to his wife and family and asks that they pray for him to 'God on high'.  Then the moment of execution is described:
The bolt was drawn, ands in a moment,
      It was a fearful sight to see,
His body in the air was shivering,
      His soul was in eternity.
These last lines are an unusual find in gallows ballads; and must only have been within the province of the press for the public was, by then, excluded from viewing proceedings.  Even so, the description is brief and general.

Also in 1876, George Hill, a groom, attacked his intended bride, Sarah Thrussell, and her child (by him), killing the child and leaving her for dead.  Many of the features described above appear in the ballad - a reference to the everyday location, 'in a wheatfield' (like Margaret Bell's 'bleachfield' and Frederick Baker's 'hop-garden') and to the murder weapon, a hammer; and inclusive of a chorus.  Like ballads discussed in the previous piece in this series, too, distance is maintained by certain phrases.  George Hill, apparently, was 'in good employ as we may read'; and the deed was done to mother and child 'it is said', although the effect is spoiled by the confident lines which follow:

The screams of this poor helpless female
      In sad distress was (sic) heard a-far…
Hill is described as a 'cruel hearted monster' who was 'Justly condemned by man and God' -
And at the bar of man must answer,
      And retribution meet in time.
Like several other victims, 'the darling babe has gone to heaven'; and there is an appeal to God to spare the mother, soothe her grief and dry her tears.  The ballad is clearly conventional in narrative, tone and judgement.

George Hill was executed (10th April 1876).

In 1877, Henry Lees murdered Mary Ann Halton, aged but eight by drowning in a canal after Mary Ann had been to the mill to collect wages.  Here a poor family was further beat down, the father dead and the mother sick.  The ballad (Horrible Child Murder And Robbery At Macclesfield…) is clearly pre-execution: 'If he's guilty…' and:

The Magistrates now have sent him for trial,
Altho' to the crime he has gave a denial;
If his guilt can be proved on his trial day,
It's as bad as the Blackburn murder we say…
- one notes also the contemporary cross-reference (to William Fish).  The child, thankfully, rests with God - a supposedly comforting degree of satisfaction expressed above also in two of the Fish ballads and elsewhere as already noted.

In the same manner, then, as ballads discussed in the previous piece in the series, none of the description above exactly establishes an absolutely standard pattern of construction for child murder ballads although there are, as we have seen, some recurring features - the remorse, the appeal to God's mercy; certain images and a limited battery of description.  The circumstances obviously alter the narrative direction of the particular ballad but the overall character is consistent in the majority; this overwhelming majority, too, appeared before any actual execution.  We cannot escape the notion that ballads were in part meant as news and at the same time as titillation.

It remains to see what features apply to any ballad concerned with Constance Kent.  One such is to be found in the Bodleian Allegro archive entitled The Road Hill Murder Confession of the Murderer, issued by Disley who, as has been revealed, probably had the strongest interest in gallows literature amongst all printers mid-century and after.16

The Constance Kent ballad begins with lines found elsewhere, if not the exact terms - our conventional opening - and one also notes the stanzaic pattern and the two lines at the end of the stanza below which, whilst they are not repeated, stand out as possible chorus lines:

You pretty maidens, oh! List to me,
I am a murderefs (sic), as you may see,
I am overburthened with grief and woe,
I committed murder five years ago.
My heart was beating in great distress,
Until this murder I did confess.
The piece emphasises Constance Kent's state of mind:
My father married a second wife,
Which filled my bosom with spleen & strife.
- a possible motive has been provided which, as we have seen, Constance Kent denied (was there pressure from Arthur Wagner to absolve the father and the second Mrs Kent?).  Of Francis Saville Kent, the ballad says:
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.
The ballad continues with Constance Kent declaring that she had had no rest at night because 'My infant brother so haunted me' (an image found several times, as discussed above and in the previous piece in the series).

