Marion was one of five daughters of a Scottish surgeon, James Johnson (week 14). She was born in 1847 at Park House, Milton Road in Milton, Gravesend in Kent. They would certainly have considered themselves to be upper middle class and some of her attitudes were certainly at the upper end of that class distinction.
The house is referred to as "Park House Academy" on the 1851 census and was some form of school. In accordance with the practice of the time she, along with her four sisters, was educated at home and taught to read and write by her father.
They must have been a neighbour of Charles Dickens when he lived in Gad's Hill from 1857 up until his death in 1870 as, in Uncle Tony's unpublished autobiography, he writes that "at the first opportunity I asked whether she had ever seen the great man, and her reply was so casual, so little interested, so shocking, blasphemous even, that I expected Jove to strike. In a matter of fact tone she answered: “Oh yes, we used to see him quite often when he was in residence, either walking past our house or driving in his dog-cart, and we’d exchange bows if we met him on the way to church: but we didn’t 'know' him. He wasn’t quite a gentleman you know“.
Marion's later life
As I explained in Week 65, she married William Cole Benson in 1874 and had five children over the next five and a half years of whom only three survived more than a few days. They lived in the picturesque 'manor house' called The Mount in beautifully named Sparepenny Lane, Farningham, Kent throughout the time they were living together as a married couple.
Around the time of the birth of their last child in 1884, my grandmother, William left the family home and emigrated to South Africa. "There appears to have been no violent disruption about this, and on his rare visits to England my grandfather always spent part of his time with his wife and children. It is likely that sheer boredom had driven him away and sheer inertia made her unwilling to join him although she regarded herself as very hard done by and impoverished my grandmother had been provided, after the separation, with an income sufficient to maintain a house in the Cromwell Road, with three or four resident servants, and to send her two sons to St. Paul’s School."
In 1891 Marion was living just off the Cromwell Road in Fulham at 53 Gwendwr Road with her children, widowed mother, a cook and a parlour maid.
However, by 1901, perhaps running short of funds, she and her eldest son Alick are found living without servants at 49 Kensington Hall Gardens, also in Fulham. She is described as "living on means". By the time of the 1911 census, Marion was visiting her daughter in law in Hove, Sussex. At some point before 1920 she moved in with her daughter and went to live at 1 Park Road, Southborough, Kent but in 1922 when Percy and Marjorie went to live in Tunbridge Wells she "no longer lived with us but was established in one of the many Private and Residential Hotels which flourished, or at least subsisted, in gently decaying gentility upon the patronage of old ladies of her kind." Presumably she would spend her last few years in a home for the elderly.
"Unlike many of her contemporaries who still, at that time, regarded ‘the motor’ with distaste and some apprehension my grandmother had been an enthusiastic motorist since the beginning of the century. She did not, of course, drive, but she enjoyed nothing better than a ‘spin in the motor’ (preferably an open one) and liked to be driven fast." In 1927 Marion's son in law, the accident prone Percy (week 44) drove their second hand Baby Austin with Marion beside him down to Eastbourne where they were going for a holiday. I love his description of how they fitted himself, his wife, his mother in law and two children plus luggage into what we would now consider, their small car :
"The notoriously erratic road-holding and steering, particularly when overloaded, had made the 100-odd miles drive from Golders Green a tiring business for my mother (Marion's daughter Marjorie) who, as always, drove. Father sat beside her trying to look at ease with my thirteen month old brother in his arms. My elder brother and I were crammed in the back together with most of the luggage needed for the five of us, as the Baby Austin’s tiny little luggage grid was too frail to support more than one small suitcase."
Having arrived they found the cot they had hired for baby Hugh hadn't been delivered so Percy, with his mother in law by his side, had to go to collect one from a local shop :
"Unfortunately, Papa made a particularly spectacular leap at a cross-roads and was swiped broadside by a furniture van. The little Austin rolled on to its side, the carefully collected cot was smashed to pieces and my grandmother (Marion Benson) was pitched out and broke her collar bone. Grandmother was taken to hospital and had her concussed head examined by X-ray and her broken bone set in plaster. She then insisted on coming home but she was in such a shaky condition, the shock having set her ailing heart fibrillating, that the doctor insisted on a nurse being hired to care for her. The nurse had to sleep on a camp bed in what had been a kind of glory-hole or ‘den’ in grandfather’s day and she made herself as unpleasant about it as only a trained nurse in private service can. This really was a ‘Percy’ to end all ‘Percys’."
"Her attitude to new inventions was hostile. Electric light had been in use long enough to be acceptable, but such things as electric heaters, irons and vacuum cleaners were anathema to her as being too expensive, too dangerous or too likely to induce laziness in servants. She was terrified of the telephone and consequently could hear nothing through it, and she also viewed the first wireless sets with deep distrust and was quite certain that lightning would strike the aerial and kill all those who were ‘listening in’."
She sounds like an interesting character from a bygone age but one of those people you would like to bring back for a discussion around the dinner table with a bottle of wine.
Marion died in 1929 aged 83 at 12 The Crescent, Barnes in Mortlake, with her son, Alick, in attendance. Probate was granted leaving an estate of £1,223 which she left equally to her three children (£58,000 in today's terms using RPI).
All quotes from my Uncle Tony's unpublished autobiography are in purple.