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Joseph Austin Benwell's marriage certificate - 13 July 1854, St George, Bloomsbury

 Joseph Austin Benwell's family history

Joseph Austin Benwell was born on 26 May 1816 at 35 Canterbury Square, Southwark, London, the second son of Joseph Benwell, an accountant, and his wife Charlotte. His birth was recorded in the ‘Register of Births belonging to the Monthly Meeting of Gracechurch Street, London from 1793 to 1837 TNA Reference RG6 / Piece 415'.  

Joseph Austin Benwell married Marian Boulton (1821-1892), also an exhibiting artist, at the Church of St George, Bloomsbury, London on 13 July 1854. There are no records to date of any surviving children or descendents. He had nine siblings, several of whom died whilst still quite young. The author is directly descended from Joseph Austin Benwell's elder sister, Charlotte Olivia Benwell (1811-1883). 

Members of his family were active in the Society of Friends, or Quaker, movement and had been since the late 17th century in Berkshire, Oxfordshire and later Somerset and Bristol. The Benwell family can be traced back to at least the mid-16th century in Berkshire and southern Oxfordshire, where they were yeoman farmers and landowners mainly in the Rotherfield Peppard and Rotherfield Greys area. 

Joseph Austin Benwell’s father, Joseph Benwell (1783-1864) was born in Yatton, Somerset on 12 December 1783, the only surviving son of John (1749-1824) and Martha Benwell.  Please refer to the panel below for further information. 

Joseph Austin Benwell’s paternal grandfather, John Benwell (1749-1824) married Martha West (a widow, nee Stanbrook) at the Quakers’ Assembly Hall in Gracechurch Street, City of London, on 15 May 1771. John was recorded as being a ‘Cheesemonger’ on his marriage record, no doubt in connection with the family farming business in Berkshire. He soon became a schoolmaster in Somerset from the mid 1770s, and went on to found Sidcot School, the Quaker school in Somerset, in 1808. He was also the author of the posthumously-published  ‘Extracts from a Diary kept by the late John Benwell of Sidcot; also Extracts from Letters addressed to different branches of his family’ (1825). 

John Benwell’s parents were Henry Benwell (c1714-1770) and Hannah (Smith, 1717-1785), yeoman farmers of Whitley Park Farm, Reading, Berkshire. It seems that his father Henry died of a ‘disabling seizure’ when John was quite young, and the care of the family devolved on his mother, Hannah, who was described as ‘a pious woman.’

Henry Benwell was the son of Thomas Benwell (1653-1723) and his third wife Mary (Wilson), who married in Reading in 1700. They also lived at Whitley Park Farm. Thomas Benwell’s complicated and lengthy will (1723) includes various members of his large family, and indicates he was quite an entrepreneur, owning land and properties in Berkshire and South Oxfordshire, including in the Henley-on-Thames area. On his 1682 marriage record, Thomas is described as a 'Maulster', and on the 1701 marriage record of his daughter Grace as a 'Yeoman'.  It is recorded that before this branch of the family moved to Whitley Park Farm, the Benwell family occupied a large farm (Cowfields, Rotherfield Greys) a few miles away near Henley-on-Thames from about  1575 to the early 19th century.

Thomas Benwell was born in Bix, Oxfordshire in 1653, and was a younger son of Henry Benwell (b. c1620) and Grace (Pardis) of the Rotherfield Peppard/Greys area of Oxfordshire. Henry Benwell’s parents (and Thomas' grandparents) were William Benwell (1581-1669) of 'Coufould Farme' (according to his 1669 Will and inventory), and Joan nee Rownde. Henry, being a younger son was given land in Bix by his father William and left Rotherfield to live in Bix, but was buried in the churchyard at Rotherfield Peppard in 1697 ("Henry Benwell of the parish of Bix Brand, buried at Rotherfield Peppard"). Henry Benwell's house in Bix/Bix Brand had 4 hearths according to the 1665 Hearth Tax records, and is likely to be what is known as Bix Manor Farm. As far as can be ascertained, William’s father was another Henry Benwell, who would have been born around the mid 1500s. Maybe he was the first Benwell to live at Cowfields Farm? To date, this is the furthest I have got back on the Benwell direct line of ancestors.  Joseph Austin Benwell's family tree can be seen on (a subscription website) on the 'Stone, Taylor, Benwell and Bourchier' member tree, or search for by name. 

