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John Flowers Bentley (1810-1884): Stamford Polymath


John Daffurn   2024


When Richard Newcomb gate-crashed the opening of the new, Bryan Browning designed, home of the Stamford Institution in 1842 he wanted to highlight the origins of the Institution four years earlier. Standing amongst the nobility and gentry of Stamford he stated that the Institution was “…originally projected and established by those who did not occupy the highest stations in life…”  (Lincolnshire Chronicle [LC], 25.3.1842).


That was indeed the case, as the provisional committee of the yet to be formed Institution, established at a meeting at Standwell's Hotel on 3 April 1838, comprised mainly of local shopkeepers (Stamford Mercury [SM], 6.4.1838). The interim chairman of this committee was Frances Simpson Jr, a soap-maker, and Thomas Fricker, the young editor of the Lincolnshire Herald and probably the most erudite amongst the group of grocers, ironmongers, curriers, jewellers and drapers, became its interim honorary secretary.


The provisional committee pushed for a public meeting at the Town Hall which was held on 5 June 1838 where motions were passed to create an institution, with its attendant officers and committee.  One motion thanked the provisional committee for promoting their cause and Francis Simpson, its chairman, responded:


     “…I feel Mr Mayor that it is a duty particularly incumbent upon me to make known to

you the names of those of whom this provisional committee was composed; because,

whatever good or ill may accrue from the institution we are about to form, (and I trust

there can be none of the latter), will be attributable to those who had the moral courage

to take the first steps towards its promotion and therefore their names shall not remain

in umbra” –shall not sink at once into oblivion– but, with your kind indulgence, I will now

read them. First, let me mention that of Mr John Flowers Bentley, whose indisposition

(which I hope will be of short duration) accounts for his absence from this meeting. He, it

was, who first agitated this question, or, at least first mooted it to me…” (LC, 22.6.1838)


From instigator, to honorary secretary, to committee member, John Bentley’s association with the Stamford Institution spanned twenty-five years.


John Flowers Bentley was baptised on 27 May 1810 in the village of Haconby, near Bourne. His father John Bentley Sr, the son of a farmer, was born in Swinstead, and his mother Sarah Flowers was born in Haconby. Within four years of John’s birth the family moved to the hamlet of Guthram Gowt, midway between Bourne and Spalding. There, Bentley’s father ran the New Inn and farmed some adjacent land. From 1815, John’s siblings were baptised in Bourne and, without a church in Guthram Gowt, that is the likely location of John’s schooling.


There is no evidence of John Bentley’s education or early employment, but the life of Robert Sandall and a newspaper advertisement in 1863 provide clues for a hypothesis. Sandall was born a year later than John, in the neighbouring village of Rippingale, and was also a farmer’s son who eschewed work on the land. Sandall, who may have also been schooled in Bourne, became apprenticed to the bankers Eaton, Cayley & Co, and later joined Bentley on the provisional committee of the Stamford Institution. Many years later, in 1863, when John Bentley left Stamford, it was noted that he had been associated with the Eaton, Cayley & Co bank for almost forty years (SM, 25.12.1863). If that statement is true, it might also place Bentley as an apprentice with the bank at the same time as Sandall. Were they also childhood school friends?


After completing his apprenticeship, Sandall, at the age of twenty, moved to London before returning to Stamford to join the Northamptonshire Bank, on Stamford’s High Street, as a clerk. Bentley, on the other hand, if indeed working at Eaton, Cayley, may have remained with the bank for a while longer. However, by 1834 he was trading as a tobacconist on St Mary’s Street (Pigot & Co Directory, 1835). Within months of the publication of that directory, Bentley moved to the High Street where he had bought a property two doors away from the post office (Stamford Borough Rate Book, 1836). He transferred his tobacco business, selling the finest Havana cigars, to the new shop, but also in March 1835 opened a glassware and crockery business on the same premises (SM, 20.3.1835).


