James Benwell – a Humble Son of Science

201 years ago, when James Benwell died at the good old age of 84, he was a well-known character in Oxford. He’s since been almost entirely forgotten, but he deserves to be remembered.

I’m going to start my story in 1817, when James was nearing the end of his life. That year, an extraordinary letter appeared in Jackson’s Oxford Journal, providing a biography and character description of James. The whole piece is so delightful that I transcribe it below in full (It’s long, but don’t miss the story about him stripping off, jumping into a marsh, and emerging covered in leeches!)

To the Editor of the Oxford Journal

MR EDITOR, – Your well-known humanity will, I am sure, induce you to give a ready insertion to the following hasty sketch in behalf of an individual of acknowledged worth, who is at length, by age and infirmity, rendered incapable of providing for himself. I have been personally acquainted with him for half a century, and can, in common with many Gentlemen of the first respectability in this place, bear ample testimony to his character.

James Benwell, now 82 years of age, was born at Bayworth, a hamlet of the parish of Sunningwell, in 1735, and, during the early part of his life, worked as a common labourer in husbandry. Having married, he and his wife (who is still living) were servants with Mr Wyckham [Wickham], an eminent mercer of this city, by whom they were much befriended, and, shortly after his death, Benwell obtained a situation, more congenial to his habits, in the Botanical Garden, where he continued til age and infirmity prevented him from every species of labour.

From the commencement of his employment in the fields may be dated his admiration of the Vegetable and Animal Kingdom, till his own accurate habit of observation, assisted by the volumes of Old Gerarde, and other authors, brought him to a correct knowledge of nearly the whole of our indigenous plants, with their places of growth, and modes of observation; and, as an ornithologist, it is well known that there are very few birds with which he is not well acquainted, as to their song, their modes of building, and the art of rearing even those which are accustomed to migrate.

His strength and agility, combined with his keenness in tracing the haunts of all the wilder animals, made him a very successful follower of the chace in all its branches; though he has never been known to have thereby been induced to associate with poachers, in any of their nefarious schemes of depredation. He was, moreover, noted with giving the loudest and shrillest view-hollow of any fox hunter that ever took the field.

A vast many anecdotes of this singular man, characteristic of his favourite pursuits, are in circulation among his friends, from among which I will entreat your acceptance of the following:- When Sir George Staunton, Bart, and Secretary to Lord Macartney in his Embassy to China, was in Oxford, he applied to me for some person well acquainted with our native plants and animals. No person was so fit to be presented as James Benwell. Accordingly, the two naturalists set out together for Otmure [Otmoor], in quest of the Hirudo Medicinalis, or Common Leach of the Shops, which was supposed to be an inhabitant of that marsh. After some fruitless search, Benwell of a sudden threw off his lower apparel, and, jumping into a deep ditch, waded about for some time, and then as suddenly exclaimed, “Sir George, I’ve got ’em!” He sprung upon terra firma, and, to Sir George’s great delight and surprise, there hung to his legs and thighs above an hundred of these animals! – Upon quitting Oxford, Sir George thanked me much for having made him acquainted with our untaught naturalist, adding, “he has opened widely the book of nature, and his consummate modesty and unaffected knowledge have ever endeared him to me.”

These days of activity and robust health are, indeed, now over; but not so his love of nature, or his gratitude to those friends who have administered to his wants at the close of life. His sense of their kindness was indeed strongly testified in a conversation which I had with him a very few days ago. In order to procure some trifling addition to his comfort and support during the remainder of his days, Messrs. Burt & Skelton, two eminent artists now resident in this city, have kindly and gratuitously contributed their assistance, the former by furnishing a most correct and characteristic likeness of the old naturalist, and the latter by executing an engraving from it, with all his well-known taste. A specimen of the engraving is now to be seen at the house of Mr. Wyatt, carver & guilder, in the High-street, where subscriptions will be very thankfully received on the following very moderate terms:- Proofs, 5s.; and Common, 3s. 6d.