Joseph Austin Benwell’s great grandmother Hannah (Smith) was baptised at St Mary’s, Mapledurwell, Hampshire on 19 January 1717, where she later married Henry Benwell on 13 September 1741. Hannah’s father was Henry Smith, born in 1685, one of a line of Henry Smiths of Mapledurwell going back to at least the 16th century. The village has been the subject of a study by Victoria County History, which has on it website a number of transcribed wills and inventories of the Smith family of Mapledurwell, who were local yeoman farmers and maltsters and described as a ‘powerful local family’.  

Henry Smith (1685) married Elizabeth Green (1686) - they were Joseph Austin Benwell’s 2xgreat grandparents. Elizabeth Green was born in Weston Corbett, Hampshire and was baptised on 22 September 1686 at the local parish church of St Lawrence, Weston Patrick. She was from a long line of the Green family, who built a house and farmed at what became known as ‘The Farm’, now Weston Corbett House. A John Grene held land in Weston Corbett before his death around 1587, and he may well have been a forebear of Joseph Austin Benwell. Elizabeth Green’s parents were George Green and Elizabeth- Benwell’s 3xgreat grandparents. He may be the George Green whose initials GG are on a framed remnant of an altarcloth dated 1682, which hangs in the nave. A later George Green (1774-1853) was the last of the direct line of Greens at Weston Corbett, and he left land and Weston Corbett House to his godson Thomas Henry Wyatt (junior, b.1841) and his brother Matthew Digby Wyatt, from the Wyatt family of architects. Their father, Thomas Henry Wyatt (1807-1880),  said to be a kinsman or cousin of George Green, designed and rebuilt the Church of St Lawrence in Weston Patrick  in the 1860s.

Little is known of where any artistic talents may have come from in the family. However, Joseph Austin Benwell’s first cousin, William Arnee Frank (1809-1897), the son of his aunt Hannah Benwell, was also an artist who published a series of lithographs of Bristol views in 1831 held at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. His landscape watercolours were mostly of views around Bristol, the Wye Valley and North Wales. He was active well into his eighties and was still showing work at the West of England Academy in 1891. 

More information on artist William Arnee Frank (1808-1897)

Another first cousin, son of his aunt Rebecca Benwell, and another grandson of John Benwell, was David Holt (1828-1880), a published poet ('Poems, Rural and Miscellaneous', publ. Gillett 1846; 'A Lay of Hero Worship, and other poems', publ. Pickering, 1850; 'Janus, Lake Sonnets etc. and other Poems', publ. George Bell, 1853; and 'Poems by David Holt' publ. Simpkin, Marshall & Co, Paternoster Row, 1868). Please refer to the section below for more information. 

His second cousin (once-removed) was Thomas Benwell Latchmore (1832-1908), the photographer of Hitchin, known for documenting Hitchin photographically from the early 1860s. Another cousin taught art and drawing at a Quaker school. 

Benwell’s third cousins were Francis May (1803-1885), who co-founded the Bryant and May match company, and his brother Charles May (1801-1860), who manufactured astronomical equipment and constructed the Airy Transit Circle and the Greenwich Altazimuth at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, amongst other achievements

Joseph Austin Benwell's father, Joseph Benwell (1783-1864) 

Joseph Benwell senior was born on 12 December 1783 at Yatton, Somerset. Joseph was the only surviving son of John (1749-1824) and Martha Benwell. The ‘Register of Births belonging to the Quarterly Meeting of Somerset from 1776 to 1794’ show that his father John Benwell was a Schoolmaster. Joseph married Charlotte White in Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol, on 15 February 1808. Joseph and Charlotte resided for some years in London between about 1810 and 1824, where several children were born, before moving back to the Bristol area. All their children were registered in Society of Friends records. Joseph Benwell worked as an accountant all his life. Records from the Bristol Mercury also show him offering tuition in Latin, French and book-keeping in 1842. Joseph Benwell died in Mall Place, Clifton, Bristol in 1864. 

‘The Annual Monitor, or the Obituary of Members of the Society of Friends,’1871, gives some insight into the life and character of Joseph Benwell senior. From the section on ‘The late Joseph Benwell of Bristol’ we can see that he was a man blessed by good health.  ‘It was a frequent remark of his, that he was never, in the course of his long life, until a few months before its close, kept one whole day away from business on account of illness. In this he felt he had been privileged beyond many others…’ The obituary states that ‘He was a man of reserved disposition, and this was especially shown in regard to his religious feelings…’ ‘He was a regular attendant at meetings for worship: but being much afflicted with deafness, he could seldom hear anything that was said in them.’ ‘Probably this difficulty of hearing tended to increase his love of reading.’ His final illness lasted three months, and he drew great strength from his religious beliefs. ‘The day before he died he looked up sweetly to his two daughters, and said “I am praying for you both: a blessing will attend you”, and soon afterwards though almost inaudible, “Bless the Lord, O my soul”. ‘  Finally, ‘ About nine in the evening, his breathing grew calmer. He seemed again to wish to speak; but though conscious, could not say anything. He watched his beloved wife with great interest, as she moved about to relieve his wants, they had been united for six-and-fifty years! After this he settled down in sweet composure, and fell asleep in Jesus at one o’clock in the morning, on the 9th of Seventh month 1864, in the 83rd year of his age.’

