Written by Maurice Large, Acting Secretary and Chair of the Management Committee
Benjamin Bennet was born in Wellsborough, near Market Bosworth in Leicestershire about 1674, the son of a tenant farmer. When his father died in 1686, Bennet inherited the farm which included £100 in money or stock together with grazing ground and a rented meadow. He was, however, determined to enter the ministry, and was educated at the nonconformist John Woodhouse’s academy at Sheriffhales, Shropshire.
His first appointment was in 1697 at Temple Hall, which adjoins Wellsborough. On 30 May 1699 he was ordained with three other ministers at Oldbury in Shropshire. Following Richard Gilpin’s death in February 1700, Bennet was invited to succeed him at Newcastle. This was a blow to Thomas Bradbury, who had become Gilpin’s assistant on Timothy Manlove’s untimely death, but the congregation preferred Bennet, who was related to Manlove, with Bradbury as his assistant. Bradbury clearly was not happy about this situation and left after about three years and moved to London.
According to records from 1715, Bennet had a substantial congregation at Close Gate of about 700, and was assisted in turn by Nathaniel Fancourt, William Wilson and Samuel Lawrence (of whom more later in this series). He baptized, in 1721, the poet Mark Akenside, who later became a pupil at the school run by William Wilson at Wilson’s Academy in Hanover Square Meeting House. He also attended the Royal Grammar School in the 1730s (being commemorated in the School Song which I remember singing on numerous occasions)(1).
Over the winter of 1713/14 Bennet preached a series of sermons published as ‘Several Discourses Against Popery’, there being fears in the country of a return of the Stuart monarchy on the death of Queen Anne. His major controversial work, ‘A Memorial of the Reformation’, published in 1717, was ‘to celebrate Providence in our National Deliverances, among which that grand Deliverance from Popery’ (Preface, unpaginated)’.
During Bennet’s ministry it was decided to build a new church. A plot of land was purchased, part of the former White Friars estate off Westgate Street (now behind the Central Station). The intention was to build a square, to be called ‘Hanover Square’ in celebration of the Hanoverian monarchy, in which would be built a chapel and houses for the elders of the church. The houses were never built, but Hanover Square Chapel was home for the Unitarian congregation for over 100 years. It was a fitting memorial to Benjamin Bennet, but sadly he was never to worship in it. He fell ill on the day before the chapel was due to be opened and never recovered, dying on 1 September 1726, in his early 50s.
(1) Mark Akenside (1721-1770), (RGS 1730’s), “Poet and Physician: A Lover of Contradiction”. By Alan Castree (RGS 1953 – 61)