WILLIAM JAMES EARLY BENNETT was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the i5th of November, 1804. His father was William Bennett, Major in the corps of Royal Engineers, and his mother, Mary, daughter of James Early, also an officer in the army. William was their eldest son; his mother being but nineteen at the time of his birth, and his father twenty-two.
The real interest in the ancestry of any one who has become in any degree noticeable is to find in the forefathers the traces of those characteristics the development of which have produced the prominence of the descendant, an inquiry which is becoming something of an exact science. Mr. Bennett's father died of consumption at the age of thirty-seven, and very little has been recorded about him or about Mr. Bennett's grandfather, George Augustus Bennett, who was in the Royal Marines. But his great-grandfather, another William Bennett, attained the rank of Admiral, and his portrait, painted by Thomas Lawrenson, an Irish portrait-painter famous in his day, has been preserved. In the lines of that picture, and especially in the firm mouth, may be discerned the resolution and decision which distinguished Mr. Bennett. The same characteristics may be seen in the Admiral's letters (two volumes of which are preserved in the Record Office), both in their contents and their handwriting. Both Mr. Bennett and his ancestor were of the type which "nails its colours to the mast." In one of his letters the Admiral relates that he met a French frigate which failed to salute the English flag. On this he promptly "cleared for action," which the Frenchman perceiving proffered the usual courtesy. We feel sure that Mr. Bennett would have done the same as his ancestor.
Beyond the Admiral, who ran away with a girl from school, and was in consequence disowned by his relatives, there is at present no certain trace of the family.
It is, however, probable that Mr. Bennett derived his character largely from his mother, who must have had a reputation for firmness or obstinacy, since her children were wont, in their playful letters, to call her "old mules." She was very handsome, stately, somewhat brunette, with very dark hair and eyes. She had an acquaintance with Byron and Moore, of which she was proud, and would describe the latter singing his Irish melodies to his own accompaniment. She was a great reader, and could converse in Portuguese and Italian as well as French, and could even, what is unusual in England, appreciate the poetry of Camoens. It was no doubt from her that Mr. Bennett inherited, not only his striking personal appearance, but some of his firmness and of the vigorous powers of his mind.
It is a tradition in the family that her grandfather, Early, a farmer of Datchet, near Windsor, was so greatly in favour with "Farmer George" that his Majesty was often graciously pleased to walk round his farm with him and discuss the cattle and the crops.
There are no records of the childhood of Mr. Bennett further than that he displayed at that age a vigour of temper which frequently necessitated seclusion in a dark room before it could be conquered. His brother, G. A. Bennett, writing in 1838 to their mother, says, "His children have such tempers as I have heard you say Will himself had when a child."
In 1816 he was admitted at the age of twelve to Westminster School, and must have applied himself to his work with energy, for in 1818 he was made a King's Scholar. The head master was then William Page, who was succeeded in 1819 by Dr. Goodenough. As a King's Scholar, Bennett was present at the Coronation of George IV., in 1821, and he was also present on September 8, 1831, when William IV. was crowned. He was then Curate of Holy Trinity, St. Marylebone.
There are several portraits of him as a Westminster schoolboy, painted by his first cousin, W. H. Watts, who was secretary to Canning. Watts used often to take him to the theatre in his Westminster days, but Mr. Bennett had to regret the fact that his cousin was quite an unbeliever.
Both in 1821 and in 1822 Bennett took part in the Westminster play. In the former year he had the part of Charinus in Terence's play of Andria. Robert Eden, afterwards Bishop of Moray and Ross, and Primus of Scotland, had the character of Davus. The two friends were destined to meet afterwards on a wider stage, and a more important one, when Eden was one of the preachers in the Consecration Octave of the Church of S. Barnabas.
From May, 1822, to May, 1823, Bennett was Captain of the School, and as captain delivered the prologue of the play. Its main topic was the centenary of the dormitory, in which the play was then, and is still, acted. This time the play was the Eunuchus, of Terence, and to Bennett was assigned the part of Chremes, Robert Eden being Thraso. The part of Chremes in the Eunuchus is not so important as that of Charinus in the Andria, and it may be conjectured that the display of his powers of acting on the former occasion was not so striking as to entitle him to a leading part in the performance of 1822. Though destined to be accused of "histrionics" by a Bishop, and by Punch, those who knew him in after life will not be surprised to hear that his genius lay not in "play-acting "but in the serious business of life. Mr. Bennett's name is, or was recently, visible, printed on the wall of the dormitory.
