Thomas Benham, hitherto little more than a name in the early-nineteenth century development of Southampton, is beginning to emerge as a significant influence on the urban topography of the town. His place of birth is unknown. He was in Poole by November 1815, working as a builder, architect and surveyor. His most important commission, mired in controversy and ill-feeling, was as builder of the new church of St James, 1819-21, a replacement for the dilapidated and condemned medieval church. It was a financial debacle. He was declared bankrupt on 8 February 1821, losing £2,361.18s.8d on the contract. The principal creditors were the Swanage stonemasons Nathan and James Chinchin and the churchwardens of St James parish. The aggrieved builder sought to clear himself from allegations of financial malpractice in an undated handbill addressed to the inhabitants of the town:

“for although I have been unfortunate, yet I wish to convince you that I never had an intention to injure anyone. The Cash which I brought with me to Poole and which I received afterwards before I began to build the Church, amounted to £1250 besides Household Furniture to the value of £80, and I have lost the whole of this sum (except about one hundred and fifty pounds which I lost by a fire at St Johns) in building the Church, besides a heavy loss which my Creditors sustained; I owed no money whatever when I came to Poole, for I first started in business here; and I never paid any debts on account of my Father as it has been insinuated” (reproduced in Derek Beamish, John Hillier and H F V Johnstone, Mansions and merchants of Poole and Dorset, volume 1, 1976, p 174).

The last date we have for the family in Poole is 14 February 1823, the baptism of his fourth child. Thomas Benham is in Southampton by the autumn of 1825. His entre to this new, vibrant and challenging world may have been eased by John Kent, a Southampton-based architect who, with Joseph Hannaford of Christchurch, had designed St James’s Church. Although an undischarged bankrupt with no discernible architectural record, Benham was entrusted by Richard Evamy, hop merchant and property speculator, with the development of Portland Street and Portland Terrace. Plans and designs were submitted to the Corporation in September 1825. Five months later, 44 lots were offered for sale on 99-year building leases (Salisbury Journal, 20 February 1826). Detailed building specifications were enforced by strict covenants. Obligatory street-front elevations were drawn by Benham (Southampton City Archives D/MW 62/1/2, attachment to an agreement of 10 April 1826: reproduced as figure 1).

New assembly rooms on land leased by Evamy from the Corporation in Spa Gardens were an integral part of the development. An advertisement in the Salisbury Journal, 10 and 17 April 1826 refers to the plans and elevations of the proposed new assembly rooms and to the building lots adjoining to the north. The New Rooms (renamed the Archery Rooms and the Royal Victoria Assembly Rooms in quick succession) were opened in the summer of 1830. They were accessed via Portland Terrace. Given his connection with the Portland Street development, it is likely that the assembly rooms were also by Thomas Benham. An engraving by Philip Brannon in The picture of Southampton, [1849], facing p 56 shows a similarity of design with the prescribed classical Portland Street/ Terrace elevations. An article on Richard Evamy appears in The Journal of the Southampton Local History Forum, no.24, Spring 2015.

It is difficult to quantify the other speculative building projects with which Benham was connected. He was surveyor and architect on the initial development of Grosvenor Square, responsible for the “plans and designs of the intended elevations and the disposition of the ground” (Hampshire Advertiser, 27 February 1830). Land behind Cumberland Place was “allotted for the erection of a certain number of villas – detached, and a garden to each, a spacious area to be inclosed and planted in the centre of the ground”. A plan of 1831 (Southern Evening Echo, 31 December 1938, from the collections of W Burrough Hill) shows five villas on the northern boundary of the square, four villas on the southern boundary and a terrace of four houses on the eastern boundary (figure 3).This is presumably the outline of Benham’s original plan. Building was piecemeal. Benham was named as contact architect for the lease/sale of “a commodious mansion, fitted up in first-rate style, and calculated for the reception of a large family” advertised in the Hampshire Advertiser, 9 June 1832. This is presumably Oak Villa on the south-west corner of what was then Grosvenor Place, built for the cornfactor William Oke in 1830 (figure 4). The sale/lease of Grosvenor Mews at the bottom of lower Bedford Place, also owned by William Oke, in the same advertisement suggests Benham may also have been involved in its design. He is contact architect for the sale three years later of a “substantial and well-built house in Carcase, nearly in a finished state” in Grosvenor Square (Hampshire Telegraph, 3 June 1833). Some of the houses in Cumberland Place are perhaps also attributable to Benham. He is a contact for the sale of 17 Cumberland Place, that “capital newly-erected first rate leasehold dwelling house” on the intersection with Grosvenor Place, advertised in the Hampshire Advertiser, 18 September 1834. The same advertisement – for disposal of the property assets of the bankrupt Southampton stonemasons Robert Barker and John Harley – also gives Benham as contact for the sale of five tenanted freehold dwelling houses in Carlton Place: a possible indication that he was instrumental in their design.

