BENETT, John (1773-1852), of Pythouse, Wilts. and 19 Albemarle Street, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 20 May 1773, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Benett of Pythouse and 2nd w. Catherine, da. of James Darell of York Street, St. James’s Square, Mdx. m. 30 May 1801,[footnote] his 2nd cos. Lucy, da. of Edmund Lambert of Boyton House, Wilts., 2s. d.v.p. 5da. (3 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1797. d. 1 Oct. 1852.
Sheriff, Wilts. 1798-9.
Cornet, Wilts. yeoman cav. 1800, lt. 1802, capt. 1811, maj. 1825, res. 1837.
The Benetts of Norton Bavant, a long-established Wiltshire gentry family, were distantly related to the Benetts (or Bennetts) of Pythouse, a few of whom had sat in Parliament in the seventeenth century. Benett’s grandfather Thomas, of Norton Bavant, who married Etheldred, daughter of William Wake, archbishop of Canterbury, purchased Pythouse in 1725 and died in 1754. His eldest surviving son, another Thomas, who controversially secured a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford in 1754 and was sheriff of Wiltshire, 1758-9, married in 1766 Frances (who died, childless, two years later), daughter of the Rev. Richard Reynolds, chancellor of the diocese of Lincoln, of Little Paxton, Huntingdonshire. With his second wife Catherine (d. 1780), whom he married in 1771, he had three sons and two daughters.1 The tall and thin John Benett, whose elder brother Thomas died in 1789, evidently entered the Wiltshire yeomanry cavalry as a private soon after he came of age, as he later boasted of his long service record.2 Following the death of his father, 16 May 1797, he inherited, by his will of 23 July 1795, considerable wealth and properties in Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire and Somerset. He resided at Pythouse, which was extensively remodelled to his own architectural specifications, and greatly expanded and improved his agricultural estates, becoming a combative proponent of tithe commutation.3 His house at Norton, which was occupied by his sisters Etheldred, a pioneering geologist, and Anna Maria, an amateur botanist, was in William Cobbett’s† favourite part of the country; despite derisorily dubbing Benett ‘the gallon loaf man’, Cobbett admitted that if Benett would give him a farm there, ‘I would freely give up all the rest of the world to the possession of whoever may get hold of it. I have hinted this to him once or twice, but I am sorry to say that he turns a deaf ear to my hinting’.4 Although strongly Whig in his political outlook, he had no time for radicals, condemning, for instance, the activities of Henry Hunt*, an old antagonist, when supporting a loyal address to the prince regent at the Wiltshire county meeting in March 1817. Hunt, who in turn held Benett in contempt, called his speech on that occasion ‘a violent, dastardly and unmanly attack upon me’, and commented that ‘he knew that his dirty hirelings would protect him against a reply from me, and he therefore gave a-loose to a most malignant spirit’. A swaggering squire, Benett, who was foreman of the Wiltshire grand jury (from 1820), had a reputation for oppressing his tenants.5 The Irish poet Tom Moore, who subsequently became a friend of the family, described him in 1818 as ‘a very haranguing-minded gentleman - his wife odious - full of airs, with a hard, grinding Tartar voice, and presuming beyond anything’.6
Benett was defeated by the ministerialist William Long Wellesley* for Wiltshire at the general election of 1818, but, after another violent and damagingly expensive contest with the Tory John Dugdale Astley*, he narrowly gained the county representation in mid-1819, at a by-election caused by the resignation of the other Member, Paul Methuen, whose candidacy he had sponsored in 1812.7 On Astley again canvassing the county at the general election of 1820, Benett received many letters of support and his friends were evidently busily engaged in soliciting promises.8 Etheldred, who (referring to his earlier unpopularity) informed him on 22 Feb. that ‘it is agreed on all hands that the mobility are much come round to your side, but the masters still remain inflexible’, warned him (in an undated letter) not to incur heavy costs:
I have no doubt of your success if your votes can be got to the poll, but how that is to be accomplished God knows; if you attempt to carry them nothing can save you from utter ruin. No real friend of yours can wish you to spend a shilling, for they must know that the failure of the subscriptions at both the last elections has already thrown an overwhelming debt upon your property, and one that you will never see cleared as long as you live.9
He nevertheless denied rumours that he would retire and pledged to abide by his ‘inflexible independence’. Although doubts were expressed about his treatment of the poor, he was praised for his opposition to the Liverpool ministry’s repressive legislation, and his return was secured by the eventual withdrawal of Long Wellesley. At the nomination meeting, 10 Mar., and the election, 14 Mar., when he was returned unopposed, he spoke in favour of civil and religious liberty and emphasized his concern for the interests of the lower classes, for ‘from them emanate all riches’.10 With Lord Pembroke, the lord lieutenant, he moved the loyal address to George IV at a county meeting, 22 Mar.11 In April another attempt was made to raise a subscription to pay off his election debts, but he continued to be strapped for funds, and even had to part with some of his landed inheritance.12 Lord Malmesbury commented that ‘Benett is such a strange man that he will keep up the spirit of animosity as long as he can’. However, he appears to have been as anxious as anyone to prevent a recurrence of the ill feeling which had recently dominated the county, as shown, for example, by his remarks on 19 July 1820, at the annual dinner of the Wiltshire Agricultural Society, of which he was president.13 An energetic county Member, who regularly presented local petitions and busied himself with Wiltshire affairs, he usually sided with the Whigs in the Commons, notably by voting for economies and reduced taxation, but pursued his own line on agricultural matters, in which he took a close interest.