I beg pardon for occupying so much of your valuable space, but I feel convinced that the merits of this old man only require to be generally known, in order that they may be generally rewarded. I am, Mr. Editor, Your very constant admirer and most sincere friend, JOHN IRELAND. Pembroke-street, Oxford, Nov. 26, 1817.(1)

This wonderful letter was in fact the last piece of evidence I found about James Benwell; it was referenced in a later article and I eventually found it after some considerable hunting! The first evidence I discovered was in fact the fundraising portrait announced in the letter. In the engraving, James Benwell, aged 82, of the Physic Garden, Oxford, is carrying a sack of leaves hanging from a hoe. In the distance, we can see the classical Danby Gate, which is still the garden’s main entrance today. It struck me as so unusual to see such a dignified image of one working man, and so charming, that I was determined to discover as much about him as I could.

One of two prints in the British Library’s collection, this one acquired in 1850.
Danby Gate
Detail of the Danby Gate from a painting by A. Pugin, 1816, http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/high/tour/south/botanic_garden.html

Before the Botanic Garden (1735-1780)

James was the son of John and Mary Benwell, sometimes spelled Bennell or Bennel, and he was baptised in St Leonard’s, Sunningwell, in 1735. Sunningwell was just two miles from Littlemore, the home of my direct Benwell ancestors, and I believe that James was a first cousin of a direct ancestor, though I have yet to prove it.

It’s a shame that James Benwell’s wife isn’t named in the published letter, but she was probably Elizabeth. James Benwell and Elizabeth Wisdom (possibly daughter of the keeper of Oxford Gaol) married in St Peter-in-the-East  (now St Edmund’s Hall Library) in 1756. They then baptised two children in Sandford-on-Thames (where my Littlemore ancestors, having no church in their village, were also baptised): Anne in 1762 and Susanna in 1764. 1764 must have been a very difficult year for the family, as five months after Susanna’s baptism they buried a son, James, at Sandford-on-Thames and four months later their daughter Anne was buried at St Peter-in-the-East.

In 1769, James & Elizabeth baptised another James at St Peter-in-the-East. That same year, the family moved to St Ebbe’s parish (now the site of the Westgate Shopping Centre), prompting a settlement certificate to determine which parish was responsibility should they require poor relief (financial support). In this case, the parish of St Peter in the East declared that they were still responsible for James Benwell’s family. Joseph Benwell was one of the St Peter’s church wardens who signed the certificate, and was probably James’s older brother, who was baptised in 1732. Sadly, their second James was buried in St Ebbe’s in 1770. Of their four known children, the only child who may have survived is Susanna, though I have found no adult records for her.

James Benwell was still a servant of Mr Wickham in September 1780, when his employer drew up his will. William Wickham, mercer of St Peter-in-the-East, was twice Mayor of Oxford, in 1755/6 and 1769/70. In his will, he left a legacy to James Benwell and two other servants (there is no mention of Elizabeth, but she probably left his employment when she became a mother). Each servant who was still in his employ when he died was to receive two shillings and sixpence per week for life. Benwell probably remained with his employer and benefactor until his death a fortnight before Christmas.

‘And I do hereby give and bequeath to my servants Joanna Adams Ann Jones and James Benwell or such of them as shall continue to live with me at the time of my decease the sum of two shillings and sixpence each a week for and during the term of their respective lives And I direct the said weekly sum to be paid by my executor and executrix out of my personal estate and that the first payment of the said weekly sum shall commence on the first day of August next after my decease’ (Will of William Wickham, proved 10 Jan 1781, England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858, PROB 11: Will Registers, Piece 1074: Webster, Quire Numbers 48-94 (1781), accessed via ancestry.co.uk 10/6/20)

A New Career

It’s possible that Benwell began to work at the Physic Garden prior to his employer’s death, perhaps dividing his time between two jobs. However, it is more likely that he started working there in early 1781. He embarked on this career change at the age of 45, well into middle age. At that time, the Sherardian Professor of Botany, who oversaw the garden, was Dr. Humphry Sibthorp. Apparently, Dr. Sibthorp gave “one not very successful lecture … and every scientific object slept during the 40 years he held the post”’. Prior to Humphry Sibthorp, the post had been held by Johann Dillenius, who ‘was of a retired disposition, and recluse habits. His corpulency, combined with his close application to study, probably brought on an attack of apoplexy, which terminated his existence in the sixtieth year of his age.’! (2)

In 1783, Humphry Sibthorp stepped down and was succeeded by his son Dr. John Sibthorp, who was much more productive than his father had been.

