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About the study
Benham is one of a group of similar-sounding but largely unrelated names, including Bainham, Banham, Barnham, Baynham, Beenham, Binham, Bonham and Burnham. There are also Benum and Bennum, phonetic variants created in the USA during the nineteenth century. These are all part of a large cloud of similar-feeling but completely unrelated names, including the likes of Benholme, Bentham, Denham, Debenham, Menham, Parnham, Tinham, Wengham, Wenham and beyond.
I am concentrating on Benham.
In the English-speaking context, Benham is almost certainly a locative surname, that is, the earliest Benhams were named after their association with a place (or places) called Benham.
The placename Benham could originally have meant:
(i) The bean-land: Middle English 'bene', bean, + 'ham(m)', a piece of land, an enclosure.
(ii) The bees' land: Middle English 'been', the plural of 'bee', + 'ham(m)'.
(iii) Benna's home: Anglo-Saxon 'Bennan' (genetive of Benna), + 'ham', home, estate.
Benham, also written as Behnam, is also a personal name among Iraqis, Kurds, Iranians and other peoples in the Near East and Central Asia. It is supposed originally to have been a name among the Medes (probably best known outside of the region for providing the wise men in the Christmas story).
History of the name
Notable Benhams of recent centuries include:
John Benham (c.1600-1661), probably the first Benham in New England. He arrived on the 'Mary & John', part of the Winthrop Fleet of 1630. He was made a freeman of Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1630. He was one of the founders of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1638, and died there in 1661, leaving two sons, John (c.1623-1691) and Joseph (1630-1702), the ancestors of many American Benhams. Some American family historians say he was born at 'Clerkenwell, Dorchester, England' (eg, here, and here), but I've not found any supporting evidence. I can't even work out where it's meant to be.
Winifred Benham Sr (b. c.1640) and Winifred Benham Jr (b. 1684) of Wallingford, Connecticut, New England. Mother and daughter, they were accused of witchcraft in 1697, tried and acquited. These were the last witchcraft trials in New England. Winifred Sr was the wife of Joseph Benham of New Haven (above). Joseph and Winifred had been among the first settlers in Wallingford in 1670. Winifred Jr was the youngest of their 14 children. Not surprisingly, after the trial the family left Connecticut, moving to the New York colony.
George Benham, the apprentice of James Brownrigg, a London plumber. Brownrigg's wife, Elizabeth (1720-1767), a midwife, was tried at the Old Bailey and hanged at Tyburn for the murder of Mary Clifford, one of her apprentice domestic servant girls, killed by a regime of physical abuse and neglect.
George Benham was one of the witnesses at the trial. The affair was one of the scandals of the year, as shocking at the time as the Frederick West (1994) and Victoria Climbie (2000) cases of recent years, and was reported in the Newgate Calendar.
John Lee Benham (1785-1864), founder of Benham & Sons of Wigmore Street, London, cooking apparatus manufacturers. Both Benham & Sons and Benham & Froud (later Herbert Benham & Co.) produced quality kitchen copperware, which is highly collectible.
David Benham, transported from Britain on the 'Hebe' (1820), landing in Australia on 11 January 1821, possibly the first Benham in Australia.
Edward Benham (d. 1869), son of John Lee Benham (above) and founder of Benham & Co., printers of Colchester, Essex.
Admiral Andrew Ellicot Kennedy Benham (1832-1905), served with both the South Atlantic and West Gulf Blockading Squadrons during the US civil war. The US navy named three successive destroyers 'USS Benham' after him. His daughter Edith Wallace Benham and Anne Martin Hall compiled Ships of the United States Navy & their sponsors, 1797-1913 (1913).
Sir William Gurney Benham (1859-1944), son of Edward Benham (above), and his successor as proprietor of Benham & Co. He was also a prolific author, particularly of Benham's book of quotations, proverbs and household words (1st ed., 1907).
Charles Edwin Benham (1860-1929) of Colchester, Essex, journalist, author (particularly Essex ballads, 1st ed., 1895), and experimenter. He was a younger son of Edward Benham (above) and gave his name to 'Benham's disc' or 'Benham's top', a black and white patterned disc that produces vivid sensations of colour when spun.
Sir William Blaxland Shoppee Benham (1860-1950), zoologist, particularly of New Zealand earthworms.
James W. Benham (1866-1914), founder of the Benham Indian Trading Company of Albuquerque in New Mexico, USA, which went on to become the Burns Indian Trading Company after his death, and which may have been related to Benham Co. of Los Angeles, postcard publishers.
Gertrude Benham (1867-1938), mountaineer and traveller, the first woman and the first Briton to climb Kilimanjaro, at 19,340 feet, the highest mountain in Africa. She died on board ship on her way home from one of her trips, and was buried at sea off the west coast of Africa. She left her ethnographic collections to Plymouth Museum.
