Basil Rathbone wrote about starting his acting career in the Shakespearean company led by his cousin, Sir Frank Benson. This post will take a closer look at the Rathbone family. Just how closely were Basil and Sir Frank related? Not close at all, as it turns out. Basil’s great-great-great-grandfather, William Rathbone III, was also Frank’s great-great-grandfather.
The Family Tree diagram below shows that William had two children: William and Sarah. He actually had more children, but we are focusing on William and Sarah because Basil Rathbone is descended from William, and Frank Benson is descended from Sarah.
William Rathbone III, who lived in Liverpool from 1726 to 1789, built his fortune in merchant shipping. The company traded in a variety of products, including timber, salt, iron bars, linen, leather, tobacco, tallow, wheat, rye, and rice. The Rathbones (William and his son William IV, who joined his father in the family business) never became involved in the lucrative slave trade. In fact, the Rathbones were ardent abolitionists. Both father and son were founding members of the Liverpool Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
In 1788, William IV moved his family to Greenbank House, the same house where young Basil visited his Great-Uncle William (William VI) and other relatives. Basil’s grandparents lived in nearby Greenbank Cottage.
The Greenbank estate was part of Toxteth Park, just outside of Liverpool’s city center. It was the Rathbone family home until 1944, when it was donated to the University of Liverpool for student accommodation.
William Rathbone IV took over the family shipping firm in 1789, when his father died. By this time the company was specialising in importing American cotton. In 1790 William’s brother-in-law, Robert Benson (Sarah’s husband), joined him in partnership as Rathbone and Benson. James Cropper joined the partnership in 1795, but it was dissolved within a year due to Benson’s ill health. A new partnership (Rathbone, Hughes and Duncan) was formed between William Rathbone IV, William Hughes and William McMurdo Duncan in 1796, which continued the trade as commission merchants.
On the death of William Rathbone IV in 1809, his sons William V and Richard, formed a partnership to set up their own business as commission merchants. In 1814, Adam Hodgson joined the partnership (Rathbone, Hodgson and Co.).
William V was also involved in local politics and fought for social reforms. One of the offices he held was Lord Mayor of Liverpool. William V and his wife Elizabeth had six children: three daughters (Elizabeth, Hannah, Agnes) and three sons (William, Samuel, Philip).
In 1842, the oldest son, William VI, joined his father as partner in the firm, followed in 1847 by his brother Samuel. In 1868, William was elected a Liberal MP (Member of Parliament) for Liverpool. One of William’s children was Eleanor, who also became an MP.
The University of Liverpool states that William VI was closely involved in the formation of University College, Liverpool in 1882. (The college later became the University of Liverpool.) William served as president of the college in 1892, and, with his brothers Samuel and Philip, he founded a Professorship in English.
Philip Henry Rathbone was Basil’s grandfather. He died in 1895, when Basil and his parents were still in South Africa, so Basil never knew his grandfather. But he knew Great-Uncle William, who was living in Greenbank House when Basil and his parents went there for Christmas gatherings. William died in 1902.
Philip was an art collector, Justice of the Peace, and underwriter and loss adjuster for the insurance company, Rathbone, Martin and Co. He married Jane Stringer Steward (1833-1905) and together they had eleven children. Edgar (Basil’s father) was the third child. Philip is pictured below (left) with his youngest child Elfrida. (When Elfrida grew up, she worked with people with learning disabilities. See https://www.elfrida.com/) The painter of this portrait was Philip’s son Harold—clearly a talented artist.
From his obituary:
From 1867 until his death in 1895 Philip Henry Rathbone was a Liberal member of the Liverpool Town Council and a member of the Committee of the Free Public Library, Museum, Gallery of Arts and Education. He was a founding member of the Liverpool Art Club, becoming its President in 1878; Treasurer and Chairman of the Arts and Exhibitions Sub-Committee of the Liverpool Corporation; and Deputy Chairman of the Libraries, Museums and Arts Committee. In 1885 he played a key role in the establishment of a professorship in art at Liverpool University and in 1888 in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Art and its Application to Industry. He was a prolific writer and well known for his Bohemian dress, absent mindedness and morally superior attitude, although his views on community art and education were very much influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris.
