18. Florence Bennett
27 Sep, 2021

To Dr Sara Atwood,
Scholar, Teacher, and Dear Friend.

Early in 1885 John Ruskin’s utopian society, the Guild of St George, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, issued a Master’s Report. In an account appended by senior trustee, George Baker (1825-1910), it was noted that a “devoted member of the Guild, Miss Bennett of Birkenhead, was removed by death in the early part” of the previous year. (In fact, in early 1883.) He continued:

“She had expressed a wish that any property she died possessed of should become the property of the Guild. This wish has been most honourably complied with by her father, Mr R. Bennett, who in May last placed the sum of £2,569 8s. 1d. to the Guild’s credit. The Trustees, in acknowledging the receipt of this handsome legacy from his daughter, took care to express on behalf of the Guild their sense of Mr Bennett’s great kindness in carrying out his daughter’s wishes, and informed him that they looked upon the amount as a gift from him as well as a bequest from his daughter.” (Works, 30.85.)

The gift consisted in £2,000 of consols (Government bonds with a fixed annual interest), and £569 2s. 1d. in cash.

This was a truly remarkable legacy. It would be worth roughly £300,000 today. Put into a different context, Miss Bennett’s bequest was more than half the sum Ruskin had expected the citizens of Sheffield to raise in 1882 to finance the building of a new museum—one that would be larger and more accessible than the cottage in Walkley where it was then based. Or to put it yet another way, the sum would more than cover the cost of purchasing for the museum all the precious medieval manuscripts and minerals, plus the manuscript of Francesca Alexander’s illustrated ballads, the Roadside Songs of Tuscany, all detailed among the Guild’s purchases in the Master’s Report in 1884.  Indeed, Miss Bennett appears to have taken a personal interest in the museum. Her name appears on a handwritten list of contacts compiled in the late 1870s by the museum’s curator, Henry Swan (1825-1889).

Ruskin’s only public reference to Miss Bennett appeared in Letter 93 of Fors Clavigera (1871-84) written for Christmas 1883. He commented:

“One Companion, ours no more, sends you, I doubt not, Christmas greeting from her Home, FLORENCE BENNETT. Of her help to us during her pure brief life, and afterwards, by her father’s fulfilment of her last wishes, you shall hear at another time.” (Works 29.476-477)

Ruskin did not fulfil his promise to write more fully about her. His readers, and scholars who have subsequently looked into the history of the Guild, appear to have neglected her. Her magnificent financial legacy has been hiding in plain sight, and her story has remained untold.

Florence Beatrice Bennett (1859-1883) deserves a special place among the group of women who did so much in the Guild of St George to aid and give practical effect to Ruskin’s ideals. The fact that she has fallen into obscurity is an historical anomaly no less unjust for its accidental nature. She belongs in the company of Frances (Fanny) Talbot (1824-1917), Mary Hope Greg (1850-1949), and Margaret Emily Knight (1870-1949). Mrs Talbot was the donor in Ruskin’s lifetime of eight cottages in Barmouth, Wales, and she gave seven cases of minerals to the museum’s collections at Walkley. After Ruskin’s death, Mrs Greg gave the Guild nine arts-and-crafts cottages in Westmill, Hertfordshire, and the village post office (now a highly regarded Tea Room). She also gave many treasures to the museum collections, by then at Meersbrook Hall. The most precious of these gifts was her own beautiful nature diary. Miss Knight, an heiress to the Knight’s Soap fortune, entrusted the Guild with the custodianship of a beautiful wildflower meadow in Sheepscombe, Gloucestershire. [For more on these women, see the Note, below.]

In attempting to uncover something of Florence Bennett’s story, it gives me great pleasure to dedicate this blog to one of Ruskin’s most skilled, knowledgeable and dedicated scholars, Guild Companion Dr Sara Atwood. Few people have so eloquently and effectively shared with us their close reading of Ruskin. In particular she has explored in her books, papers and lectures Ruskin’s contribution to our understanding of education and the natural world. As joint co-ordinator of the Guild’s affairs in North America, and as a founder of the new Ruskin Society of North America, she has led in promoting Ruskinian values in the United States and Canada. It is a privilege to call her my friend.

