Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thomas Benson - Merchant Trader and Scallywag Smuggler

by Helen Hollick

Before I moved to Devon from London I had already been interested in one of the more colourful eighteenth century characters associated with the North Coast: Thomas Benson, merchant trader and gentleman smuggler.

Although his exploits were a little later than the setting for my nautical adventure series the Sea Witch Voyages, dated circa the 1720's, he would have been a boy when my fictional ex-pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne, came to drop anchor in the estuary confluence of the rivers Taw and Torridge opposite the pleasant little town of Appledore. Thomas, therefore, made an ideal ‘extra’ for Voyage Four Ripples In The Sand, and he will be appearing in the Fifth, On The Account (my present Work In Progress) when he sails off on an adventure with my rogue of a protagonist and his crew aboard the Sea Witch.

One of the things I enjoy about writing my series is the challenge of blending made-up fiction (and a touch of fantasy) with historical fact. To have readers believe the imaginary bits the other bits have to be believable, so my nautical references are as accurate as I can get them, thanks to the diligent proof-reading by US author and seaman James L. Nelson,, and I diligently research the historical facts, although I do occasionally use a little poetic licence with these – always making a comment in my author’s note, however, if I do so.

So it was with personal and work-related interest that I looked into Master Benson’s infamous role in Devonshire’s smuggling history.

Appledore today 
(Photo Simon Murgatroyd)
His father, Squire John Benson, had been a ship-builder and merchant trader, living at Knapp House near Appledore and with frontage to the River Torridge. From John, after the death of two elder brothers, Thomas inherited the family fortune in 1743 at the age of thirty-seven.

Knapp House (photo Jo Field)
He transported large quantities of tobacco from the Virginian Colonies to what was, then, one of the major import towns in England for tobacco – Bideford, just up-river from Appledore. (Sadly in subsequent years the river silted up too much for trade to continue.) He exported woollen goods made locally and his fishing vessels sailed to the cod banks of Newfoundland.

River Torridge from below 
Knapp House (photo Jo Field)
When England went to war with Spain (yet again) and France joined the fracas in 1744, Thomas refitted one of his vessels as a man-o-war which he used as a privateer – basically legal piracy – and he achieved a fair bit of financial success.

He entered politics, being elected unopposed as Whig MP for Barnstaple in 1747, and was awarded the title High Sheriff of Devon, an office he held until 1749. The move was a good one because he could now procure some very lucrative government contracts, which included one for transporting convicts to Maryland and Virginia therefore subsidising the outward journeys of his regular tobacco trading.

Things did not always go so well, however. He had a brush with customs authorities in 1750 owing £922 for an unpaid import duty of tobacco, followed by a deception involving a breach of contract – he had built up an illegal business of smuggling, tax evasion, and insurance fraud, which was to lead eventually to his undoing.

Appledore today – a quaint old
town with narrow cobbled streets
He served many of these devious schemes and scams via Lundy, a rugged island just off-shore from the Devon coast. Leasing the uninhabited island at a rent of £60 per annum he devised a plan to offload and conceal his imported tobacco there to avoid hefty import duties, and instead of transporting the unfortunate convicts to America he carried some of them no further than Lundy where they remained in bondage to work on his schemes, Benson happily keeping the fees for shipping them to the colonies.

By 1752 Benson was increasingly under pressure from the Customs authorities for his tobacco smuggling, and several writs had been served on him and his lawyers were instructed to pursue every loophole to postpone judgement, but the total debt to the Crown was £8229, a substantial sum of not much less than £700,000 in today's money.

The Taw / Torridge Estuary
Financial ruin was immanent, so Benson made preparations for an insurance fraud using the oldest vessel in his fleet, the brigantine Nightingale. He insured both ship and cargo of expensive pewter and linen, then carefully chose a loyal and trustworthy captain - Captain Lancey, a dependable family man who had served as master of several of Bensons vessels. The plan was to deliberately scuttle the Nightingale. At first, Lancey would have none of it, but Benson persisted and in a moment of weakness Lancey yielded, lured by the promise of financial gain.

Nightingale first dropped anchor in the Lundy Road to shelter from a strengthening westerly wind and to undertake the first part of the plan. The entire cargo, apart from three-hundred-and-fifty bushels of salt, were off-loaded and concealed on the island. The ship was then scuttled. The crew were rescued by a passing boat - with the wrecking well-timed for a vessel to be near-by for this purpose.

However, some of the crew were not happy about the events and the truth came out in damaging detail. Captain Lancey was arrested, tried in February 1754 and hanged for fraud on June 17th, 1754 at Execution Dock in Wapping, the usual place for death sentences passed by the Admiralty Court.

And our ‘hero’, Thomas Benson? Unfortunately he was not quite the hero smuggler and privateer after all. He fled into exile in Portugal where he had several contacts, abandoning Lancey to his fate.

Thomas Benson died in the 1770s after building up a successful trading company in Lisbon. Whether it was a legitimate or illegal one we do not know – but his life was certainly the stuff of a plot for a good nautical adventure read.

You might be interested to know that the stretch of beach used in the image for the cover of Ripples In The Sand is Instow Beach, across the river from Appledore - Thomas Benson would have known it well.


The Nightingale Scandal: The story of Thomas Benson and Lundy Stanley Thomas, Devon W.G Hoskins
Illustrated History of Appledore, David Carter
Appledore Handmaid of the Sea, John Beara

Links - More about Benson

Behind the Scenes – images of the real places used in my novels


The Sea Witch Voyages


  1. Thanks for posting my article - despite his bad behaviour I'm quite fond of Thomas - and his Papa, John.

  2. What a scoundrel! Poor Lancey - twas ever thus. The major criminal escapes and the small fry suffer. In my series about Christoval Alvarez, I'm exposing some of the wicked behaviour of Drake, particularly during the Portuguese expedition (the Counter Armada). He was hardly the gilded hero of popular belief!

    1. It just shows that times and attitudes do not change though doesn't it!

  3. Great story Helen. The truth is often more unbelievable than fiction!

    1. I agree - and that is one of the great things about writing fiction - we can explore the truth and see what comes out in story form!


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