In speeches on 25, 30 and 31 May 1820 Benett outlined his views on agricultural distress, which he repeated incessantly in the years to come. He denied that the corn laws were the cause of high prices or distress and argued that they could not be repealed because, given the high level of taxation and the extent of the national debt, Britain would not be able to compete with the lower prices of foreign growers. However, he was far from being an advocate of the present laws, ‘which have thrown odium on the agriculturist without affording him protection’, since once a certain price was reached the domestic market in corn, previously in short supply, was suddenly swamped with foreign produce; he also stressed the security implications of dependence on foreign and possibly hostile suppliers of a staple food. In place of the existing system he wanted a ‘fair protecting duty’ in order to ensure a low and ‘steady remunerating price’: in short, ‘a direct duty imposed on foreign corn, equivalent to the superior taxation which we had to support’. As for distress, it could only be alleviated by the reduction of ‘the enormous pressure of taxation’, which would be of general benefit to society, since it would allow farmers to raise the wages of their employees and so increase consumption. He saw the growing population as the true source of the wealth of the country and, denying that there existed a surplus in the labour market, rejected all schemes of emigration. He was appointed to the select committee on agricultural distress, 31 May, but was not a member during the two subsequent sessions. He voted with ministers for Wilberforce’s compromise motion on Queen Caroline, 22 June, but against the appointment of a secret committee on the allegations against her, 26 June 1820.14
At the Wiltshire county meeting at Devizes, 17 Jan. 1821, when he acknowledged that he sometimes differed with his friends, but felt impelled to state his own opinions, Benett promised to present the petition hostile to the proceedings against Caroline, ‘because he thought them unjust, impolitic and inconsistent, and last, not least, because they were directed against a woman’. He complained that so-called ‘loyalists’ would unfairly brand the meeting as radical in origin and declared that ‘if discontent prevailed, there was an obvious reason for it; it had been induced by the acts of ministers. Let them change their system, and the discontent would be removed with the cause’.15 He duly presented and endorsed the meeting’s petition, 24 Jan., and divided steadily with the Whigs in their campaign on the queen’s behalf. He agreed that Pembroke’s decision not to appoint Charles Fyshe Palmer* a magistrate in Wiltshire was politically motivated, 8 Feb.16 He voted to condemn the conduct of the Allies towards Naples, 21 Feb., and to make Leeds a scot and lot borough, if it was enfranchised, 2 Mar. He spoke against the duty on husbandry horses, 5 Mar., 5 Apr., 14 June, and ‘earnestly recommended’ that the unity of the interlocking interests of agriculture, manufacturing and finance should be preserved, another of his favourite themes, 3 Apr.17 He supported revision of the game laws, 5 Apr., and opposed repeal of the poor laws, 24 May. He voted to disqualify civil officers of the ordnance from voting in parliamentary elections, 12 Apr., and for better securing the independence of Parliament, 31 May, and spoke in favour of general parliamentary reform, though not Lambton’s specific plan, 18 Apr. He voted for the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 23 May, 4 June. He told the Wiltshire Society dinner, 25 May, that in the House ‘it was noble to see the generous attention paid to the subject [of distress], to see all party feeling laid aside’, and he recommended reduced taxation at the Holkham sheep-shearing meeting in July 1821.18
