BENSON, Thomas (1708-72), of Nap in Northam, nr. Bideford, and Barnstaple, Devon.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
bap. 13 Feb. 1708, 2nd s. of John Benson of Nap by his w. Grace Melhuish. m. 1737, his cos. Frances, da. of Roger Melhuish by his 2nd w. Eleanor Barber, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. to property at Appledore, a number of merchantmen and £1,000 Aug. 1739;1 suc. e. bro. Peter Benson 1743.
Sheriff, Devon 1746-7.
Benson came of an old Bideford merchant family, trading to France, Portugal and Placentia in Newfoundland and owning lime and ash works in the town. In 1743 his elder brother advised him in his will that ‘considering the great uncertainty and hazard of trading and the great risk which does now attend the same’ he should ‘as soon as possible ... discontinue all trading with ... ships and vessels ... and do with all convenient speed dispose of the same’.2 However, he continued to trade, supplementing his legitimate business by smuggling and piracy. In 1747 he obtained a contract from the Government for the exportation of convicts to Virginia, shipping them instead to Lundy Island, which he leased from Lord Gower for £60 in 1748. At Lundy he employed them as slave labourers on rebuilding the island, defending himself on the ground that
the sending convicts to Lundy was the same as sending them to America, saying ‘they were transported from England, no matter where it was so long as they were out of the kingdom’,
an interpretation of the law which was upheld.3
In 1747 Benson was resumed for Barnstaple, classed as Opposition. In 1752 he was prosecuted in the Exchequer for unpaid duties on some £40,000 worth of British plantation tobacco.4 On failing to pay the duties and penalties, amounting to almost £8,000, his estate at Nap was sequestered for his lifetime. In 1753 he arranged for his ship, the Nightingale, which had been heavily insured, to be scuttled in the Bristol channel, her cargo having been previously unloaded on Lundy. A member of the crew turning informer, the master of the ship and his principal associates were arrested and eventually hanged. Benson himself escaped to Portugal, where he died in 1772.5