Joseph Austin Benwell's brother, John Benwell (1814-1863)

The writer has researched evidence that shows it is extremely likely that Joseph Austin Benwell's elder brother John Benwell (born 21 March 1814, London) is the John Benwell who wrote the anti-slavery travel book 'An Englishman's Travels in America - Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States' (1853, 1857). 

1. Research into Census and other records on all John Benwells living at the time indicate there are virtually no other likely candidates. For example, in the 1841 Census an agricultural labourer called John Benwell is unlikely to be this John Benwell, the writer and traveller.

2. Dates/ages of John Benwell are about right - born 1814, travelled in the late 1830s/1840.

3. Family background - this John Benwell was from a Quaker/Society of Friends background (also mentioned in the book). The book is anti-slavery and Quakers were the first corporate body to condemn slavery.

4. John's grandfather John Benwell (1749) was a man of strong religious beliefs, founder of a Quaker school and also a writer- 'Extracts from A Diary kept by the late John Benwell of Sidcot....' (posthumously in 1825). Also, John, being the eldest son of the family, may have been named after his grandfather, John Benwell senior, as was often common practice then. 
Both were ‘diarists’ and keen on recording events.

5. Links with the Sturge family of Bristol and Gloucestershire. The Sturges were also long-standing Quakers, who ran JP Sturge and Sons the firm of Land Agents and Surveyors in Bristol which dated back to about 1760 and was where John’s brother Joseph Austin Benwell worked before going to India. John’s grandfather, John Benwell (1749-1824) was the headmaster of the Quaker school at Sidcot. Some of the Sturge children were among his pupils, including Joseph Sturge (1793-1859), the well-known philanthropist and abolitionist who founded the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. The Benwells and the Sturges obviously had quite close connections, and it is likely this had an impact on shaping John’s writings and anti-slavery views. 

6. John Benwell, author of 'An Englishman's Travels in America.....' left from the port of Bristol on ship the Cosmo for New York, and spent 4 years in North America in the late 1830s until about 1840. The actual dates of his ‘travels’ are referenced in the John Benwell Papers 1846-1852 held in the Library of Congress: "On the Moral and Physical Condition of the Slave in North America," describing Benwell's travels through the southern United States in 1840 and his observations on slavery…”. This was just prior to him returning back to England, from Charleston to the port of Liverpool, at the end of the four years in late 1840/early 1841. Previously “At Fort Anderson, he met General Zachery Taylor, leader of American forces in an 1837 campaign against the Indians…”, and  "He witnessed a campaign against the Seminole and Cherokee Indians…”, which was in 1837.  In the 1841 Census, John  (age 27) is residing with parents Joseph and Charlotte in Bristol. His brother Joseph Austin Benwell used to reside with his parents after his travels too, which makes sense as young men they would not have had the time to set up homes of their own.

7. Incidents of travel. Being a narrative of four years in the United States, and territories of America ‘ by John Benwell was published in 1852, Bristol, England. This preliminary version was published a year before ‘An Englishman’s Travels in America’ (1853). Local history and manuscript collections in Illinois (Newberry Library, Chicago) refer to “’Incidents of travel’, which is a narrative of four years spent in the United States by John Benwell of Bristol, England, written in 1852“. This is another fact linking Benwell with Bristol. The 1851 Census shows John Benwell as being resident at Rock House, Bristol, at about this time. It seems that he retained links in both Manchester and Bristol, and for a while moved between the two places.

8. John Benwell's children were in various census records listed as living with their grandparents Joseph and Charlotte, also an aunt/uncle. This could be indicative of a man who travelled and may not have been able to care for them on a day-to-day basis.

