Benjamin Roberts was the son of hairdresser John Roberts and his wife Mary (née Parsons), both of whom were born in Bath, Somerset, in about 1819. The couple were married in St Swithin’s Church in Walcot, Bath, on the 16th of April 1837.
Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find John and Mary in the 1841 Census so we do not know when they came to London but we do know that their first child, a daughter called Ann, was born in Lambeth in 1842.
At the time of the 1851 Census John, Mary and their four oldest children were living at 30, Little Windmill Street in St James, Westminster.
According to the information provided by Benjamin’s sister Harriett Maria on his admission to Horton Asylum, our subject was the eighth child of a family of ten, nine of whom were still alive in 1912. However, it has not been possible to find all of his siblings in the records.
Those we know about are:
Ann, born Lambeth, the 4th quarter of 1842; Sarah, born Greenwich, 2nd quarter of 1846
Eliza, born Westminster, the 1st quarter of 1848; James, born St James, Westminster, 3rd quarter of 1850
Samuel Henry, born St James, Westminster, the 2nd quarter of 1854; Harriett Maria, born St James, Westminster, the 4th quarter of 1855
Alice, born St Pancras, 1st quarter of 1858, died St James, Westminster 1st quarter of 1861
Benjamin was born on the 27th of April 1859 in the British Lying-In Hospital in Endell Street, Covent Garden. (“Lying-in” is an archaic term for childbirth, referring to the long bedrest prescribed for new mothers in their postpartum confinement.)
He was baptised in Regent Square Church, St Pancras on the 17th of August 1859. According to the baptismal register the family was living at 67, Cromer Street in Camden.
By the time of the 1861 Census John, Mary, Eliza, Samuel, Mary (Harriett Maria) and Benjamin had returned to Little Windmill Street, and were now living at number 8.
Edmonton Workhouse School
Two years later, the family had clearly fallen on hard times as, on the 9th of February 1863, Benjamin, not yet aged 4, was admitted to Edmonton Workhouse School. (In 1839 the old Enfield parish workhouse at Chase Side had been taken over by the Edmonton Union for use as a school.)
We do not know the reason for this downturn in the family’s fortunes. Had John or Maria died? Did John find it impossible to support his large family on what he earned as a hairdresser? From this distance we can only speculate but we do know that Benjamin was to remain in the Workhouse School until the 13th of July 1871 when he was discharged aged 12.
Enlistment in the army
Just two months later, on the 14th of September 1871, Benjamin enlisted in the army. Although he was not yet 13 he claimed to be 14 on his attestation paper. He is described as 4’7” tall with a fair complexion, blue eyes and brown hair.
Benjamin was to serve in the Middlesex Regiment for almost twenty years, though there was a break in his service between the 31st of August 1883 and the 2nd of February 1885. This followed two consecutive tours abroad, in Gibraltar from the 15th of April 1876 to the 18th of January 1879 and in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) from the 19th of January 1879 to the 25th of October 1883.
Benjamin re-enlisted on the 2nd of February 1885 and was discharged on the 15th of February 1891. It would appear that he never rose above the rank of private but on his discharge papers his character is described as ‘good’, his conduct ‘good’ and his habits ‘temperate’.
A return to civilian life
We do not know where Benjamin lived or worked during his break from military service but in the 1891 Census we find him living with his widowed sister Harriett Maria Vickers (named as his next-of-kin in his enlistment papers) and her children Charles and Catherine at 11, Feathers Court, St Mary-le-Strand. Maria was working as a charwoman and Benjamin is described as a musician which suggests he may have served as a bandsman in the army.
Marriage to Martha
In the 4th quarter of 1895 Benjamin married Martha Ellen Wright in Norwich. We do not know when or why Benjamin moved to Norfolk. At the time of their marriage Benjamin was aged 36 and Martha 39. It may be assumed that she was a widow as in the 1901 Census we find her and Benjamin living with her sons, George Wright aged 19 and Harry Wright, 15, in Duke Street, Chattisham in Suffolk.
Benjamin was employed as an agricultural labourer and Harry was a ‘cowboy on a farm’. ‘Consumptive since birth’, George did not work. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find out any more about Martha who sadly died in Samford, Suffolk, in the 4th quarter of 1908 aged 52.
Return to London – first evidence of mental health problems
In the 1911 Census we find the widowed Benjamin back in London, living with his sister Harriett Maria at 18, Mallory Buildings in Clerkenwell. He is described as a ‘bandsman (cornet player)’. A year later, on the 14th of March 1812, he was admitted to City Road Workhouse in Holborn where he would remain until the 22nd of March. He was then transferred to Horton Asylum.
Horton Asylum – Benjamin’s case notes
From Benjamin’s case notes on his admission to Horton we learn that his current attack of insanity had begun two years before and the supposed cause was alcohol. According to the doctor who first examined him, Benjamin claimed that “he has £4,000,000 in the bank but two aunts of his have £200,000,000. He said he had made a harp with 1,000 strings and could play any tune and instrument. He prayed to God to make him a giant and God sai,d ‘Yes’ and he at once felt pins and needles all over which was the starting of the growth.”
An asylum attendant informed the doctor that Benjamin “told him that he had the power to kill anybody stone dead. He is going to marry the king’s sister. He is going to settle the coal dispute by giving the unions an unlimited supply of money – in fact he has already given one million.”
The doctor’s conclusion was that Benjamin “is suffering from recent mania. He is very grandiose and has hallucinations of sight and hearing. At times he is very excited and noisy. He claims to be Almighty God and to own the whole world and to be the Messiah (2nd coming). His conversation shows flights of ideas and he is grossly irrational. He is in poor health being pale and debilitated. He has a history of much alcoholism”.
Benjamin’s mental condition deteriorates
The following comments are typical of those made by Benjamin’s doctors while he was a patient at Horton:
“He says he killed two attendants this morning and is going to have them in the soup.”
“He is going to do the best he can for the country and offers me £1,000,000.”
“His memory is much impaired together with his other mental faculties.”
“He collects rubbish and is consistently demented.”
“He still has delusions of wealth…he says he has £70,000 a year pension and millions untold besides.”
“He says his brother has risen from the dead and he himself is supposed to be Jesus Christ.”
“He denies syphilis but has certainly been in the way of getting it…while in Ceylon.”
Benjamin’s physical condition also deteriorated. He became very weak and died on the 21st of April 1914. His death certificate gave the cause of death as ‘general paralysis of the insane’. Interestingly, Benjamin’s brain was sent to the pathological laboratory at Claybury Asylum. Analysis revealed that Spirochaeta Pallida – the causative organism of syphilis – was present in the brain.
On the 27th of April 1914 Benjamin was laid to rest in grave 1029a in Horton Cemetery.
Benjamin’s next-of-kin, his sister Harriett Maria, died in the 2nd quarter of 1834 aged 81