Page last updated at 12:05 GMT, Wednesday, 16 July 2008 13:05 UK

Child murder which gripped nation

Book cover
The book examines the story of one of England's first detectives

After Kate Summerscale's book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher won BBC Four's Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, BBC News looks into the infamous killing examined in her account.

The brutal murder of four-year-old Savile Kent in 1860 shocked Victorian Britain.

One of a large society family in Wiltshire, the child was found dead with his throat cut in an outside "privy" at his home in the village of Road.

He had also been repeatedly stabbed in the chest after being taken from the nursemaid's bedroom at night.

It brought notoriety to the village and sparked hysteria as it soon became clear that one of the family or their servants must have carried out the killing.

The apparently secure and wealthy status of the young boy's family added an extra dimension to the story.

Local police initially directed their investigation towards nursemaid Elizabeth Gough, who had had responsibility for the child.

It was quite clear the murderer was a member of the family, that's what caused all the excitement
Steven Hobbs, archivist

But they failed to produce any results and seemed baffled by the killing.

So magistrates, impatient for answers and under strong public pressure to resolve the case, requested help from Scotland Yard.

And Det Insp Jonathan Whicher, who was described as "a working-class London copper with a pockmarked face and a taste for brandy", was brought in.

He was confronted with solving a murder mystery in which the grieving family were suspects.

The detective quickly went to work collecting evidence which implicated one of the family members in the Road Hill murder and led to their arrest.

But Whicher came under huge pressure and was heavily criticised in the press when the case was later dropped.

Kate Summerscale
The book throws light on the earliest days of crime detection

His career was ruined by the inquiry, which inadvertently started an enduring national obsession with crime solving and quickly became established as the original country-house mystery.

Five years later, however, the killer confessed and Whicher's case was proved right.

Steven Hobbs, an archivist at Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, said: "It was quite clear the murderer was a member of the family, that's what caused all the excitement.

"Whicher was brought in from Scotland Yard and came up with some suggestions which didn't go down too well and he was sidelined.

First detective

"It was such a cause celebre that it had a national impact."

Whicher's work inspired novelists, including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Philip Marlowe, Inspector Morse and Prime Suspect's Jane Tennison are some of the fictional characters seen as his successors.

According to the Metropolitan Police history archive, Whicher was one of the original members of the Detective Branch which had been established in 1842.

By 1860 he had become the most senior and best known member of the team.

The murder case was a classic example of the strong influence magistrates had in such investigations, the archive said.

It also illustrated the influence which people from the upper echelons of English society could exert over local police officers.

Murder tale scoops Johnson prize
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