George Brooks Bennett
1816 - 1907
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Featured in BBC History Magazine: Hands on History - June 2007
Reviewed in Family Tree Magazine in December 2007 - 'an excellent example of how to unpick the growth of a family legend ... this book gives a vivid account of a middle class family's lifestyle, outlook and trials and tribulations across the whole of the 19th century' Sheena Tait.
The Bennett family whose letters form the guiding thread through this book lived lives that spanned the whole of the 19th century. The letters are not essays or dry official reports; they are full of gossip and good humour and tell of the ups and downs, joys and tragedies of family life during two long generations. The Bennetts lived in St Helena, England, and South Africa and from the letters we hear of their many and varied experiences during this period.
The letters have been drawn together for the first time from many different sources; some are in national archives; some in the hands of far flung family members; none, apart from a very heavily abridged extract from one of George Brooks Bennett's letters, have been published before.
The narrative that links the letters into a readable story includes a selection of other contemporary accounts from a range of sources. To maintain the freshness of the book most of these have been taken from little known works long out of print.
Whether a general reader of 19th century history or professional historian 'The Bennett Letters' will provide a new insight into this absorbing period of English colonial history.
So who were the Bennetts?
The 'father' of the family was James Bennett who was born in London in 1773 and, at the age of 16, joined the army of the East India Company. He spent most of his career in St Helena, a small but important island in the South Atlantic. During his time on the island he rose in rank from 'private' to a senior captain in the St Helena Foot Regiment.
His main claim to fame is a somewhat mysterious link with the Emperor Napoleon who was exiled to the island in 1815 after his defeat at Waterloo. According to some histories, Napoleon was buried in a coffin manufactured from James Bennett's mahogany dining table. How true is this story?
Was Napoleon buried in a coffin made from James Bennett's dining table?
The truth behind this story is revealed for the first time.
Whatever the truth was (and I'm not going to reveal it here!) James' life was more than just a Napoleonic footnote. His story reveals a family man who desperately tried to provide a good education for his many children; a keen horticulturist; a talented amateur actor; a man who strove to improve his lot but, ultimately, a man struck down by bad luck and a declining economy that brought his family to the edge of penury.
A social history of life in a 19th century army family
James' children had varying successes in life: Thomas, the only child born to his first wife became a watch finisher and was last heard of in Monte Video, the two eldest sons by his second wife never left England - Charles became a lawyer in London and Robert, the second son, a cabinet maker who followed his trade in the Midlands. The third son, William, was a bit of a bully. He was sent to school in England but returned to St Helena in 1830 desperate to join the East India Company. He wrote some bawdy, gossipy letters to his brother Charles before eventually getting his wish and being posted to India where he came to a particularly nasty end.
The eldest daughter, Eliza, married the Governor, Sir Patrick Ross, a veteran of the Peninsula War but was widowed within a few years. As a committed Christian she spent the rest of her life on the island doing good works. Eleanor (Ellen), the second daughter, charmed a French nobleman but married an English sea captain. The youngest, ‘poor’ Julia, was sent home to England in disgrace. . .
George, the youngest son and perhaps the best raconteur, had a varied and interesting life which he recorded in a long letter to one of his daughters when he was in his seventies. From it we hear of his early life on St Helena including being present at Napoleon's funeral; then of his voyage to England at the tender age of 4½ —firstly to school in Alton, Hampshire and later to London where he worked for his brother Charles. Deeply drawn to botany and horticulture, he quickly tired of city life and returned to St Helena. Seeking employment he was offered a post as a clerk in the Commissariat just as sovereignty of the island was being transferred from the East India Company to the Crown. In the 1840s he witnessed Napoleon’s exhumation, and later met Joseph Hooker who was a botanist on James Clark Ross's expedition to Antarctica. He kept up a correspondence with both Sir William and Joseph Hooker and began sending plants to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In 1850, married and with a growing family, he was posted to South Africa where he saw service and travelled extensively in both the Eastern and Western Cape regions. On his retirement as Chief Staff Paymaster of the Cape Command, he purchased 'Waterhof' a small estate on the side of Table Mountain. There he created a magnificent garden that became a great attraction for visitors to the Cape including General Gordon and Robert Baden-Powell.
* Special Price available from the author (use 'Contact me' link) or from 'Miles Apart' New and secondhand books on the South Atlantic islands, Ian Mathieson, Tel: 01638-577627 email: email@example.com or from WH Smith (use link http://www.whsmith.co.uk/whs/go.asp) or from Amazon (Note that book is available from stock and will not take 4-6 weeks as stated on Amazon's page).
|© Colin Fox : 2007 all rights reserved
|Last updated 21-Jan-08