He spoke and voted in favour of Hume’s amendment to the address, 5 Feb. 1822. Criticizing ministers for inaction, 18 Feb., he stated his views on distress, which he argued was the result of the transition from wartime to peacetime prices, the faulty operation of the corn laws, which had allowed the importation of enormous quantities of foreign corn, the repayments of the national debt and the sinking fund (which he called ‘only a means of delusion’) and the alteration of the currency from its metallic standard. Warning of possible unrest, he repeated that the only cure was ‘the most rigid economy and retrenchment’, especially by the reduction of official salaries. He urged repeal of the salt duties, 28 Feb., 3 June, argued against special consideration being given to Canadian corn growers and merchants with stocks of warehoused corn, 13, 14 Mar., and suggested reduction of the Bank rate as a means of relief, 1 Apr.19 He voted for parliamentary reform, 25 Apr., and to reduce the present influence of the crown, 24 June. He justified his own resolutions for a fixed duty on the sale of bonded corn once the price had reached 80s. a quarter and for a bounty on the export of corn, 6 May, when he summarized his own opinions, gave cautious support to ministerial proposals and presented a statistical analysis of how a rate of return equivalent to that of 1792 might be achieved. On 8 May he disagreed with Wyvill’s arguments, but said that ‘as the greatest relief might be afforded by lessening the weight of taxation, he was, almost against his will, compelled to support the amendment’, and he duly voted in the minority for large tax remissions. In the committee that day he advocated a pivot price of 67s. with a fixed 24s. duty balanced by an 18s. bounty, and, although a friend of free trade, he defended the agricultural interest as the basis of a prosperous society. His plan, one of several individual schemes, was negatived without a division, but he repeated his case, 9 May. He urged further economies in revenue collection, 24 May, and spoke against repeal of the duty on foreign wool, 30 May. He intervened in support of agriculturists, 3 June, when he was a teller for the minority against allowing foreign corn to be released from warehouses. He defended the right of the landed interest to make its protests heard in the House, 4 June, and condemned the corn importation bill, 10 June 1822, as ‘one of the most ruinous that had ever been devised’.20
Benett voted for parliamentary reform, 20 Feb., 24 Apr., and for information on Inverness elections, 26 Feb. 1823. He voiced some support for the efforts of ministers to retrench, 21 Feb., especially in Ireland. ‘Bad as he conceived the existing corn laws to be in principle’, as he put it, he could not sanction their alteration, 26 Feb., when he again urged extensive remissions of taxation, as he did the following day. He defended the role of the Wiltshire yeomanry cavalry during the debate on the militia grant, 7 Mar. He gave only guarded support to the warehousing bill and divided in the minority against going into committee on it, 21 Mar. He was sceptical about the beer bill, 24 Mar., 25 Apr., and requested the imposition of a duty on foreign tallow, 7 May.21 He voted for inquiry into the legal proceedings against the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr., and to abolish the death penalty for larceny, 21 May. He ‘hailed with considerable satisfaction’ the chancellor’s declared intention of repealing the beer duties, 29 May, supported the Irish tithes composition bill, ‘though a considerable English grower himself’, 30 May, and requested the abolition of the duty on foreign wool, 4 June. He voted for the recommittal of the silk manufacture bill, 9 June, and spoke in its favour, 11 June 1823.22 He was presumably the Member of the name of Benett who was elected to Brooks’s Club, 19 Feb. 1824 (although he was apparently readmitted in 1833). He advocated the reduction of duties on tobacco, 8 Mar., and complained of distillers of gin being permitted to use sugar instead of barley, 8, 15 Mar.23 Although claiming that ‘no man in England was fonder than he was of country amusements’, 11 Mar., he supported the bill to amend the game laws, which he said ‘had become the instrument of tyranny and the cause of immorality’. At the beginning of April it was reported that he had begun to recover from an illness which had left him unable to undertake his parliamentary duties.24 He complained that Irish labourers often could not obtain redress in cases of assault, 7 May, and contended that the duties on imports and exports of wool should be equalized, 21 May.25 He voted for inquiry into the state of Ireland, 11 May, and against the Irish insurrection bill, 18 June 1824.
