Entrepreneurs with a sharp eye for success

GROCERS, corn merchants and tulip growers were all trades once carried on by the Benham family in Chobham.

They came from Oakley, near Basingstoke, and it appears the first to show an eye for business was a William Benham, who made a good profit selling supplies to troops who took part in a huge training exercise called the Great Camp on Chobham Common in 1853.

FAMILY BUSINESS – The first Benham grocer’s shop in Chobham

The first Benham shop was on the west side of the High Street, and Chobham History Society records: “When Benham’s built their grocer’s shop next to Frogpool House they smoked their own bacon and ham in a chimney belonging to a tiny old cottage at the back of the shop.”

It was Frederick Walter Benham (1850-1929), who built up the family business and, in 1906, opened a much larger shop on the opposite side of the road, at what is today still known as Benham’s Corner.

Frederick Walter Benham

Towards the end of the 19th century he acquired the Town Mill on the Bourne stream, where grain was milled for flour and animal feeds.

In his book Old Surrey Water-Mills, first published in 1951, J Hillier wrote of the Town Mill: “The mill standing here is a neat brick and tiled building of no particular distinction. Mr E Benham was good enough to provide me with some most interesting details.

“The building originally taken over by Mr Benham’s grandfather was a small one containing two pairs of stones. He extended it and a steam engine was set up to drive a further two pairs of stones.

“The present miller remembers an antique bolting machine that had been in the earlier mill. It bore an inscription of 1780.”

Frederick Walter Benham and his wife Mary Ann (née Mitchell) were married at St Lawrence Church, Chobham, on 13 July 1881. They had five children: Frank, Hannah, Thomas, Ernest and Mabel.

Phyllis Benham, who is a great-granddaughter of FW Benham, has kindly supplied some details of the family and their businesses and the photos seen here. She believes he was driven to succeed in life as he had two siblings who died at an early age.

Frank and Ernest took over the family firm and were also hard-headed businessmen. However, their brother Thomas became clerk to a local council, and later ran a shop in Chertsey.

After the First World War, it appears Frank travelled to Europe and was impressed by seeing the Dutch bulb fields. He had an idea to import tulip bulbs and grow them himself. This additional line of business was also a success and continued into the 1950s.

The Town Mill in the early 1900s

Knowing that the Dutch growers made a show of their bulbs in the spring, which attracted plenty of visitors, he did the same with his field in Chobham (near today’s public car park). They were even featured in an edition of a magazine, possibly Country Life, in about 1928.

Phyllis recalls that Frank was a small man who drove a big black car, and could hardly be seen over the steering wheel when he passed by!

Benham’s bulb field

The Benhams once owned a good deal of property in Chobham, and on Bagshot Road, where the Co-op store is today, they had a wooden shed from which they sold flowerpots and garden sundries, including those tulip bulbs.

The Town Mill and other land owned by the Benham family, including a farm called Englefield, was sold in 1960, totalling £51,000.

The main shop was eventually sold to a Mr Hogan, who ran it under the Benham name until it was bought by the grocery chain Cullen’s.

If  you have some memories or old pictures relating to the Woking area, call David Rose on 01483 838960, or drop a line to the News & Mail.

David Rose is a local historian and writer who specialises in what he calls “the history within living memory” of people, places and events in the west Surrey area covering towns such as Woking and Guildford. He collects old photos and memorabilia relating to the area and the subject, and regularly gives illustrated local history talks to groups and societies. For enquiries and bookings please phone or email him at: davidrosemedia@gmail.com

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