George Benn – Historian and Philanthropist

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George Benn Sign, Belfst City Cemetery
George Benn Sign, Belfst City Cemetery

George Benn – Early life

George Benn was born on 1st January 1801, the fourth son of John Benn, who had a brewery in North Street, Belfast. His mother was Elizabeth Craig. He was the younger brother of Edward Benn. The family lived in Tandragee, a village in County Armagh.

Belfast Academical Institution

The Founding of Belfast Academical Institution

George studied at Belfast Academy and in 1816 enrolled in Belfast Academical Institution. Inst (as it is commonly known today) was founded in 1814 by leading Belfast reformers including William Drennan, Robert Simms and William Tennant.

In 1807 Drennan addressed a town meeting to urge the establishment of a new educational institution

“..to facilitate and render less expensive the means of acquiring education; to give access to the walks of literature to the middle and lower classes of society; to make provision for the instruction of both sexes…”

William Drennan, 1807
Belfast Academical Institution
Belfast Academical Institution

George Benn at Belfast Academical Institution

The ensuring Academical Institution had an ambitious and pioneering programme, offering classes in languages, classics, natural sciences, medicine and English literature. There was a school for boys and a collegiate department for both young men and women. George thrived here, being awarded a gold medal for Logic in 1817 and the following year a gold medal for Moral Philosophy.

The young George was passionate about history and was a very accomplished essayist. In 1819 he won the faculty prize for his essay ‘The Parish of Belfast’ and in 1821 for an essay on The Crusades. He subsequently received the Dr Tennant’s gold medal for his work ‘Sketch of Irish Authors in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries‘. However, it was his writings on Belfast that caught the attention of newspaper editor James McKnight. In 1823 his Belfast article, together with maps and engravings by J Thompson, was published in the Belfast Newsletter.

Good Fortune

George and his brother Edward purchased an estate in County Antrim called Glenravel . They dedicated themselves to improving the land and the conditions for their tenants. When a discovery of rich iron ore was uncovered on their property, the brother’s financial future was secure. Both men were to use their money to finance hospitals, schools and charities in their adopted city of Belfast.

Love of History

George, like Edward, continued to pursue his love of local history, publishing several articles in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology. He had a particular interest in Local Tokens – these were issued by businessmen, mainly in the seventeenth century, in lieu of copper coinage. He was a regular correspondent with noted historians of the day including William Reeves, Bishop of Down and Connor and Classon Porter, a Presbyterian Minister in Larne.

George Benn’s “A History of the Town of Belfast”

As a result, George Benn was asked to write a history of Belfast. At first he declined, referring to Mr William Pinkerton as being more able for the task. William Pinkerton was an old school pal and fellow book collector and antiquarian. However, when Pinkerton died in 1871, George undertook to perform the work. He was meticulous in his research, consulting with his like-minded friends, as well as the noted historian George Hill and William Hennessey, Keeper of the Public Records in Dublin. In 1877 A History of the Town of Belfast was published. A second supplementary volume was published in 1880. Benn’s use of primary sources and the Belfast Corporation Book, which he had rediscovered in 1864, resulted in his work being met with critical acclaim.

At over 1,000 pages (both volumes) George Benn’s work is still one of the most authoritative sources for Belfast history. It also includes very useful maps and illustrations. While a distinguished and learned tome (it took George 3 years to write), it is an interesting read and arguably the most important work on the life and development of the town.

“George threw himself into research, utilising archives in a range of public and private collections, many of which are now lost. His school and family connections also allowed him to seek anecdotal information going back to the eighteenth century. As a result, his narrative has a warmth, immediacy and vigour that reflects both the character of the man and the context in which he wrote”

Siobhan Stevenson 2008

Benn’s Death

George Benn died on 8th Jan 1882 aged 81 at his home in Fortwilliam Park. His friend, John Carlisle, who had edited his final work, was with him when he passed. George is buried in Belfast City cemetery (Plot K 447). His unmarried sisters Harriet (c1815-1901), Mary (c1796-1885) and Emily (c1811-1884) are in the same grave. Anyone who reads George Benn’s History of Belfast will definitely concur with his appellation ‘the first great historian of Belfast’.

Belfast Newsletter Obituary, 9th January 1882
Belfast Newsletter Obituary, 9th January 1882
Belfast Newsletter Article on George Benn
Belfast Newsletter Article on George Benn
George Benn's Grave, City Cemetery Belfast
George Benn’s Grave, City Cemetery Belfast
George Benn Funeral Notice 12th January 1882
George Benn Funeral Notice 12th January 1882
George Benn's Memorial
George Benn’s Memorial
Belfast Morning News 19th January 1882
Belfast Morning News 19th January 1882

The Benn Family Legacy

The Benn family were amazing benefactors to the city of Belfast and it is sad that their memory has faded. In his will, for example, George left £1,000 to the Belfast Charitable Society and a portrait of his beloved brother Edward. The money was to provide a celebratory lunch at Christmas and Easter for the resident’s of the Poor House.

Any money left over was for the maintenance of Edward’s grave in the nearby New Burying Ground and also “..shall be applied in providing for the use of aged inmates of the said Poor House a few newspapers such as the Illustrated London Times, The Graphic or such illustrated papers to amuse them”. The Poor House is now an old people’s home but the tradition of the Benn’s Christmas Dinner continues to this day!

Benn’s History of Belfast Books

George Benn's Book - A History of Belfast
George Benn’s Book – A History of Belfast

A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 1

A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 1: From the Earliest Times to the Close of the Eighteenth Century

George Benn

Originally Published by Marcus Ward 1877

George Benn's Book - A History of Belfast Vol 2
George Benn’s Book – A History of Belfast Vol 2

A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 2

A History of the Town of Belfast Vol 2: From 1799 till 1810 together with some incidental notices on local topics and biographies of many well-known families

George Benn

Original Published by Marcus Ward 1880

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