He spoke for repeal of the house and window taxes, 7 Feb., and voted silently against the Irish unlawful societies bill, 15, 21, 25 Feb. 1825.26 As he had on 28 Feb. 1821 and 30 Apr. 1822, he divided for Catholic relief, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May 1825.27 Criticizing the labourers’ wages bill, 12 May, he boasted that ‘no man was more anxious than he was to see the poor of this country comfortably provided for’. He divided against the grant for the duke of Cumberland, 30 May, 2, 6, 10 June, and congratulated the House on its bipartisan hostility to it, 6 June, joking that ‘when he saw gentlemen of different political sentiments uniting on a question of this nature, it almost made him doubt the necessity of a parliamentary reform’. He was in the majority for the spring guns bill, 21 June 1825. He voted against going into committee on the Bank Charter Act, 13 Feb., and asked the chancellor whether the tobacco duties would be reduced, 22 Feb. 1826.28 On the corn laws, 6 Mar., he declared that ‘the agricultural interest formed the bank upon which [the nation] drew for every burden imposed upon the people’. He divided to exclude non-resident voters from Irish borough elections, 9 Mar., agreed that the right to vote of certain county freeholders should be restored to its former extent, 26 Apr., and voted for parliamentary reform, 27 Apr. He condemned the issue of the corn laws being again agitated, 2 May, when, having recited his customary remarks, he stated that he had voted against a select committee on them (on 18 Apr.), as he thought the timing was now inappropriate. He objected to conferring on government the power to import corn, and, after his motion for the chairman to leave the chair had been defeated by 45-122, he expressed his ‘determination to avail himself of every expedient which could retard a decision upon this important question at the hour to which the discussion had been prolonged’. He repeated this accusation of ministerial inconsistency, as he had been told that no corn measure would be introduced that session, 4 May, and the following day he explained that this was why he had advised against the preparation of a hostile petition from Wiltshire.29 He voted against ministers being empowered to admit foreign corn, 8 May, and the second reading of the corn bill, 11 May, when he said that throwing the distress on to the agricultural sector ‘would ultimately prove destructive to the manufacturing interests by annihilating the home market, which was infinitely more valuable to them than the foreign’. He moved to go into committee on the bill, 12 May, to alter the duty from 12s. to 17s., and hoped that Members ‘who supported economy and retrenchment would support him, as he had done them on many occasions’; he was defeated. On 17 May 1826 he regretted that the benefit produced by the corn duty had gone to corn jobbers and not to the alleviation of distress.30
In December 1825 Benett had agreed to purchase, perhaps for as much as £130,000, materials from the fallen tower of Fonthill Abbey and a part of the estate, which adjoined his own, but this was not completed for many years and he did not acquire any of the interest at nearby Hindon.31 His return for Wiltshire at the general election of 1826 was unchallenged, though in his address he acknowledged that as an ‘honest Member of Parliament’ he would not please everyone and could only state that he had ‘not in the slightest degree been influenced by fear, affection, self-interest or any other personal consideration’. On the hustings, 16 June, he justified his conduct and spoke in favour of altering the distribution of boroughs and extending the franchise.32 He spoke and voted against Hume’s amendment to the address, 21 Nov.33 He called the appointment of another select committee on the corn laws ‘utterly needless’, 24 Nov., condemned ministers for delaying the announcement of their intentions on corn and the currency, 1 Dec., and opposed emigration from Ireland to Canada, 7 Dec. 1826. In early 1827 was published On the Relative Importance of Agriculture and Foreign Trade, in which he brought together his arguments in defence of agricultural protection into a coherent tract. His wife died at Bath, 7 Feb., and he was granted a month’s leave on account of this ‘severe domestic affliction’, 19 Feb., and again, 29 Mar.34 He voted for the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May. He expressed his delight that the ministerial corn bill had been thrown out by the Lords, 18 June, though the following day he urged Huskisson, the president of the board of trade, to continue to press for free trade, if it could be done without injuring vested rights.35 At the Wiltshire Agricultural Society dinner, 18 July 1827, he explained that he had been unable to attend debates on the corn bill, and said that ‘the principle on which it was founded was bad. The agricultural interest required a far greater degree of protection than it was possible to derive from that measure ... The system of a moveable duty would never act well’.36
He gave evidence on the game laws to a Lords inquiry, 25 Feb. 1828.37 He voted for repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May. He suggested the cultivation of waste lands as an alternative to emigration, 4 Mar., and relieving distress as a means of reducing rural crime, 11 Mar. He maintained that the commutation of tithes would benefit the church and the public, and was not an attack on ecclesiastical property, 17 Mar., when he opposed the details of the tithe commutation bill. He explained that, although he favoured parliamentary reform, he was against increasing urban representation at the expense of the landed interest, 21 Mar., when he was a teller for the majority for Calvert’s amendment to make it an instruction to the committee on the East Retford disfranchisement bill to consider extending the borough into the hundred of Bassetlaw. He broadly welcomed ministers’ proposals on corn, 31 Mar., when he said that he was favourable to the agricultural interest, ‘but to a different branch of it than that which is the general favourite of country gentlemen ... In advocating a duty on foreign corn, I would protect the interest of the working labourers’. On 22 Apr. he opposed the intended scale: ‘my object is not to raise the money price through the whole scale, but to put a greater duty on the lower part and a lesser duty on the higher’. He moved his own resolutions for a pivot price of 62s. and a steeper scale, and gained some support from ministers, but was defeated by 230-32. Thereafter he confined his comments on corn to the method of calculating the averages, 28 Apr., 20 May, and the necessity of the landed interest receiving protection in order to pass on that benefit to consumers generally, 20, 23 May. He defended the poor laws, 29 Apr., and, at his suggestion, the labourers’ wages bill was referred to a select committee, 23 May. He voted for inquiry into the circulation of small notes issued in Ireland and Scotland, 5 June, and against the small notes bill, 16, 27 June. He favoured the duty on foreign wool, 13 June, but opposed those on cider, 26 June, and foreign shawls, 1 July. He praised the game bill, 13 June, and persuaded the House to set 4 a.m. as the time breweries could open for the sale of beer, 8 July 1828.
