Richard Meux BENSON (1824–1915)
Vicar of Cowley and benefactor, founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist
Former Mission House, 16 Marston Street, Oxford
Richard Meux Benson is remembered as a significant nineteenth-century churchman and much loved local vicar and benefactor. His legacy in East Oxford is a strong tradition of community care continuing through church schools, care for the homeless, St John’s Home for the elderly, and Helen and Douglas House Hospices.
He was born in London at Russell Square in 1824, the son of Thomas Starling Benson, High Sheriff of Surrey, and Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Meux, a wealthy brewer. He was educated at home and went up to Christ Church in 1844 where he came under the influence of Pusey and the Oxford Movement. Ordained deacon by Bishop Wilberforce, in 1850 he accepted the college living of St James in the then village of Cowley, where he was an assiduous pastor and preacher. In 1860 about to embark for mission work in India, he was asked by Bishop Wilberforce to develop pastoral work locally in the new suburb of Cowley Common. In 1870 he became the first vicar of the new parish of Cowley St John and built a temporary iron church in Stockmore Street.
Meanwhile in 1866 he had founded the Society of St John the Evangelist (Cowley Fathers), the first monastic community in the Church of England since the Reformation. He and two others, C. C. Grafton and S. W. O’Neill, took monastic vows. Benson’s vision for the new Order was a synthesis of the contemplative life with evangelism and pastoral work. His views on monastic theology and spirituality were expounded in many works e.g. The Followers of the Lamb (1900), prolific correspondence and inspirational preaching.
He built the Mission House in Marston Street (left) in 1868 and from there he established a major social service through schools, youth work, community care and sick visiting. He recruited sisters from the newly founded Anglican women’s communities to assist in the work.
He used his inherited wealth to buy the land for the new parish church and churchyard of SS Mary & John, built in 1875, and for St John’s Home for the elderly, and the Convent of All Saints Sisters of the Poor.
He travelled to the USA in 1870 to establish a branch of SSJE in Boston. He also left on long mission tours to India and Canada, settling in Boston 1892–99. He then returned to Oxford where he remained until his death at the Mission House on 14 January 1915 and rests in the churchyard of St Mary & St John.
The Mission House is now St Stephen’s House, Anglican Theological College. The Society of St John the Evangelist is based in the USA.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article by Martin L. Smith
- Beyond Magdalen Bridge, The Growth of East Oxford by Graeme L. Salmon
The plaque was inaugurated by the Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, at the former Mission House, 16 Marston Street, Oxford on 9 May 2013.
Photographs taken at the inauguration ceremony:
Right: Memorial Cross to Father
Benson unveiled in Ss Mary
& John churchyard in 1917
Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board
Vicar of Cowley
Founder of the Society of
St John the Evangelist
lived at this former
People of East Oxford