9. Records indicate that this John Benwell died in Manchester in 1863. A death notice in the Western Daily Press dated 11 July 1863 states: 'John Benwell, 49, accountant, late of Bristol, died Manchester 5 July 1863.' He was also living in Manchester at the time of his marriage in 1843. The record of his marriage to Harriet Clark at Frenchay Church, Bristol 24 July 1843, states: Occupation- Accountant (“currently residing Manchester”). It is possible that, after returning from his travels via the port of Liverpool, he found Manchester an amenable place in which to settle and to recover from his ill-health.  His abode at time of death was Embden Street, Greenheys, Chorlton-on-Medlock. His aunt, Rebecca Benwell, had married the philanthropic cotton manufacturer David Holt, and the family also lived in the Chorlton-on-Medlock area of Manchester. Their only son and John’s first cousin was David Holt (1828-80), a published poet who later moved to Bowdon, Greater Manchester. Manchester was a centre of the anti-slavery movement in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, many abolitionists being Quakers. It seems that John Benwell adopted the middle name 'Alexander' (refer below). He married for the second time on 20 July 1861 at Bowdon Church, Altrincham (south of Manchester), his second wife being a widow, Elizabeth Blagbrough (nee Thatcher). The marriage record shows his father as Joseph Benwell.   John Alexander Benwell was buried on 9 July 1863 at St Luke's, Cheetham, Manchester. The church is now derelict, with only the tower remaining. Sadly, it appears that the graveyard is currently inaccessible to the public. 

10. In his book, John Benwell refers to his ill health several times eg page 146, 153, 168, 177 and page 228, where he states “My original intention of settling in America having been frustrated by ill health and other causes, I embarked upon a fine barque bound for Liverpool, where, after a favourable run of three weeks, we arrived in safety.”  On page 168 he states “Although in an indifferent state of health, from exposure to the poisonous miasma of the country…..”. This perhaps suggests that his breathing and lungs were affected. At the end of the book (page 230) he states “After my wanderings in the slave-stricken regions of the south, and my escapes in Florida, the sight of the hospitable shores of my native country did more, I think, to renovate my injured health, than all the drastics of the most eminent physicians in the world; certain it is, that, from this time, I gradually recovered…….”.   However, ‘our’ John Benwell died prematurely in 1863, age 49, some ten years or more after this was written.  Lung conditions can affect a person again later in life. A report in the Western Daily Press 11 July 1863 states-  "died on 5th July 1863 at MANCHESTER, Mr John Benwell, aged 49, accountant, late of this city (BRISTOL). Bronchitis. Informant Elizabeth Benwell, wife, present at death".  Bronchitis can be caused by air pollution and toxic gases/dust (the “miasma” referred to?) This could be another indication that this John Benwell is the writer and traveller – it is possible he never recovered his full health after his travels. 

 11. Signatures are very similar (see below), despite the signatures being from sources that are some years apart. Compare that on the document "On the Moral and Physical Condition of the Slave in North America" (John Benwell papers 1846-52) describing Benwell's travels through the southern United States in 1840 and his observations on slavery, the railroads and the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and that on his second marriage record (as John Alexander Benwell) in July 1861 (right).  


Below is shown the title page of 'An Englishman's Travels in America: his observations of Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States' by John Benwell, published in 1853 by Binns and Goodwin, 44 Fleet Street, London and 19 Cheap Street, Bath. The frontispiece comprises two somewhat harrowing illustrations which are entitled 'Lynch Law in America' (upper) and 'Slave Life in America' (lower).  T Picken lith., Day & Son, lithographers to the Queen. 

An Englishman's Travels in America John Benwell

Another 1853 edition, in the HathiTrust digital collection (original in the Library of Congress), has a very different frontispiece of an engraving by W H Egleton of a woman who looks to be Quaker in appearance.

John Benwell Biography

The early (1853) and later (1857) editions of “An Englishman’s Travels” seem to show the author as J. Benwell, rather than the full name ‘John’ (see above). At what stage did the name ‘John Benwell’ appear as author on title pages? It has been confirmed by the Library of Congress that the full name John Benwell  appears on the earlier John Benwell papers 1846-1852: "On the Moral and Physical Condition of the Slave in North America”, (see below). Also the Newberry Library, Chicago confirms the full name John Benwell appears on the title page of the manuscript "Incidents of Travel. Being a Narrative of four years in the United States, and Territories of America" (1852).

Image courtesy of the US Library of Congress

Signature of John Benwell the author on the John Benwell papers 1846-1852: "On the Moral and Physical Condition of the Slave in North America” (US Library of Congress).

Signature of John Benwell (grandson of John Benwell of Sidcot) on marriage certificate 1861. Both are very similar and extremely likely to be by the same person.

Later records (second marriage in 1861, and death in 1863) show this John Benwell to have adopted the middle name 'Alexander'. His signature on the marriage record in 1861 (above right) is very similar in style to the much earlier signature of John Benwell the author (minus the middle name), particularly the formation of the letter B. 