Listed by Planta, the Wellington ministry’s patronage secretary, as likely to vote ‘with government’ on Catholic emancipation, Benett was marked ‘pro’ and as one of the ‘opposition or doubtful men, who, we think, will vote with the government on this question’. He spoke against the Wiltshire anti-Catholic petition, 9 Mar. 1829, and signed the county’s pro-Catholic address to the king that month; he voted for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar.38 He strongly opposed the labourers’ wages bill to outlaw the practice of supplementing wages from the poor rates, 15 May, saying that whatever their practical problems, the poor laws were
a great national good, and it is an institution any infringement of which I regard with jealousy. Their principle is one that ought not to be touched; and I think I do the best duty for my country, by constantly and firmly opposing any invasion of them.
He would have continued his opposition on 22 May but it was indicated that the bill would not be pressed that session, and on 2 June he said that he had not spoken in defence of the corn laws because he was reserving his remarks until the subject came regularly before the House. He spoke and voted for his son-in-law’s brother Lord Blandford’s reform motion, 2 June, calling himself a ‘sincere’ but not ‘visionary’ reformer, whose concern was ‘to give the people of this country a legitimate and constitutional power over their representatives, so that they may be fairly and truly represented’. Lamenting the prevailing distress, 3, 4, 19 June, he urged tax remissions for its relief and deprecated other proposals, especially alteration of the currency. At the Wiltshire Agricultural Society dinner, 22 July 1829, he called for petitions to be sent to the Commons for lower taxes, for instance on malt.39 Benett, who brought up Hindon and Wiltshire petitions complaining of distress, 16, 19 Feb. 1830, divided regularly for reduced expenditure and taxation during the session. Expressing his regret that ministers had not followed Catholic emancipation with a measure of parliamentary reform, 18 Feb., he spoke and voted in favour of Blandford’s bill that day, and divided for the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and Russell’s reform motion, 28 May. Having spoken against the truck system of paying wages, 18 Feb., for tithe commutation in Ireland, 9 Mar., and against alteration of the poor laws at the present time, 9, 15 Mar., he gave his support for holding an inquiry into the state of the nation, 23 Mar., stating that
I am without party feeling on this question, and without agreeing with those gentlemen who profess to oppose the government on party grounds - although I think the government has done well in the reductions they have made, and I only wish they had made more - yet I feel myself obliged to vote for this inquiry because it is demanded by a large class of the people.
He welcomed the new labourers’ wages bill, 30 Mar., but queried its details and called for it to be withdrawn, 5 July. He paired for Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. He approved of the intention of the poor law amendment bill, 26 Apr., but deemed it unrealistic to prohibit the use of poor rates to supplement wages and suggested instead the greater cultivation of waste lands. He favoured the beer bill, 3, 4 May, and considered allowing the sale of beer for on-consumption to be more morally worthy than its prohibition, 21 June, 1 July. He objected to the lighting and watching of parishes bill, 10 May, 15 June, and voted to abolish the capital penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June 1830.