As an interesting aside, during the first few years of James’s tenure, several pioneering hot air balloon ascents were made from the Physic Garden by James Sadler, a daring and ingenious Oxford pastry chef! John Sibthorp was a key ally of Sadler’s, and in February 1784, Sadler launched a hydrogen balloon from Dr. Sibthorp’s land adjacent to the Physick Garden. In May, he launched a balloon with an animal in it from the Physic Garden. In October, he ascended in a balloon himself, probably from the garden. Finally, on 12 November, Sadler made a highly publicised ascent from the Physic Garden watched by crowds of spectators, and travelled 20 miles. It must have astonished James Benwell to see these incredible first British balloon flights.

A view of the balloon of Mr. Sadler’s ascending. Print illustrating Sadler’s ascent on 12 August 1811. From the V&A Museum.

Dr. Sibthorp was an avid collector of species – many collected on his trips to Greek islands as well as around Oxfordshire. According to Timothy Walker, a former Director of the gardens, ‘John Sibthorp (1758 – 96) who held the Chair of Botany travelled extensively abroad and once sent the Head Gardener, James Benwell, 600 packets of seeds with the instruction they were to be planted.’ (2a)

John Sibthorp02.jpg
John Sibthorp, painter unknown (Wikipedia)

Although Walker calls James Benwell ‘Head Gardener’, his exact position, as per Prof. Stephen A. Harris, author of Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum: A Brief History (2017), is unknown. Last year I visited the Sherardian Library in Oxford to view their archival materials, which included the Records of the Committee of the Physic Garden. This fascinating book showed all appointments of a Head Gardener from 1735-1790, as well as the Head Gardener’s oath and salary (£50/year, with no increase for many decades). However, frustratingly, there was a gap from 1790-1812 and no mention of James Benwell anywhere! Nevertheless, I had a fantastic surprise when I took my seat at a bench in the tiny library; above my head were several large portraits of distinguished Sherardian professors in gilt frames, but just to my right was none other than the engraving of James Benwell!

In spite of the lack of records from the Botanic Gardens’ archive, Benwell’s legacy can be seen in the entries for several plants in the 1833 guide to The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties … by Richard Walker, a Fellow of Magdalen (3):

Anthemis Arvensis (Corn Chamomile)
Orchis Ustulata
Viola Palustris (Marsh Violet)

According to one source, Benwell was the planter of a very famous tree. In about 1790, Sibthorp collected the seed of the black pine in Austria. He sent the seed to his head gardener, John Foreman. ‘The resulting sapling was planted out in 1800 by James Benwell making it the oldest specimen of this species in Britain. It has grown into a magnificent tree. It was the favourite tree of J.R.R. Tolkien and more recently it provided inspiration for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy.’ (4)

Sadly, the tree had to be cut down in 2014, though efforts were quickly underway to propagate cuttings ….

However, Dr. Harris has informed me that when the Black Pine was removed it was dated using tree rings which gave a planting date of 1834-1836. This means that James Benwell could not have planted this tree. Harris’s entry for the Black Pine on the Oxford Herbaria website provides more detail on this discovery.

One tree to rule them all: JRR Tolkien with the black pine, Oxford Botanic Garden (The Tolkien Trust)

John Sibthorp died in 1796, aged only 37, having developed consumption (TB) on his second journey to Greece. His successor, and presumably James’s next boss, was George Williams. The garden also had a Curator from 1813, William Baxter. Baxter remembered James Benwell fondly in his work British Phaenogamous Botany (1843):

The Green Polype, Hydra viridus … is often to be found on the stems and leaves of this plant, under water. This extraordinary little aquatic animal was first shown to me, many years ago, by the late Mr. JAMES BENWELL*.

*MR JAMES BENWELL was, for more than forty years, employed in the Oxford Botanic Garden. He was, although uneducated, a very intelligent man, and his accurate knowledge of British Plants, and of their localities in the vicinity of Oxford, and a singular talent for observation in every branch of Natural History, rendered his services highly valuable. He attended the late Dr. JOHN SIBTHORP, Professor or Botany, in his botannical excursions in Oxfordshire, when collecting materials for his “Flora Oxoniensis,” published in 1794, and was the first who discovered the station for Paris quadrifolia, and one or two other rare plants, in the county. His integrity, and industry, and natural propriety, and civility of manners, gained him the respect and esteem of all who knew him. He died on the 7th of October, 1819, aged 84 years. A print of him, a very striking and characteristic likeness, engraved by Mr SKELTON, of Oxford, from a drawing by that excellent artist, Mr A. R. BURT, was published about two years before his death. I shall always remember, with the most sincere gratitude and respect, the kind and disinterested assistance I received from this honest and kind-hearted man.

