Archive: The Magnificent Seven; Chris Upton Awards the Prize for Birmingham's Greatest Family to .

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

To whom should we award the title of Birmingham's greatest family? You could make a good case for the Chamberlains - Joseph, Austen and Neville - or perhaps for the Hills, of whom Rowland is the best known. Or maybe for the Kennedys, that over-achieving tribe of scholars and poets.

But if you think that running the country, inventing the postage stamp and teaching Latin to the nation is distinction enough, let me introduce you to the Bensons.

The first generation of Clan Benson is not so impressive. Edward White Benson (1800-43) was an unsuccessful chemist, with a habit of blowing himself up. But at least he brought the family to Birmingham - to Lombard Street and then to Spring Hill - where he founded the short-lived British White Lead Co in Winson Green. It was this factory's failure that led to his early demise. He had much better luck with his offspring.

There were eight children, but let's concentrate on two of them, Ada and Edward. Ada (1840-82) became a pioneer in girls' education, taking on the headship of Norwich High School and Bedford High School.

Both schools were products of the influential Girls' Public Day School Co, but Ada broadened the model curriculum to include chemistry, physical exercise and languages, and even employed a drill sergeant. Her husband, Andrew McDowall, dutifully followed her career path, but made the mistake of getting her pregnant once too often, resulting in her untimely death.

In her own education and later calling, Ada was admirably assisted by her older brother, also called Edward White Benson (1829-96). 'White', as he was known as a child, was born in Lombard Street and became a day-boy at King Edward's School. Indeed, he may claim to have been the most famous pupil the school ever reared.

White rose to become headmaster of Wellington College in Berkshire, first Bishop of Truro and (in 1883) Archbishop of Canterbury.

And if promotion to the highest rank in the Anglican church does not impress you, then EWB initiated one tradition while at Truro, which continues to play its part in our national life today. It was Benson's bright idea to institute a service of Nine Lessons and Carols as part of the Christmas rituals at the new cathedral.

That would be quite enough achievement for most families, but the Bensons went further still.

In 1859, when a master at Rugby School, Edward White Benson married his cousin, Mary Sidgwick. It was not an easy marriage, for Edward wasn't an easy husband, aloof, cold and prone to spells of depression.

But Mary bore him six children, five of whom receive entries in The Dictionary of National Biography. The sixth - Martin - might well have done so, too, but a life of promise was cut short by meningitis while at Winchester College. All of them, and this is something the various contributors to the DNB are curiously reticent to mention, were gay. Do not expect another generation after this one.

Margaret Benson (1865-1916), educated at Truro Girls' High, was something of a theologian and a philosopher, but it was her work as an Egyptologist, excavating the Temple of Mut near Karnak, which is her main claim to fame; that and a series of remarkable prose-poems published in 1913. …