Thomas Benson (1708–1772)

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Thomas Benson (1708-1772), of Knapp House, (alias Nap) Appledore,[1] Devon, was a ship-owner and merchant who served as MP for Barnstaple between 1747 and 1754 and was Sheriff of Devon in 1746-7. [2] In 1753 he fled to Portugal from British justice, having been accused of customs duty evasion and maritime insurance fraud.


He was the 2nd son of John Benson (d.1739) of Nap by his wife Grace Melhuish. The Bensons were long established merchants at Bideford, with an established trade to France, Portugal and Placentia in Newfoundland. They also owned lime-kilns in Bideford, near Appledore.


Although a younger son, on his father's death in 1739 Benson inherited some of his ships and some property in Appledore together with £1,000. This was augmented when in 1743 he became heir to his elder brother Peter Benson (d.1743).[3] In his will Peter tried to dissuade his brother Thomas from continuing in the family trade, as he considered the future economic climate to be unfavourable.

Marriage & progeny

In 1737 Benson married his cousin Frances Melhuish (d.1752), a daughter of Roger Melhuish by his 2nd wife Eleanor Barber. By Frances he had progeny 2 sons and 2 daughters.[4]


File:Benson's Cave - - 601551.jpg
Benson's Cave, on Lundy: reputed to be where Benson stored contraband goods

Despite his brother's advice Thomas continued to trade, but expanded his operations into illegal activities including avoidance of paying customs duties on his imports, a large part of which were of tobacco from the American colonies, a trade in which Bideford was pre-eminent. In 1752 he failed to pay some £8,000 of duty on imports valued at £40,000 and was prosecuted in the Court of Exchequer for non-payment. His estates, including Nap, were sequestered by the Crown. In a desperate measure to pay his debts he turned to maritime insurance fraud. In 1752 he obtained insurance at Exeter for his fully loaded ship Nightingale, supposedly sailing for Maryland in America, but gave orders to his captain and relative by marriage, John Lancey, to secretly unload the goods onto his property of Lundy Island, some 20 miles off the coast from Appledore, and to scuttle the vessel. On 3 August 1752 the captain put the plan into action and scuttled the vessel in the Bristol Channel. The plot was discovered by the authorities following a confession by a crew member, and Lancey having been convicted was hanged at Wapping in London on 7 June 1754.

Flight to Portugal

Benson himself fled the country in 1753,[5] to Portugal where he was joined by two of his remaining ships, and where he established a flourishing trading business. His English assets and lands were seized by the crown.


In 1771 at the age of 64 Benson died in Oporto, Portugal, having established there with his nephew Thomas Stafford one of the largest English trading companies in Portugal.[6]

Lands acquired


In 1748[7] Benson acquired from John Leveson-Gower, 1st Earl Gower (1694–1754) (who was an heir of the Grenville family of Bideford and of Stowe, Kilkhampton in Cornwall) a lease of the Island of Lundy, off the North Devon coast, for a rent of £60 per annum.[8]


Benson purchased the estate of Halsbury in the parish of Parkham, near Bideford, from Roger Giffard (d.1763).[9] Following his flight from justice to Portugal in 1753,[10] the Crown seized his assets, and sold Halsbury to the Davie family of nearby Orleigh.[11]

Surviving silverware

His silver punch bowl, inscribed with his armorials (On a chevron between three goat's heads erased each charged on the neck with an escallop three escallops) and presented by him to Barnstaple mayor and corporation, is displayed in the Dodderidge Room of Barnstaple Guildhall.

Further reading

  • Thomas, Stanley, The Nightingale Scandal, 1959



  1. Taylor, p.3
  3. Matthews
  4. Matthews
  5. Taylor, p.16
  6. Taylor, p.18
  7. Matthews
  8. Taylor, p.7
  9. Risdon, Tristram (d.1640), Survey of Devon, 1811 edition, London, 1811, with 1810 Additions, p.414
  10. Taylor, p.16
  11. Risdon, 1810 additions, p.414; Prince, John, (1643–1723) The Worthies of Devon, 1810 edition, p.415