To complicate matters further, I found the following reference in the “London Catalogue of Books: Published in Great Britain 1831-1855”, Thomas Hodgson, publ. 1855, which lists J A Benwell as the author of “Travels in the Free and Slave States of America”. This of course could be a straightforward error, but maybe it begs the question- was Joseph Austin Benwell in fact the true author? Did he use his diarist grandfather John Benwell’s name as a pseudonym? And if so, why? Certainly we know J A Benwell travelled widely, and there was a time-slot when as a young man he could have travelled to America in the late 1830s before commencing work for the East India Company and going to India in the 1840s. On returning from India at the end of the 1840s (he is absent from the 1841 census, and the 1851 census shows him as residing with his parents in Bristol) there would have been time to write and seek publication for any travel diaries he had kept earlier. However, as he later became an artist, why did he not execute the frontispiece of the book himself? This is all conjecture, but interesting nonetheless. 

Update 2021- having examined an 1862 signature (on a letter) of John's brother J A Benwell it is clear that the JAB signature is different from the John Benwell signatures. So I presume the 1855 listing is either a straightforward error, OR it is possible that John had by this date adopted his new middle name of Alexander and hence was recorded as J A Benwell. Note that Joseph Austin Benwell also later adopted a new middle name beginning with A- Austin.

 The evidence clearly suggests that John Benwell the author of 'An Englishman's Travels in America' and John Benwell the grandson of John Benwell of Sidcot are one and the same person.  

Extract (page 45) from 'London Catalogue of Books: Published in Great Britain 1831-1855', Thomas Hodgson, publ. 1854

John Benwell - Pseudonym or Not?

It has been suggested that the name John Benwell, as author of ‘An Englishman’s Travels in America’ (1853). was a pseudonym, in particular by reference to ‘Initials and pseudonyms : a Dictionary of Literary Disguises’ by William Cushing 1885 (published by Thomas Y Crowell & Co.).

I re-visited this issue in February 2018. Having researched in more detail, I now believe this to be a misinterpretation of the facts presented in the book. If you read the Preface, it is quite clear that the first part of the dictionary gives the initials and pseudonyms, followed by the real names of the authors. So in Part One we have the entry “Englishman, AnJohn Benwell. Travels in America, 1853’.

The second part contains the real names of the authors, followed by initials and pseudonyms, and short biographical notes (where appropriate).  So in the second part of the book, we have the corresponding entry ‘Benwell, JohnAn Englishman. An English traveller in America.’ There is no reference to any other name or person, as in some of the entries. If John Benwell was a pseudonym, the true name would be given in Part 2. 

Therefore, “An Englishman” is the pseudonym for John Benwell, and John Benwell is the real name of the author! In fact there are many similar examples in the dictionary. A pseudonym is not necessarily a third party/another real person. It can be a short description of how a person is known, such as ‘An Englishman’, or ‘An Aged Parson’ and so on. I therefore refute any suggestions that John Benwell was a pseudonym for another person/author, based on this together with other evidence presented on this website. John Benwell is the correct name of the author of ‘An Englishman’s Travels in America’. 

Extracts from Initials and pseudonyms : a Dictionary of Literary Disguises’ by William Cushing 1885. 

Preface (left), and entries for 'An Englishman' in Part One (lower left), and 'John Benwell' in Part Two (lower right)

Transcript of a review of  'An Englishman’s Travels in America; his Observations of  Life and Manners in the Free and Slave States' by J Benwell, published in the Wells Journal, Saturday 14 January 1854:

“It is well that such travellers as Mr. Benwell, cautious and temperate as he is, should visit the southern States, and expose the miserably-degraded condition of society. Far, immeasurably far inferior, even to that of our colonies, in the latter years of West Indian slavery, is the social character of these States. As Mr. Benwell again describes, and as we ever hear, all things are polluted by the touch of slavery. Even Christianity itself droops and turns recreant to her divine original. Pro-slavery Episcopalians – highest of the High Church in sweet accord with lowest of the low in morals. Pro-slavery Independents. Pro-slavery Methodists. Men debauched, women enervated, populations trembling with terror of insurrection. Fugitive slave-law. Lynch law. Public whippings. Chain-gangs. Chopping off  hands, on blocks kept for the purpose by the magistrates. Vultures and dogs doing the work of scavengers in their towns. Fires in their plantations. Distrust. Espionage. Mobs of white men. Slang. All the ingredients of mischief. All the forms of vice. These are the characteristic features of southern society in America; and of these the delineations distinguish and render valuable this plain, out-spoken, volume.” 


