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William Benson Earle


1740 – 1796 Benefactor to St Leonard's Church Grateley and the people of the


William Benson Earle

William Benson Earle, of Salisbury, is remembered in the parish of Grateley mainly for his gift of £498.15s of 4% stock, purchased with 300 guineas from his will, the dividends to be applied as follows: 21s to the parish clerk for the upkeep of Lady Elton’s grave in perpetuity; the remainder for the purchase and distribution of best ox beef and potatoes to the poor of the parish at Christmas and cheese at Easter. This continued until the middle of the 20C. Dividends from stock purchased with a further 100 guineas to be used for the education of children of the parish.


It is not so well known that he was also instrumental in recovering the border fragments and the St Stephen Panel in St Leonard’s church, from Salisbury Cathedral in 1787.

He also provided the first church clock in 1785 which was replaced in 1858.

Little is known about this benefactor to the parish and this is an attempt to rectify that lack.

The origins of William Benson Earle are very difficult to establish as it appears that there is no official record of his birth. However, there is, as it were, a second-hand reference to his birth in Shaftesbury, and his burial at Newton Toney (Wiltshire) with his ancestors (footnote 1).

With the paucity of information on William Benson Earle I tried to see what kind of man he may have been through his ancestors.

William Benson, Grandfather
William Benson Earle was related (footnote 2) to William Benson (1682 – 1754) his grandfather through his father Harry Stephen Earle (see below). It was through his grandfather marrying (1707) Eleanor Earle, daughter of Joseph Earle (footnote 3) who was a wealthy merchant of Bristol that he was related to the Earle family. On this marriage the couple received a settlement of £10,000: this at a time when the average wage was ca. £40 per annum.

There was also a tie with the wealthy Hoare family through the marriage (1726) of Jane Benson, sister of William, to Henry Hoare, son of Sir Richard Hoare of Stourhead and Lord of the Manor of Quarley.

William Benson was a man of many parts being a politician, architect and literary critic who accumulated a fortune finally as Auditor of Imprests for the Government. He built the Palladian style Wilbury House and had a hand in building Stourhead for the Hoare family. He succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as the King’s Surveyor. Later he sold Wilbury to his nephew Henry Hoare the younger.

I find it amusing that having lost his seat in Parliament for some misdemeanour he stood again for Shaftesbury. On receiving only 4 votes he turned off the water supply to the town.

Harry Stephen Earle, Father
The father of William Benson Earle was born Harry Benson son of William and Eleanor Benson in Newton Toney, Wiltshire. He had assumed the name of Earle sometime before 1739 when he married Ann Sympson of Portsea. The marriage was at Grateley by licence from the Bishop of Winchester: neither living in Grateley at the time. By 1742 the couple were living in Grateley and had a son Harry, the younger, in that year. There is no reference to William Benson Earle born two years earlier. Was he being brought up by the Earle part of the family in Shaftesbury or Bristol?

There are few references to Harry Earle the Elder other than land transactions and one draws the conclusion that he lived a quiet life on the land. However, Harry Earle is proven to be the father of William Benson Earle as recorded in the Hampshire Record Office, Winchester, on transfer of interests in land from William Benson Earle to his father, Harry Earle, to the value of £100.

William Benson Earle
From the foregoing it is clear that William was to have a comfortable life even though there was mystery over his birth and change of surnames. His comfortable upbringing is reflected in his education and the company he later kept.

His education was in the arts and after the Cathedral School in Salisbury Close attended Winchester College as a commoner. He then attended Merton College, Oxford from which he matriculated in 1758. He graduated as a BA 1761 and obtained a post graduate MA in 1764 (footote 4). He then went on the Grand Tour of Europe from 1765 – 67.

It is recorded that William Benson Earle inherited an ‘ample’ fortune and an old mansion in the Cathedral Close, Salisbury on the death of his father in 1776.