The business seemed to prosper as Bentley regularly advertised his wares in the Stamford Mercury, but later in 1836 a curious advertisement appeared regarding the sale of shares in Reeth Consolidated Mining Company, a copper-mining company in Cornwall, stating that those wishing to buy shares should apply to J F Bentley (SM, 30.9.1836). Is it possible that Bentley was also an investor?  A year later, it was discovered that the managers of the mining company had issued a fraudulent prospectus and subsequently the shareholders lost their money. It may be a coincidence, but in 1837 Bentley discontinued his glass, china, and earthenware business, auctioned his stock at the Assembly Rooms, and advertised his property on the High Street to be let or purchased (SM, 21.7.1837).


Soon after the demise of his business John pushed for the formation of a scientific and literary society in Stamford, either because he wanted access to more information for himself or because he was driven to provide knowledge to a wider audience. The latter is more likely the case as is evidenced in his later life. Despite knowing that John spent a lifetime acquiring an extraordinary range of knowledge in science and nature through self-learning, the catalyst for this educational drive is unknown. Was he a star pupil at Bourne with a thirst for knowledge? Did he borrow books from Mr Rooe’s subscription library on the High Street?


After the Stamford Institution was formed and its first home was established in Broad Street in 1838, John Bentley became its honorary secretary, taking over from Thomas Fricker who had always intended to stand down. Although Eaton, Cayley brought John back into the bank and provided him with an income it is possible that he resided at the Institute’s premises for at least eight years: at Broad Street (1841 Census) and on St Peter’s Hill (White’s Directory, 1846). 

Fig 1. First Stamford Institution site at 49 Broad Street (right)
Fig 2. Stamford Institution, St Peter's Hill

In 1840, Samuel Sharp, the stepson of Richard Newcomb, was elected to the committee of the Stamford Institution and became a close friend of John Bentley, especially in the field of geology. By 1842, Sharp had given up the idea of succeeding Newcomb as proprietor of the Stamford Mercury, instead taking over the bookshop and subscription library of Matthew Rooe, and later becoming an important Stamford geologist and antiquary.


Evidence of John Bentley’s attained knowledge, his wish to absorb more current thinking, and his self-confidence came in 1844 when, either as a representative of the Stamford Institution or in a personal capacity, he attended the annual conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) in York (Yorkshire Gazette, 28.9.1844). This prestigious association was formed in 1831 with the objectives of acquiring scientific knowledge, disseminating it through discussion, and furthering science by removing obstacles to progress. The BAAS met annually, for almost a week, at different British locations where papers were read, presentations given and debates held.

Whilst John had some credibility as the Honorary Secretary of the Stamford Institution he was in the presence of, and certainly not equal to, a heady mix of the cream of British and European science. These noblemen, doctors, British and overseas professors, Fellows of various societies, together with amateurs interested in science, attended the various lectures split into four distinct groups, each with its own committee: Physics (including Mathematics), Chemistry, Geology, and Natural History (Old England, 8.7.1832). On those committees sat some of the greats of British science, mathematician Babbage, astronomer Herschel, chemist Faraday and naturalist Darwin.

Fig 3. Schönbein (left) and Faraday (right) at 1846 BAAS conference

Bentley continued to attend these gatherings until 1850 when the conference in Edinburgh was his last (Reports of the Annual Conference of the BAAS, online at In Southampton, for the 1846 conference, Bentley was expecting to see Professor Schönbein of Basle demonstrate his, as yet unpatented, gun-cotton. The opening of this conference, attended by eight hundred persons, on Thursday 10 September was graced by the presence of Prince Albert who had sailed across from Osborne House.  After the formal proceedings, the prince was introduced to Prof Schönbein who privately demonstrated his gun-cotton by exploding some in the hand of Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary (Hampshire Advertiser, 12.9.1846).

John had to wait until the following Tuesday to see this for himself, but Prof Schönbein did not appear, as he was in London trying to patent his invention. In his place, W R Groves Esq demonstrated a sample of the new explosive material, although the process of manufacturing the gun-cotton remained vague pending patent approval. On returning to Stamford, John recreated his own version, and gave a demonstration which was witnessed by the Stamford Mercury.  The paper commented that Bentley “… (whose self-acquired knowledge of the principles of chemistry is as honorable [sic] to him as it is interesting to those who have the advantage of his acquaintance) …” had been experimenting and succeeded in mixing proportions of sulphuric and nitric acids to coat the cotton so that, once dried and lit, it exploded with a greater force than gunpowder and without giving off smoke or leaving a residue (SM, 6.11.1846). He was not the only scientist in Britain or Europe that succeeded in such replication, but John pleaded in the Stamford Mercury article that Prof Schönbein be credited as the originator of the idea.