In these days of glorified athletics we are naturally curious to know what were the athletics of Westminster when Bennett was captain, and what part he took in them. The "Water Ledger" of Westminster School is the earliest record of public school boat-racing which exists, and it commences in 1813. The following account derived from it throws a light on the rowing at a public school in the early part of the nineteenth century, and will interest old Westminsters.
"Bennett was in the boat for at least one year. In 1822-3 the crew of the Victory, the first Westminster eight, launched in 1819, consisted of, among others, No. 7, W. Bennett, who took the place of T. Knight, compelled to resign his seat through illness.
"This boat came down from Kew in one hour and ten minutes, there being a tremendous thunderstorm. It rained hard the whole way, and there was a strong wind against them. Then from Putney to the Stairs, against tide, in forty-seven minutes.
"This year, 1823, a new six-oared boat was built, and the name of Queen Bess was given to her in honour of our illustrious foundress.
"Bennett was not included in the crew at first, but he took part as No. 5, in a good performance on May i, 1823, when the boat started from the Horse Ferry, opposite to Lambeth Palace, at half-past five in the morning, and reached Chertsey Bridge by three o'clock. On their way back they dined at Walton, and again reached the Horse Ferry by a quarter before nine. The first of May being a holiday explains this unusually long row."
A little incident in the history of the Victory is worth recording.
"On the fifteenth of July, 1822, as the boat was coming up from Greenwich it ran down a skiff with four 'skies,' i.e. roughs, in it. They had purposely got in the way. Being abused by a spectator professing to be an old Westminster, the rowers retorted. The consequence was that the boat's crew were shown up next day to Dr. Goodenough by the spectator, who proved to be the doctor's intimate friend, and were kept off the river for the rest of the season."
If the future founder of S. Barnabas' took part in this wordy war it would seem that something yet remained of the fiery temper of childhood!
There was apparently no race against other crews in the year during which Bennett was in the boat, indeed it was not till 1829 that the first race was rowed with Eton, but in 1821 Westminster had given the Eagle, one of the leading clubs on the London river, a sound beating, and Dean Freemantle says that the Westminster boys had at that time the best boat on the river. To be in the boat, therefore, at that time seems to imply that Bennett was a really good oar.
The racing boats of those days were enormous compared with those of the present time. Canon Ellison, who in 1831 was in the crew, describes the boat of that year as a regular man-of-war's gig. The exertion of pulling this heavy boat in the shallow waters of the upper stream was so severe a tax on the muscles that Ellison had to carry his arms in slings for several days after the race with Eton. The contemporary pictures of racing boats fully bear out this description.
Of Bennett's taking part in any other sports at Westminster there is no trace. Football had not become then the important game which it is now. It was little played, and merely as a "scratch game." Thus there is no record of it. Nor is there any mention of his having distinguished himself at cricket, and it is probable that, like other oarsmen, he had no time to spare from the river.
It does not appear that Mr. Bennett continued to row at Oxford. His college, Christ Church, was at the head of the river in 1825, but he was not in the boat. It is said that Oxford rowing men in those days had, curiously enough, a bad reputation, and in consequence many men who had rowed at school dropped it on coming to Oxford. William Gresley, Mr. Bennett's friend, took this course when he went up from Westminster to Christ Church. Gresley's hero, in his "Portrait of an English Churchman," seems to allude to this, and to say that it prevented him from rowing. Nevertheless, Canon Carter, of Clewer, rowed in the Christ Church "torpid" of 1827, so that the rule, if it was one, was not without its exceptions.
