St John Colwood Bennett 1852-1919

Folkestone Old Cemetery, Cheriton Road, Area 20, Grave 1696 – unmarked

A medical surgeon whose wife petitioned for divorce in 1889, after he’d been convicted of an assault.

Carole M. and James S. had been digging out a plaque from plant debris when I rolled up. I tried to make head or tail of some graves around them, then later got on the computer. One of the unmarked graves was that of a medical man. It seems that he came from a well-off background; the stone being noted by a local history survey in the 1980s, now appears to be missing.

Census searching revealed some expensive London addresses, but some oddities and then the petition for divorce by his wife, and a bankruptcy. Next Karl N., who we’d asked to look for that name, discovered a very odd post nuptial settlement, followed by an account of him assaulting a lady in Hastings.

When ordered, a brief life of St John Colwood Bennett appears to be that:

St John was born to well-to-do parents near Cuckfield, Sussex, during 1852; his father being a Barrister. At the 1861 Census he was living with his family and servants in Hove, Sussex. An older brother was away from home, but his parents, their niece, two sons, a daughter and four servants were resident. A number of “good” London addresses feature later in St John’s story.

St John passed the first part of his medical exams in the early 1870s and later gives his profession as Student of Medicine in 1881, Medical Surgeon in 1901 and medical profession retired in 1911.

Cecelia Edith Ruttinger married St John in 1874. Her family were importers of cigars; she was assisting at their St Annes, Soho premises/home, in London. In the following 13 years, Cecelia bore her husband 6 children. The couple lived in Marylebone, London, usually in expensive houses, such as 36 Tavistock Crescent during 1878. In 1881 they occupied 4, Talbot Road, an elegant narrow four storey house with a portico, in Paddington / Marylebone. Living in they had a governess, cook and maid.

In July 1887, children, Kathleen and Henry, were baptised at St Matthew, Silverhill, Hastings. The parents’ names are written as St John Colwood and Edith Cecelia, living at ‘Colwood’, St Helens Road, Blacklands; father’s profession – Gentleman.

However, in July 1889, still in St Helens Road, all is not well. St John is convicted of a drunken assault on a lady, a Miss Booth, whose maid tried to protect her; possibly with Cecelia Bennett nearby. Fines were levied, along with the threat of hard labour at Lewes prison. His barrister had asked for leniency, and an opportunity to leave the town “where he had a number of bad companions always ready to drink with him.” The ‘Hastings & St Leonards Observer’ headed its report ‘A VICTIM OF DRINK’. The 1891 Census lists a Caroline Booth, aged 35, single and of private means; living two doors from the Bennett household.

Almost immediately afterwards, Cecelia filed for divorce, stating that her husband had committed adultery numerous times, was a drunkard and often struck her; two of which his conviction seems to corroborate. However, she failed to cite dates or names, or even places. The court case and the application for divorce is rejected. But, suddenly, the Post Nuptial Settlement appears as St John is declared bankrupt that September. This document appears to give all monetary control to Cecelia. Perhaps St John’s father had more than a hand in drawing up the settlement. Creditors are called to London solicitors and the bankruptcy is annulled in 1891.

In later years, the couple continue sharing the same home; in 1891 at Hastings, then 1901 at 57 Denbigh Street, Pimlico, London; a house divided into two. An elderly foreman of art joiners lives in one part with his wife and servant. The Bennetts have their youngest two daughters and two sons with them. No ‘live in’ servants are listed. Visiting them is George Bartlett, 22, late Army Officer R.M.L.T. ( A record of a George A Bartlett of that age having been in the Royal Marine Light Infantry exists.), born in Bath.

Finally in 1911, their home is a seafront house in Worthing, where their unmarried daughter, Edith, and grandson George Bennett, 7, from Southampton, are with them. They have an Italian manservant living in. (A couple of the census entries misname Cecelia and put her place of birth as New York; making me wonder who gave the information?)

In 1919, St John died at 9 Trinity Gardens, Folkestone, where his eldest son had been living with his wife from 1915 at least, according to newspaper entries. His grave marker may have been displaced, but there are tales of damaged stones being removed.

After what appears to have been a far from smooth journey through life, Cecelia was living at East Preston by Littlehampton, Sussex, at her death, eight years later. As yet we have no further information about her. Her and her husband’s stories, especially the gaps, are intriguing.

Rob Moody (Friends of F.O.C.)

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