Address: 19 Wigmore Street
Street View: 50
John Lee Benham had his business at 19 Wigmore Street, a substantial building on the corner of Welbeck Street. From the vignette he had in Tallis’s Street View, we learn that he was a furnishing ironmonger, a stove manufacturer, and a portable warm & vapor bath manufacturer. An 1857 Old Bailey case in which a policeman was accused of stealing from Benham’s under the guise of patrolling the area, tells us more about the property. John Lee was called as a witness and he relates that the firm was in the processs of incorporating 65 Welbeck Street into the business at Wigmore Street. Number 64 Welbeck Street was already part of the business and workmen were employed to knock out the partition wall. John Lee’s bedroom was on the second floor in Wigmore Street, on the corner of Welbeck Street, and when he was woken up one morning by the ringing of the doorbell, he found the door at number 64 open. The back door of the Benham property opened into Eastley Mews and anyone using a ladder could have got onto “the leads” and hence into the property through one of the windows the builders were working on. Sons Frederick and James gave evidence about petty cash stolen from their respective desks. The policeman was found guilty and transported for life.(1)
John Lee was born in 1785 in Reading, Berkshire, the son of Avery Benham (1753-1829), a smith. Avery moved to London in 1791 and set up a tinplate workshop in Commerce Row, Blackfriars Road. John Lee worked for his father until 1817 when he bought his own business in Wigmore Street (then called Edward Street). In 1824, he moved to the former home of the bishop of Chicester at number 19. John’s first wife died giving birth to their second child, leaving him with daughter Emily(2). He remarried in 1818 to Jane Kirkpatrick and there were to be seven more children. A basic family tree can be found below. An extented tree with the next generation can be found here as a PDF-file. I offer no pretence at completeness, but it will give you some idea of the various generations. On some family members, more information can be found outside the bare dates of birth and death and these are listed in footnote 3.
With the exception of Edward, who became a printer in Colchester, the sons of John Lee came to work in their father’s business and so did some of the grandsons. At some point, a separate partnership was entered into by John Lee, his son Augustus and one Joseph William Froud under the name of Benham and Froud at Chandos Street (later at 170 Regent Street). In 1848, John junior was apprenticed to his brother Augustus, but later came to work in his father’s business. In 1863, John Lee retired from the Froud partnership, but Augustus and Joseph William Froud carried on.(4) Why it is frequently said that it is not clear whether Benham and Froud had anything to do with the Benham’s of Wigmore Street is a mystery to me. The London Gazette notice about the partnership is clear enough. That the Benham & Froud business was successful, can be seen from the 1871 census where August is described as a coppersmith master, employing 110 men and boys. In 1874, Froud and Benham were mentioned for their improvements in refrigerators.(5)
But back to the business in Wigmore Street. John Lee died in 1864, and the executors were sons James and Frederick.(6) Various members of the family can be seen living above the property in subsequent censuses, either in Wigmore Street itself, or round the corner in Welbeck Street. At some point in the 1860s, the numbering in the street must have changed as in 1871, James and John Benham can be seen living at numbers 50 and 52 respectively and the business address changes from 19 Wigmore Street to 50 Wigmore Street without an actual move taking place. If we compare the 1799 Horwood map with the 1893 Ordnance Survey map, we can see that the property on the corner of Welbeck Street has developed into a substantial iron works covering most of the inner space in the block with the original property in the right hand lower corner and an additional entrance in Wigmore Street, closer to Marylebone Lane. A photograph of that new entrance can be found here.
Stanley, John’s son and author of a history of the firm, printed by his uncle Edward’s firm in Colchester, wrote that number 26 Wigmore Street (afterwards nr 66) was taken with “a great deal of land at the back with an entrance to Easley Mews”. There the Benhams “built what was for those days a very fine new factory which was well arranged and had excellent facilities for our class of work”.(7) Numbers 58-65 Welbeck Street were purchased between 1860 and 1870. The houses were let to medical specialists and large showrooms were built over the gardens. According to Stanley, when John Lee started out for himself, all the manufacturing was at first done by his father in Blackfriars Road, but when the business moved to 19 Wigmore Street in 1824, he started manufacturing his own products. The workshops were in the basement and cellars, the showroom was on the ground floor and John Lee lived on the first floor.
