Benn, Sir Ernest John Pickstone, second baronet, of Old Knoll, Lewisham 1875-1954, publisher, economist, and individualist, was born in Hackney, London, 25 June 1875, the eldest son of (Sir) John Williams Benn, later publisher, Liberal member of Parliament, leader of the Progressive Party in, and sometime chairman of, the London County Council, and first baronet, by his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of John Pickstone, of Hyde, Cheshire. Viscount Stansgate, of whom a notice appears below, was a younger brother. Ernest Benn was educated at the Lycée Condorcet, Paris, and the Central Foundation School, Cowper Street, City Road. In 1891 he joined the firm of Benn Brothers, Ltd., founded in 1880 to publish the Cabinet Maker. This journal, declared the father, was the cornerstone, but the bricks for the House that Benn built have been collected and well and truly laid by my eldest son. By the turn of the century Ernest Benn had taken effective control; during the next thirteen years the business developed at a rapid tempo; the Hardware Trade Journal and other trade papers were acquired; others were newly launched. He succeeded his father in 1922 and in the next year founded the book publishing company of Ernest Benn, Ltd., introducing in the late twenties the Augustan Poets and Benn's Sixpenny Library as the precursors of the paperback. Erecting Bouverie House, he put the trade press into its proper place in the heart of Fleet Street.
In 1927 Ernest Benn sponsored what became the Boys' Hostels Association, of which the Prince of Wales became patron, to provide residential clubs for homeless boys in the metropolis. He was president of the National Advertising Benevolent Society (1928), the Readers' Pensions Committee (1933), the Royal Commercial Travellers' Schools (1935), and the Advertising Association (1935). In 1932 he became high sheriff of the county of London. From 1934 until 1949 he was chairman of the United Kingdom Provident Institution.
In the war Benn familiarized himself with the ways of Whitehall, serving first at the Ministry of Munitions and later at the Ministry of Reconstruction, being appointed C.B.E. in 1918. At this time he advocated collaboration between Government and business to win the coming trade war, expounding these plans in his first three books. After this relatively brief period, and a five-week visit to the United States in 1921, he repudiated his earlier mild collectivism and embraced a full-blooded individualism.
Benn's classic, Confessions of a Capitalist (1925), illustrating the individualist theme by the story of the foundation of a trade-periodical empire, exemplified his rich intellectual and spiritual qualities. Among them were courage, application, relentless energy tempered by kindliness, and an engaging frankness and directness which at once shocked and charmed. His writings displayed a French wit, reminiscent of Bastiat, but with a taste of London salt. His public philosophy was an austere Victorian laisser-faire; his private conduct was inspired by the generous dictates of his warm humanity.
From 1925 Individualism was the very kernel of Ernest Benn's life. To him the State was the acme of immorality, the individual good, the collective evil. Faith and works were the individual's province. It was easy to mock his views, declared The Times, for he knew no middle way and was often exaggerated in the emphasis of his warnings. — He was the spokesman of no interest but of an idea—of one aspect of liberalism which not even a collectivist society, if it wishes to remain free, dare ignore. In 1926, with Sir Hugh Bell, he founded the Individualist Bookshop, whose luncheons were to form the model for the Foyle literary luncheons. The launching of the Individualist movement thrust him at the very centre of a campaign which was not to cease until his death. Throughout 1931, as leader of the Friends of Economy, he concentrated his fire primarily on swollen state expenditures. One of my glorious failures was Benn's foundation and editorship of the Independent (1933-5). Between 1916 and 1953 he wrote some twenty books, supplementing them between 1941 and 1948 with eleven pamphlets. Although the wartime and post-war pamphlets published in the Liberty Library series of the Society of Individualists were primarily tracts for the times, the argument of some enjoys a broader currency. In 1941 Benn initiated the most powerfully sustained campaign of his life—a crusade in defence of personal and civil liberty, the rule of law and the free market, coupled with resistance to bureaucratic controls and to every project for a state-planned economy. All this was characteristically heralded by two Benn pamphlets, The Political Method and The Profit Motive. He took the leading part, with Sir Frederic Hamilton, (Sir) Carleton Allen, Lord Leverhulme, Collin Brooks, and F. W. Hirst [qv.], in drafting in August 1942 a Manifesto on British Liberty and in founding in November 1942 the Society of Individualists. As president of the society, which was to become a model for Antipodean and Canadian sister-societies and for thirty branches at home, Benn undertook the task of furnishing, as he termed it, the pabulum, writing libertarian feature articles for scores of newspapers and journals at home and overseas, and contributing for many years his regular weekly Murmurings of an Individualist to Truth during the editorship of Collin Brooks.
In 1951 came Benn's census protest. He embellished his census form with the words: In view of the critical state of the national economy, I must refuse to take any part in this unnecessary waste of manpower, money, paper and print. He was fined five pounds and two guineas costs.
In the free-trade general election of 1923, Benn was sounded on behalf of four constituencies as a Liberal candidate. He declined. In 1929 he broke with the Liberal leaders over the Yellow Book programme. In 1935 a technicality brought to naught an attempt to secure him as Conservative candidate for East Surrey. This did not perturb him. He preferred his own Individualist banner, The State the Enemy, to any party standard. He was, too, a lifelong free-trader and a zealous Cobdenite. His life and career demonstrated, as the Sunday Times said, what can be done with an idea when exploited to the full by a latter-day Hampden. The net result of the influence of Benn and his fellow libertarians was that, by 1960, liberty was fashionable once again.
In 1903 Benn married Gwendoline Dorothy (died 1966), daughter of Frederick May Andrews, of Edgbaston, Birmingham; they had three sons and two daughters. On 17 January 1954 Benn died at Oxted, Surrey, where he had lived since 1913, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his eldest son, John Andrews (born 1904). A portrait of Sir Ernest Benn by Sir William Orpen hangs in the board-room at Bouverie House, Fleet Street; a sketch of him at the age of thirty, by Edward Grindlay, forms the frontispiece to Benn's Happier Days.
The Times, 18, 21, 23, and 29 January 1954
Sir Ernest Benn, The Confessions of a Capitalist, 1925, The Letters of an Individualist to The Times, 1921-1926, 1927, Happier Days, 1949, and other writings
A. G. Gardiner, John Benn and the Progressive Movement, 1925
Deryck Abel, Ernest Benn: Counsel for Liberty, 1960
Freedom First, Spring 1960
Contributor: Deryck Abel.