Described as ‘honest’ by George Watson Taylor* in his toast to the county Members at the Wiltshire Society dinner, 19 May 1830, Benett replied that
he had been paid the greatest compliment he could desire, for in that term was combined all that he felt desirous of possessing. He could not boast of great ability, but he possessed the power and inclination to serve his constituents conscientiously and with fidelity.40
Although rumours circulated that he would retire because of recent poor health, they were unfounded and there was never any danger of his not being returned with Astley at the general election that summer. In his address he promised that ‘I shall on all fit occasions endeavour to promote the temperate and judicious reformation of such abuses and corruptions as may have invaded, perhaps gradually and imperceptibly, any of our most venerable institutions’, and on 7 Aug. he spoke in praise of civil and religious liberty and economies, and against slavery and monopolies. He seconded the loyal address to the new king at a county meeting at Devizes, 17 Aug.41 He later claimed that he had entered this Parliament determined to support government and had voted with ministers in the first division (against repeal of the Irish Subletting Act, 11 Nov.) However, he had been listed by them among their ‘foes’, and, disgusted by Wellington’s declaration against parliamentary reform, he voted in the majority against them on the civil list, 15 Nov. 1830, which led to their replacement by the Grey ministry.42 He rashly boasted that there had been no disturbances in Wiltshire, 12 Nov., but was granted three weeks’ leave on account of the ‘disturbed state of his county’, 23 Nov. Two days later he was struck on the head by a stone while haranguing machine breakers on his estate and participated with a troop of yeomanry cavalry in the so-called battle of Pythouse.43 He complained to Lord Lansdowne, the lord lieutenant, 25, 27 Nov. 1830, that he was the only magistrate in his area to take a stand against the rioters, who acted ‘under the influence of Cobbett’s writing and Hunt’s advice, as he has been in every part of the neighbourhood and riot has followed him’.44 On his triumphal entry into London, 10 Jan. 1831, Hunt accused Benett, whom he said ‘kept up rents to the highest pitch, and at the same time screwed down to the lowest the wages of the labourers’, of acting as magistrate, juryman and prosecutor.45 In moving for a general amnesty for the rioters, 8 Feb., Hunt also alleged that Benett had told his enraged tenants that ‘Cobbett and Hunt are at the bottom of all this’. In reply, Benett calmly and firmly rebutted these points, although he had to admit that he had privately made known his opinion of Hunt’s pernicious influence. He vindicated at length the conduct of the Wiltshire authorities, and insisted that he had been as lenient as possible when preferring charges, had not acted as a juryman on his own cases and had not given evidence to the special commission against any individual.
According to Denis Le Marchant†, the Speaker ‘would never notice him when he rose’, 11 Feb. 1831, but Benett, who stressed that he was ‘an independent man in this and all other matters’, eventually managed to speak in praise of Lord Althorp’s budget that day.46 He approved of the game bill, 15 Feb., tithe commutation, 16, 22 Feb., and lower sugar duties, 11 Mar. Although he had apparently declined to sign Lord Radnor’s requisition for a county meeting on reform, he was present at it, 25 Feb., when he condemned the ‘horrid borough system’, made favourable comments on the ballot and urged the public to support ministers.47 Having already brought up a reform petition from Devizes, 21 Feb., he presented the Wiltshire petition and others from Kirton, Lindsey and Louth for the ballot, 28 Feb. On 7 Mar. he declared that ministers ‘have fully redeemed the pledges given by them to the country on the subject and supported as they are, by the sound sense and reason of all parties, they have nothing to fear’. He explained, 24 Mar., that ‘as I am satisfied that parliamentary reform is absolutely necessary, and as I approve generally of the details of the bill which has been introduced, of course I had no hesitation in voting for the second reading’ on the 22nd. According to Francis Thornhill Baring*, the narrow majority on that occasion was ‘received with extraordinary cheers and demonstrations of pleasure, the more grotesque as they came from the gravest country gentlemen, such as Benett of Wiltshire and others of the stamp’.48 He voted against Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. He was appointed to the committee on the Liverpool by-election, 18 Mar., chaired its seven meetings, and reported to the House, 28 Mar., that William Ewart, whom privately he ‘decidedly considered ... ineligible’, had been unseated and that there had been gross bribery at the contest.49 The following day, acting as a private Member rather than the chairman, he moved to suspend issuing the writ until the House could consider the matter, but his resolutions were not given a favourable hearing when finally aired, 21 Apr. 1831. To a sneer from Gascoyne, the other Liverpool Member, that his own estate was ‘deeply mortgaged’, he retorted that ‘not one shilling of the large sum I spent in my election for Wiltshire was spent for any dishonest or illegal purpose’. An adjournment motion was carried and the dissolution intervened. A determined reformer, Benett was again returned unopposed for Wiltshire at the general election, though on the hustings he criticized the exclusion of the wealthier tenants-at-will, the too low property qualification in boroughs and the division of counties.50
