Archbishop family’s affairs that startled Victorian England

What’s the significance of the name of the street where you live?
In his latest researches, DAVID MORGAN has discovered one road which reflects the life of an archbishop, ‘the cleverest woman in Europe’, and their remarkable family

Edward Benson was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until his death in 1896

The residents of Benson Road, CR0 4LR, in Waddon are in for a surprise.

They might well know that their road was named after Archbishop Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until his death in 1896. Several roads in Croydon are named after archbishops, because they have had a residence here for centuries: first, in the palace adjacent to Croydon Parish Church, in what is now Old Palace School, and then later at Addington.

Archbishop Edward Benson spent many years living at Addington Palace in the 19th century. But what the residents of Benson Road might not be aware of, though, are the links in this tale to Land of Hope and Glory, to an eminent Egyptology, a famous novelist, a lyricist and a wife who had intense friendships and affairs for much of her life.

Benson became a teacher before committing himself to the life of a cleric. Born in Birmingham in 1829, his first job was as a master at Rugby School. He was ordained as a Church of England deacon a year later, and as a priest in 1857, at a time when it was common for members of the clergy to work as teachers.

In 1859, Benson was chosen by Prince Albert, the royal consort of Queen Victoria, to become the first headmaster at Wellington College in Berkshire – built as a public school, modelled on Rugby, to honour the memory of the Duke of Wellington. Benson would work at Wellington for 13 years.

After leaving Wellington for a church role in Lincoln, his rise through the church ranks was rapid. In 1877, he was appointed the first Bishop of Truro. Once in post in Cornwall, he immediately began the task of getting the new cathedral building constructed. At Christmas in 1880 in the cathedral, there first appeared in print the phrase, “A service of nine lessons and carols.” This was devised by Benson himself.

Truro Cathedral was commissioned to be built when Benson was bishop there

The format was subsequently used and developed by Eric Milner-Wright at King’s College Cambridge, after World War I, into the Christmas service that we enjoy today.

In 1883, Benson was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Benson kept a well written and informative diary while he was Archbishop, with many references to life in Croydon. All Archbishops of Canterbury have been Patrons of Croydon Parish Church, what is now known as Croydon Minster, and so he would have had many dealings with the church and the town.

In March 1884 he recorded that he attended a “very large confirmation service at the Parish Church” and that afterwards he opened the new school for 700 children, built over a period of six months for £4,000. He declared it “very fine”.

This was the Parish Church School, a forerunner of what today is the Minster School.

On July 2 1889, he left Addington Palace to drive to Croydon for “dear Brathwaite’s funeral”. Rev John Masterson Braithwaite had been the Vicar of Croydon; he died of a heart attack in his study. “There were thousands of people, mostly in black, behaving most quietly, every house in Croydon was closed, he was everybody’s friend,” Benson wrote.

In December 1889, Benson wrote that he rode into Croydon, to the Old Archbishop’s Palace, to see the Kilburn Sisters’ new school. He remarked that Sister Elizabeth and a colleague were just establishing themselves as a new school “between the Elementary and the High School”. He said that a “ninepenny school” was much wanted there – a definition given at that time of a private school with a modest family contribution to their child’s education.

Benson had married Mary Sidgwick in 1859. The service was conducted at Rugby by Frederick Temple, another clergyman who was to become Archbishop of Canterbury and have strong links to Croydon.

Mary Benson: Gladstone was an admirer

Benson had proposed to her when he was 24, when Mary was 12. Mary was his second cousin and the sister of philosopher Henry Sidgwick. Marrying Benson when she was 18, over the first 12 years of marriage, they had six children, four boys and two girls.

Mary Benson, mother of six, was not over-shadowed by her high-achieving husband. Indeed, William Gladstone, the Prime Minister, would describe her as the cleverest woman in Europe.

In many ways, Mary was the ideal hostess for the multitude of high society visitors she had to entertain both at Lambeth Palace and Addington Palace, with her warmth and sense of humour. While at Lambeth, she had an affair with one of those visitors, the composer Ethel Smyth. This was not the first lesbian affair of her life, nor the last.

Throughout her correspondence, we can read about the impact that many women had on her. She wrote much around her feelings of guilt about her deep feelings for them. After her husband died in 1896, Mary set up house with Lucy Tait, the daughter of the Edward Benson’s predecessor as Archbishop. Lucy had been invited to live with the Bensons some years before.

The Bensons’ children were to lead remarkable lives, too. Their first-born, Martin, was described as a prodigy but died at the age of 18. Their second, Arthur Christopher, was an academic at Cambridge and was Master of Magdalene College from 1915 until his death in 1925. He was also the first editor of Queen Victoria’s letters. Today, he is best remembered for writing the words for Land of Hope and Glory.

Novel idea: one son of the archbishop was a best-selling author

Maggie was the third child. She became an Egyptologist. She first travelled to Egypt when she was 29 to take advantage of the climate to help her recover from bouts of ill health. She was so entranced by the country that she applied for and got permission to excavate the Mut Temple Precinct at Karnac, becoming the first woman to conduct her own excavation. Nobody thought she would discover much but with the help of William Flinders Petrie and Janet Gourlay, she would discover much which would shape our modern understanding of Egypt’s early civilisation.

Edward was the next son, and he also gained a first at Cambridge. He became a socialite and writer of much popular fiction, the best known of which are the books in the Mapp and Lucia series.

Nellie, the younger daughter, died at the age of 26. Her parents founded the “Mary Eleanor Benson Gift” for the parish of Lambeth in her memory, a legacy to fund girls to go on training courses so they could achieve a qualification and thus better their prospects. Her father wrote in his diary, “…in dearest memory of our dearest Nellie, we have founded with her £2,000 what she would have delighted in. She spent most of her pocket money in helping poor respectable girls”.

Robert, the youngest child, became an Anglican priest before converting to catholicism. He wrote many books, too, on religious and supernatural themes.

Benson himself was to influence the literary world. While entertaining Henry James, the writer, the Archbishop told him a ghost story. The origins of the tale are not known but when at university, Benson and another student founded the Cambridge Ghost Society, or the Ghostlie Guild, in 1851 at Trinity College. It could be that the story had its roots back in Benson’s student days.

The tomb of Archbishop Benson in Canterbury Cathedral

James wrote down the outline of this story in his notebook, and later used it as the starting point for his classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw.

Unlike other archbishops who lived at Addington Palace, Benson chose to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral.

He died on October 11 1896, having been taken ill during the Sunday morning service in St Deiniol’s Church, Hawarden, while visiting the Gladstone.

Benson’s magnificent tomb in the cathedral can be found at the western end of the nave.

Benson Road: now you know!

  • The London Street Guide, www.londonstreetguide.com, have asked communities throughout the capital to help them explain and expand on the origins of street names across the city, recognising that local knowledge will aid this project enormously

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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