PARISH HISTORY OF BENSON AND BENSINGTON
by Michael Byard (Chairman of the Bensington Society 1977)
(Parish boundary maps below text.)
Benson is a very old village although the fact may not be apparent to the casual visitor. Benson was never an isolated village for it stood on a trackway from the north which passed southwards to meet the ancient Icknield Way. The river Thames was a boundary between British tribes and later between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and fighting at Bensington, to give it its earlier name, is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 571 and 777.
Historically, it is important to remember that Bensington was a ROYAL MANOR for over 800 years from the days of Offa the Mercian, who built the first stone church here, to 1628 when it was sold by King Charles 1. Before Offa the land had belonged to Cynegils, first Christian king of Wessex and this property had extended over a very wide area including Henley and Littlestoke. The Saxon church at Bensington therefore became the mother church of Henley, Nettlebed and Warborough.
After the Norman Conquest Bensington church with its dependencies was given to Dorchester Abbey by the Empress Maud about 1141 during her war with King Stephen. Thus began a period of 400 years when Benson church was attached to Dorchester until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in the sixteenth century. It was the Dorchester canons who replaced the Saxon church with a Norman building. The font, the foundations of the chancel, and the lancet window now at the east end of the south aisle, are relics of this earlier rebuilding. The present structure is the result of extensions, renovations, and rebuilding through the centuries.
Because it was the King’s land and only granted to various lords at the King’s pleasure, Benson never had a castle or manor. Nevertheless, it produced a revenue that made it a property with which to reward a royal favourite or a loyal supporter. Famous people such as Richard of Cornwall, the Black Prince, Alice Duchess of Suffolk and Sir Francis Knollys, were granted the lordship of Benson, but they lived elsewhere.
After the Norman conquest, no major battle was fought on Benson soil but it was inevitably involved in the struggle between Stephen and Maud in the twelfth century and between Charles I and Cromwell in the Great Rebellion. King Stephen signed a charter ‘in the camp at Bensington’ when he was besieging Wallingford; King Charles held ‘his court’ at Benson in 1642 when he sent a letter to the mayor of Reading demanding passage for his troops over the bridge at Caversham.
The inhabitants of Benson were sturdy free farmers. Much wheat and barley was grown and there were noted flocks of sheep on the slopes of Beggarbush Hill. A bustling prosperity came to the village with the growth of the stage-coach services when it became an important stop on the London to Oxford road. There was stabling for two hundred horses, smithies, coach-builders and saddlers, together with a number of coaching inns and the catering services. At least twelve inns and ale houses were in the village at the end of the nineteenth century. When the stage-coaches were ousted by the railways, Benson folk turned their skills to the building of the new railway carriages.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Benson had shrunk to a quiet country village, popular for boating or fishing holidays, till the growth of the motor car traffic and housing developments made parts of it a dormitory for workers in near-by towns. The establishment of the adjacent airfield and the coming of the Royal Air Force helped to develop local trades and services but the airfield, now the home of the Queen’s Flight, does not in any way dominate village life.
Benson used to attract the interest of antiquaries because of the early British earth-works between the church and the river, now destroyed by the modem by-pass, In later years Jerome K. Jerome the novelist made his home at Grove near Benson and William Henry Dines, the pioneer meteorologist, built his small observatory in the village (now a small housing development, the site being called Observatory Close) and carried out much of his exploration of upper air conditions from this area.
The village of Benson, together with the hamlet of Preston Crowmarsh, lies some twelve miles south-east of Oxford and one and a half miles from Wallingford, and is situated beside the Thames, although the entrance to the village is separated from the river by the main Oxford to London road (A423).
Up until the 1930’s (from about 1824) the main through road passed along the High Street then the old by-pass was constructed which completely divorced Benson from both Preston Crowmarsh and the river.
The parish of Benson extends from Berrick Salome, in the north (including parts of Roke and Rokemarsh) to Turners Court, in the south and from the Thames in the west to Mogpits Wood and Potters Farm in the east. The parish boundary has undergone many changes over the years.
Michael I. Byard
Chairman - Bensington Society
Benson, September 1977.