It is such a shame that these days so many 'woke' virtue-signallers seem to have blinkers on and appear to be unaware of the well-documented history of English white people being opposed to, and taking action against, the practice of slavery. This ranges from the actions of the British Royal Navy patrolling off the coast of West Africa to block slavers in the early 19th Century, the important role of British Quakers (Society of Friends) in the  abolitionist movement, and 19th Century travellers and writers such as John Benwell documenting and raising awareness of the terrible goings-on with regard to slavery. 

Joseph Austin Benwell's grandfather, John Benwell (1749-1824)

Below is shown the title page and first page of Joseph Austin and John Benwell's grandfather's book, ‘Extracts from a Diary kept by the late John Benwell of Sidcot...' (1825), and a painting of Whitley Park Farm, Reading (c1860), where Joseph Austin Benwell's grandfather John Benwell was born, and where his great grandparents and 2xgreat grandparents lived in the 18th century. The image of John Benwell is from 'A History of Sidcot School 1808-1908, A Hundred Years of West Country Quaker Education' by Francis A Knight.

The Diary sheds some light on John's life, as shown by extracts from the diary itself, and the preface:

"His parents being engaged in a farm, and this their son averse to that employ, he sojourned some years in London, and there married Martha West..." "He kept a considerable boarding school for many years, at Yatton and Sidcot, a little west of Bristol, much to the satisfaction of those who entrusted their children to his care, who were greatly the objects of his solicitude"."...his house was open to a great number of his friends, where they were met with hospitable and agreeable entertainment, he being a cheerful and pleasant companion." ..." He was.. a valuable and upright pillar in our society...." "...our friend was favoured with a mind superior to many..." 

The Diary begins in the year 1809 when John was 60, but he was a diarist long before this, as stated at the beginning: "Memorandums of this kind, were begun by me about the year 1777, but are until this time destroyed. Inclination however still prompts to a continuance of them."

John and Martha ran the school in an honorary capacity until 1810, then moved to Pensford before returning to Oakridge. He was still actively involved in the school, serving on Sidcot School committee for several years. They moved to Sidcot Farm, where John died on 3 January 1824.

John Benwell (1749-1824) , Grandfather of Joseph Austin Benwell, John Benwell, William Arnee Frank (artist) and David Holt (poet).

Image from 'A History of Sidcot School 1808-1908, A Hundred Years of West Country Quaker Education' by Francis A Knight.

Quakers of Sidcot, John Benwell


Joseph Austin Benwell's first cousin, David Holt (1828-1880)

 David Holt, a published poet, was a first cousin of Joseph Austin Benwell, and another grandson of John Benwell of Sidcot. He was the only child of  David Holt senior (1764-1846) of Manchester and his second wife, Rebecca Benwell (1787-1866), daughter of John Benwell of Sidcot and sister to Joseph Benwell (1783-1864). He was born on 13 November 1828 at Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester.


The following extract is from the ‘The Quaker Poets of Great Britain and Ireland’ (1896) by Evelyn Noble Armitage: 

‘DAVID HOLT'S father was a successful cotton spinner at Holt-town, Manchester, where the poet was born in 1828. The family having suffered reverses, David Holt began a commercial life, but retained the passionate love of poetry which had distinguished him as a child. At the age of seventeen he published a volume entitled " Poems, Rural and Miscellaneous." This book appears to have contained nothing remarkable, but five years later, by the appearance of his Lay of Hero Worship and other Poems," he was recognised as a poet of promise, and his third volume, "Janus, Lake Sonnets, etc," confirmed the critics in their verdict. In 1868 he was induced to issue a small volume of selected pieces, entitled "Poems by David Holt," in which several new poems of great beauty were included. 

His outer life was entirely uneventful; he was engaged in a railway office for thirty-four years, and was seldom absent from Manchester. He married in 1853, and his marriage was a perfectly happy one. His family of three sons survived him. He died in 1880, and was buried in the beautiful churchyard of Bowden. He had resigned his membership in the Society of Friends on his marriage, and had joined the Church of England. He seems to have been a man of great learning and much humour, his heart turning ever to the fields and rivers, though his feet were set to tread the streets of a great city.’  

 David Holt married Sarah (Sally) Perrin (1831-1893) at Heaton Norris on 6 August 1853, and they spent their honeymoon at Nab Cottage, Rydal, Cumberland, one of several sojourns to the Lake District. He became Assistant Secretary of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, and from the early 1860s lived in Altrincham and Bowdon. After his marriage he left the Quakers, as he was ‘disowned’ because of his marriage by a priest, and he joined the Church of England.   

