Thomas Benson and Lundy Island

The 18th century North Devon trader and smuggler who exploited Lundy Island for devious purposes

An eighteenth century wrongdoer

Thomas Benson emerged as the leading merchant trader out of the North Devon port of Bideford after inheriting the family fortune in 1743 at the age of 37. Despite the onset of naval warfare between England and Spain, his vessels transported large quantities of tobacco from the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, exporting locally made woollen goods in return, and his fishing vessels sailed to the Newfoundland cod banks each year. In 1744 France joined the war against England as an ally of Spain, and this prompted Benson to fit out one of his vessels as a man-of-war with which he engaged the expanded enemy fleet as a privateer with some notable successes.

To further strengthen his grip over North Devon, and to facilitate the procurement of lucrative government contracts, Benson decided to enter politics and joined the governing Whig party which had by this time awarded him the prestigious title of High Sheriff of Devon, an office he held until 1749. After presenting the Corporation of Barnstaple with a magnificent silver punch bowl, he was duly elected unopposed as MP for Barnstaple in 1747.

His power-base in the region had become so entrenched that he began to believe he was above the law. But after his first serious brush with the Customs authorities over unpaid tobacco import duties, he became entangled in a web of deception involving breach of contract, smuggling, tax evasion, and finally a bold insurance fraud that was to lead to his undoing[note 1]. When this last scam was exposed Benson ignominiously took flight in self-imposed exile, leaving Captain Lancey, the master of his vessel the Nightingale, to face criminal charges on which he was found guilty and duly hanged.

Lundy Island seen on the horizon from near Hartland Point
A distant view of Lundy from Hartland Point

The backdrop to Benson's devious schemes was visible on a clear day from his spacious family residence on the North Devon coast as a small outcrop on the horizon: Lundy Island.

This enchanting isle is seen in the distance on the left of the image shown above. On the right in the middle distance is Hartland Point, the mainland location closest to Lundy. The Bensons lived in Northam, some 13 miles to the east of Hartland Point.

The scene above was encapsulated in verse by William Wilsey Martin[4]:

I lay afloat in an idle boat,
A fisher lad held the oar,
On a Devon strand and watched the grand
Old waves rush up the shore.
Some leagues away old Lundy lay,
Guarding the middle sea;
The sun and mist his low length kissed,
Yet rugged and cold looked he.

The story of the the rise and fall of Thomas Benson reads like a parable of the corruptibility of a man driven by greed and a hunger for power. A more charitable view of Benson's wrongdoings is given by Stanley Thomas in his engaging and thoroughly researched book, The Nightingale Scandal, which examines in some depth the events surrounding his fall from grace. In the concluding section, the author reasons that Benson was very much a man of his time; in a period when corruption was endemic it was common for powerful individuals to consider fraudulent schemes as good business practice, and taken in the round Benson had done much to benefit the population of North Devon.

Had his plan not miscarried, Thomas Benson may well have been regarded as one of the worthies of Devon, instead of his name going down to history as a notorious villain. His despicable act of leaving Lancey to pay with his life for a crime of which he himself was the author is difficult to excuse and it earned him the hatred of his fellow men. The scandal of this act has lived on long after men have forgotten his achievements, the part he played in fostering the thriving prosperity of the ports of Appledore and Bideford, providing most of the population of these towns with their livelihood, and doing more for the cultivation and improvement of Lundy than any previous owner or tenant of the Island.[1, p83]

The following sections of this two-part feature explore Benson's story in greater detail.

Rise of the merchant class in North Devon

Until Elizabethan times, Barnstaple on the Taw Estuary was the largest and most important maritime settlement in North Devon. From 1585, when Sir Richard Grenville brought English settlers to establish a colony on Roanoke Island off the coast of what is now North Carolina, Bideford at the mouth of the River Torridge grew rapidly and soon became the principal Devonshire port for trade with the American colonies. It continued to prosper for another two hundred years until these colonies achieved their independence.

[Map image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.]

Map of North Devon Coast

Engraving of Appledore in 1850

A few miles to the north of Bideford where the Taw and Torridge meet and flow together over the bar out to the sea lies the small fishing village of Appledore (part of Northam) where Squire John Benson, a prosperous Bideford merchant, lived with his family in Knapp House built on a hill overlooking the estuary. This is where his third son, Thomas, was born in 1707.

