William Benson (architect)

William Benson (1682 – 2 February 1754) was a talented amateur architect and an ambitious and self-serving Whig place-holder in the government of George I. In 1718, Benson arranged to displace the aged Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor of the King's Works, a project in which he had the assistance of John Aislabie, according to Nicholas Hawksmoor, who was deprived of his double post to provide places for Benson's brother.[1]


Benson was the eldest son of Sir William Benson, Sheriff of London in 1706–07. He made a Grand Tour as a young man, which was extended to a prolonged visit to Hanover, the seat of the Elector, who was next in line to the British throne, where Benson paid assiduous court, and to Stockholm, far from the usual beaten track. In London he published a Whig tract, that offered a warning against Jacobitism and a polemic against Divine Right of kingship in a Letter to Sir J[acob] B[ankes] addressed transparently to Sir Jacob Bancks; it reached its eleventh edition in 1711 and was translated into French.[2]

Benson's interests extended to hydraulics (Colvin 1993). He carried out a project to bring piped water to Shaftesbury; according to a memoir of the hydraulics engineer John Theophilus Desaguliers,[3] it was actually the invention of Mr Holland, the modest curate of Shaftesbury, but Benson took the credit, which resulted in his election as Whig Member of Parliament in 1716. With the "Water Engine" plans in hand, he gave directions for waterworks to be built for the Elector George at Herrenhausen, Hanover, borrowing Mr Holland's smith and foreman; they resulted in the largest fountain in the gardens. The main jet, expected to rise a hundred feet, merely spurted a disappointing ten. Benson ingratiated himself with the Elector and his mother the Electress Sophia at the time of his visit in 1704–06, pressing unwanted gifts upon the Electress.[4]

Returning to London with the fresh impressions of innovative neo-Palladian constructions currently afoot at Herrenhausen,[5] in 1707 he married a wealthy heiress from Bristol and received from his father purchases of land in Wiltshire to the value of £5000. The following February he rented the classical Caroline Amesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, then attributed to Inigo Jones,[6] on a twenty-one-year lease, and in 1709 he set to work designing Wilbury House for himself on a neighbouring property, which he purchased that year from Hon. John Fiennes[7] Wilbury, the very earliest example of neo-Palladianism in England,[8] was a modest villa of one storey, nine bays in length, with a pedimented portico over the three central bays. Above the simply framed windows isolated bas-relief tablets were inserted in the wall. Small windows in a low rusticated basement lit service areas. Chimney stacks stood at the ends of the angled roofs. A central balustraded belvedere with a dome raised on columns crowned the elevation. In this manner Wilbury was illustrated in Colen Campbell's first volume of Vitruvius Britannicus (1715, plates 51–52), credited to Benson as inventor and builder.[9] As Surveyor, Benson appointed the professional Campbell Deputy Surveyor and Chief Clerk.[10] In 1709 he was appointed High Sheriff of Wiltshire.

He was elected Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury in 1715 and again in 1718.[11]

in 1718 he was appointed Surveyor of the King's Works. As Surveyor, Benson's months in office proved disastrous for the professional staff. Howard Colvin noted[12] that "Benson's surveyorship lasted for fifteen months, in the course of which he sacked his ablest subordinates, declared war on his closest colleagues, infuriated the Treasury[13] and finally brought down upon himself the wrath of the House of Lords for falsely insisting that their Chamber was in imminent danger of collapse." The only lasting work produced under Benson's Surveyorship was the suite of state rooms at Kensington Palace.

After he was relieved of his position in July 1719, in a flurry of satirical pamphlets, Benson involved himself in the creation of Stourhead, designed by Campbell for Benson's brother-in-law, Henry Hoare. Alexander Pope later ridiculed him in The Dunciad (III.321, IV.111-12) for having erected a monument to John Milton in Westminster Abbey, 1737, then having turned and honoured with a bust by Michael Rysbrack, a distinctly minor writer of Latin verses, Dr Arthur Johnston (1587–1641); in the elaborate procession attending the Goddess Dulness, Benson appeared: "On two unequal crutches propt he came, Milton's on this, on that one Johnston's name" (Dunciad IV.111-12).

In 1734 Benson sold Wilbury to his nephew Henry II Hoare and retired to a house in Wimbledon. A product of Benson's retirement was Letters concerning Poetical Translations, and Virgil's and Milton's Arts of Verse &c. (1739), where his unlucky pronouncement (page 61) that "the principal Advantage Virgil has over Milton is Virgil's Rhyme",[14] can hardly have failed to catch Pope's eye, if the volume fell into his hands while he was revising his Dunciad.

In 1735 he took over the remunerative post of Auditor of the Imprests which he had been promised in 1717, a position he held until his death in 1754. He had married twice: firstly Eleanor the daughter of Joseph Earle of Bristol,with whom he had 4 sons and 3 daughters and secondly Elizabeth, with whom he had a further son and daughter.[11]


  1. Hawksmoor's letter to Lord Carlisle (1725), noted in Kerry Downes, Hawksmoor (1959:245).
  2. Mary Ransome, "The Press in the General Election of 1710" Cambridge Historical Journal 6.2 (1939, pp. 209–221) p.214, note 31.
  3. Desaguliers, A Course in Experimental Philosophy (London, 1763), quoted in Carole Fry, "Spanning the Political Divide: Neo-Palladianism and the Early Eighteenth-Century Landscape" Garden History 31.2 (Winter 2003, pp. 180–192) p. 181.
  4. Fry 2003:181.
  5. Notably in the Orangery.
  6. It is the masterpiece of Jones' assistant, John Webb.
  7. Fiennes was the father of Celia Fiennes (Fry 2003:191, note 13).
  8. Fry 2003:181ff.
  9. Both Wilbury and Amesbury have been extensively altered.
  10. Howard E. Stutchbury, The Architecture of Colen Campbell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press/Manchester:Manchester University Press) 1967:
  11. 1 2 "BENSON, William (1682–1754), of Wilbury House, Wilts.". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 16 May 2013.
  12. Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600–1840 3rd ed. (Yale University Press) 1995, s.v. "William Benson".
  13. Benson informed the Treasury Lords that a certain Acres was to replace Henry Wise and his partner as King's Gardener. Benson was summoned and his peremptory letter was burned in his presence. (Quoted by W. R. Ward in a review of Calendar of Treasury Books, Vol. xxxii: 1718 in The English Historical Review 74 No. 291 (April 1959:358).
  14. Quoted in George Sherburn, "The Early Popularity of Milton's Minor Poems." Modern Philology 17.5 (September 1919), p 263


Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Christopher Wren
Surveyor of the King's Works
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Hewett
Preceded by
Edward Harley
Thomas Foley
Auditor of the imprests
(in reversion from 1717) with
Thomas Foley 1735–1737
William Aislabie 1737–1754
Succeeded by
Lewis Watson, 1st Baron Sondes
William Aislabie
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