Another of John Bentley’s interests, which he shared with Samuel Sharp, was fossil collecting and he would regularly visit the quarries around Stamford, especially those at Ketton and Collyweston. It was at a slate quarry in Collyweston that he discovered the fossil of a rare gastropod which was unique to the area. In 1851, the famous geologist John Morris and palæontologist John Lyell registered the fossil’s name as Phyllocheilus Bentleyi, after its discoverer. In their later publication Morris and Lyell said that the name of the Collyweston gastropod “is complimented to J F Bentley Esq of Stamford who has enriched our knowledge of the fossils of that locality” (A monograph of the Mollusca from the Great Oolite, p.15). Later variations were named Pteroceras Bentleyi and Malaptera Bentleyi.  

Fig 4. Phyllocheilus Bentleyi fossil

The census of 1851 shows that John was no longer living at the Institution, but in Bath Row, next door to the public bath (probably no. 15), with one servant and with the stated occupation of bank cashier. Later that year the Great Exhibition was opened in London, housed in the Great Shalimar, a purpose-designed building erected by Brunel (later removed and renamed Crystal Palace). Six million people visited the Great Exhibition during the six months it was open, with towns all over the country running special excursions to satisfy the interest. Amongst its exhibitions was an “exceedingly fine specimen of honey in its comb” by Mr J F Bentley of Stamford (SM, 13.6.1851).

Whilst the breadth of John’s interests seemed to know no bounds, he was also a generous man with both his time and money. In 1836, he donated to the repair fund for the re-building of St Michael’s church and in 1853 for the repairs and re-pewing of All Saint’s church. Later in 1853 he was appointed as joint auditor of the Stamford Burial Board together with his friend Robert Sandall. To the Stamford Institution he presented two maps (1854), and two glass cases of stuffed birds (1860). This was in addition to the numerous presentations he gave to the Stamford Institution and to other societies in later life.

Fig 5. Oxy-Hydrogen Microscope

In 1856, after eighteen years of service as Honorary Secretary to the Stamford Institution, John Bentley decided to resign. During those years, he had organised meetings and talks, sought donations of books and artefacts, and given lectures to its members. His tenure was greatly appreciated and the committee arranged for a testimonial where he was presented with an oxy-hydrogen microscope (SM, 4.1.1856). These microscopes enabled objects to be magnified up to two million times and displayed on a wall or screen, enabling John to present his collection to a wider audience.

Bentley was then a forty-five-year-old bachelor, and after leaving his honorary position he remained an active member of the Institution, being elected to its committee in 1859, where he continued to influence the society, as he had done since its formation.


In Stamford, John would have known Richard Yates, either through the bank, the Institution, or by visiting Yates’s draper’s shop next to the Portico on the High Street. In 1860, Richard’s wife died in childbirth at the age of twenty-nine, and a year later Richard married Anne Lovell in her parent’s town of Wells, Somerset. Anne’s sister Emma was a draper’s assistant, and it is possible that Anne, with similar skills, had been recruited to work at Yates’s draper’s shop where her relationship with Richard grew. Bentley’s possible connection with Richard Yates may have influenced his later life.


In 1863, Bentley’s station in society moved up a gear. The Midland Banking Company (not to be confused with the Midland Bank) was expanding and J F Bentley Esq was appointed manager of its Peterborough branch together with its satellite branch in Ironmonger Street, Stamford (SM, 25.12.1863). This was ideal for John who, although having moved to Peterborough where he lived at the bank’s premises at 25 Long Causeway, continued to have strong social links to Stamford.


