Street View: 32
Address: 64 Lamb’s Conduit Street
William Benson was the son of John Whitfield, cheesemonger at 16 Lamb’s Conduit Street, and Hannah Benson, from whom he derived his second name, Benson. He did not become a cheesemonger as his father and several of his relations had done, but he opted for a medical profession.(1) The 1841 census records him as a surgeon at 64 Lamb’s Conduit Street and the London Medical Directory for 1846 tells us that William Benson was a general practitioner with a Licence of the Society of Apothecaries since 25 August 1836, and a member of the Royal College of Surgeons since 28 July 1837. The Student’s Handbook for the Medical Department of King’s College, London for 1845 contains a list of students who had won prizes in the medical department and William Benson’s name is mentioned quite a few times:
Session 1831-1832: botany and medicine
Session 1832-1833: botany and midwifery
Session 1833-1834: midwifery and medicine
Session 1834-1835: general medical proficiency, surgery and forensic medicine
It would be nice to know why exactly he received these prizes. Perhaps the archives of King’s College can tell us more, but I gather from their online catalogue, that the file holding the examination results and prizes only starts in 1860.
In 1843, William Benson Whitfield married Margaret Benning and this is where it gets complicated: William Benson’s father John had a half-brother William, butterman at 44 Old Bond Street, who had married Jane Barbara Benning, the daughter of James Benning, surgeon of Barnard Castle.(2) One of Jane’s brothers was William Benning, the law bookseller of 43 Fleet Street; another brother was Joseph Anthony, whose daughter Margaret became the wife of William Benson. In other words, William Benson Whitfield married the niece of his father’s sister-in-law.(3) And because he lived in London and would in normal circumstances require a license issued by the Vicar General of the archbishop of Canterbury, while she lived in Staindrop, County Durham, and would require a licence from the archbishop of York, he applied for a marriage licence from the Faculty Office, as one was supposed to do in the case of partners living in different ecclesiastical provinces. The license was issued on 21 September 1843 and was valid for three months. William Benson and Margaret do not seem to have had any children. The 1851 and 1861 censuses list William and Margaret at 64 Lamb’s Conduit Street, but by 1871 they had moved to Trimpley, Ellesmere, Shropshire. In the accounts for the years 1865 and 1866 of the Bedford Charity, 64 Lamb’s Conduit Street is listed for “J. Whitfield (per T. Robinson)”.(4) Thomas Robinson, M.R.C.S. London, M.D. St. Andrews, General practitioner, must have taken over the medical practice from Whitfield as he was listed at number 64 (then 35) in the 1871 census. William Benson died in Ellesmere in 1889 and his probate record gives his widow Margaret as the sole executor. His estate was first valued at £8,415, but later resworn at £7,870. Margaret died in 1900 and had named George Corpe Whitfield, the son of William Benson’s uncle, George Pinckney Whitfield, as her executor. Her estate was first valued at £11,533, but resworn at £10,654.
As can be expected of a surgeon or general practitioner, William Benson was regularly asked to give evidence at inquests or court cases, and he also performed autopsies. In 1865, John Cockle, physician to the Royal Free Hospital, wrote a book on intra-thoracic cancer, a collection of previously published papers on the subject. On pages 105-111 he included a paper published in 1854 in the Association Medical Journal on ‘encephaloid cancer of the lungs simulating laryngeal phthisis’. The patient with the disease died and William Benson performed the autopsy. I will spare you the gruesome detail, but if you want you read them here. Whitfield himself wrote about one of his cases in a learned journal, The Lancet from which The London and Edinburgh Monthly Journal of Medical Science (1842) abridged the following report, which clearly shows that the treatment of diseases had a long way to go before they even resembled the kind of treatment we now expect. Below is the first part of Whitfield’s description, but, if you want, you can read the whole article here.
An example of evidence Whitfield had to give in a court case is that of the 1842 Old Bailey case against William Wells, accused of beating the child of his partner while she was out to do some shopping. Whitfield gave evidence as he had examined the child a few days later, stating that the injuries on the child’s head could have been caused by the bed rail as was alleged. The neighbours also testified against the accused and, although – fortunately – the injuries were not fatal, Wells was sentenced to one year in prison.(5) All in a days work for a doctor, one might say, but in 1849, things were very different. Whitfield was called to Bartholomew Peter Drouet’s establishment for pauper children in Tooting where a serious outbreak of cholera had occurred. The children were referred to Drouet’s by various London parishes and he housed as many children as he could cram into the available space. In 1848, he housed around 1400 children and as was almost inevitable, an outbreak of a contagious disease had catastrophic consequences. In the 1848-1849 cholera outbreak, some 180 children died. The inspector from the Board of Health who visited Tooting in early 1849 reported that the overcrowding and lack of ventilation had certainly contributed to the spreading of the disease. Many children were removed, but many were not and suffered unnecessarily because of that decision. The children came from various parishes and were hence dependent on the decisions of the parish to which they belonged.