He suffered a bout of illness in mid-June 1831,51 but was present to express his views on the corn laws, 24 June, the settlement laws, 28 June, the admission of West Indian sugar to distilleries, 30 June, the cotton factories apprentices bill, 18 July, and the grant for a settlement in Western Australia, 25 July, when he voted against the grant for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospels. He again tried to persuade the House to decide on his resolutions regarding the Liverpool election, 29 June (the Commons being counted out), spoke against the writ, 8 July, and on several occasions reluctantly agreed to a postponement. He voted for the second reading of the reintroduced reform bill, 6 July, and at least twice against adjourning proceedings on it, 12 July, when, according to Tom Macaulay*, he sent for his night-cap and was resolved to spend the whole of the next day in the chamber rather than give way.52 He generally divided with ministers in favour of the bill’s details. However, he spoke and voted against the total disfranchisement of Downton, 21 July, divided against placing Saltash in schedule A (when ministers allowed it to be transferred to schedule B), 26 July, and, having presented its petition against the loss of one of its seats, 18 July, spoke (but did not vote) for postponing consideration of the partial disfranchisement of Chippenham, 27 July. He voted in favour of swearing the original Dublin election committee, 29 July, but with ministers against allegations of corruption and undue government influence, 23 Aug. He called for greater representation to be given to the clothing regions of the West of England, 6 Aug., and presented a Bradford petition for expediting progress on the reform bill, 8 Aug. He condemned the division of counties, 11 Aug., when Edward Littleton recorded that on seeing that Benett
was about to ‘trouble the House’ today, I bet him five shillings that he would speak more than five minutes. I thought it would buy him cheap. He sat down within a moment of the time. I paid the money with pleasure, for he is generally desperately long-winded.53
Denying that it would increase the influence of landlords, he spoke and voted in favour of Lord Chandos’s amendment to enfranchise £50 tenants-at-will, 18 Aug. He insisted that he had not been remiss in not bringing forward his motion on Liverpool, having been impeded by the reform bill, 23 Aug., and, despite the hostility emanating from the reformers in Liverpool, his amendment (to the motion for the writ) that there had been gross bribery at the 1830 by-election was agreed by 76-35, 5 Sept., when he was a teller for the majority. He presented a bill to alter the franchise of Liverpool, 19 Sept., and agreed to put off its committee for three months, 12 Oct., when the writ was successfully moved. He objected to inquiry into the corn laws and denied Hunt’s allegations that he had racked up the rents on his farms, 15 Sept. He voted for the passage of the reform bill, 21 Sept., and the second reading of the Scottish bill, 23 Sept. He signed the requisition for the Wiltshire county meeting on 30 Sept., speaking strongly in favour of reform and praising the present ministers in comparison with their predecessors, who had failed to live up to his expectations. The bill having been defeated in the Lords, he divided for Lord Ebrington’s confidence motion, 10 Oct. He was one of the requisitionists for another Wiltshire meeting, at which, 28 Oct., he called reform ‘the foundation of all that is noble and good - it is our first step and, when that is gained, others will follow’. He reiterated these points at a dinner for Lord Lansdowne in Devizes, 16 Nov. 1831, adding that the people should remain calm in order to prevent the possibility of disturbances creating a backlash against reform.54
He voted for the second reading of the revised reform bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and steadily for its details. He divided in the minority for the vestry bill, 23 Jan. 1832. He moved for leave for the Liverpool franchise bill, 26 Jan., presented it, 27 Jan., and agreed to defer its second reading, 8 Feb. He defended the enfranchisement of £50 tenants-at-will, 1 Feb., and supported the payment by electors of enrolment fees, 10 Feb., and higher retainers for revising barristers, 11 Feb. He divided against the production of information on Portugal, 9 Feb. He supported the factories regulation bill, 10 Feb., and opposed inquiry into the labouring poor, 17 Feb. He voted for the third reading of the reform bill, 22 Mar. He advocated reform of tithes, 2 Apr., 13 July. He sided with government for the navy civil departments bill, 6 Apr., and against inquiry into colonial slavery, 24 May, but divided against the recommittal of the Irish registry of deeds bill, 9 Apr., and in favour of reducing the barracks grant by £10,000, 2 July. He voted for Ebrington’s motion for an address calling on the king to appoint only ministers who would carry the reform bill unimpaired, 10 May, and for the second reading of the Irish reform bill, 25 May. He spoke and was a teller for the majority (of 44-10) for the second reading of his Liverpool franchise bill, 23 May, insisted that he would press its passage, 27 June, complained at its committee stage being put off for six months, 4 July, and finally withdrew it, 18 July. His only other known votes that session were with ministers for the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12, 16, 20 July 1832.