This was the period of the great merchant princes, when the West country merchants of Bristol were amassing vast fortunes from the tobacco trade with Virginia and from the even more profitable slave trade. From his boyhood, Thomas Benson had watched the ships sailing across the bar from Barnstaple and Bideford to France, Spain and Portugal, or across the Atlantic to the American colonies; and as a boy had spent many hours listening to Sailors' tales on Appledore Quay. The call was irresistible; the hazards of the times brought an added zest. Here he found the true outlet for his tremendous ability, his energy and his drive.[1, p10]

Down the slippery slope

In the Autumn of 1747, Benson, now age forty, was sworn in as the newly elected MP for Barnstaple. One of the first bills to come before the house was legislation to prohibit the insurance of French ships and their cargoes. Whether or not Benson took part in the debate, it is quite likely that it provided the inspiration for his subsequent actions and eventual downfall.

Benson had powerful political friends in Lord Carteret, Secretary of State, and his cousin, Lord Gower, the Lord Privy seal. Both owned estates in North Devon inherited from their family, the Grenvilles. With the war against France drawing to a close, Benson was keen to expand his trading with the colonies. With the help of these allies in government, he was able to secure a contract for shipping convicts to Maryland and Virginia which would subsidise the cost of the outward journeys of his regular trade route.

As far as Benson was concerned, the jewel in the crown in the estates of these noble lords was Lundy Island, and a year after the convict transportation contract had been signed, he entered into an agreement to lease the island from them at a rent of £60 per annum.

The island was uninhabited at the time, with the few houses still standing falling into disrepair, so one might well wonder what Benson could hope to achieve from such a transaction. Always on the make, Thomas had devised a cunning plan to use Lundy for financial gain: on the one hand he would offload his imported tobacco on the island and conceal it there to avoid paying the hefty import duties - smuggling, in the eyes of the Customs - and secondly, rather than transporting all the convicts to America as required by his contract, he would carry some them no further than Lundy where they would remain in bondage and be set to work on various schemes to improve the island. Meanwhile Benson would pocket the fees for shipping them to the colonies.

Benson's island hideaway

The entrance to Benson's Cave

This cavern on Lundy came to be known as Benson's Cave, the assumption being that he had used his convict slave labour to excavate it for the purpose of storing smuggled merchandise. Subsequent excavation of its interior found graffiti on the walls dating from 1726, so it is more likely that the cave was tunnelled out during the tenancy of Richard Scores, the previous occupier, who was charged with smuggling on Lundy in 1721. This description of the cave comes from the naturalist P H Gosse, writing of a visit to the island in The Home Friend magazine in 1853 [2, p485]:

A few rods below the castle, where the greensward slopes steeply down to the south-east, a sort of doorway in the hillside attracted our notice, and we looked in. It was the entrance to a large chamber excavated out of the solid rock, and bore indubitable proofs of its being a work of art. The grey shale of which this end of the isle is composed is friable, and easily removed; and time and labour alone would be needed to form such a cavern as this. A long slab, resting on two upright ones for joints, made the doorway. The cave is now used as an occasional stable, but tradition assigns a very different purpose for its construction.

In Benson's first brush with the authorities, the records of the Court of Exchequer for 1750 show that Benson together with two of his mariners owed duty to the Collector of Customs for Barnstaple for a consignment of British Plantation tobacco imported the year before. The duty together with penalties for late payment amounted to £922, a considerable sum at the time. It is believed that he unloaded this tobacco on Lundy and buried it in Benson's Cave.

Benson's Lundy: an eyewitness account

In the summer of 1752, Benson organized a trip to Lundy for a number of guests who had been staying at Knapp. Included in this party were, Sir Thomas Gunson, Sheriff of Somerset, and Thomas Stafford, Benson's young nephew and a personal favourite of his, and an anonymous member of the group who kept a journal of the visit. This gives us a revealing first-hand glimpse of Benson's character, and what life was like for his men and his enslaved convicts. They sailed on a Monday morning in a vessel bound for Wales which dropped them off at the Lundy Roads[note 2] from where they were taken ashore in a small boat.