Hydra Viridus

Prof. Clare Hickman highlights Baxter’s praise of Benwell, and Benwell’s assistance with herborizations (the collection of botanic specimens in the field), citing him as an example of a Georgian gardener who provided scientific knowledge : ‘Thus we have a member of the garden network whose role extended beyond the garden and who was credited with expert knowledge despite being employed in a role below that of head gardener.'(5)


James Benwell retired from his job at the Physic Garden before 1817, when his friend John Ireland penned the letter to the Oxford Journal. Although some sources state that he worked there for more than 40 years, he probably only worked there for about 36 years (from 1781-1817). That’s still quite an achievement!

Dr. John Ireland, who organised the sale of James’s portrait and penned the letter to the Oxford Journal, also wrote James Benwell’s obituary. Dr. Ireland was an apothecary, matriculated at the university. It is just a guess, but perhaps Benwell’s knowledge of plants and herbs was helpful to Dr. Ireland, and that is how they met. As well as his support for James Benwell, Ireland also championed a gifted servant, Abram Robertson, who became Savilian Professor of Geometry!

Albin Roberts Burt and Joseph Skelton, the Oxford printmakers who produced James Benwell’s portrait, were very accomplished, and many of their works are in the collection of the British Museum. James Wyatt, whose shop on the High St displayed and sold the portrait, had branched out from his trade as an accomplished picture framer and carver, and started selling prints in 1811. He was Mayor of Oxford from 1842-3 and his shop became a favourite haunt of pre-raphaelite artists, such as Millais.

In 1819, at the age of 84, James was buried at St. Aldate’s. ‘John Ireland, M.D. liberally honoured his memory with a respectable funeral: some of the principal scientific persons, in Oxford, attended his remains, at the Doctor’s request; carrying in their hands sprigs of rosemary, to throw into the grave of this humble son of science.’ (6)

James Benwell’s contribution to the Botanic Garden and to science was further acknowledged and praised posthumously in the Oxford Journal, who compared Benwell to Willisel, a Cromwellian soldier-turned-botanist who had supported leading naturalists, including John Ray and William Sherard:

Though in an humble station, his merits, like those of Willisel, the companion of Ray, deserve commemoration.’ (7)

Although I can’t be sure that James Benwell belongs in my tree, I have been captivated by his life and personality. His charisma and passion for the natural world burst from the pages. He had humble beginnings and no formal education, yet his hard work and knowledge earned the respect and trust of academics and townspeople who must have been fond enough of him to be interested in owning his portrait and supporting him in his retirement. And in spite of him being a working class man, I am able to see his face, and hear his words, 201 years after his death.


(1) Jackson’s Oxford Journal, Saturday 29 November 1817.

(2) I have not been able to locate my exact source of these quotes. However, the information is paraphrased in other publications.

(2a) & (4) Sourced from an article that is no longer available online: http://kidlingtonhistory.org.uk/our-latest-newsletter-4th-quarter-2017/

(3) Images of The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties … retrieved via Google books.

(5) ‘‘The want of a proper Gardiner’: late Georgian Scottish botanic gardeners as intermediaries of medical and scientific knowledge’, Clare Hickman, The British Journal for the History of ScienceVolume 52Issue 4, December 2019 , pp. 543-567.

(6) The flora of Oxfordshire and its contiguous counties, Richard Walker, 1833.

(7) Jackson’s Oxford Journal, 9 Oct 1819.

Updated on 14/6/20 to include new information kindly provided by Dr. Harris. Updated on 7/8/21 with minor edits.

4 thoughts on “James Benwell – a Humble Son of Science

  1. It is always interesting to read about a self made person. Given his background and lack of education he achieved so much and was obviously highly regarded by many. As well as being knowledgable, he must have been very likeable. How wonderful to have the portrait! After visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden last year, I can imagine him in the Garden at Oxford.

    Liked by 1 person

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