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The Four Robert Bensons


This photograph was taken in the back garden of Retta Cottage, 2 Edward Street, Hamiton. The photographer has arranged some items from the house as props. A rug has been flung over the fence to make a backdrop and there are potted aspidistras on either side of the men. The photo’s purpose was to show four generations of a family who were all named Robert Benson.

It was clear that this was a professionally taken photograph and thanks to some terrific help from Angela at the Reference Library in Hamilton, I discovered that it appeared in the Hamilton Advertiser for 13 May 1933, with the caption ‘The Four Robert Bensons’. No story accompanied the photograph, but there were details of who the men were.

fourgensofrobertsThe eldest Robert – he of the luxuriant mouser – was 82 here and had outlived two wives, Euphemia Baxter and Agnes Craig. He and Euphemia had 7 children, all boys. This accounts for the masses (and I do mean masses!) of Bensons who followed. Had it not already been a common name in the west of Scotland, Robert’s contribution must have ensured that it became so.

The last of the Bensons to be born in Linlithgow, his father was the first to be named Robert. The male line was vigorous, most of them living into their 80s – the same, alas, can’t be said for their poor wives! According to my mother (who was 17 when her great-grandfather died) Robert Senior was to be approached with caution. As he’s glowering in every photo I have of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. He looks trim of figure and rather nattily dressed. I imagine him flinging open the bedroom window to do his callisthenics then shouting to his daughter-in-law ‘Nell! Have my best breeks got a good crease in them? The man frae the Hamilton Advertiser’s coming today.’

The next generation is the craggy-faced gentleman on the left, aged 61. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a colliery engine keeper at the pit. This Robert married a gentle Irish girl called Nell Wilson on Christmas Day in 1896. (Churches don’t do marriages on Christmas Day anymore, do they?) My mother spoke warmly of her grandparents, although Robert was typically brusque in the way of his generation. Oddly though, Mother never told me that Nell was Irish – I had to find that out for myself and I haven’t yet found a birth record for her.

This Robert had a relatively small family – two daughters Rachel and Euphemia and one son, yes you guessed, Robert. Rachel was known as Retta and I wonder if she was always content with that version – as a Rachel, I must say I would have hated it. Euphemia was of course Effie – my wonderfully characterful great-aunt.

Son Robert (who’s the youngest man in the picture) was named with plenty of reminders of the family’s history. He was Robert Spence Thom Benson. Individuals with multiple names are a godsend in genealogy, with an instant link back through the generations. My Aunt Effie gloried in hers and signed Euphemia Gibb Baxter Benson with a flourish. Robert was my mother’s ‘Uncle Bob’ . He and his wife Barbara were apparently cheerful folk in contrast to the dourness of some of the Bensons – maybe Barbara was responsible for that.

The little boy, the youngest Robert Benson, is aged about 8 here and was instructed to sit on his great-grandfather’s chair. He protested vehemently and with tears, but was told sharply to obey by the old man. You can see just how uncomfortable the poor thing is by the way he’s perching there. In my mind, this boy is always ‘Cousin Bobby’ but he’s actually my mother’s cousin, not mine. He got his share of family names too – Baxter & Hunter (his mother’s maiden name). He would, in his turn, also live at Retta Cottage.

Three piece suits were still required dress for formal occasions, complete with breast-pocket hankies (a patterned one in the case of the young man). This family were never, to my knowledge, poor enough to suffer the ignominy of wearing your best suit to church on a Sunday then pawning it on Monday morning till the next week. The old man’s suit was built to last – the waistcoast is cut high at the neck in the old style. His grandson wears a suit with a bit of a check in it and what looks like a striped shirt (but still with detachable white celluloid collar). The two older men are both wearing fob watches in their waistcoats – these would be handed down through the generations. The youngest man’s hairstyle looks almost modern, and his son’s locks look to have been tamed by Brylcreem.

There are Robert Bensons still in my generation. I hope the name survives, continuing that tradition which began almost two hundred years ago.

Family History

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