At that time the Dean of Christ Church used to choose at least three Westminster scholars as students of Christ Church, and in 1823 Bennett was "elected head to Christ Church" i.e. was chosen as the first of those selected by the Dean. At the same time were elected to Christ Church, F. F. Underwood, who had been a fellow actor in the plays; Cyril Page, who had rowed with him in the Queen Bess, was afterwards Perpetual Curate of Christ Church, Broadway, Westminster, and was much accused, along with his quondam schoolfellow, of Popery; and lastly J. T. C. Fawcett, who had been Gnatho in the Eunuchus. Fawcett had afterwards the living of Kildwick, in Yorkshire, and died in 1867. Other old schoolfellows were with him at Christ Church. William Smythe, who had been Crito in the Andria, had been elected to Christ Church in 1822. Douglas Smith, eldest son of the witty canon, a fellow oarsman in the Victory, was likewise "elected head to Christ Church" in 1824. Hassard Hume Dodgson (Simo in the Andria) came also to Christ Church, and was Ireland Scholar in 1826. Lastly, Robert Eden, the future Primus, was elected as Scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge, but for some reason preferred to go to Christ Church as a commoner, and went up to Oxford at the same time as Mr. Bennett. William Gresley, afterwards one of his preachers in the S. Barnabas' Octave, was with him at Westminster, but, as he took his degree at Christ Church in 1823, must have been much his senior.
Mr. Bennett matriculated at Oxford, May 9, 1823, at the age of eighteen, and remained there till 1826. It will be interesting to briefly note in this place the mental position, at the time of his residence, of those Oxford men who were to be the chief performers in the greatest and most important religious drama of the nineteenth century. Although, according to Newman's era, the curtain was not to rise upon the first scene for ten years, most of the actors were there and earnestly, though unconsciously, preparing for their parts.
Keble, "the inspirer of the movement," had been Fellow of Oriel since 1811, but in the course of 1823 he left Oxford to be curate to his father at Coin S. Aldwyn, living at Fairford as his father did. He did not return to Oxford till appointed Professor of Poetry, so that it is extremely improbable that Mr. Bennett knew him personally during his undergraduate career. His friendship with Keble must have been of a much later date.
Newman, who as a boy had been trained to consider himself as converted and saved, still, in 1823, considered the Pope to be Antichrist. He became, in 1824, Curate of S. Clement's, a church visible from Magdalen Bridge. Its appearance from that point, and some odd details of its architecture, obtained for it from frivolous but witty undergraduates the nickname of "The boiled rabbit." Another year had yet to elapse before Newman, in 1825, took the first steps towards giving up the so-called Evangelicalism in which he had been brought up.
Pusey, destined to give one of its nicknames to the movement, was, in 1823, elected a Fellow of Oriel. At this time his mind was occupied with the theology of Germany, and he lived partly in Germany and partly at his country house in Berkshire.
Richard Hurrell Froude was, in 1823, still an undergraduate of Oriel, and was elected three years later, along with Robert Wilberforce, a Fellow of the college.
There is no reason to think that, during his Oxford career, Mr. Bennett was acquainted with any of these future leaders, but George Anthony Denison had matriculated at Christ Church in 1822, and has told us in his memorial sermon that his friendship with Mr. Bennett began in their undergraduate days.
In many a battle for the faith they were destined to fight side by side. "We were together at Gorham," said Mr. Bennett to him at one of the Froome Octaves, recalling the battle for Baptismal Regeneration; and, again, when Mr. Bennett defended the Archdeacon's "Propositions of Faith," they fought together for Eucharistic truth.
The future chiefs of the movement were then dimly and gradually feeling their way towards the light--ex umbris et imaginibus ad veritatem; the light, the truths which had been so long obscured by the semi-unbelief and semi-dissent which invaded the Church in the eighteenth century.
It is, perhaps, disappointing that Mr. Bennett's name does not occur in the honours lists, as his previous record would have led us to expect. There is a tradition in the family that he was ill and unable to present himself for the examination. At that period there was no distinction as now between Junior and Senior Students of Christ Church, but on taking his degree a Student remained on the foundation till he vacated his Studentship by marriage or by the acceptance of a college living. Thus the venerable Father Benson, of Cowley, remains still a "Student" of Christ Church.
Mr. Bennett took his B.A. degree in 1827 and his M.A. degree in 1829.