Bentley’s mind was always active and his drive consistent. In 1868, he applied for a patent for “improvements in the mode of sinking or forming wells and in the apparatus to be used therefor, part of which improvements are also applicable for the sinking of cylinders or caissons for other purposes” (London Gazette, 20.4.1869). Later that year, at a meeting of the Peterborough Agricultural Society John demonstrated another invention, a portable steam engine water filter, that he had patented a few months earlier. Within a year a company, Coulson & Wear on Wharf Road, Stamford, was advertising ‘Bentley’s patented water filter’ as sole agent (SM, 15.3.1870). Also in 1869, Richard Yates, the draper, died leaving his wife Anne as a widow and son Richard Lovell Yates without a father. Anne subsequently moved to Rose Cottage in Tinwell.


Behind the scenes in Peterborough, John must have been working to form a new society, as in May 1871 the Peterborough Natural History and Field Club (later the Peterborough Natural History and Archaeological Society, and now the Peterborough Museum Society) was founded, and Bentley became its first president. Besides John Bentley, the other founders may have included Dr Thomas Walker, a Peterborough surgeon and past secretary of the British Archaeological Association, and Henry English who was appointed as the society’s first honorary secretary.


Another person linked to the early days of the society, and whose name remains most associated with it, is John William Bodger. When the society was formed Bodger had just turned fifteen and was little over a year into his chemist apprenticeship. In the autumn of 1873, he replaced Henry English as honorary secretary and soon after also became the society’s treasurer and curator, holding at least one of those positions until his death sixty-six years later. In his obituary he was credited as being “the principal mover in the founding of the Society”, however, one wonders if this was an embellishment of a revered gentleman and so-called ‘Father of the Peterborough Museum’, almost seventy years after the event (Peterborough Standard, 17 February 1939).


Would a fifteen-year-old in the Victorian era really have pressed the likes of Bentley and Walker into founding such a society? Or, was his father, who presented a paper on “Oxford Clay” to the society in 1872, the adult driver, with his son, who was already collecting geological specimens, in tow. It must be assumed that even if not a founder the young man was one of the original members and, in Bodger, Bentley may have recognised his younger self, taken him under his wing, and supported him as the replacement honorary secretary when he was seventeen.  

Fig 6. Former Midland Banking Company office at Church Street

In what must have been one of the society’s first field trips, members took a train to Ketton on Whit Monday 1872, and from there walked to Collyweston, Easton, Wothorpe and Burghley Park. Some visited the slate quarry at Collyweston, where Bentley had discovered his gastropod fossil, while others concentrated on the botany of the area. After the morning session they retreated to the Blue Bell Inn at Easton-on-the-Hill where they had an “excellent luncheon, kindly given by the esteemed president of the society, Mr Bentley” (SM, 24.5.1872). The afternoon session took longer than expected and the party had to cancel their proposed visit to the museum within the Stamford Institution.

At the Midland Banking Company, in 1872, Bentley called for tenders to build new banking premises at the junction of Church Street and Cross Street in Peterborough (SM, 21.6.1872). After it was completed in the spring of 1873, it also became John’s home.

Between 1870 and 1875, John Bentley’s workload increased dramatically due, one assumes, to his willingness to take on additional responsibilities and to those promoting his energy and skill. During this period, he seems not to have shirked any approach for his time. Besides his day job as a bank manager, covering Peterborough and Stamford, he assumed many other roles:


  • Chaired monthly meetings as president of the Peterborough Natural History Society

  • Committee member for the Peterborough Workman’s Exhibition

  • Treasurer of the Peterborough Literary Society

  • Chaired meetings of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Workers

  • Chairman of Peterborough Gas Company

  • Committee member of the Peterborough Science and Arts Classes

  • Member of Peterborough Improvement Commissioners

  • Member of Peterborough Urban Sanitary Authority


On 5 February 1873, Samuel Sharp Esq, FSA, FGS presented the second part of his important paper on the “Oolites of Northamptonshire” to the Geological Society in London together with a large collection of fossils and other geological specimens (SM, 7.3.1873). Sharp was praised for the collection by Mr Etheridge FRS, the Government palæontologist, and Mr Woodward of the British Museum commented how valuable the collection was compared to others as the fossils were linked to their stratigraphical location. In reply Sharp stated that the collection was not solely his own, but also that of his friend and former co-worker Mr Bentley, of Stamford.


