Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Commons 1832-1868 Section continues with our blog series to commemorate those MPs who died during the First World War. Today we remember Francis Bennett-Goldney, MP for Canterbury, who died on this day, 1918…
Francis Bennett-Goldney was one of three MPs or former MPs who were in their fifties when they died while on military service during the First World War. He did not see action against the enemy, but died on 26 July 1918 in an American hospital at Brest as the result of injuries sustained in a car accident in Brittany. He had been honorary assistant military attaché at the British embassy in Paris since December 1917 and held the rank of acting major at the time of his death. He was buried at St. Germain-en-Laye.
Bennett-Goldney had entered the Commons in December 1910 as MP for Canterbury, where he had served as mayor since November 1905. He was not, however, a local man, having been born near Birmingham in 1862. His father, Dr. Sebastian Evans (1830-1909), was something of a polymath: his career included designing stained glass windows, practising as a barrister on the Oxford circuit and editing newspapers, notably the Birmingham Daily Gazette. Evans was also involved with the formation of the National Union of Conservative Associations in 1867.
Educated at Bournemouth and Paris, Bennett-Goldney spoke excellent French, but abandoned plans to enter the diplomatic service because of ill health. He inherited money from a maternal relative, adopting her surname of Bennett-Goldney instead of Evans in 1892. He moved that year with his parents to Kent, living at Dover and then Goodnestone, before settling at Abbots Barton, Canterbury. He became a generous benefactor to his adopted town. Like his father he took an interest in art and antiquities, and in 1898 became honorary director and curator of the city’s museum and public library, an appointment which later prompted controversy.
Elected as a councillor in 1902 and subsequently an alderman, Bennett-Goldney proved to be a divisive figure in Canterbury’s politics. By 1904 he had already staked his claim to be a future parliamentary candidate for the borough, informing the sitting MP John Henniker Heaton of his wish to replace him as the Conservative candidate when he retired. Heaton, however, had no intention of stepping down. Bennett-Goldney decided not to stand at the 1906 election for the sake of party unity, but in January 1910, backed by his own organisation, the Canterbury Citizens’ League, he came forward as a Unionist, although Heaton remained the party’s official candidate. Among the numerous allegations which Bennett-Goldney made against his opponent was that Heaton had previously tried ‘to obtain a large sum of money from me as the price of his retirement’. Heaton, who won the seat in January 1910, brought a libel action against him, but subsequently dropped it.
When Heaton decided to retire in December 1910, the Canterbury Conservative Association resolved that ‘in no circumstances’ would Bennett-Goldney be adopted as the party’s candidate. Undaunted, he stood as an Independent Unionist, and worked tirelessly during his campaign, personally canvassing 3,000 voters. He defeated the official Conservative candidate, John Howard, by over 470 votes, with the Liberal trailing in third place.
His earlier opposition to Heaton, who was well-liked by fellow MPs, did not help Bennett-Goldney’s popularity at Westminster, and he was ‘rather a lonely figure’ in the Commons. He regularly asked questions of ministers, particularly on matters relating to the forces. During the 1890s he had served as an officer in one of the militia battalions of the Middlesex regiment. Despite not having received official party endorsement as a candidate, Bennett-Goldney became an active speaker for the Conservative party, addressing over 500 meetings across the country in the two years before the First World War. One obituary remembered him as ‘an eloquent, though not a particularly convincing, speaker’.
When war broke out in 1914, he assisted with the reception of refugees at Folkestone, and he later handed over his residence at Abbots Barton for use as a V.A.D. hospital. He was also involved in army recruiting. In September 1915 he was commissioned as a captain in the Army Service Corps, and was attached to headquarters staff at Shorncliffe, Kent. He took a particular interest in the threat posed by German aircraft and made a notable Commons speech criticising the administration of the British air service in February 1916. Later that year he gave evidence to an inquiry on this subject, although one report claimed that ‘as he had no practical knowledge of aviation his views carried but little weight’. His last recorded intervention in the Commons chamber came on 15 January 1918, when he asked a written question about whether older men who had falsified their age to enlist earlier in the war might now be relieved from overseas service.
Bennett-Goldney left no wife or children, and some of his effects were auctioned off after his death. It emerged, however, that some items in his possession did not actually belong to him. In 1921 Canterbury’s mayor and corporation made a successful claim for the return of valuable books and documents which Bennett-Goldney had taken from the city’s museum and library. The corporation’s counsel hinted at other misdeeds and suggested that Bennett-Goldney was ‘a person who … was unable to distinguish between his own property and the property of other persons’. However, the judge absolved him of any ‘improper conduct’, depicting him as having been careless about returning items he had removed in his capacity as honorary director, rather than wilfully criminal.
This case has fuelled suspicions about Bennett-Goldney’s role in the mysterious disappearance of the Irish crown jewels (the insignia of the Order of St. Patrick) from Dublin Castle in 1907. At that time he held the ceremonial position of Athlone Pursuivant of Arms and had seen the jewels twice when he visited Dublin Castle in May 1907. However, he had not been in Ireland between the last date the jewels were seen in June and the discovery of their loss in July, and there is no firm evidence to suggest that he played any part in the theft of the jewels, whose whereabouts were never discovered. While the incident prompted him to resign as Athlone Pursuivant, together with other Dublin Castle officials, it did not prove an obstacle to his subsequent parliamentary career.
- A. Bateman, The magpie tendency (1999)
- S. Murphy, A centenary report on the theft of the Irish crown jewels in 1907 (2008)