Benett offered for Wiltshire South as a reformer and was returned unopposed at the general election in December 1832.55 He sat as a Conservative and Protectionist until the dissolution in July 1852 and died, of apoplexy, that October. As one obituarist wrote, ‘throughout his life he was a decided protectionist, and in this respect, though a Whig in general politics, he read a striking lesson of consistency to his friends and contemporaries’. He was succeeded by his late elder son John’s son John Edward (1840-56), on whose early death Pythouse passed to the son of the Rev. Arthur Fane and Benett’s daughter Lucy Harriet, Vere Fane (1839-94), who took the additional surnames of Benett and Stanford, and was Conservative Member for Shaftesbury, 1873-80.56
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Stephen Farrell
- 1. Sir R.C. Hoare, Wilts. Warminster, 78; Dunworth, 132; Addenda, 57-58; Burke LG (1937), 2117; VCH Wilts. viii. 48.
- 2. Devizes Gazette, 30 Sept. 1824; Lansdowne mss, Benett to Lansdowne, 14 July 1837.
- 3. Wilts. RO, Benett mss 413/360; PROB 11/1295/539; VCH Wilts. xi. 119; xiii. 70, 101, 109, 211; Moody, 34-40.
- 4. Oxford DNB sub Etheldred Benett; Moody, 42, 168-70, 203-4, 305; Cobbett’s Rural Rides ed. G.D.H. and M. Cole, ii. 390, 626.
- 5. H. Hunt, Mems. i. 465-7; Salisbury Jnl. 24 Mar. 1817; Moody, 29-31, 41-46, 128.
- 6. Moore Jnl. i. 83-84.
- 7. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 172-3; Moody, 53-118.
- 8. Benett mss 485.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. Ibid. Holland to Benett, 9 Feb.; Add. 51830, reply, 13 Feb., Suffolk to Holland, 9 Mar.; Devizes Gazette, 17, 24 Feb., 2, 9, 16, 23 Mar. 1820; Moody, 119-26.
- 11. Devizes Gazette, 23 Mar. 1820.
- 12. Moody, 129-30, 134-5, 143-4, 154, 179.
- 13. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/G2459, Malmesbury to FitzHarris, 16 Mar.; Salisbury Jnl. 24 July 1820.
- 14. Add. 56541, f. 45.
- 15. Devizes Gazette, 18 Jan. 1821.
- 16. The Times, 9 Feb. 1821.
- 17. Ibid. 6 Mar., 4 Apr. 1821.
- 18. Devizes Gazette, 7 June, 12 July 1821.
- 19. The Times, 15 Mar. 1822.
- 20. Ibid. 31 May, 4, 5 June 1822.
- 21. Ibid. 26 Apr., 8 May 1823.
- 22. Ibid. 5, 12 June 1823.
- 23. Ibid. 9, 16 Mar. 1824.
- 24. Devizes Gazette, 1, 8 Apr. 1824.
- 25. The Times, 22 May 1824.
- 26. Ibid. 8 Feb. 1825.
- 27. Devizes Gazette, 9 May 1822.
- 28. The Times, 14, 23 Feb. 1826.
- 29. Ibid. 6 May 1826.
- 30. Ibid. 18 May 1826.
- 31. Devizes Gazette, 27 Feb., 6 Mar. 1826; Moody, 155-8, 256-7.
- 32. Devizes Gazette, 8, 22 June 1826.
- 33. The Times, 22 Nov. 1826; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1271.
- 34. Gent. Mag. (1827), i. 189.
- 35. The Times, 20 June 1827; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1357.
- 36. Salisbury Jnl. 23 July 1827.
- 37. PP (1828), viii. 368-74.
- 38. Devizes Gazette, 26 Mar. 1829.
- 39. Ibid. 23 July 1829.
- 40. Salisbury Jnl. 24 May 1830.
- 41. Devizes Gazette, 1, 8, 29 July, 12, 19 Aug. 1830; Moody, 182-3.
- 42. Devizes Gazette, 12 May 1831.
- 43. Ibid. 2 Dec. 1830, 6 Jan. 1831; Benett mss 23; Moody, 185-93, 199-200. See WILTSHIRE.
- 44. Lansdowne mss.
- 45. The Times, 11 Jan. 1831.
- 46. Three Diaries, 9.
- 47. Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1376, Radnor’s diary of events, 1830-1; Devizes Gazette, 3 Mar. 1831.
- 48. Baring Jnls. i. 84.
- 49. PP (1830-1), iii. 303-418; St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 103, Denison to Gladstone, 12 Mar. 1831.
- 50. Devizes Gazette, 12 May 1831.
- 51. Add. 62081, f. 155.
- 52. Macaulay Letters, ii. 71.
- 53. Hatherton diary.