THEN AND NOW - A SHORT TOUR THROUGH BENSON'S HISTORY
(BASED ON A LEAFLET, SPONSORED BY BENSON PARISH COUNCIL AND
AVAILABLE IN BENSON LIBRARY.)
Details have been added from "The Ditmas History of Benson" by Edith Ditmas.
There are also links to articles by John Aldridge, whose family have lived in Benson since 1861.
(Click on a numbered heading to go to location map. Return here using the back button.)
1. RIVER THAMES
The river has played an important part in Benson’s history, both commercially and for recreation. In earlier times it was a major trade route, and until 1936, there was a coal wharf, where barges from the Midlands landed fuel for the village.
The earliest crossing of the Thames at Benson would have been by the ford where the Rivermead recreation ground now exists, but in course of time the ford was superseded by ferries. One, known as the Horse Ferry, operated from a position now occupied by the Cruiser Station, the other crossed the stream below the Crowmarsh Mill.
The Horse Ferry, as its name implies, was for the passage of horses, made necessary because here the tow path from Wallingford crossed from the right to the left bank of the river.
The Crowmarsh Ferry connected with a footpath on the right bank, which in the days when there were no bus services, provided a quick way by which to get to Wallingford. The last Crowmarsh ferryman was Mr Jones who enlisted at the beginning of the First World War. He went to France but did not return and the ferry fell into disuse.
Preston Crowmarsh is the name of the riverside settlement on the eastern bank of the river Thames. Click here for further details of Preston Crowmarsh.
More recently pleasure boating and angling form an important part of river usage.
2. SAXON COURT
Houses were built on St. Helen’s Avenue near its junction with Church Road in 1999, when excavations revealed evidence of Early Neolithic and Later Bronze age or Early Iron age pits and post holes. The site may also have been occupied in Saxon times. There is evidence of human presence here, dating back to the Palaeolithic period – around 10,000 BC.
The first parish church on this site was built of wood in 636 by St. Birin. The Saxon King Offa then replaced it with a stone building, which lasted until Norman times. The church tower is visible from the River Thames.
Inside the church is a unique memorial to the Quelche family. Ralph Quelche and his wife, Jane, were proprietors of the Red Lion Inn in the 17th century.
Benson's War Graves Cemetery is located oppposite the church and entered by a lych gate. There is one grave dating from WW1 and 29 graves from WW2, beautifully kept by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. These include British, New Zealand, Canadian, Czechoslovakian and Polish airmen. Since the end of the war, 22 more airmen have been buried here.
5. WAR MEMORIAL
Fifteen of those named from WW1 were from the Wallingford Farm School at Turner’s Court. The memorial, which was funded from public subscription, has been awarded winner or runner-up in the best kept war memorial competition. The old Castle Inn can be seen in the background of the photo.
Benson’s location on the London to Oxford Road gave the village its importance during the coaching era. Horses could be changed at certain inns and welcome breaks taken.
The White Hart, built in the eighteenth century, is a good example of these posting inns. It was refronted and remodelled in the 1830s and was a hotel until 1980.
The old White Hart Hotel (above) has now been converted to apartments.
Transport was a vital part of Benson life, not only during the coaching days, but also when motor transport brought various bus companies to the village. This provided employment in the tea rooms and garage in the square.
The Castle Inn has now been converted to a house, but the post and frame of the inn sign can still be seen. The inn was important as a Posting inn until about 1844. Its main chimney at the rear dates from the 17th century.
The Round House with its circular front was constructed in the 18th century. It was a tea room in the 1920s.
Click here for details of Elm House (in Castle Square)
Just off Castle Square is Birmingham Yard, which was the centre of industry in Benson during the nineteenth century. Wheelwrights, millwrights, blacksmiths, carpenters and builders all operated from this area at one time or another. It recalls the days when the London and Birmingham stage coaches changed horses in the yard there. Some 18th and 19th century cottages remain, but the workshops have been redeveloped for housing, called Castle Close. Click here for more details about Birmingham Yard (including a plan).
No. 1 Birmingham Yard was formerly a doctor’s surgery.
(Continue along the High Street towards Mill Lane.)
Old photo of Castle Square
The 18th century Round House
Birmingham Yard, off Castle Square.