A couple of months later on consecutive days, two significant events changed John Bentley’s personal life and shaped the town of Stamford.


Firstly, on 8 May 1873, at St Clement Danes church in London, sixty-three-year-old bachelor John Bentley married thirty-year-old widow, Anne Yates of Tinwell. It is assumed that John knew Anne through her late husband Richard, but what was the motive for marriage by this confirmed and extremely busy bachelor? Was it romantic?... there were no subsequent children from the union. Or, was it a logical relationship based on mutual need? Busy John, now a pillar of society, wanting support and home management, and Anne desiring financial security and a father-figure for her nine-year-old son Richard Lovell. 


Secondly, a day later on 9 May 1873, at a meeting of the newly formed Stamford Freehold Land Society (SFLS), J F Bentley Esq was appointed as its president (SM, 16.5.1873). It is possible that, as the Land Society’s first president, he was also its founder, continuing to demonstrate the leadership he had shown when instigating the Stamford Institution in 1838, and founding the Peterborough Natural History Society in 1871.


The formation of the SFLS was a direct result of the impending enclosure of the Stamford open fields. It had been a long time coming and was one of the last local enclosure acts in England, receiving its Royal Assent in 1871. The fields totalling 1,700 acres ran in a semi-circle around the north of the town from Tinwell Road in the west to Deeping Road in the east. However, the enclosure did not occur until the allocation of land, the preparation of deeds and their conveyance was completed in 1875. The SFLS was formed in anticipation of the enclosure which would free up land for building domestic properties. Land societies were a form of building society: members joined for a fee and bought shares, the income from which was accumulated to buy building plots. The plots were then sub-divided and allocated to members by a ballot for priority. The advantages to its members were lower costs for the land and legal fees, and the ability to become a freeholder which secured the right to vote.

Eight acres of land were allocated to St George’s church in an area called the North Fields. Although the conveyance of this land was not completed until 11 August 1875, an agreement was reached in 1874 for the SFLS to purchase the North Fields site for £220 per acre (SM, 13.11.1974). There was some committee dissent regarding this acquisition due to the extravagant price demanded by the church and the distance from the town. However, under the chairmanship of John Bentley it was passed narrowly with a majority of eight to seven.

Fig 7. Conveyance indenture for Northfield's plots

An early conveyance (November 1875) for several of the plots can be seen in Fig 7, with an enlargement below it, showing the Northfields area split into 107 building plots. Over the years these plots were sold by the SFLS in what is now known as the Northfields Conservation Area and a variety of terraced houses and larger villas gradually filled the available land.  

Fig 8. Plot allocation on Northfield's estate

After his marriage in 1873, John Bentley and his wife lived temporarily at Bank House in Peterborough. However, at the end of that year John rented Balcony House in Glinton, a substantial 17th century house, largely rebuilt in the 18th century, and now listed Grade II. The house was owned by the Giles farming family who worked the land attached to the house. This new location was convenient for John’s interests in Stamford and Peterborough, being roughly equidistant between the two.


Fig 9. Balcony House, Glinton

Bentley’s involvement with the SFLS, and in particular the Northfield’s development, gave him an insight into land management in that area. And, in 1876, when the heirs of James Torkington Esq decided to sell the site of a former brickyard John took the plunge and bought it at auction. In 1873, Stamford Corporation had named the rough roads around the brickyard as Recreation Road, New Cross Road and Conduit Road, bounded to the south by the already named East Street. The brickyard had ceased operating in 1874 and remained undeveloped until Bentley acquired it, knowing that it could provide housing between the new Northfield’s estate and the Eastgate entrance to the town.

By 1881, two terraces (Templar’s Cottages and Woolston’s Row) and four villas had been built on the land. One of the villas (probably Merriott Cottage) was occupied by the builder Thomas Woolston, who one assumes built Woolston’s Row (1881 Census). Woolston later, in 1886, built a larger house (Laurel Villa) for himself on Recreation Road and adjacent to Woolston’s Row, but he was not a good businessman and in 1889 was adjudged bankrupt.

