BENSON, William (1682-1754), of Wilbury House, Wilts.
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Family and Education
bap. 17 Mar. 1682,1 1st s. of Sir William Benson of Bromley, Mdx., sheriff of London 1706-7, by Martha, da. of John Austin of London, jeweller. Grand Tour including Hanover and Sweden. m. (1) settlement 8 Oct. 1707,2 Eleanor (d. 5 Feb. 1722), o. ch. of Joseph Earle of Bristol, merchant, bro. of Giles Earle, 4s. 3da.;3 (2) Elizabeth, 1s. 1da. suc. fa. 1712.
Sheriff, Wilts. 1709-10; surveyor gen. of works 1718-19; auditor of the imprest 1735-d.
The son of a wealthy iron merchant, William Benson bought the manor of Newton Toney about 1709, rebuilding Wilbury House there in the Palladian style from one of Inigo Jones’s unpublished designs. He also acquired Wincombe Park in Wiltshire, from which he provided a piped water supply for the nearby town of Shaftesbury,4 where he was returned as a Whig in 1715, after contesting it and Minehead unsuccessfully in 1713. In 1716 he attended George I on a visit to Hanover, where he ‘gave directions for that curious water work in the garden of Herrenhausen, which is known to excel the famous fountains of St. Cloud’.5 In May 1717 he was rewarded with the reversion of auditor of the imprest, a great prize. Next year, being ‘in extreme need of an employment’, he got himself made surveyor general of works, in the place of Sir Christopher Wren, until he should come into possession of the auditorship, appointing his brother, a merchant in Holland, clerk of the works in place of Hawksmoor, and the architect, Colin Campbell, described as his agent, chief clerk in place of Wren’s son. Soon after assuming his office he received a rocket from Lord Sunderland, ordering him immediately to ‘recall both the person and power’ that he had sent to supersede Edward Tucker as keeper of the Portland quarries, a post falling under the jurisdiction of the Treasury, where he was informed that his conduct was ‘highly resented’.6 Having vacated his seat by accepting office, he was re-elected for Shaftesbury but was unseated on petition by his Tory opponent,
though not only all the Germans but the Monarch himself solicited strenuously for him. The Prince’s party and several of the other Court joined the Tories upon this occasion, which shows that all sides were heartily weary of the sitting Member.7
A few days later he reported to the Lords that their House was in such imminent danger of falling down that it would be necessary for them to transfer themselves to Westminster Hall, which he was adapting for this purpose, until his men had put up props. On this the Lords adjourned for a week, at the end of which they re-assembled to receive a report from the master-mason of works that their building was in good condition, except for the damage which Benson had done to it with his props. After further inquiry they resolved to address the King to the effect that Benson’s report had been ‘false and groundless and occasioned a long interruption and delay of the public business in Parliament and much expense to His Majesty’; in reply to which they were informed that Benson had been suspended and orders issued for his prosecution, but in the end he escaped with dismissal.8 He stood again for Shaftesbury in 1727, receiving only four votes, whereupon he cut off their water supply. From September 1741 to December 1742 he was out of his mind, unable to attend to the duties of his auditorship, to which he had succeeded in 1735.9 A patron of literature, publishing editions of Virgil, Milton, and the psalms, he was also responsible for the erection of Milton’s statue in Westminster Abbey, thereby earning for himself a niche in the Dunciad. He died 2 Feb. 1754.
Ref Volumes: 1715-1754
Author: Romney R. Sedgwick
- 1. Lysons, Environs of London, ii. 68.
- 2. PCC 147 Barnes.
- 3. Hoare, Wilts. Ambresbury, 105.
- 4. H. M. Colvin, Biog. Dict. of English Architects 1660-1840, p. 73; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xlvi. 135-6; Hoare, Dunworth, 33; Hutchins, Dorset, iii. 45.
- 5. Nichols, Lit. Anecs. i. 1379.
- 6. R.I.B.A. Jnl. xxxiv. 651; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxxi. 14; xxxii. 322, 371-2.
- 7. HMC Portland, v. 577.
- 8. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1714-19, p. 416; LJ, xxi. 50, 53, 62, 67, 102, 143.
- 9. Benson v. Vernon, 1745, Add. 36156, f. 99.