When the Reform Club was built in 1841 by Sir Charles Barry, Alexis Soyer, the head chef at the Club, designed the kitchens and Benham secured the order for fitting them up. All the equipment for the kitchen was produced in Wigmore Street. In 1922, Stanley was asked to advise the Club and he found the original open fire roasting ranges still in use. The Illustrated London News and The Builder both produced illustrations of the new kitchens of the Club, but the latter also illustrated some of the equipment that Benham’s had provided.
James died in 1885 and things went downhill from then on. The patent cooking apparatus, one of the steady sellers, was dropped and ambitious new ideas did not work out. According to Stanley “it was absurd to attempt to make large Lancashire steam boilers, calorifiers, pumps, lifts, radiators, etc., in the heart of the West End of London”. Gross mistakes were made in the estimated costs of contracts, and it was found that in one instance, the actual costs of a large contract had exceeded the estimate by 40 per cent. The idea to build showrooms over the gardens was an idea of Frederick, but Stanley doubted that it ever paid. Frederick died in 1891 and the firm was formed into a private company. According to Stanley, his uncle Frederick had been a nice chap, but not strict enough and when Stanley entered the business in 1892, he “found an incredible amount of drunkenness. Quite a dozen or more of the staff and some of the workmen were drinking much too much”. Stanley’s father John died in 1899 and Walter (the son of James) became chairman and some of John Lee’s grandsons directors.
In 1901, there were serious disagreements within the board after troubles over noise from the factory and a subsequent reshuffling of leases in the area, resulting in Percy’s (son of Frederick) resignation. A few months later, Percy’s brother Arthur Howard died. The Frederick side of the family wanted out and in 1907 a new Company was formed with Walter and Stanley as managing directors. The business was moved to Lombard Road, Battersea in 1906, but that site turned out to be too small with the additional naval work acquired, so they relocated the factory to what had been Macmurray’s Paper Mills in Garret Lane. The Benham offices remained at Wigmore Street.
The Navy work gained more prominence and better ranges were developed for on board ships and Benham’s even supplied Captain Scott for his Antarctic Expedition with a stove that could work on burning blocks as well as on whale blubber. In World War I, cooking and baking apparatus, depth charges, aerial bombs and rings for mine sinkers were produced by Benham’s. One night there was a – relatively minor – fire at the factory and the firemen were faced with water jets turning into fire. The stronger the jet, the greater the flames. This was caused by the phosphide of calcium with was used in the anti-submarine devices. War is a dirty business indeed. The family connection with the business ceased in the 1960s and Benham’s became part of Thorn Electrical Industries.
Do not forget to look at the comments on this post, especially at the one from the London Museum of Water & Steam who have restored a steam driven pump supplied by the Benhams.
(1) Old Bailey, case t18570105-226.
(2) Emily was to become the second wife of Edward Bean Underhill who wrote, among other things, The West Indies: their Social and Religious Condition, published in 1862 by Jackson & Walford.
(3) Edward Benham, newspaper proprietor and printer (see here).
William Gurney, son of Edward, continued his father’s newspaper and print shop and was knighted in 1895 (see here).
Gertrude Emily, daughter of Frederick, became an intrepid traveller and explorer (see here and R.J. Howgego, Gertrude Emily Benham 1867-1938: a ‘very quiet and harmless traveller’, 2009).
Most of the Benhams were baptists and contributed to the congregation (see here). James Harvey, husband of John Lee’s daughter Jane, was also a baptist and contributed generously to their places of worship (see here).
Charles Henry (1874-1916) was the son of Henry Charles (1847-1922), who was the son of James Benham (1820-1885). Rather than working in the business, Henry Charles and Charles Henry both became medical doctors. Charles served in the Royal Army Medical Corps and his life has been described here.
(4) London Gazette, 13 November 1863.
(5) London Gazette, 24 March 1874.
(6) England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1864.
(7) S. Benham, Under Five Generations. The Story of Benham & Sons Ltd (1937).
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