Fig 10. Houses built on the brickyard site prior to 1881

The new buildings in the brickyard, especially Woolston’s Row, were built at a low level because of all the clay that had been removed from the site for the bricks. As a consequence, the houses were prone to flooding and in 1880 the Council was petitioned to solve this “pressing nuisance” (SM, 3.9.1880). As the discussion between Bentley’s solicitor and the Council were held ‘in camera’ the outcome is not recorded, but in December 1880 two advertisements were placed for tenders to lay drainage pipes. One by the Council for Recreation Road and the other on behalf of Bentley for Woolston’s Row both running down to the main drain at the junction of East Steet and Eastgates.

Between 1886 and 1888, and unfortunately after Bentley’s death, the roads of the old brickyard were adopted by the Corporation. One was named New Street but the other, which replaced Woolston’s Row, became Bentley Street, after its late owner J F Bentley: a lasting reminder in Stamford, even though nobody has recently been aware of the connection.

Fig 11. 3-5 High Street, Leicester, after being taken over by Grand Clothing Co.

The resignation by John in 1877, due to ill health, from his positions as Treasurer of the Peterborough Literary Institute and President of the Peterborough Natural History Society may have been the first sign of him slowing down. However, he was still a bank manager, active with other societies, and also a property developer in Stamford. It is not known exactly when John retired from the bank, but it probably coincided with its acquisition by the Birmingham, Dudley & District Bank in 1881. This is supported by his move away from the area in March 1882, when Balcony House was advertised to let by William Giles (SM, 24.3.1882).

The change in location away from both Stamford and Peterborough suggests that all work, public service and extramural activities had ended and that his body and mind were starting to decline. Anne and John Bentley joined Anne’s sister Emma in the centre of Leicester where Emma owned a substantial draper’s business, E Lovell & Co, at 3-5 High Street (the impressive Marlborough House). It was a large property in the heart of the city, later taken over by the Grand Clothing Hall Company (see Fig 11). On 10 February 1884, in the presence of his sister-in-law Emma, John Bentley died, and the cause of death was later given as senile decay.

Anne Bentley continued to live in Leicester after John’s death, remaining close to her sister. Later she moved to Rothley, a village near Leicester, where her sister joined her, after retirement from her drapery business. It was from Anne’s Rothley residence, in 1914, that she presented an enlarged photograph of her late husband, John Flowers Bentley FLS, to the Peterborough Natural History Society. It is assumed that FLS signified his fellowship of the Linnean Society, which would make sense given his interest in nature and fossils, but the Linnean Society archivist is unable to verify his membership. The presentation photograph of John Bentley cannot be located, but it is possible that Fig 12 is a copy of the original.

Fig 12. John Flowers Bentley Esq F L S © Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery

Anne’s son, Richard Lovell Yates, emigrated to Australia sometime before 1889, where he married and had two sons. The first, Richard, was killed in action in Gallipoli during WWI. In what may signify more than anything about John Bentley’s character is that Richard Lovell, who was John’s stepson throughout his formative years between nine and nineteen, named his second son John Bentley Yates.


John Flowers Bentley, a farmer’s son, had been involved in banking for almost sixty years, from possible apprentice to bank manager. In addition, he had been a shopkeeper, a public servant sitting on various committees, and a property developer. However, for almost his entire life he was driven by a search for knowledge across a wide range of subjects.


He was a chemist, fossil collector, apiarist, geologist, naturalist, botanist and inventor: a polymath. John Bentley’s drive to acquire knowledge was matched by his wish to imbue others with that which he had learnt. This is demonstrated by his push for the Stamford Institution and the founding of the Peterborough Natural History Society, where he often shared information through presentations, at times using his testimonial oxy-hydrogen microscope. Now, in Stamford, his name lives on in the form of Bentley Street, and globally geologists know of him for the rare Bentleyi fossils.


© John Daffurn 2024

A print version can be downloaded HERE

Other articles about Stamford Institution:

The formation and first home of the Stamford Institution (1838-1842)

The Stamford Institution

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