Edward Frederic Benson MBE JP
Edward Frederic Benson, or Fred as his family knew him, was born at Wellington College, Berkshire on 24th July 1867. Fred’s father Edward White Benson was the first Headmaster of Wellington College; he later went on to become Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral, then the first Bishop of Truro and from 1883 until his death in 1896 was Archbishop of Canterbury.
Fred was educated at Temple Grove School in East Sheen, Surrey between 1878 and 1881 and then went on to Marlborough College. In 1887 Fred and his close friend at Marlborough Eustace Miles both gained scholarships to King’s College, Cambridge. Fred graduated with an honours degree in archaeology.
On leaving Cambridge he led a small excavation at Chester at the city’s Roman walls, in search of Roman legionary tombstones. Between 1892 and 1897 he worked as an archaeologist on excavations at Luxor and Alexandria in Egypt and at Athens in Greece. In 1896 Fred’s father, Archbishop Benson died and the Benson family moved from Lambeth Palace, first to Winchester and then in 1899 to Tremans, a house near Horsted Keynes in Sussex. This remained the family home until the death of Fred’s mother Mary Benson in 1918, though Fred kept a home in London - first at 395 Oxford Street W1, then from 1905 at 102 Oakley Street SW3 and from 1915 until his death he lived at 25 Brompton Square SW3.
Fred’s first book Dodo was published in 1893 to great acclaim, causing something of a sensation when it appeared. Dodo was the first of over 100 books that Fred was to write including many novels and short stories dealing with the supernatural, in which Fred had a fascination. As well as fiction Benson also penned a number of biographical works including those on the lives of Charlotte Brontë, Queen Victoria, Sir Francis Drake and Alchibiades. Among Fred’s other works of non-fiction was English Figure Skating, published in 1908, (for Fred was an accomplished skater) and Winter Sports in Switzerland, published in 1913.
Fred is perhaps best known today for his six comic novels featuring Mrs Emmeline Lucas otherwise known as Lucia and Miss Elizabeth Mapp. These gems, wonderfully witty, tell the stories of the two ladies and their circle. Published over a period of some twenty years, the first, Queen Lucia, in 1920 and the third, Lucia in London, in 1927 are set in the village of Riseholme and tell the story of Lucia, leader of all artistic pursuits and social life in Riseholme. In Lucia in London, Lucia descends on the capital for the season, attempting to conquer the social scene.
In Miss Mapp, the second book, published in 1922, we are introduced to the town of Tilling and its inhabitants. Miss Elizabeth Mapp the leader of all social life there, reigns supreme from Mallards - her well appointed Queen Anne home. The fourth novel, Mapp and Lucia, published in 1931 bring the two formidable ladies together. In this and in the last two novels, Lucia’s Progress of 1935 and Trouble for Lucia published in 1939, the ladies battle it out, trying to out manoeuvre one another with endless dinner parties, evenings of bridge and afternoon teas, each vying for social supremacy and the position of ‘doyenne’ of Tilling.
Benson first visited Rye in 1900 staying as a guest of the writer Henry James at Lamb House. He then often visited Rye staying nearby at Leasam the home of his friend Lady Warrender. Following the death of Henry James in 1916, Fred and a friend took up an offer from the new tenant for use of Lamb House for the winter of 1916/17. In 1920 Benson was offered a sub lease on Lamb House for all but the summer months. From then on Lamb House became Fred’s county home and he alternated living there with his Brompton Square residence. Fred shared Lamb House with his brother Arthur from 1922 to Arthur’s death in 1925, Arthur having use of the house during university holidays and Fred the remainder of the year.
Fred very much regarded Rye as his home and in time he became very active in both the social life and civic affairs of the town. Benson was appointed a magistrate in 1933 and in 1934 was elected Mayor of Rye, serving as Mayor three years running. In 1938 on completion of his Mayoralty he was accorded a rare honour, being made a Freeman of the town. In 1928 he donated a stained glass window to St Mary’s church in memory of his brother A C Benson (Arthur) and then in 1937 he donated another window to St Mary’s in memory of his parents, Mary and Archbishop Benson. He paid too for the restoration of the organ at St Mary’s, and in 1935 he made a gift to the town of a viewing platform or belvedere, situated at Hilder’s Cliff at the end of the High Street near to the Land Gate, which looks out over the river Rother and across the salt flats.
Benson died in London on 29th February 1940 from cancer, and was buried, following a civic funeral at St Mary’s Church, at Rye cemetery on the outskirts of Rye. He is remembered each September when his grave is visited by The Friends of Tilling during their annual Gathering in Rye.
The Mapp and Lucia novels, E F Benson and Rye gained a new generation of devotees in the mid 1980s when the last three books were dramatised for Channel 4 by London Weekend Television as ‘Mapp and Lucia’. The TV series, which was filmed in Rye, has now been issued on DVD. Between 2003 and 2008 the first four novels, Queen Lucia, Lucia in London, Miss Mapp and Mapp & Lucia, adapted by Ned Sherrin, and the fifth Lucia’s Progress adapted by John Peacock were broadcast by BBC Radio 4. E F Benson and the Lucia novels are now attracting a further generation of admirers thanks to a new adaptation of Mapp & Lucia by Steve Pemberton, which was filmed on location in Rye and broadcast in three episodes on BBC One in December 2014.
In addition to The Friends of Tilling, who primarily celebrate Benson’s Tilling and other comic novels, the E F Benson Society aims to further the knowledge and appreciation of Fred and other members of the Benson family members of both societies and their guests are more than welcome at each others' events.