8. RED LION
This is the oldest surviving building in the village known to have existed as an inn. It dates to at least 1629 and sits on the corner of High Street and Mill Lane (named after the corn mill mentioned in the Domesday Book.) The lane was part of the original route to London, leading across the land now occupied by the airfield to Beggarbush Hill.
It is thought that Charles I held court in the first floor room here. It is recorded that Ralph Quelche rebuilt the Red Lion twice during his tenure, so an earlier inn may have existed well before the early 1600’s.
The elegant curve of the building, which was the Red Lion Inn in the coaching days. By the early 19th century it ceased to be a hostelry and its function was transferred across the road, to a smaller building.
College Farm, managed by Jack Franklin, dominated the centre of the village until the middle of the 20th century. The old farmhouse, dating back to the late 16th century still exists in Chapel Lane, from where its magnificent chimney stacks can be seen. The other barns and farm buildings were demolished and replaced with shops and flats in the early 1960s, retaining the original name.
In the late 1960’s the cottages opposite the College Farm development were threatened with demolition and this was the reason behind the formation of the Bensington Society. Conservation Area status was granted to the village and the cottages were saved for future generations. The village butcher's shop can be seen in the photograph next door to the cottages.
(Continue towards The Crown Public House.)
Old photo of College Farmhouse (above) and the cottages on the opposite side of the High Street (below).
10. CROWN SQUARE
The Crown, built in the mid-17th century was an important coaching inn, on the corner of Old London Road and High Street. The date of 1708 on the front refers to a re-build. The inn benefitted from the re-routing of the coaches via Old London Road. The remains of a mounting block can be seen on the outside wall. (Beyond Crown Square, the main street becomes Brook Street.)
Old photo of the Crown Inn
No 1. Brook Street
Old London Road turns right out of Crown Square and until 1942, was the main route to London. The road was cut off when the airfield was extended during the war.
Diagonally opposite The Crown is Benson’s oldest house, No. 1 Brook Street, which dates to the late 15th century. The original medieval cruck truss can be seen on the eastern end wall. The date stone of 1708 refers to one of the many re-builds. Click here for more details
11. CROWN LANE
On the right hand side at the corner with Aldridge Close is no. 10 or Homefield. It was at one time, one of Benson’s many farmhouses, built in the 18th century. Click here for more details
(Continue down Crown Lane to Aldridge triangle.)
"Homefield", Crown Lane
The area was once a gravel pit when the village was responsible for the maintenance of roads within the parish. It was bought by John Aldridge in 1952 and given to the village as an amenity area. On a map of 1788, it is labelled as a “Cock Pit”.
John Aldridge is the author of a series of interesting articles describing many of the old properties in the village and reminiscing about the people who lived in them.
Aldridge Triangle with the new Parish Hall in the background.
13. PARISH HALL
Over the road is the modern Parish Hall opened in July 1988 by Michael Heseltine. It replaced the old wooden Parish Hall in Church Road.
(Continue along Watlington Road, past Littleworth Road, to find the narrow entrance to Littleworth Path.)
CHAPEL LANE (Detour)
A Methodist chapel was established in Chapel lane in 1897. Eventually the congregation dwindled to one family and it closed down in 1946. The building was converted to shops,
now nos. 3-5 Chapel Lane
At the junction of Chapel Lane with Watlington Road, there is a house, called Sun Cottage, which used to be one of Benson's many public houses. The Sun closed in March 1999.
The Sun public house, now converted to a cottage
14. LITTLEWORTH PATH
The siting of many of the cottages down Littleworth Road suggests that they started out as squatters settlements on the waste ground along the verges of roads. The earliest of these is probably the 18th century “Thatchover”, a cottage near the present day school.
(Continue by turning left alongside the school, towards Oxford Road.)
"Thatchover", Littleworth Path
The oldest part of Benson Church of England Primary School was built in 1850 together with the schoolmaster's house. The school was extended in 1901 and the modern part was added in 2002/3 when the Infants School in Westfield Road was relocated to the Oxford Road site.
In 1870, the schoolmaster, William Lee had a son called Reginald Robinson Lee. Reginald was in the crow's nest of the Titanic, when the iceberg was sighted on 14th April 1912. Fortunately, he was rescued by lifeboat and survived the tragedy.
A 1904 photograph of Benson School, and the schoolmaster's house.