Outside this core area, Benham is identified with a cottage in Millbrook parish (Hampshire Advertiser, 20 March 1830) and the offer for sale of “building leases about 30 acres in Bittern [Bitterne] for erecting detached villas” (Hampshire Advertiser, 18 September 1830). Bishopstoke Manor House may also be a Benham design. He is contact architect for the lease of this “genteel modern family residence” advertised in the Salisbury Journal, 4 May 1829.

Three significant ecclesiastical commissions fell to Benham. Each was for a subsidiary chapel of ease financed largely through private benefaction and subscription.

St Paul’s Church in London Road was built to accommodate the large and wealthy congregation growing up around Bellevue on the northern edge of the town. It was a simple parallelogram in perpendicular gothic, the front ornamented with two polygon-shaped turrets, 80 feet high, surmounted with spires (figure 5). A correspondent to Wheeler’s Hampshire and West of England Magazine, February 1828 thought its appearance “half warlike, half religious”. Building tenders were advertised on 17 January 1827 and the church opened the following year. The Southampton Herald, 9 July 1827 thought that Benham had “unquestionably shown a perfect knowledge of his profession. His abilities are appreciated by the nobility and gentry, who have engaged him in erecting villas and otherwise improving their estates”.

His other two churches lay outside the borough. St John’s Church, Shedfield, was built between 1828 and 1829 (building tenders were advertised on 13 October 1828). St Mary’s Church, North Eling [Copythorne] was opened in 1834. Benham was also considered as architect for a new parish church planned for Botley the same year (Hampshire Archives and Local Studies 44M80/PW9: letter of 28 October 1834 to – Jenkins, Esq of Botley in which he refers to a plan of Eling chapel he has supplied and to possible alterations in designs to the church). The contract was ultimately awarded to James William Wild of London (responsible for rebuilding St Lawrence’s Church in Southampton, 1839-42).

Little is known of Benham’s personal life. Four children born to Thomas and his wife Rebecca were baptised in St James’s Church, Poole: Thomas (10 April 1816), Charles Allen (1 January 1819), Elizabeth Norman (18 January 1822: buried 18 February 1822) and Augustus Frederick (14 February 1823). He practiced as an architect in Southampton at a succession of three addresses: Orchard Lane (c.1826), 18 Bernard Street (c.1827-9, from where he advertised for youths to take articles in his “extensive practice”) and 25 Portland Street (c.1829-35, a tenant of Richard Evamy at an annual rent of £65). He was a commissioner of waterworks for All Saints parish (resigned March 1835) and in elections for the town voted Tory. He died in College Street, aged 50, on 25 August 1837. He was buried in St Mary’s three days later.

Thomas Benham epitomises the uncertain world of early-nineteenth century Southampton. He spent almost one half of his professional life in Southampton as a bankrupt. As we have seen, he came to the town an undischarged bankrupt and remained a bankrupt in law until 28 September 1830 when a final dividend was paid to his creditors. It was during this period that he designed Portland Street, Portland Terrace, the assembly rooms (arguably), Grosvenor Place, St Paul’s Church, Bishopstoke Manor House and Shedfield church. He was back before the Court for Relief of Insolvent Debtors in Southampton on 25 August 1835, although he was quickly discharged on filing new accounts.

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