E.F. Benson / E.F. Benson and Rye

E.F. Benson / E.F. Benson and Rye

The following two articles were contributed by  Allan Downend, Secretary, E.F. Benson Society and former Curator, Rye Museum

E.F. BENSON (1867 – 1940) : A Brief Biography

E.F.Benson was born at Wellington College on July 24th 1867. Fred, as he was known to his family, was the fifth child born to Edward and Mary Benson. His father was the first Master of Wellington College, which had been established in 1858, under the guiding hand of Prince Albert.

In 1873 the family moved to Lincoln, where Edward had been appointed Chancellor. Then in 1876 came the move to Cornwall, when Edward become the first Bishop of Truro. E.F.Benson started his education at Temple Grove, near East Sheen in Surrey, just after Easter 1878. In September 1881, he began at Marlborough College and remained there until 1887. These were to be amongst the happiest days of his life, and he wrote about them, and his days at Cambridge, in three books; David Blaize (1916) and David of King’s (1924), both of which were very popular during and after the First War, and The Babe, B.A. (1896).

In 1882 his father became Archbishop of Canterbury, and the family moved to Lambeth Palace. After leaving Marlborough, E.F.Benson went to King’s College, Cambridge from 1887 to 1891, and took a double first in Classics and Archaeology. After Cambridge he pursued his archaeological interests at digs in Britain and then attended the British School of Archaeology in Athens. From here he worked on sites both in Greece and Egypt.

In 1893 he published his first novel, Dodo, which was an immediate best seller and quite a sensation amongst Society. It remained in print throughout his life and to many of his pre-1914 friends, he was known as ‘Dodo Benson’. His father died in 1896 and after this he gave up archaeology to become a full time writer. From 1893 until his death he published at least one, if not two books each year. His novels until 1914 were best sellers, typical of which was Mammon & Co (1899), which sold eight thousand copies on the day of publication. He moved with his mother and sister to Winchester in 1897 and over a year later to Tremans at Horstead Keynes, Sussex, which was to remain his mother’s home until her death in 1918.

In 1900 Benson began to live in London and led the life of a successful Edwardian socialite, being a constant guest at fashionable country house parties. Initially he lived in Barton Street, Westminster, moving subsequently to Grosvenor Mansions in Oxford Street. He spent his summers in Italy, often on Capri, where he leased a villa. Autumn saw him in Venice at Lady Radnor’s Pallazzo, where she had grand musical parties, at the new Bayreuth Festivals, and also Scotland. He wintered at Davos, or other ski resorts, which he helped promote as a director of Alfred Lunn’s new travel company. Benson was a keen skater and was gold medal standard in his technique. He also swam and was a keen general sportsman. Only after a serious operation in 1912, and the onset of arthritis, did he have to give up his sporting interests.

In 1915, he took the lease of 25 Brompton Square, his final London home. It features in his books Lucia in London (1925) and Secret Lives (1932). After the War he was no longer considered fashionable as a writer of novels, and he had to change direction. He began to write about his family in a series of autobiographies, Our Family Affairs (1920), Mother (1925), As We Were (1930) and Final Edition (1940). He also wrote many biographies and ghost stories. He is considered to be one of the great writers of the ghost story, following in the tradition of M.R.James.

It was during his years at Lamb House that he wrote his famous Mapp and Lucia novels, set in Rye, which he renamed Tilling, after the river Tillingham. Lamb House appears as Mallards, and is the house of first Miss Mapp and then Lucia. From the Garden Room, which was bombed in 1940, both Mapp and then Lucia were able to watch the activities of their friends. In 1934 Benson became Mayor of Rye and served for three terms. Throughout the 1930’s, his arthritis worsened and he became more immobile. He was not a great socialite in Rye, and lived here quite quietly. He enjoyed reading, researching for his biographies, playing the piano, and entertaining a small circle of friends.

Benson was taken ill at the end of 1939 and died in London on February 29th 1940, from cancer of the throat.


by Allan Downend

E.F.Benson first came to stay in Rye in 1900 as the guest of Henry James, a friend of his brother, A.C.Benson. Rye, and particularly Lamb House, made a profound impression upon him. He visited Rye again, and this time stayed with Lady Maud Warrender at Leasam, on the hill behind Rye, where he met Edward Elgar and Rudyard Kipling amongst other famous people.

When Henry James died in 1916, an American woman leased the house but decided to winter on the Riviera, and let a friend of hers, George Plank, use the house. He was a friend of Benson and the latter spent many weekends at Lamb House with George Plank, who was the famous illustrator who designed covers for Vogue and also illustrated Benson’s book The Freaks of Mayfair.

In 1917, another friend, the artist Robert Norton, took the full lease of Lamb House, and offered Benson the sub lease of all but the summer months. From then on Lamb House became his country home. In 1919 he took over the whole lease and shared the house with his brother, Arthur, who was Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. Arthur used the house during the vacations. Benson declined the Lamb House freehold after his brother’s death, because he had no direct descendants but continued to live there.

Benson used the town of Rye in many of his novels and short stories, the most famous being his Tilling novels, Miss Mapp, Mapp and Lucia, Lucia’s Progress and Trouble for Lucia. The other two books in the series are Queen Lucia (set elsewhere) and Lucia in London (set at his London house). In the series, Rye appears as the town of Tilling and its geography is identical in nearly all respects to Rye. The names of places are changed slightly, but still reveal the connection to the original, for example, Mermaid Street becomes Porpoise Street; Watchbell Street, Curfew Street; The Hope Anchor Hotel, The Trader’s Arms; and The George Hotel, The King’s Arms.

His great interest in birds reveals itself in the names of places and people, such as Mallards for Lamb House, Starling Cottage for Robin Hill in Mermaid Street, Grebe for possibly Playden Cottage on the Military Road, and in the character Captain Puffin. He used the houses of his friends in these books; Robin Hill was the home of his friend, the publisher Vincent Marrot and The Other House on West Street was the home of the Jacomb-Hoods and became the Fish Shop and the Coach House attached, Quaint Irene’s Taormina. Percy Jacomb-Hood was the illustrator of some of Benson’s books, and his wife, Reta, became Mayoress when Benson became Mayor of Rye in 1934, a position he held until 1937. Next to the Jacomb Hood’s House, Cobbles Cottage, became the Fruiterers.

Rye appears in E.F.Benson’s novel Pharisees and Publicans (1926) under its own name, and is also recognisable in the following novels and short stories:

Mrs. Ames (1912), as Riseborough
The Oakleyites (1915) as Oakley-on-Sea
Colin and Colin II, (1923 and 1925) as Rye but the house at the centre of the story , Stanier, is Leasam.
Visible and Invisible (1923) a collection of ghost stories, where ‘The Outcast’ has Rye as Tarleton and‘Machaon’ has Rye as Tilling
Spook Stories (1928) where ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’ has Rye as Scarling
More Spook Stories (1934) where ‘James Lamp’ has Rye as Trench.

There is no doubt that Rye was not only much loved by E.F.Benson, but that it also acted as a major inspiration with regard to his writings. Although he claimed that the Tilling novels were light weight, it is because of them, and his ghost stories, that he is remembered to-day. As you walk round Lamb House and the town of Rye, you may hear echoes of his famous characters.

First posted in Literary and Artistic Rye, Notable People on 12th May 2010
Last updated: 27th November 2012
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