Harry Benham (1884-1969), stage actor and, after 1911, film actor with the Thanhouser Film Corporation, becoming one of the company's leading players. He married actress Ethyle Cooke (c.1885-1949) and was the father of child actors Leland Benham (1905-1976) and Dorothy Benham (1910-1956). By the mid twenties Harry Benham had faded from the film scene and spent many years in retirement in Wisconsin and Florida.
Frederick Benham (c.1883-1912), second class saloon steward, died on the 'RMS Titanic'. He was born in Berkshire, and signed on from 56 Bridge Road, (Southampton?).
Private William Benham, 1st/3rd Battalion, London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), shot at dawn, 1917. His court martial records are at the PRO, and he is buried at Berlencourt communal cemetery, Pays-de-Calais, in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Hervey Benham (1910-1987), son of Sir William Gurney Benham (above), his successor as proprietor of Benham & Co., and a prolific Essex author.
Joan Benham (1918-1981), film, television and stage actress. She is probably best remembered as Lady Prudence Fairfax in the 1970s BBC television costume drama 'Upstairs Downstairs', but also played Sister Tutor in 'Rosie Dixon, night nurse' (1978) and Cynical Lady in the dreadful 'Carry on Emmannuelle' (also 1978).
Justice Robert Benham (b. 1946), Georgia supreme court judge, USA.
Rev. Philip L. 'Flip' Benham (b. 1948), US anti-abortion campaigner.
Dorothy Kathleen Benham (b. 1957), Miss America 1977 and singer.
Benham places and artifacts include:
Benham Rise, a small oceanic plateau about 250km in diameter in the western Philippine Sea, off the coast of Luzon, at 16 degrees 30 minutes N, 124 degrees 45 minutes E. The plateau rises over 2,000 meters above the sea floor, from below 5,000 meters below sea level, to above 3,000 meters below sea level. The Benham Seamount is next door, at 15 degrees 48 minutes N, 124 degrees 15 minutes E. They are presumably named after Admiral Benham (above).
The town of Benham in Harlan County, Kentucky, USA.
Benham Club (est. 1879), a dining club for students at the Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey, USA, originally hosted by Mrs Anna Amelia Benham (1841-1905).
Benham's Disc; see Charles Edwin Benham (above).
Benham motor car, of which 19 were built in the USA before George Benham filed for bankruptcy in 1914.
Benham atom bomb test, Nevada, 19 Dec. 1968, named after General Benham (above).
And a few fictional Benhams: Benham & Brown, the criminal lawyers in Robert Barr, From whose bourne (1893).
William Porphyry Benham, the hero of H. G. Wells, The research magnificent (1915).
Flora Benham, played by Alice Lake in the silent film 'The hurricane' (1926).
Biff Benham, played by Glenn Strange in the film 'Valley of vengeance' (1944).
Herbert Benham, played by Reginald Gardiner in the film 'Do you love me' (1946).
Jim Benham, played by Jack Hedley in the Terry-Thomas / Hattie Jacques / Kenneth Williams film 'Make mine mink' (1960).
Douglas Benham, played by Lawrence Tierney in the Judy Garland / Burt Lancaster film 'A child is waiting' (1963).
Professor Aaron Benham in Thomas Williams, *The hair of Harold Roux* (1974). The book was joint winner of the 1975 US National Book Award for Fiction.
Roger Benham, played by Peter Reigert in the Michael Caine film 'A shock to the system' (1990).
Otto Benham, a bent solicitor and murder victim in âHidden depthsâ, an episode of the ITV police series 'Midsomer murders' (2005).
The town of Much Benham in the Agatha Christie novels, said to be two miles south of Miss Marple's home village of St Mary Mead.
Benham is a fairly uncommon name, but there are a reasonable number of us about. In round numbers, there are 2,500 adult Benhams on the UK electoral register, and 3,000 Benhams (including children) in England and Wales known to the UK Office of National Statistics.
There are probably more Benhams in the USA than in the UK, as the US telephone book lists 2,200 Benham numbers. Other countries with Benhams in their telephone books include Australia (250), Canada (173), New Zealand (17) and India (3).
Distribution of the name
North Hampshire and south Berkshire are the traditional Benham stamping grounds. Until the industrial revolution, a line drawn between the towns of Andover, Farnborough, Wokingham and Newbury would probably catch most Benhams. Even in 1881, over half of the 1,600 Benhams listed in the census of England and Wales were born in Hampshire (320), London (263), Surrey (151) and Berkshire (145). Within the UK, Benham remains predominently a southern English surname.
The distribution of Benhams over four US censuses, 1850-1990, can be found here.