SENATOR JAMES REA BENSON, ST. CATHARINES, AUSTRALIAN CONNECTION? [CANADA]
This fine Victoria cover had a total of 8d, made up of the 6d blue laureate (watermarked with the emergency paper received from Tasmania showing the double-lined ‘4') plus the De La Rue dull-lilac 2d, both postmarked with the MELBOURNE/ 7 H/ MY 21/ 70, VICTORIA duplex. It has a red LONDON/ PAID/ 14 JY 70 transit mark, as well as a HAMILTON/ ONT. arrival backstamp. It was addressed to ‘The Honbl. James R. Benson MP, St. Catherines (sic), (Ontario), Canada’ and although St. Catharines has a red crayon line through it, there is no evidence that it has been redirected (Figure 1).
James Rea Benson (1807-85) was a significant member of the Benson family descended from an Irish family of English extraction, and James’ probable place of birth was Fintona, County Tyrone, his parents were James Benson and Ann Robinson, and there were 10 children of this union. The date that the family migrated to North America (initially Lansingburgh N.Y.) is variously give as 1815 or 1816 and James then came to Kingston, Ontario with his parents.
The Benson family members are also known in Ontario at Port Hope, Cobourg, Peterborough, and Windsor. James Rea married Mary Anne (aka Marianne) Ingersoll, daughter of Charles Ingersoll at Oxford, Ingersoll, Ont. on May 25, 1836, and he was said to have moved to St. Catharines in 1819. James and his wife had at least 4 children, 3 of them being sons. Both James and his wife are buried at the Victoria Lawn Cemetery, St. Catharines. The City of St. Catharines purchased his residence and used it for some time as the City Hall.
James Rea’s commercial life was largely tied up with the St. Catharines-Niagara region, and he was early known as a miller, hardware merchant and ship owner. His business interest grew considerably and he held the following positions: magistrate for 20 years, President of the Niagara District Bank, of the Welland Loan Co., of the St. Catharines Gas Co., Vice-President of the International Suspension Bridge Co. and a Director of the Imperial Bank
He started his political career as a member of the Town Council of St. Catharines, and of the County Council of Lincoln. He was nominated as a candidate for election to a seat in the Legislative Council of Canada, but declined. In 1867 he was returned by acclamation for the Niagara division of that House, but did not take his seat, owing to the election having taken place after the prorogation of the Parliament of the Province of Canada. This statement is confusing for he was elected to the House of Commons as a Liberal-Conservative on 20 September 1867 for Lincoln, Ontario and was appointed to the Senate on 14 March 1868, on the advice of John Alexander Macdonald. He died in office on 18 March 1885, and in one of his obituaries it is stated that “he amassed a large fortune”. A friend of his, the Hamilton shipbuilder, Louis Shickluna launched a schooner the James R. Benson on 30 August 1873.
In the Senate, Benson stated that the Banks in any part of Canada should use Dominion Notes, rather than their own; spoke re the Governor-General’s salary; the Lake St. Clair channel; the Niagara District Bank Act; the Railways Bill; the Reciprocity Treaty with the United States; St. Clair flats navigation; Ship building; election of the Speaker of the Senate; the Government consider the propriety of limiting the power of a shareholder to give annoyance to banks; The London and Canadian Loan Company Bill; Welland Railway Bill; European, American and Canadian Cable Company’s Bill; Petroleum Inspection Bill; and, an Act to incorporate the Anchor Marine Insurance Company. I suspect that he could be a formidable opponent in debates, on subjects where his interest and expertise lay. A picture of James Rea Benson is shown in Figure 2.
There is a possible Australian family connection for the sender of the cover may have been a brother, Henry William Benson who died at Mulgrave, Victoria at the age of 68 in 1874. Three of Henry’s daughters lived in Australia at the time that the letter was sent: Henrietta (Benson) Akehurst lived in the Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda; Annie (Benson) McGowan died in Melbourne in 1901; and, another daughter Maria (Benson) Hickson was a less likely candidate for sending the letter, as she lived in Gympie, Queensland.
I wish to acknowledge the help of 2 individuals in preparing this paper: Lydia Church, Special Collections, St. Catharines Library who “went the extra mile in searching for records on the Benson family”; and Veronica Healy, Client Services Division, Library and Archives Canada, who provided information concerning Benson’s Senate career. I wish to thank Les Molnar of St. Catharines for provision of the cover scan.