Holt was inspired by the great romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Not long after Wordsworth's death, he wrote a poem "At the Grave of Wordsworth" (In Grasmere Churchyard), which is on page 35 of his book “Janus, Lake Sonnets etc., and Other Poems” (1853). The sentiments of the poem express the simple fact that it is far preferable that Wordsworth was buried in the countryside he loved, rather than being interred in some monumental edifice far away.  


Oh better far than richly sculptur'd tomb, 

Oh fitter far than monumental pile 

Of storied marble in cathedral aisle, 

Is this low grassy grave, bright with the bloom 

Of nature, and laid open to the smile 

Of the blue heaven - this stone that tells to whom 

The spot is dedicate, who rests beneath 

In this God's acre, this fair field of death; 

Oh meet it is, great Bard, that in the breast 

Of this sweet vale, and 'neath the guardian hills 

By thee so loved, thy venerated dust 

Should lie in peace; and it is meet and just 

That evermore around thy place of rest 

Should rise the murmur of the mountain rills. 


To this calm spot the pilgrim in far years,

Led by the reverence in his soul, shall come,

And as he gazes on this grassy tomb,

His thoughtful eyes shall be suffused with tears,

But not with tears of sorrow: there is nought,

In this fair scene, that speaks of grief or gloom,

Not one incentive to despondent thought.

Pensive, not sad, shall be the pilgrim’s heart,

Subdued, not sorrowful, his soul shall be,

As standing by this Grave he thinks of Thee,

And how that thy long life’s great work was wrought

Full out, and how its immortality

Is fix’d as firmly and as sure as aught 

That men deem lasting – mountain, star, or sea. 

 In his diaries (see 'David Holt's Victorian Walks', below), Holt records that he met Wordsworth's widow, Mary, in 1856. She was on her way to church from her home at Rydal Mount, and by then was quite elderly. She died in 1859.

Holt was connected with various literary and artistic societies in Manchester, including the Octagon Club, the Manchester Shakespearean Society, the Athenaeum Dramatic Reading Society, the Letherbrow Club,  and was instrumental in forming the Manchester Book Club and The Review Club. He was church warden at St John’s Church, Altrincham for seven years. David Holt died on 26 April 1880, and is buried at St Mary’s Church, Bowdon.

One of his three sons, Oliver Stanbrooke Holt (1855-1930) followed him into the railway industry, where he had a distinguished career and went on to become Secretary of the Great Central Railway Company from 1892 until his retirement at the end of 1917. Another son, Frank Benwell Holt (1860-1935) became an actor and comic baritone (operatic singer) - touring with D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in Europe and South Africa. When studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he won the elocution prize "from a formidable array of competitors" judged by Sir Henry Irving. John Benwell Holt participated in, and wrote about, a Royal Command Performance of the Mikado by the D'Oyly Carte touring Opera Company for Queen Victoria at Balmoral Castle in 1891. He emigrated to South Africa in about 1905, where he continued his musical career. 

The above portrait of David Holt is from a book ‘David Holt’s Victorian Walks - A Three Days’ Ramble in the Lake District in the Spring of 1856’ published in 1994 by Greater Manchester County Record Office & Cumbria Archives Service. The book is based on David Holt’s diaries, and contains a detailed account of a walk he and his wife undertook in 1856, first catching a train to Shap, and walking back to Windermere to catch a train home. The book follows his route, adapted for the modern rambler, and includes eight maps.


Other walks included in David Holt’s ‘Record of Rambles’ were ‘Derwentwater, Borrowdale and the Hollows’; ‘A Ramble in Wharfedale’; ‘Rough Notes of a Three days’ Retirement from Business at ‘The Isaak Walton’ nigh to Dovedale in March 1857’; ‘A Four Days’ Ramble in North Wales in August 1858’;  ‘Rough Notes of a few days’ Retirement from Business in the Lake District in August 1863’; ‘A Day’s Ramble through ‘The Dukeries’ and a portion of old Sherwood’; ‘A Day’s Ramble through the Valleys of the Derbyshire Wye’; and ‘A Ramble to Bolton Abbey and Wharfedale by way of Blackburn, Clitheroe, and Skipton in September 1854’. Sadly, the only one that was published was the ‘Three Days’ Ramble’ in 1994, the others in the series never materialised. Maybe there is scope for publishing some of the others in the future!

 Further insights into his character are provided by this extract from ‘North Country Poets’ edited by William Andrews (1888) “By early associations, he was connected with the Society of Friends. He was a man of chivalrous honour, a quiet, modest nature, and surpassing gentleness : these qualities, together with wide knowledge and dry humour, endeared him to all with whom he came in contact.” (Joseph Perrin). 