Philip’s son Edgar became a mining engineer. In 1882, partnering with Emerson Bainbridge and George Seymour, Edgar Rathbone founded the ﬁrm of Bainbridge Seymour & Co. He and members of his firm participated in founding the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, of which he was a member for many years.
In 1886, huge gold deposits were found in the Transvaal territory of South Africa. Edgar left the ﬁrm in 1889, and went to the Witwatersrand (a large gold-mining complex) in South Africa. He was manager of the Salisbury Gold Mine with Berwick Moreing and Company for a short time and then started in private practice as a mining engineer. In January 1890 he founded and became managing editor of the monthly Witwatersrand Mining and Metallurgical Review, the first technical journal on the Witwatersrand.
On June 16, 1891, the marriage of Edgar Rathbone and Anna Barbara George took place in Johannesburg, South Africa. One year later, on June 13, their son Basil was born. Their daughter Beatrice was born the following year, on June 25, 1893. (As for Basil’s alleged two half brothers Harold and Horace, I have not been able to find any evidence that they existed. The websites that mention them give no additional information, such as year of birth. I have found no evidence that Edgar ever married anyone other than Anna Barbara George.)
In 1893 Edgar Rathbone was appointed Chief Government Inspector of Mines in the Transvaal—the only Englishman who was in charge of a Boer Department of State. In this capacity he took a prominent part in the drafting of the mining regulations of the Transvaal. These regulations aimed, among others, at reducing the very high accident rate on the Witwatersrand.
The British, however, bristled under the Boer regime, and soon decided that they would rather be in control of the Transvaal (and the gold!). In December 1895, Cecil Rhodes and his chief lieutenant, Dr. L. S. Jameson launched an attempt to overthrow the government of the South African Republic. This unsuccessful attack became known as the Jameson Raid.
Even though Edgar Rathbone worked for the Boer government, the fact that he was British and also friends with Mr. Rhodes and Dr. Jameson got him into trouble. In his book, In and Out of Character, Basil wrote:
“There was a price on my father’s head. He was accused of being a Boer spy. Whether he was or not I shall never know.”
It became necessary for the Rathbone family to flee South Africa; they sailed to England in January 1896.
For many years Rathbone worked as a private mining consultant, and in that capacity, he traveled all over the world. His family—now including John, who was born in 1897—remained in London.
During World War I Edgar worked as an inspector of aeroplanes for the British government. In 1920 he was appointed representative of the Foreign Office in Upper Silesia, to help carry out those terms of the treaty of Versailles relating to that territory and Poland.
Basil’s mother died in 1917 at age 51. His father died in June 1924, at age 68.
Basil married Marion Foreman on October 13, 1914; their son Rodion was born the following year, on July 21. Basil and Marion eventually divorced, and Basil married Ouida Bergere on April 18, 1926. Basil and Ouida adopted baby Cynthia in 1939.
But how was Basil related to Frank Benson?
Let’s go back to Sarah, daughter of William Rathbone III. In 1781 Sarah married Robert Benson. They had four children: three girls and a boy. Their son was also named Robert.
As mentioned above, Sarah’s brother William and her husband Robert formed the firm of Rathbone and Benson, Liverpool merchants importing cotton from America. James Cropper joined the partnership in 1795, but it was dissolved within a year due to Benson’s ill health.
In 1799, James Cropper and Robert Benson partnered to form Cropper, Benson & Co., Merchants, of Liverpool. This partnership was with Sarah’s husband Robert. Robert Jr. (full name: Robert Rathbone Benson) was born in 1785, so would have been only 14 years old in 1799.