And the ballad ends before the re-examination is completed:

I state the truth, though I do with shame,
No one but me need never be blamed;
If for the murder they do me try,
I declare I'm guilty, and deserve to die.
Again, there is an assumption of blame by the principal as found, for instance, in the Keene and Fish ballads.  One notes, too, how the passage quoted immediately above is in the nature of comment whilst events continue, the sort that would be expected in newspapers at intervals during the progress of trial and sentence ('If for the murder…' - my italics).

Pursuant, we find yet another ballad, again from Disley, this time entitled Trial and Sentence of Constance Kent.17  It comes with a prose introduction summarising the trial at which the learned judge, on Constance Kent's admission of guilt, indicated that 'It remains for me to pass the sentence which the law adjudges' - this as phraseology found in at least one newspaper account Times.  The printed form of presentation has already been discussed - one recalls ballads on murders committed by John Tawell (1845), by Francis Warne (1864) and by Mapp (1868, above) and by Bull (1871).

The metre is the same as in the previous ballad cited (although this is not a consistent feature of Disley ballads, as has already been seen):

Oh, give attention, you maidens dear,
My dying moments are drawing near,
When I am sentenced alas to die,
Upon a gallows gloomy and high.
      Oh, what a sight it will be to see,
      A maiden die on that fatal tree.
This time, though, there is a certain advanced degree of titillation in the ballad as it dwells on the circumstances of Constance Kent's confinement, ' a wretched murderer' who 'invented strife' and who 'Long, long…pined in deep distress'.  She appeals to her father in terms familiar throughout these discussions -
Farewell my father, my father dear,
I know for me you will shed a tear,
Yes, your wicked daughter in shame must die,
For that cruel murder on a gallows high…
thus absolving him; and she wonders:
How many maidens will flock to see,
A female die upon Salisbury's tree.
Strictures on the presence of women at executions as a feature of newspaper accounts was pointed out in the last piece in this series.  This reference might seem to contradict and to underline an appeal to prurience.

Finally, with an image reminiscent of several other ballads (Keene, Coates, Palmer, Warne):

I see the hangman before me stand,
Ready to seize me by the law's command,
When my life is ended on the fatal tree,
Then will be clear'd up all mystery…
which is, palpably, not true except as dismissal from the public eye.

Again, as re-emphasis, this ballad appeared before sentence was made (revoked).  No ballad has emerged which recounts the case after commutation.  Overall, we cannot doubt exploitation of circumstance by the printer.  These are potboilers.

In the total oeuvre of Constance Kent ballads, most interestingly, in 1865, at the time of Constance Kent's re-examination, a ballad - fresh, perhaps, to our eyes - was printed in the North Wilts Herald 18 and its substance reflects the twists and turns of the case as well as acknowledging the guilt of Constance Kent.  It begins in conventional broadside terms:

Its (sic) of a pretty female, at Road House she does dwell,
By rich and poor, for miles around, she was respected well
In eighteen hundred and sixty, as you shall quickly hear,
Being jealous of her mother-in-law, I killed my brother dear.
The quick change in viewpoint invites passing curiosity as does the date of Constance Kent's original indictment and the motive given - in actuality, denied.  The ballad then goes on to say that Constance was charged but, for want of evidence, 'set at large'…but, then, that Constance,
…in a convent, close to Brighton, in the pages as we read,
By the means of her superior, confess'd the cruel deed.
The reference to another source - 'in the pages as we read' - is by no means an uncommon device as we saw in the previous piece in this series.

The ballad continues by praising the relationship between daughter and father and then indicating that 'I'm now transported for life' - reflecting the year, 1865, and commutation of sentence.  Further,

I own I killed my brother dear, and hanged ought to be
Not night nor day no rest I get, in my dreams my brother see…
…once more, as in several cases as already discussed, 'haunting' is prominent.