The various inquests on the death of the children saw very different outcomes, but the one held on the children from Holborn tried to prove Drouet guilty of manslaughter. He was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1849 and Whitfield gave evidence as one of the medical officers of the Holborn Union. He stated that he had seen the establishment on the 4th of January and that 156 children, on his recommendation, were removed the following day. Despite overwhelming evidence that poor sanitation, inadequate food and cold had not done the children any good, Drouet was found not guilty as the children had died of cholera and it could not be proven that their individual deaths were due to neglect on Drouet’s part.(6) The verdict caused great outrage and Charles Dickens, who had already – anonymously – submitted several critical articles in The Examiner on Drouet’s establishment, wrote on 23 April in the same paper, “The peculiarity of this verdict is, that while it has released the accused from the penalties of the law, it has certainly not released him from the charge”. According to Dickens the prosecution had established that Drouets’ treatment of the children was appalling and he wished that the law had been enforced “with less tenderness for Drouet and more concern for his victims”. Drouet died a few months later in Margate. You can read more about Drouet, the court case and Dickens’s articles here.
But medical issues were not William Benson’s only worry. His father John’s will contained the following clause,
I give and devise unto my Son W[illia]m Benson Whitfield my brother George Pinckney Whitfield and William Todd of Barnsbury Park in Islington their heirs & ass[ign]s my messuages burgages or dwelling houses with the appurt[enance]s situate near the entrance into the church yard from the Market Place of Barnard Castle in the County of Durham and w[hi]ch were purchased by my said late Grandfather and also my part & share of the freehold messuages workshops warehouses yards & tenements at Barnard Castle afore said with the appurt[enance]s & of the mill & appurt[enance]s at or near Bowes in the Co[unt]y of York w[hi]ch are held by me in common with my partners in a Carpet Manufactory To hold the same unto the said W[illia]m Benson Whitfield Geo[rge] Pinckney Whitfield & W[illia]m Todd their heirs & ass[igns] Upon the Trusts hereinafter specified I give devise & bequeath unto the s[ai]d W[illia]m Benson Whitfield Geo[rge] Pinckney Whitfield & W[illia]m Todd then ex[ecute] & adm[inister] all my leasehold tenements & also all my money plate linen & household furniture stock in trade book debts & all of my Personal Estate & effects and also my part or share of the capital and stock of the s[ai]d carpet manufactury upon the trusts hereina[fter] specified …(7)
John Whitfield had been a partner in the carpet manufactury in Barnard Castle of Monkhouse, Whitfield & Dixon. In the early part of the 19th century, the workers of the town had their livelihoods threatened by a sharp decline in the demand for woollen cloth and an alternative source of income was provided by the opening in 1815 of the Monkhouse carpet factory. Whitfield joined Monkhouse and Dixon in the 1820s, possibly after the death of his father and uncle who both died in 1824 and left him substantial assets. In 1843, William Benson Whitfield, George Pinckney Whitfield, and William Todd, as executors of the will of John Whitfield, went into partnership with Joshua Monkhouse as Monkhouse & Company, but the partnership was already dissolved in 1845, and the carpet factory became known as Joshua Monkhouse & Sons and after Joshua’s retirement as Monkhouse Bros.(8)
And, to come back to 64 (now 35) Lamb’s Conduit Street, which looks, from the outside, still very much as it had done at the time that Tallis produced his Street View (±1839). If we compare the elevation from Tallis at the top of this post with the Google Street View picture above, we can see that the house still has the same number of windows in the same place. The top floor seems to have been built with bricks of a lighter colour and the cornice between the second and third floor looks a bit odd, perhaps indicating that the top floor was not yet there when the houses were built and a later addition.
(1) There was a Richard Gullett Whitfield, Apothecary and Secretary of the Medical School at St Thomas’s Hospital from 1833-1876, but there does not seem to be a close family link between him and William Benson.
(2) The will of James Benning is transcribed on the Will Transcriptions Website here.
(3) Thanks go to Catherine Ryan for helping me to sort out this web of relationships.
(4) Schools Inquiry Commission III (1866).
(5) Old Bailey case t18420103-582, online here.
(6) Old Bailey case t18490409-919, online here.
(7) PROB11/1985. Transcription copied from Will Transcription Website (see here).
(8) People and Patterns. The Carpet Weaving Industry in 19th century Barnard Castle, ed. Dennis Coggins, publ. The Friends of the Bowes Museum (1996), see also here. The London Gazette, 25 November 1845.
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