Mr Benson did not accompany us, expecting letters from the insurance office for the vessel that was to have taken us there[note 3]. That vessel then lay off his quay [in Appledore] with convicts, bound to Virginia, and he came to us on Wednesday.
Lundy castle or fort in 1770
The island was at this time in no state of improvement, the houses miserably bad, one on each side of the platform[note 4], that on the right inhabited by Mr Benson and his friends, the other by servants. The old fort was occupied by the convicts whom he had sent there some time before, and occupied in making a wall across the island. They were locked up every night when they returned from their labour. About a week before we landed seven or eight of them took the long-boat and made their escape to Hartland, and were never heard of afterwards.
Wild fowl were exceedingly plentiful, and a vast number of rabbits. The Island was overgrown with ferns and heath, which made it almost impossible to go to the extreme of the Island. Had it not been for the supply of rabbits and young sea-gulls our table would have been poorly furnished, rats being so plentiful that they destroyed every night what was left of our repast by day. Lobsters were tolerably plenty, and some other fish we caught. The deer and goats were very wild and difficult to get at.
The path to the house was so narrow and steep that it was scarcely possible for a horse to ascend it. The inhabitants by the assistance of a rope climbed up a rock, in which were steps cut out to place their feet, up to a cave or magazine where Mr Benson lodged his goods.
There happened to come into the roads one evening nearly twenty sail of vessels. The colours were hoisted on the fort, and they all as they passed Rat Island returned the compliment except one vessel, which provoked Mr Benson to fire at her with ball, though we used every argument in our power to prevent him. He replied that the Island was his, end every vessel that passed it and did not pay him the same compliment as was paid to the king's forts he would fire on her.
He talked to us about his contract for exportation of convicts to Virginia, and often said that sending convicts to Lundy was the same as sending them to America; they were transported from England, it matters not where it was, so long as they were out of the kingdom. [3, p104-107]

Benson's quoted justification for keeping the deportees on Lundy was somewhat disingenuous as by so doing he was in breach of his contract to deliver these convicts to Virginia or Maryland, for which he no doubt claimed the full transportation fees. This was not quite as straightforward as it might seem. The terms of the contract required Benson to deposit a bond which could only be recovered by presenting a signed receipt confirming delivery of the convicts at their destination, with a £30 fine if it were not completed within three months.

Myrtle Ternstrom suggests[1, note to p28] two ruses he could have adopted, either of which would have enabled him to redeem the bond:

  1. bribing corrupt officials to forge the receipts, a common practice at the time;
  2. landing a few of the fittest and most skilled convicts on Lundy, and, on arrival in Virginia with the other prisoners, saying that the missing ones had died during the voyage and were then buried at sea.

The wall that the convicts were pressed into building was the Quarter Wall that separates the more fertile southern sector of the island from the more rugged part to the north. Benson's plan was to cultivate the land to the south of the wall, constraining the wild goats and deer to roam on the other side. What remains of the Quarry Cottages that were built by the Lundy Granite Company in the 1860s to house the most senior workers of the company are situated on the north side of the Quarter Wall.

Remains of the Quarry Cottages
All that remains of the Quarry Cottages

By the end of the week, Benson and his guests had returned to Appledore. Three or four days later the brigantine Nightingale, which they had seen lying off the quay at the time of their departure, set sail for Virginia with convicts on board. This was the start of a risky venture that Benson had planned meticulously. Having heavily insured the aging ship and its contents, the cargo was to be off-loaded on Lundy before scuttling the vessel some way further out to sea. The crew would then sign affidavits describing the sinking as a natural disaster, allowing a full insurance claim to be made. The outcome of this fateful journey and its ramifications for Benson and the crew is revealed in the second part of this feature.


The BBC have made available this clip from their TV series "Britain's Outlaws" broadcast on December 2nd 2015:
Thomas Benson: Member of Parliament and Smuggler.
The calmer waters off the south-east of the island, sheltered from the prevailing westerly winds, were known as the Lundy Roads. In the age of sail roads referred to "a partly sheltered anchorage". Chanter, writing in the late 18th century when most shipping was still at the mercy of the wind, gives us an indication of the importance of these roads as a sanctuary in stormy weather.
The lee side of the Island is, however, generally smooth and calm, so that there are frequently a large number of vessels lying to under its shelter when gale is heavy from the west; from 30 or 40 to 100 being no uncommon number, and on one occasion 300 vessels were in sight, and 170 of good size anchored at once in the roadstead. [3, p13] [return]
His guests could not have been aware of the significance of these insurance papers in the eventual fate of this vessel, the Nightingale. The continuation of this feature will look at these events and their consequences. [return]
Presumably platform refers here to the plateau reached after the steep climb up from the landing bay. [return]


The Nightingale Scandal: The story of Thomas Benson and Lundy by Stanley Thomas, Bideford, 1959; republished by Myrtle Ternstrom with additional notes, Lazarus Press, 2001.
The Home Friend, a weekly miscellany of amusement and instruction, 1853 Collected Edition. [return]
Lundy Island: a Monograph by John R Chanter, Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1887; republished by Westwell Publishing, Appledore, 1997.
By Solent and Danube: Poems and Ballads by William Wilsey Martin, Trubner & Co., 1885. [return]


The picture of Benson's Cave is adapted from an image on the Lundy Island page on Everything Exmoor.
The engravings of Lundy Castle and Appledore are reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series which is licensed under this Creative Commons License.