The ballad then asks for pity and, in general terms, for God's pardon - 'You must all forgive and be forgiven, through Jesus meek and mild…' and continues…

Implore for mercy on the earth, she sorely does repent,
The murder of her brother dear, poor Francis Saville Kent.
We note how the piece admits to dependence on reportage (in the pages 'as we read'), and in content how guilt is accepted, how a confession is involved, how suspicion is diverted from Mr Kent -
She loved her father dearly and her sufferings were severe
Why should suspicion fall upon my honour'd parents dear…
- and how there is a familiar appeal to religious sentiment.  Nowhere are the details of the murder recounted but these regular images and epithets from gallows balladry appear.

In sum, there are obviously small differences in the makeup of each Constance Kent ballad but, overall, there is something of a conventional broadside ballad approach in which the particular piece is very much a gloss on continuing happenings.  Where form is concerned it is evident that it is varied and we may suppose that this was meant to invite curiosity and may well have offered a singer possibilities of matching text to a known tune.  We note, too, the appearance in several ballads of a chorus line which, presumably, as in other gallows ballads, was meant to act as mnemonic; and then the appearance and re-appearance of certain phrases which have been here described as conventional.

That much for the North Wilts Herald ballad itself and its relationship to the two other Constance Kent ballads.  Further, though, the North Wilts Herald report contains the following paragraph, relevant to both the way in which ballad-making was viewed (with some disdain) and to how the piece was distributed.

The vendor…”sung” a “copy of the verses” some of the lines of which were measured with a clothes prop and others with a three-foot rule.  The manner in which the vocalist huddled up the words of the long lines, and kept up the aspiration of the short ones to preserve unity was extremely amusing.  I purchased a pennyworth of the literature…
This might seem to be a rather squalid way to treat a ballad purporting to offer a grave account of a grave event.  Perhaps the disdain with which reporters tended to treat the presence of spectators at such events is meant also to devolve on associated matter; but one may also surmise a typical newspaper trick of intimating condemnation together with a determination to exploit the opportunity for sales…our infamous 'gutter' approach.

To round off this piece, we may remind ourselves that, as previously noted in this series in 'Bawlers' and the Bawled, the North Wilts Herald report ended with the comment:

“Pretty stuff” your readers will say.  That is just my opinion; but the literature sold by hundreds of copies.
This, surely, sums up the intention of the report.

There is no printer's name attached to the ballad but, more particularly, as far as can be ascertained, there is no comparable copy extant in available sources.

Taken as a group, the three Constance Kent ballads complement each other in exhibiting all the signs of commercial exploitation of an event.  Like the vast majority of murder ballads, they slid from view entirely as far as is known.  As reason, one takes the overall absence as one takes the fate of all 'news'.  Then, too, if such ballads disappeared, it might even be said that the formulae of execution ballads, the images and the archetypes, failed to renew themselves, despite the fact that, for some time - Such provides an example - printers continued to issue such pieces.  In this respect, there may well have been a decline in the importance of broadside balladry - both as printed artefact and then as occasion for song - partly as a result of the availability of newspapers to an increasingly literate and economically able purchaser and the success of alternative forms of entertainment and social sustenance but also bespeaking changes in public mores which included the abolition of the spectacle of public hanging - it is tempting, in this context, to advance glib arguments about the increase in education as having an influence.

Still and all, if the experience of collectors in the early years of the twentieth century and later is anything to go by interest in and employment of broadside balladry persisted and the occasional glimpse of murder ballads - The Poor Murdered Woman is one example 19 and Danny Brasil's version of a ballad on the execution of three men for highway robbery in Warwickshire is another20 - is salutary qualification of any presumption of total disappearance of such material.  We can probably surmise that, at the time, a ballad - or ballads - were sold during the trial of Constance Kent and we know from the North Wilts Herald report that one was sung at the fair.  This evidence, tiny as it is, like the depositioning of different tunes (to be considered later), and with the same physical context - men 'turning a penny' through sales - found in connection with the Tawell ballads, offers a fragment for confirmation of the progress and the prolongation of ballad composition and ballad distribution during the nineteenth century.

Roly Brown - 14.6.05
Oradour sur Vayres, France

Appendix: ballads cited in the text above and their sources


Article MT157

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