William attained some little fame as a composer. He composed several glees as well as Sanctus and Kyrie all performed in Salisbury cathedral at times. A letter (8/9/1781) from William Beckford (footnote 5) to Louisa Beckford with an invitation to Salisbury Cathedral where:  “I have promised fido pastore William Benson Earle to take you to hear his new chaunt”.

In 1786 he published a new edition of Bishop John Earle’s Microcosmographie (first published 1628)

He was involved with the musical Linley family of Bath. Thomas Linley the younger was a child prodigy and was once thought of as the ‘English Mozart’ being contemporaneous and having met Mozart in Austria. It is possibly to obtain a disc of a reconstructed rendering of a Soiree with the Linleys in Bath in which William composition Go rose: 'my Chloe's Bosom grace' is part of an interesting programme.

William maintained a large circle of friends and business acquaintances that were mainly prominent people such as the Wyndham family in Salisbury, the Earls of Malmesbury (Harris family) and travelled extensively on the Grand Tour in 1766 and 1767. His experiences on his travels in Italy are available in the Hampshire Record Office held in a collection of letters to the Earl of Malmesbury (footnote 6). He also wrote of his journeys in some minor periodical of the time.

His relationship with the Beckford family was rather tenuous. Peter Beckford was one of the wealthiest men in England with vast sugar plantations in Jamaica which he never visited and tended to remain in London.

The portrait (footnote 7), reproduced on the cover, an etching by William Evans after a drawing by William Hoare of Bath, shows William as an affluent man at the age of 29 but published post mortem in 1797.

He was clearly acquainted with and related (cousin) to the Hoare Family who were, at one time, Lords of the Manor of Quarley and the builders of the magnificent country mansion at Stourhead in Wiltshire completed in 1725.

He was involved extensively in dealing in land all over the counties of Wiltshire, Hampshire and Somerset (footnote 8) frequently in conjunction with other wealthy individuals.

He led a very full life, if the lives led by his acquaintances are any measure, but there is little direct reference to him throughout the whole of his life. It would seem that he lived the good life vicariously through his wealthy and influential friends or acquaintances.

He is buried in Newton Toney, Wiltshire as is his mother and father under the name of Earle whereas his grandparents under the name of Benson or earlier generations, Bensen.

His mother died (10.3.1791) in Salisbury; I assume living with her son in his inherited mansion in the Close. William also died in his home in the Close on Monday 14th March (footnote 9), apparently without issue. His burial record was as Esq. of Grateley.

His will (footnote 10) in addition to the bequest to Grateley Parish was directed to the benefit of the arts and antiquaries and is shown as follows:

the bequest to Grateley is on a painted board in St Leonard’s Church, Grateley


To the Royal Society .......... 200 guineas

 To the Antiquarian Society ......... 200 guineas

To the President of the Antiquarian Society for the encouragement of the arts ......... 200 guineas

To the Bath Agricultural Society ........ 100guineas

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To the Salisbury Concert 5 guineas for 10 years.

To the creation of the great west nave window of painted glass in Salisbury Cathedral: 400guineas.

To the Triennial Musical Festivals: 150 guineas for three events.

To the hospitals of Winchester, Bath and Salisbury: 100 guineas each.

To the parishes of St Thomas, St Edmund and St Mark 50 guineas each.

To the Parish of Northstoke, Somerset 30 guineas

To the Bishop Seth Ward College of Matrons: 2,000 guineas. There is a lasting memorial to William Benson Earle in Salisbury Cathedral created by John Flaxman: the figure of Benevolence unveiling a representation of the Good Samaritan.

 Michael Longyear 2006


  1. Salisbury Library
  2. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  3. Joseph Earle had investments in the West Indies and was involved in the transportation of slaves
  4. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  5. William Beckford was Louisa’s husband’s (Peter) cousin with whom she was having an affair whilst being painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds at this time. He was also the author of the famous Gothic novel “Vathek”
  6. Papers of James Harris and his brothers
  7. This portrait is held in the New York Public Library: for what reason I am unable to ascertain.
  8. Far too numerous to record here.
  9. Winchester Chronicle 28th March 1796.
  10. Winchester Chronicle 4th May 1796

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