Also ‘Verses Grave and Gay: Sonnets, Lyrics and Ballads, Drawn chiefly from the Transactions of the Letherbrow Club’, Thomas Letherbrow and Friends, privately published 1910,  refers to David Holt, the “son of the well-known ‘Quaker Holt’ of Holt Town”….. “He had a nature of deep sincerity and religious feeling, as his fine poem, ‘The Conflict,’ and many of his sonnets reveal.” 

Thmas Letherbrow W Morton David Holt

Title page of 'Janus, Lake Sonnets, etc., and other Poems' 1853 (artwork by T Letherbrow (1825-1899), artist and fellow poet; engraved by W Morton Sc. Manchr)

First paragraphs of a review of 'A Lay of Hero Worship, and other Poems', published in The Morning Post 12 September 1850.

David Holt's poetry was likened to that of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

David Holt's signature/dedication, front page of a copy of 'A Lay of Hero Worship, and other Poems' 1850

Sonnet The Deamer by David Holt

Sonnet - The Dreamer' by David Holt. From 'Janus, Lake Sonnets etc,. and other Poems' (1853).

 This image from 'Verses Grave and Gay: Sonnets, Lyrics and Ballads. Drawn chiefly from the Transactions of The Letherbrow Club'  by Thomas Letherbrow and Friends (private publ. 1910, John Heywood, Manchester). This sonnet rather appealed to me as it seems apt in the context of today's overcrowded, materialistic and celebrity-obsessed world, although written over 160 years ago.

 The Spirits of Winter or The Song of the Frost Spirits

“We come on the breath of the sharp clear breeze,

The spirits of Frost are we;

We hang our wreaths on skeleton trees,

And beautiful wreaths they be. 

“White, pure white, are the robes we wear,

Robes wrought of the feathery snow;

With bright quick wings through the sparkling air

On our silent missions we go. 

“By our aid the spirit of Silence reigns;

We hush the brooklet’s song;

And bind the waters in icy chains,

By a spell unseen but strong.

“Silent we work through the livelong night

In cities, and trees, and dells,

And men behold, by the morning light

Our carved work and icicles. 

“We sprinkle the snow on the harden’d plains,

We whiten the barren moor;

We hide from view mortality’s stains,

Till the sinful earth seems pure."

                                                                                                                             David Holt's Poems 

A painting (c1860) of Whitley Park Farm, near Reading in Berkshire, home to some of Joseph Austin Benwell's ancestors.

A painting (c1860) of Whitley Park Farm, near Reading in Berkshire, home to some of Joseph Austin Benwell's ancestors. The house shown was built in the late 18th Century, but the Benwell family lived at Whitley Park Farm before then, going back to Thomas Benwell (1656-1723) who was born in Rotherfield Peppard and lived and died at Whitley Park. 

A bit about me
Joseph Austin Benwell was my 3xgreat grand-uncle, being the brother of my 3xgreat grandmother, Charlotte Olivia Benwell. Charlotte (1811-1883, born in London) married my 3xgreat grandfather Simon Michael Hayman (1812-1894, born in Hamburg) in 1837 and they lived in Bristol and retired to Weston-super-Mare. 

We are all descended from John Benwell of Sidcot (1749-1824). Maybe we share the same travel genes, as I have been lucky enough to have lived in various places all over the world since the 1950s, including Chittagong (then East Pakistan, now in Bangladesh), Sokoto  (Northern Nigeria) in the late 1970s, and from 2000 Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Perth (Western Australia), Antwerp (Belgium), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Manila (Philippines). Also when at school I stayed with my parents in the holidays when they were posted to places such as Khartoum (The Sudan) and Goroka (Papua-New Guinea). Being based in these different places also gave me the opportunity to explore and travel to other neighbouring countries, although our home base for almost 40 years has been Shropshire.  

Career-wise, I have worked mostly in Environmental Planning and Water Resource/Catchment Management Planning apart from an eleven-year family break when the children were young from the late seventies. Growing vegetables and gardening has been a hobby for many years. Since about 2006, unable to get a job after we moved to Belgium, I developed an interest in family history research, which has become a fascinating hobby for me, and I have had a number of articles published and have transcribed historical records as a volunteer. More recently, I have developed an interest in art history, particularly Orientalist Art and Victorian wood-engravings,  as I researched my artist relative Joseph Austin Benwell.

 Material researched and written by Dee Murray. Website compiled by Dee Murray. All rights reserved.

All images on this website are either scanned or photographed from the author’s own resources, or are in the public domain in digital format via websites such as HathiTrustOpenlibrary.orgthe Internet Archive ( or Google Books.

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