BENFIELD, Paul (1741-1810), of Woodhall Park, Watton Woodhall, Herts.
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Family and Education
bap. 25 Jan. 1741, 1st s. of John Benfield, carpenter and joiner, of Cheltenham, Glos. by Anne, da. of Rev. Stephen Cull of Cranham, Glos. m. 7 Sept. 1793, Mary Frances, da. of Henry Swinburne of Hamsterley, co. Dur., 1s. surv. 2da.
Lt. E.I. Co. service, asst. engineer and civil architect, Madras 1764-9; writer 1765; engineer, Black Town 1768; dismissed 1769, but re-adm.; factor 1771, suspended 1772; jun. merchant and banker to nawab of Carnatic 1774; sen. merchant 1776, suspended 1777; returned to England 1778; returned to India 1781; member of the comm. of assigned revenue 1781; suspended 1788, returned to England.
Perhaps the most notorious of the nabobs, Benfield returned from India in disgrace for the second time in 1788, worth £400,000 by one estimate. He again entered Parliament, as a guest of Dr Wilkins at Malmesbury, in 1790: he was to have contested Great Marlow, but gave it up. Edmund Burke, who five years before had heaped on him, according to Benfield’s friend and agent, Nathaniel William Wraxall*, ‘such abuse as no person in my time ever attracted within the walls of either House of Parliament’, noticed his return, but made no further public comment.1 On 19 May 1791 Benfield asked for particulars of the nation’s unfunded debt in the debate on the budget report, only to be told he would find them in the report. On 24 May, critical of Henry Dundas’s account of the India budget, he moved an adjournment, to no avail. On 26 May he reverted to his criticism of Dundas, but would not give details at a late hour and in a thin House. On 5 June he made the same excuse, but promised to move for a committee of inquiry on Indian affairs ‘if not for this, for next session’. He proceeded no further: it would appear that his patron regarded him as ‘a proselyte to opposition’ and asked him to vacate his seat, February 1792.2
Benfield’s next step was to become a junior partner (with a quarter share) to Walter Boyd* in the London banking firm of Boyd, Benfield & Co., founded 15 Mar. 1793. Soon afterwards he was returned unopposed for Shaftesbury, where he had built up his own interest by purchasing property. Then he married, settling on his wife £3,000 a year plus £500 pin money and £10,000 on every child. In 1794 he bought the Rumbold estate of Woodhall Park for £125,000, to which he added the Earl of Thanet’s town house; and invested £100,000 in estates in Berbice, which his banking house would have done better to sell outside the partnership. Meanwhile, Benfield showed no further sign of opposition in Parliament; he wrote on 1 Jan. 1795, ‘I was ever against the war; but being in it we must yet struggle rather than surrender to the savage influence of France ...’.3 His only known votes for the remainder of that Parliament were in the minority of West Indians on the Martinique campaign, 2 June 1795, and in the majority against the abolition of the slave trade, 15 Mar. 1796.
At the ensuing election, Benfield secured his hold on Shaftesbury, returning his partner Boyd with himself. His name was also being conjured with for electoral purposes at Canterbury and Minehead. He was able to cut a figure as ‘Count Roupee’ thanks to his firm’s contracting loans for Pitt’s government in its war effort: as he put it later, ‘the whole commercial world was witness to the vast successes of the house of Boyd, Benfield and Company’. But as ‘dictators of the money market’, the firm was envied and criticized in the City and Benfield’s standing attributed to ‘the restlessness of his character and the insatiable desire of augmenting his vast wealth’. He told Boyd he was worth £560,000.4
In 1796, in anticipation of the success of Malmesbury’s peace mission, the firm invested heavily in the public funds and was shaken by the depression of stocks that followed the failure of the negotiations. Neither a mortgage on Benfield’s estates, nor Pitt’s confidence, nor a private loan could save the bank. It failed on 8 Mar. 1799. Boyd blamed Benfield, who had given a false security for loans to government of £100,000 for the Cape and £50,000 for the Indian navy, claiming Indian assets of £296,000: Benfield claimed that Boyd had forced him to make a false declaration. After a protracted examination of the firm’s affairs, both men went bankrupt in March 1800. Benfield’s estates were seized by government and sold in 1801.5 He enjoyed parliamentary immunity until the dissolution and, like Boyd, retreated to France. In 1803 he turned on his former partner in a pamphlet entitled The Case of Paul Benfield. He spent the rest of his life in Paris:
dragging on a miserable existence, unable with safety to revisit England, destitute of pecuniary resources, and literally wanting all the comforts of life. In that state of dereliction he there expired [in April 1810], his funeral expenses being defrayed by a subscription of the English residents in the French metropolis.
His wife later recovered sufficient of his estate to live in comfort.6