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Rev. William BENN (c1600 - 1680)

Rector of All Saints Church Dorchester (1629 - 1662)
Founder of the Dorchester Congregational Church (1662 - 1681)


©Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Dorchester - November 2009 (Last updated November 2011)

The Early Years(1)


The original St. Bees School block of 1587-88

William BENN (BEN) was born at Egremont in Cumberland in November 1600. He was educated at the Free School of St Bees in Cumbria which had been founded from legacies left by the Archbishop of Canterbury Edmund GRINDALL (1517-1583). It boasted a number of fellowships and scholarships for its students to universities in Oxford, including Grindall's own College of Pembroke Hall. By far the largest benefaction however was a Fellowship and two Scholarships to Queens College which was linked in perpetuity to the school through the provision that its provost was to serve as a governor and appoint a headmaster of the school. On completion of his studies at the school William Benn went onto Queens College Oxford probably arranged by the head master rather than because he won a scholarship, as his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography suggests that he acted there as a servitor (i.e. An Oxford graduate performing menial duties for a social superior in exchange for assistance from college funds).

He joined the church and in the 1620's was presented to the Parish of Wokingham in Berkshire so he left university without finishing his degree. On arrival in Wokingham however he discovered that a Mr BATEMAN, a contemporary of his at Oxford, had also been presented to the same living. Rather than go to law about it, they agreed to divide the income between them which they did to their mutual satisfaction for some years. William BENN however was chosen by Helena the Marchioness of Northampton (c1549-1635) as her chaplain (7). Helena was by then in her 70's and he moved to Redlynch in Somerset the residence of Sir Robert GORGES where Helena lived until he left in 1629.

Rector of All Saints Church Dorchester (8)


On the 8th of October 1627 Robert CHEEKE the Rector of All Saints Church, Master of the 'Free School' and great friend of the Rev. John WHITE , died. By then John White had been Rector of Holy Trinity and St Peters for over twenty years and had become a very influential character with the ear and respect of many of the governing burgesses in the town. In the year 1617 White had encouraged the burgesses to purchase the advowson of All Saints which gave them in ecclesiastical law the right to appoint a member of the anglican clergy for the Parish(4). The appointment of Cheeke's replacement was therefore very much at his behest and his first attempt was the 27 year old Samuel WHITFIELD, who had acted as his assistant for a short period. He was duly appointed to the post on 11 Jan 1627/8, but tragically died the following July.  He turned next to his cousin the Rev. John BALL (BAWLE) the vicar of Langton Matravers whom he persuaded to apply for the post. He was accepted and appointed Rector of All Saints on 22 Nov 1628, but resigned it a few months later having returned to Langton Matravers by the 7th May 1629.

After two false starts it was important to resolve the position and he settled on the Rev William BENN who proved a real success remaining rector there from 5th August 1629 (2) until his ejectment 33 years later. Insufficient income for the clergy in Dorchester was an ongoing problem which was eventually addressed and resolved by John White but at the outset Ben had to exist on the tithes available at All Saints. Sir Arthur Ashley had granted the tithes of a chapel at Puddletown to the Rector of All Saints but even with this addition Benn only had twenty-eight pounds a year when he arrived and he, like other clergy in the town, had to rely on the benevolence and charity of his parishioners(4). Benn had actually been promised £70 a year at his induction as this is recorded in the Municipal Records but its clear that the tithes were to be supplemented by the Corporation. On 6 Jan 1629/30 Benjamin Devenish was ordered to pay him £15 out of the profits of the Brewhouse in part payment.

From his arrival in Dorchester in 1627 however we know he worked closely with John White. Although more radical he was very much in sympathy with many of White's schemes one of which was funding the 'Free School' for which John White himself raised over £82 between 1631 to 1634. William BENN's contributions from All Saints parish were far more modest (3) but still important to the continued welfare of the school. Like John White he also visited parishioners in their homes to pray and chastise them, and as Dorchester Goal lay within his parish he also held sermons there eventually building them a chapel.