In 1839, however, a partnership between Robert Benson, John Cropper, Edward Cropper, David Hodgson, and Hugh Mure was dissolved. Since Robert Benson Sr. died in 1802, we can assume that when Robert Jr. was old enough, he joined the partnership.
Young Robert married Mary Dockray and they lived in Liverpool. Together they had five children: Sarah, Robert, William, Esther, and John. William, the middle child, was father to Frank Benson.
Born in Liverpool in 1816, William Benson was a country landowner and magistrate. He was a Justice of the Peace and a former barrister.
In 1852, William Benson married Elizabeth Soulsby Smith, daughter of a country gentleman of Colebrook Park, Tunbridge Wells. They had six children. Born in Tunbridge Wells in 1858, Frank was their fourth child and third son. Within a few years the family had moved to Langtons at New Alresford, Hampshire. Frank grew up in this house, which had a battalion of servants, smooth, slanting lawns, flower-walks, a variety of trees from beech and horse-chestnut to ilex and juniper, an enclosed kitchen garden, farmyard, paddocks and pastures. The house was at the end of East Street, one of three main streets in the town.
The Benson boys went to Darch’s preparatory school in Brighton, and later to Winchester College, seven miles from Alresford.
Two of Frank Benson’s brothers were also somewhat famous in their day. These well-known men were of course also Basil Rathbone’s cousins. Frank’s oldest brother, William Arthur Smith Benson, studied to be an architect but gained fame as a metalwork designer. He was especially renowned for his domestic lighting designs. His furniture featured inlays of rosewood, tulip, and ebony.
Frank’s younger brother was Godfrey Rathbone Benson, who was a Liberal politician and writer. In addition to being a Justice of the Peace, he represented Woodstock in the House of Commons from 1892 to 1895, and held the office of Mayor of Lichfield between 1909 and 1911. After he became the first Baron of Charnwood in 1911, he served in the House of Lords.
So how does the youngest child of a country squire become a Baron? The British government makes recommendations to the monarch concerning who should be elevated to the peerage. Godfrey must have impressed the Prime Minister or the House of Lords Appointments Commission (or both). In any case, he was approved, and King George V made Godfrey the Baron Charnwood, of Castle Donington, in the County of Leicester on 29 June 1911.
Lord Charnwood was the author of many works, including two biographies, Abraham Lincoln (1916) and Theodore Roosevelt (1923), and a detective novel, Tracks in the Snow (1906).
Back to Frank. There’s so much one can write about Frank Benson. Perhaps he could be the topic of another blog post. I’ll just make note of the highlights of his life here.
While he was at Winchester College, Frank had shown a taste for acting and for Shakespeare, but it was his performance as Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, at Oxford University in 1880, which decided his career.
When Frank had finished Oxford, he told his parents that he had decided on the stage. Although they were not thrilled, Frank’s parents were supportive.
In 1883, Frank Benson founded his acting Company, which toured Britain, performing in cities large and small, and building up an impressive reputation.
In 1885, 19-year-old Stephen Phillips joined Benson’s company, and played various small parts. Stephen was a relative, also descended from Sarah Rathbone. Frank’s father (William) and Stephen’s grandfather (Robert Benson Dockray) were first cousins. Stephen later became a playwright, and wrote many plays, including The Sin of David (1904) and Paolo and Francesca (1905). The significance of these two plays is that Basil Rathbone performed in them. Basil played the role of Finch in a 1914 performance of The Sin of David, and the role of Paolo in a 1915 performance of Paolo and Francesca. Stephen Phillips died in 1915 at age 47.
Another person who joined the company in 1885 was an actress named Constance Featherstonhaugh. A year later, she and Frank married. They had two children, Eric William, born in 1887, and Brynhild Lucy, born in 1888.
