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The lives and some experiences of our leading men – John Bennett

Captain John Bennett RN (1670-1717)

Bennett was a Royal Navy captain for parts of his career but also had other interests; sufficient that he left a will worth several millions in today’s money. There is speculation that he and his wider family were closely involved in smuggling locally.

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His father was also a Royal Navy captain and John and his parents moved to Barking, in Essex, in their later years where the family also had connections. Barking in those days was a drop-off port for London.

In Poole the family were said to live in a tenement at the end of Bennett’s Lane beside Strand Street.

Our Three Leading Men – Captain John Bennett RN (1670 –1717)

Captain John Bennett (junior) was born in Poole and is thought while growing up to have lived in a tenement in Bennett’s Lane, then an alley with a dead end off Poole Quay. His forebears had moved to Poole from Barking in Essex in earlier days; he would move back to Essex with his parents in the late C17th. His extended family lived in Poole during his lifetime and after he had moved to Essex.

His father, John Bennet(t) (senior) was a Royal Navy sea captain and lived from 1635 to 1707 in Poole. He was sworn a free Burgess of Poole, in 1688, and his brothers, Richard and Robert, also became Burgesses in in April 1685 and January 1688, respectively. The younger John Bennett was made an Out-Burgess of Poole in 1705 by which time he was living in Barking.

John Bennett’s naval career featured intermittent ‘hard convoy work’, related to war, but he was not involved in fighting. He became a captain in 1695 at the age of 25 and sailed to Virginia, Hamburg, Archangel in Russia, St Helena, Cape Town and the West Indies during his naval career. He seems not to have distinguished himself in the service and most of his commissions were for less than a year. He was on eight ships of ever increasing sizes, according to the National Maritime Museum, finishing with HMS Lennox, a 70 gun 1,100-ton vessel that he captained in 1712 on a trip to St Helena and the Cape. Naval work was intermittent at the time and we think that this applied to his career. While he must have had other interests it is not clear what these were and it is not known how he filled his time between naval assignments.

Captain Bennett became an extremely wealthy man during his lifetime, far wealthier than his modest navy career allowed. He left the equivalent in today’s terms of several million pounds to his beneficiaries; including a charity for poor people in Poole still in evidence today; and several items, such as his metal chest, the contents of which he swore his beneficiaries to secrecy about. The greater part of his bequest was left to his cousins in Poole, who according to Gutteridge were “well known in local smuggling circles”.

A local historian in Barking has come up with a persuasive case for the potential source of Bennett’s wealth. In 1682 a report was produced by Thomas Culliford, a customs official, “who named and shamed the merchants of Poole who were not paying duty”. These merchants were clandestinely bringing foreign goods into the country, particularly brandy, without paying import duties; in other words they were professional smugglers. Culliford went on to name several people engaged in the activity, some of whose surnames relate closely to those of people who were beneficiaries of Bennett’s will, some decades later!

At his death Bennett had a counting house in London and his executor, who was his agent, was a London haberdasher. The link between Poole and Barking likely connects the movement of goods by sea in those days and trading links between the two places. Barking was a major drop-off port for the capital. Any smuggling interest then, whatever was coming into England, would need a ready route to market and London perhaps offered an easy route to disposal. His widespread interests towards the end of his life are also evident from his will.

Bennett’s father and mother ended their lives in Barking, as he did, and a magnificent marble bust and edifice on the wall of Barking church celebrate his life and times. His life seems to have covered several different maritime experiences of the day – some on the right side of the law, as part of the Royal Navy – but the suspicion remains that perhaps he also saw service on the wrong side of the law; could his close proximity to smuggling in Dorset perhaps explain what he got up to in his down time?

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