Some townspeople however resented the clergy's efforts to improve the moral tone of the town and in particular the way magistrates often tried to enforce John WHITE's ten vows. An insight to some of these incidents is given by Rose Troup in her biography of John White when she says:-

    "Arising out of the use of the Ten Vows was the case, in 1636, of Robert POUNCEY who, on being told that he 'was to go to Mr White the minister to be examined before he came to the Sacrament,' used violent speeches in his refusal to do so. There was one PRESSLEY who was informed against for disputing the magistrates authority to compel him to go to the Sacrament at Easter, saying he would but remain during Divine Service; that John DOWNTON of Fordington could preach as well as Mr BENN and, when prosecuted in Court at Blandford, contumaciously denied their authority to force him to tarry the service and sermon, and boldly bade the magistrate to "look upon the Canons to see what he ought to do", while another was condemned to two hours in the stocks for leaving church before prayers were ended. An apprentice ventured to play during service time and his master was ordered to correct him while a constable stood by to see it well done. Fines for absence from church varied from one shilling on ordinary Sundays to six shillings on Christmas Day; they were also inflicted for late coming, for slack coming, for sleeping during a service, for disorderly conduct during prayers and sermons and upon 'ordinary departers before payers were ended'. Such excuses as going to Charminster to fetch work, to see a sick mother, or attending service elsewhere were received with incredulity, often being judged insufficient."

Even though they generally had the support of the majority of their congregation personal attacks were made on both ministers. A Mr MARTIN accusing William BENN said:-

    " Mr BENN had gotten so rich on voluntary contributions that he passed Martin without noticing him, he declared he would not put off his hat to Mr.Benn, he cared nothing for him and would tell him so. He objected to passages in his sermons, said his prayers were too long, he did not speak loud enough when giving names at christenings, and did not read 'the Common Prayer, the Commandments, the Epistles and Gospels!" - a credible accusation as later BENN became a vehement Independent. MARTIN concluded his charges by saying that Benn did not salute his neighbours with his hat, but looked over them with a great pair of eyes; he Martin cared not a 'Savy your reverence' and 'you may tell him so'.

Other similar examples of constables enforcing this new moral code are included in Highways and Byways in Dorset by Sir Frederick Treves 1853 -1923. Outspoken preachers inevitably stirred up strong emotions in some but adoration and loyalty in many others. He was greatly admired by Lawrence RIGHTON appointed as one of Dorchester's constables in 1634(3). His son in law Nathaniel MATHER also described him as " a man so shining in holiness, so excelling in clearness of Gospel Light, and so abounding in solid, spiritual, practical, scriptural notions, that I have not known many that have gone beyond him, few that have equalled him". Others less in sympathy with his views considered him a veritable firebrand who did much to cause Dorchester to be considered a nest of sedition.

During the Civil War Benn preached vigorously against the King, but when a Royalist army threatened Dorchester in 1643 he fled to London either with or shortly after John White who had arrived there in July of that year. John White soon secured a Rectorship in Lambeth and William Benn joined him there. At the end of the war he returned to All Saints in Dorchester and both White and William Benn had an augmentation of £50 each from the Parliament Committee for plundered ministers. Later Benn's tithes were supplemented from Fordington by 60. When White became infirm the Corporation (on 12 May 1648) agreed to William Benn taking on his duties and that "he may preach in St Peters church".

In 1654 he was one of the assistants to the Commissioners for ejecting 'scandalous, ignorant, and inefficient ministers and schoolmasters' and the following year he was one of the clergy asked by the council to help them in observing a special day of prayer.

The Monarchy was restored in the year 1660. Some of the local Cavaliers tried to unseat William Benn, informed on him and he was required to attend the Dorset summer assizes, held in September of that year, to answer a charge of not using the 'Book of Common Prayer'. Although he suffered a spell of imprisonment, Benn remained at All Saints for another 2 years..