Mr. Charles Edward Flower, who had founded the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, offered Frank Benson the opportunity to direct the Shakespeare Festival Week at Stratford in April 1886. Benson led the festivals in Stratford-upon-Avon almost continuously from 1886 to the First World War. Over the years, the duration of the festivals lengthened from one week to several weeks.
Though Sir Frank devoted nearly all his life to the interpretation of Shakespeare, producing at Stratford all the dramatist’s plays with the exception of Titus Andornicus and Troilus and Cressida, he did not neglect other plays entirely. He frequently appeared in The School for Scandal, The Rivals, and She stoops to Conquer.
The climax of Benson’s stage career came in 1916, for not only was this the year of the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations at Stratford, but it was the year in which Benson was knighted. He received the accolade from King George V, in the Royal box at Drury Lane, still in the blood-stained robes of Julius Caesar. When he returned to Stratford the next morning, he was pulled round the town in a landau by members of his company.
Benson attributed much of his success as an actor-manager to his keenness for athletics. (Frank was a distinguished runner while at New College, Oxford.) When choosing the members of his company, skill at cricket, or in some other sport, often weighed with him. The Bensonians would often play a sports match in the afternoon, and then perform a Shakespearean play at the theatre in the evening. Perhaps this love of athletics explains Benson’s enthusiasm while interviewing his cousin Basil Rathbone for an acting job.
In J. C. Trewin’s book Benson and the Bensonians, Basil Rathbone describes how he became a Bensonian:
Benson indicated no interest in my scholastic abilities which in any case were nil: I had not gone to Repton to work, but because I had heard it was a great games school. Mr. Benson seemed delighted that I had my football colours, was being tried out as a fast bowler for the cricket first eleven, but, above all, that I had been exceptionally successful on the track. …
In March 1912 a letter requested me to be at his office one afternoon at two o’clock and to have some piece of Shakespeare prepared for recitation. I chose the scene between Shylock, Salarino, and Salanio; Mr. Benson received me as he would have received any other applicant; he referred to me as “Mr. Rathbone.” He knew I had no experience of any kind, and asked me several questions about my reasons for assuming I had potential ability as an actor. All these I was able to answer with complete assurance, as it had never occurred to me that anyone with such gifts as mine had ever entered his office before. Then he asked me what I had prepared to recite. When I told him he merely asked, “You intend to impersonate all those characters?” … I must have given a reasonably hopeful performance, for Mr. Benson engaged me on the spot to go out with Mr. Henry Herbert in the Number Two company in April 1912. He said to me in effect: “You are on trial. Young actors are like two-year-old racehorses—they may show promise, but it is impossible to estimate their potential until they are three-year-olds.” a year later I was promoted to the main company, playing such juveniles as Lorenzo, Paris, Silvius, etc. I shall never be quite sure that my talents as an actor were the whole reason for this rapid promotion because, before I left his office in that glorious afternoon in March 1912, Mr. Benson referred casually to my athletic prowess at Repton.
Basil Rathbone spent the next four years acting with Frank Benson’s Shakespeare company. In March 1916, he left to enlist in the army. Among the thousands of young men killed in the First World War were Basil’s brother John Rathbone (died in 1918) and Frank’s son Eric Benson (died in 1916).
Sir Frank Benson died in 1939, at age 81. Basil Rathbone visited Frank shortly before Frank’s death, and related the following:
The last time I saw Sir Frank he was lying on an iron cot in a rooming house in the Holland Road, London. He was dying—alone—except for a few visitors like myself, and he was penniless, except for a government grant of a hundred pounds a year. His marriage had broken up, and after his “dismissal” from Stratford-on-Avon, he never had any further success. No businessman, he gradually fell into poverty, and then into virtual penury. … And not until after his death did I know that I was to inherit all that was left of his worldly possessions—the sword with which he was knighted—a flowered costume vest—and a book of press clippings.
(from In and Out of Character, pp. 41-42)
Considering how distantly Sir Frank Benson and Basil Rathbone were related, the family resemblance is remarkable.