***

Little information about Florence Bennett seems to have survived, a circumstance which has presumably contributed to the lack of scholarly attention she has received. The American scholar Helen Gill Viljoen notes in her edition of Ruskin’s Brantwood Diary (1971) that Miss Bennett was included on a list headed “not yet Companions” written in 1877 (p. 561).

Florence Bennett was born in Moseley Hill, Liverpool, the sixth of eight children (and the fifth of seven daughters) born to Robert Bennett (1826-1894) and his wife, Susannah née Croft (1830-1868). Tragically Susannah died when her daughter Florence was not yet ten years old.

The Bennett children were brought up in Wavertree, but by the time Florence was 12 the family had moved to Sunnymead, the house in Charlesville, in Claughton, Birkenhead, which would be her main home for the rest of her life. Ruskin evidently knew several of the Bennett girls, and wrote to his friend and Coniston neighbour Miss Susie (Susanna) Beever (1806-1893) on 24 September 1882:

“I am very glad to hear of those sweet, shy girls, poor things. I suppose the sister they are now anxious about is the one that would live by herself on the other side of the Lake, and study Emerson and aspire to Buddhism!” (Works 37.411)

This appears to be a reference to Florence. The anxiety her sisters felt was no doubt all the greater because the eldest of the sisters, (Susannah) Rose Bennett (1853-1878) had drowned in the lake at Arnside in the summer of 1878. She had been staying there for three weeks with an invalid sister, probably Florence.  The Lakes Chronicle and Reporter noted, in reference to Rose:

“The young lady, being an expert swimmer, was very fond of bathing, and [… at] about ten o’clock she went to the beach, and was seen by some persons on the pier to jump into the water. She had on her bathing gown, having divested herself of her ordinary clothing at her lodging, which is close to the spot. After swimming about for a few minutes, she shrieked twice and disappeared. An alarm was raised, and Mr James Crosfield immediately got out a boat, and a search was kept up for two hours, it being midnight when her body was found in about seven feet of water, near the pier. […]  It is thought that the deceased was seized with cramp.” (6 July 1878)

Florence died of tuberculosis on 5 March 1883 in Bournemouth, on England’s south coast. She had gone there in the vain hope that the sea air would restore her to health. In 1887 Ruskin added a note to the letter quoted above, stating, “Florence, Alice, and May Bennett. Florence is gone. Alice and May still sometimes at Coniston, D.G. (March 1887).—J.R.” (Elizabeth) May Bennett was born in 1856, and Alice in 1862.

The girls’ father, Robert Bennett, who faithfully followed through on Florence’s wish to bequeath her estate to the Guild, was granted administration of Florence’s estate on 20 April 1883. He was a wine merchant in the firm established by his father, George Bennett (1786-1870). George Bennett and Sons was based on Fenwick Street, Liverpool (where the Slaughter House pub now stands). It was a successful concern which chartered sailing vessels to import wine from Spain and the south of France. Helen Gill Viljoen notes that Robert was in possession of letters from Ruskin’s father, John James Ruskin (1785-1864), himself a sherry merchant, so that one may reasonably infer that the two men were known to one another through business. (See Viljoen, Brantwood Diary, p. 567.)

When Robert died in 1894, his estate was valued at more than £47,000. In a short obituary we find a clue as to how Florence came to read Ruskin and to share in the idealism of the Guild: “Mr Bennett, who was a well-known figure in the city,” the Liverpool Mercury recalled, “was a man of considerable culture, who read a great deal and was gifted with a remarkably retentive memory” (28 September 1894). To some extent Robert also supported the work of the Guild; he made a donation of £5 towards its work in February 1882. (See Works 30.65.)

The Bennetts’ remarkable generosity marks them out as among the Guild’s most significant donors. They deserve to be remembered and celebrated.

 

NOTE
For more on the women disciples who did so much to help Ruskin’s Guild projects, See Talbot’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Liz Mitchell, ‘Treasuring things of the least’: Mary Hope Greg, John Ruskin & Westmill, Hertfordshire (York: Guild of St George, 2017); and Stuart Eagles, Miss Margaret E. Knight and St George’s Field, Sheepscombe (York: Guild of St George, 2015).

 

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