The Ecclesiastical courts were restored and in 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed which required that all clergy must be episcopally ordained (the laying on of hands by a Bishop) before officiating in a Church and, moreover, must swear unfeigned assent and consent to all that was contained in the Book of Common Prayer. The immediate consequence was that an estimated 2000 clergy felt unable, in conscience, to conform and so lost their livings. This was known as the Great Ejection and caused great hardship to many clergy as well as depriving congregations of their chosen minister. All ministers were required to take the oath by 24 August 1662. When Ironside conducted his visitation to Dorset in September neither Benn nor the Rev George HAMMOND (the minister for Holy Trinity) had done so but both managed to hang on for a few months longer. There may have been hopes that Hammond would change his mind, and no action was taken against him until March 1663. Benn, on the other hand, was clearly going to be obstinate. His living was sequestrated and on 10th September Ironside issued the 'intimation' removing him from All Saints. The town clerk however intercepted it, and it was not delivered to the Apparitor (the appropriate officer of the ecclesiastical court), until 12 Jan 1663. Some of Benn's flock regarded him as their minister whatever his status in the parish. When William DRY made his will in December he left 10 shillings to Benn, and the same sum to 'the poor of the church under his ministry of which I am a member'. This language suggests that he was one of the 'gathered church' that Benn had formed at All Saints. Towards the end of 1663 following the discovery of a nonconformist plot in Yorkshire Benn and other ejected ministers were rounded up and imprisoned, though most of them gave bonds of good behaviour and were released. A typical example of the continued support they received from the community was the Will of Elinor Hackham of Fordington dated 15th Nov 1664 which commences with "ffirst I give unto these foure Ministers int: Mr William BEN; Joshua CHURCHILL; Mr Benjamin WAYE and Mr John THOMPSON twenty shillings a peece". Another example was the Will of Alice Loder a widow of Dorchester who left William BENN, George HAMMOND and John THOMPSON a gold ring each worth ten shillings when she died on 13th May 1664.

From then until the end of his life William Benn remained one of the ejected clergy, sometimes preaching legally and sometimes illegally. The next event to affect him is covered by David Underdown:-

    "In September 1665 the King came to Dorchester. He was greeted with loyal enthusiasm: the bells were rung and the Corporation spent freely for his entertainment. The Court was at Salisbury, having been driven out of London by the plague, and Charles took the opportunity to make a leisurely tour through Dorset, which he had not seen since his escape after Worcester. But his visit to Dorchester had a more politically symbolic purpose. While in the town the King ceremonially gave the royal assent to an act recently passed by Parliament. The measure had been carefully chosen as one conveying an important message for Dorchester. It is known to history as the 'Five Mile Act' because it prohibited nonconformist ministers who would not swear the oath on nonresistance from living within five miles of any corporate town, or any place where they had previously held a living. The act was to prove something of a paper tiger, but in the short run it led to a swift clerical exodus from Dorchester and many other places".

As a result of this act William BENN had to leave Dorchester for a time, and he initially went to Maiden Newton but by 1669 he was back preaching to a congregation in Fordington. On 1st May 1672 Charles II issued his declaration of indulgence and William Benn was licensed to preach as a congregationalist at the house of Philip Stansby, a former mayor of the borough.


Marriage and Children
This is perhaps an appropriate point at which to confirm that William Benn did marry as nothing is mentioned in his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography about a family. I have not however been able to find out anything about his wife (even her death) apart from the fact that she produced three daughters who all married non conformist ministers(12). . So far I have only been able to discover the name of one of them (3):-

1. Their eldest daughter married Rev. Theophilus POLWHELE (c1626-1689) (1) the curate of Egremont, Benn's birthplace(3). He was a puritan divine of cornish extraction but born in Somerset. He entered Emmanuel College Cambridge 29th Mar 1644 (OXA says 10 April 1644), and was under the tutorship of William SANCROFT afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. He was awarded his BA in 1647/8, and his MA in 1651. The Municipal Records of Dorchester show that on 27 May 1650 the Corporation as a testimony of their respect for her father agreed that £10 should be given to Mr Polwheele as he hath lately married Mr Benn's eldest daughter. A footnote also states that Theophilus was appointed to the cure of Langton Long Blandford by the County Committee on 5th September 1649 (Minute Books Dorset standing committee). He was a preacher at Carlisle c1651/4 and in 1654 he was a member of the committee for ejecting scandalous ministers in the four Northern counties of Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland and Westmoreland. From that year until he was ejected in 1660 when he was driven from his living he held the rectory of of Clare and Tidcome at Tiverton in Devon. They had a daughter Elizabeth born c1651(14) that married Stephen LOBB (c1647-1699) another nonconformist divine(13). Theophilus died in Tiverton being buried in the churchyard of St Peters on 3rd April 1689; his will being proved 8 June 1689 (Prob 11/395).

