The well-connected Alexander Morden Bennett’s social position would have matched well with the affluent visitors who came to early Victorian Bournemouth. This position, combining marriage connections with political associations, provided him with good social capital during his long career as Bournemouth’s perpetual curate.
A.M. Bennett comes to Bournemouth
Bournemouth’s early church building loses momentum
According to Mate, Bournemouth’s first place of worship consisted of two cottages knocked into one. A strong letter to the press commented on the inappropriateness of this arrangement to deal with numbers. It suggested dragging of feet by the Lord of the Manor and proprietor, Sir George Gervis Tapps. Within a short time, however, responding to demand, he commissioned a bespoke church. Celebrations for laying the cornerstone took place in 1841. Construction continued, but towards the church’s completion Gervis Tapps died at the early age of 48. Progress slowed. Trustees supervised the family’s affairs during the successor’s minority, then 15. Professional and personal matters took Hugh Wyndham, the incumbent, from the area. He married, moved to take a post at Morden, just north of Wareham, and christened his own son there in 1844. Talk of selling the church occurred. The colony continued its business of construction and hospitality.
Need for a new curate at Bournemouth
The original incumbent perhaps a relative of Thomas Wyndham, the curate at Hinton Admiral, east of Christchurch, the location of the Tapps stately house. The family may have appointed him on that basis. At its laying, he had guided the cornerstone into place. Afterwards, he chaired the celebratory dinner held at the Bath Hotel ‘with much kindness and attention’. In his place, the family or its trustees selected Alexander Morden Bennett, a widower in his early thirties. A Kentish man, a Regency child, Alexander Morden Bennett graduated from Oxford University (Worcester College) in 1830, not long before the Oxford Movement (Puseyite) emerged. His family had land in Kent, but he had served away from there, for the 1841 Census listed him as a clergyman resident in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. Land and Oxford suggests some level of wealth and linkage, but Bennett’s marriages seem to have made him well-connected.
A. M. Bennett’s marriage and political connections
The first marriage connection: aristocracy and the church
A.M. Bennett’s first father-in-law, Josiah John Pike, who also served in the church, not to die until 1850, has not surfaced for 1841. Genealogical evidence, however, suggests that he had married a sister of the Countess Winterton, second wife of an Irish peer, Edward Garth-Turnour, Elizabeth Armstrong. The Countess had achieved Dowager status a decade after her marriage, later marrying an East India Company official. Connection with an aged countess, even one remarried, deserved notice. Also without mention in the 1841 Census, Bennett’s first wife seems to have died about then. She may have died, perhaps in child-birth. Notice of her burial fell in the third quarter of 1841, whereas the Census happened in early June. No sign of his two small children appeared that year, either. The Reverend Bennett remained a widower until 1845, leaving his posting in Somerset during this period.
The second marriage connection: the forces and local politics
His second marriage brought him into Christchurch’s local elite. In early summer 1845, he and Marianne Elizabeth Hopkins married there. This time, Reverend Bennett married into the military, his father-in-law a half-pay army captain of some age. The ceremony became a family affair, since the bride’s brother, the Reverend Frederick Hopkins, administered the marriage. The link would have made him well-connected to the old warriors, land and sea, inhabiting the area, but also to the Gervis Tapps family. Captain Hopkins had seconded the motion to elect George Gervis Tapps for his first parliamentary success in 1832. The Reverend Thomas Wyndham, the Hinton Admiral incumbent, had proposed his patron. Bennett’s remarriage to the daughter of Captain Hopkins perhaps would have not gone unnoticed amongst the Tapps trustees. They needed to fill the incumbency at Bournemouth, left empty by Hugh Wyndham’s departure, and to restore momentum by consecrating the church, also empty.
Expanding his political connections
The sudden death of George Gervis Tapps deprived Christchurch of its M.P. Into the breach stepped one of the retired warriors, Captain Harris. He also won re-election in 1847. His entry into parliamentary politics tilted local matters from one landowning family to another, for, as his elder brother, the captain had the Earl of Malmesbury. This family had also succeeded in maintaining its land holdings at the Christchurch enclosure (1802). A small portion of his land lay in the centre of Bournemouth. A listing of the group assisting Captain Harris in his electoral victory (1847) has survived. Analysis has succeeded in plausible identifications for most of the 49 men listed. Most names came from local commerce (about a third) followed by landed proprietors (about a fifth). Local commerce, landed proprietors and the military had strong representation, but amongst the three churchmen appeared the name of Alexander Morden Bennett.
Working the connections
A smart address for the Bishop
A man as well-connected as the new perpetual curate would have augured well for the new resort. Affluent people, including a leading politician, the Dowager Queen, a society doctor had already visited the site. His family background, education and linkages achieved through his marriages would have qualified him to move with ease amongst the fashionable and affluent visitors to early Bournemouth. At the time of St Peter’s consecration, Bennett resided at 7 Westover Villas, a smart address, the property belonging to a local land developer having connections to the Ledgards, Poole bankers. The Bishop of Winchester, an old Etonian, attended the ceremony, taking dinner at Bennett’s house. The prelate perhaps had an interest in the rising fashionable resort, but, in ecclesiastical terms, some had described Bournemouth as a back water. Bennett’s social position and connections would have put the Bishop at his ease.
Patronage in action
To take care of family, to foster and support the careers of others in one’s network, shows patronage in action. Later in life, examples show how Alexander Morden Bennett perhaps performed this service for children and a brother-in-law. Both his sons came into incumbencies at Bournemouth, by that time equipped with several churches. The two sons left healthy estates. He may have helped his brother-in-law, Frederick Hopkins, also, to return as curate at Holdenhurst by 1871. He had served there in 1851 but moved to Margaretting, Essex, an incumbency left him by his father. Frederick also left a large estate. Bennett had built a strong ecclesiastical career by then, providing him with the ability to call for favours from his professional network, but perhaps the equity from being well-connected at the social and political level also assisted.
The big beasts who visited early Victorian Bournemouth will have approved of the social position occupied by their perpetual curate, the well-connected Alexander Morden Bennett.
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