2 According to Rose Troup(3) one daughter married the Rev. Hugh (also recorded as Hugo) THOMPSON (1604- ?) who was the son of William THOMPSON of Brackenwall Cumberland. He matriculated at Queens College Oxford on 14 Nov 1623 at the age of 19 and was awarded his BA degree on 31 January 1626/7. His MA followed on 30 June 1630. (5 & 11). He joined the church being ordained a deacon 23 Sep 1632 and priest at St Giles Church Oxford on 16 June 1633. He answered the towns call for a minister to assist John White in his aging years, arriving in Dorchester on 20th Dec 1633. Ministers often took younger wives but she was 28 years his junior. David Underdown(4) however states she married the Rev Hugh Thompson's son John THOMPSON which seems more likely. I have located a marriage at nearby Charminster on 21st May 1668 between a John Thompson and a Mrs? Hannah BEN(15) which might be relevant.

3. Mary BENN (c1634-1705 ) She married on 24 August 1655 in St Mary's church Abchurch London(9) to Nathaniel MATHER (1630-1697)(1) the second son of Richard MATHER(1596-1669) and Catherine HOLT. His father was a famous congregational divine whose life is covered in Volume 13 of the Dictionary of National Biography. His father emigrated to New England arriving in Boston 16 Aug 1635. He had overtures from three New England settlements but accepted that of Dorchester Massachusetts where a congregationalist church was established with Richard Mather as teacher. He became an influential leader in the church councils of New England and died in Dorchester Mass in 1669. Nathaniel MATHER his son also became a congregationalist divine. He was born on 20 March 1630 at Much Woolton Lancashire. From the age of 5 he was brought up in New England where he graduated MA at Harvard College in 1647. He finished his studies in England however probably returning with his brother Samuel in 1650. He was assistant to George MORTIMORE at Harberton in Devon (a sequestrated vicarage), and succeeded him there in 1655, the year he married Mary BENN. In 1656 he was presented by the Protector to the sequestrated vicarage at Barnstaple in which year Martin BLAKE BD was reinstated at the restoration. Mather went to Holland and for some years was pastor of the English church at Rotterdam. On the death of his brother in 1671 he succeeded him as minister at New Row Dublin. In the troubled year of 1688 he left Ireland and became pastor of the in dependant church in Paved Alley Lime Street London. He died on 26 July 1697 and was buried at Bunhill Fields. Mary died in 1705 her will being proved 6 March 1706 (Prob 11/487)

Death
The Reverend William BENN died in 1680/1 and was buried on 7th March of that year at All Saints Parish Church in Dorchester.(4 & 10)


Founder of Dorchester Congregational Church

The Reverend William BENN is credited as the founder of the Dorchester Congregational Church in 1662. As can be seen from the above he was not actually deprived of his living at All Saints until 12 Jan 1663/4. He certainly had formed an inner group (known as the 'gathered church') within All Saints congregation by 1662 and some of these still considered him to be their Minister after he was ejected. It was obviously the melting pot from which the church emerged but exactly when a formal church could be said to have existed is not evident from the papers that I have seen so far. With two short spells of imprisonment in 1663, his expulsion from Dorchester in 1665 and unauthorised preaching for example in 1669 it was not until 1672 that he obtained a formal licence to preach again.

Many records exist to which I do not currently have access and are held at the Dorset History Center. They are listed at the National Archives A2A website (8) and include records of Ministers, meetings and even membership but mainly relate to the period 1831 to 1991. Additional Ref numbers at DHC (D43; R8 Colfox family records); Somerset RO (D/N/wu 4); PRO (Dorset 8, C 1750-1836). It would be necessary to review these records before embarking on any history of the church itself but a brief overview is given on the transcription of the baptism register 1788-1837 for the Independant Church of Dorchester in Durngate Street.


Genealogical Notes:

(1). See the Dictionary of National Biography Volume 2 Page 228 for some of the background to this short biography on the life of William BENN. . It does not however provide any information on his private life. See also Volume 16 Page 28 for Nathaniel MATHER and Page 29 for Richard MATHER his father. Also Volume 16 Page 73 - Polwhele;

(2). William Whiteway of Dorchester - His diary 1618-1635 based on notes compiled by Thomas D Murphy Dorset Record Society - see Biographical Notes page 172 and diary entries pages 105 & 147. Note:- William Whiteway gives a date for his induction at All Saints as 11th August 1629 which is probably the date he arrived in Dorchester the 5th being the date recorded in the official church records. see 6 below. The Municipal Records of Dorchester page 615 add some confirmation in that it states he was elected Rector on 12 July 1629 (C9) and took the oaths of Supremacy and Canonical Obedience and the oath against Simony on 5th August following.

(3). 'John White The Patriarch of Dorchester [Dorset] and Founder of Massachusetts' by Frances Rose-Troup published by GP Putnam's Sons in 1930. pages v; 38; 243-245; 257; 260; 176; 299; 304; 316-7; 375-8; 388; & 395

(4). Fire From Heaven Life in an English Town in the 17th Century by David Underdown published by Pimlico 1992 pages 40-41; 92; 94; 99; 108; 128; 142; 144-5; 149; 154; 174; 203; 211; 214; 217-8; 234-5; 237-238; 240-243; & 258

(5). Oxford University Alumni - register of students, graduates, and officers who attended Oxford University between 1500 and 1886. Original data: Foster, Joseph. Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1715-1886 and Alumni Oxonienses: The Members of the University of Oxford, 1500-1714. Oxford: Parker and Co., 1888-1892. This only refers to his being Rector of All Saints because he left before obtaining his degree. It also has an incorrect death date of 22 Mar 1680 as he was buried in All Saints on 7 March 1680/1 according to transcriptions done by the Rev Bartelott.

(6). The Clergy of the Church of England database (CCED) is an online database of clergy of the Church of England between 1540 and 1835. This database is still being compiled Feb 2009 and may therefore contain only some of a persons appointments etc. Wokingham for example does not cover this period.

(7). ELGAR Electronic gateway to Archives at Rylands Sermons by William Benn held at the University of Manchester in the John Rylands Library

(8). The A2A Index includes a statement about the Administrative History of the church. The Reverend William BENN was the Rector of All Saints [also known as All Hallows] Church in Dorchester not Holy Trinity as stated on the A2A website, the Rector of Holy Trinity at that time was the Rev George HAMMOND. They were both ejected however in 1662.

(9). Church of Latter day Saints International Genealogical index from their extraction programme of parish registers (Do not confuse with member entries). This marriage record records his age as being 24 and hers as 21

(10). Burial Registers for the Parish of All Saints Dorchester: ( These transcriptions done by the Rev RG Bartelott clearly give a burial date of 7 March 1680/1 which appears to be correct as its in a running sequence of burials. The OXA (5 above) gives an incorrect date of 22 March 1680 which appears to have been repeated in the Municipal Records of Dorchester.

(11). Its agreed that Hugh Thompson (or Thomson) graduated in Oxford (e.g. page 94 of Fire from Heaven). William Whiteway's diary for 20 December 1633 states " Mr Hugh Thompson of Queens College in Oxford came to be assistant to Mr White in the Ministry and was to have £60 per annum for his pains with augmentation of maintenance when his occasions require". Rose Troup in her biography on John White however (on page 259) states "At last in November 1633, they addressed (i.e. appointed) Mr. Hugh Thomson, Mr of Arts and fellow of L(footnote to say probably Lincoln) .College in Exon (i.e.Oxon). There is only one entry in the alumni for Oxford for a Hugh Thompson and he graduated at Queens as William Whiteway has stated.

(12). Regarding William Benn's marriage. The only pointer I have is that Mary Benn, one of his 3 daughters, was born within 12 months of 1634. Notes made by Rose Troup suggest she was probably the second of the three daughters and if correct his marriage might tentatively be place c1630. It could be earlier and I did locate two marriages on the IGI of a William BENN in Saint Bees, Cumberland where he went to school . The first on 29 June 1628 to a Marbella Johnson and a later one on 30 Sep 1633 to a Elisabet Milburne. I have no way of knowing however whether either is relevant.

(13). A history of the Presbyterian and general Baptist churches in the west By Sir Jerom Murch Page 221 - mentions the ancestry of Theophilus Lobb "By his mothers side he was descended from two ejected ministers the Rev Theophilus Polwhele of Tiverton her father and the Rev William BENN of Dorchester her grandfather

(14). Elizabeth Polwhele:- Extract from "Elizabeth Polwhele's The Faithful Virgins

(15) Charminster Marriage Registers OPC website. Also on the IGI

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