Benson, Godfrey Rathbone, first Baron Charnwood 1864-1945, Liberal politician and man of letters, was born at Alresford, Hampshire, 6 November 1864, the fourth son of William Benson, barrister, by his wife, Elizabeth Soulsby, daughter of Thomas Smith, of Colebrooke Park, Tonbridge. The third son was the actor-manager Sir Frank Benson [qv.].
Benson was educated at Winchester and Balliol College, Oxford. He obtained a first class in literae humaniores (1887) and was appointed lecturer in philosophy at Balliol. He worked in close association with R. L. Nettleship [qv.], the second volume of whose Philosophical Lectures and Remains (containing the well-known lectures on the Republic of Plato) he edited in 1897. He also wrote a memoir for the Essays and Addresses (1929) of his friend John Burnet [qv.].
Benson was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in 1898. His active political interests brought him into the House of Commons as Liberal member for the Woodstock division of Oxfordshire (1892-5). He fought several contests for his party, but his public gifts were best suited to the House of Lords to which he was elevated in 1911 as Baron Charnwood, of Castle Donington, Leicestershire. He was initially an ardent supporter of Home Rule and later of imperial federation and national service. He did much social, charitable, and municipal work, serving as chairman of the council of the Charity Organization Society, president of the National Institute for the Deaf, chairman of quarter-sessions, a deputy-lieutenant for Staffordshire, and mayor of Lichfield.
Benson's deepest interests were religious and intellectual, and, partly through his friendship with Randall Davidson [qv.] and H. M. Burge [qv.], he was closely associated with various causes connected with the Church of England. In 1930 he edited a volume of Burge's Discourses and Letters. His own personal views on religion were set out in a very candid study of St. John's Gospel, According to St. John (1926), and, in revised form, in A Personal Conviction (1928). His very widely known biography of Abraham Lincoln (1916) brought him the highest tributes, both in the United States and in this country, and stands as a classic of its kind. He also published Theodore Roosevelt (1923).
In 1897 Benson married Dorothea Mary Roby (died 1942), daughter of Roby Thorpe, of Nottingham, and granddaughter of A. J. Mundella [qv.]; the marriage brought him, through her great gifts and energy, unfailing stimulus and happiness, as well as unexpected fortune and much enlarged political connexions; they had two sons, the younger of whom died in childhood, and two daughters.
Despite the heavy claims of London, Benson gave himself unstintedly to Lichfield, where he played a major part in the inauguration and activities of the Johnson Society. He was a man of broad views, and broad churchmanship, moderate in his outlook yet categorical in statement. Superficially reticent, even austere and abrupt, he was singularly kind, outspokenly honest, and enduring in friendships. He died in London 3 February 1945 and was succeeded by his son, John Roby (1901-55), who, as an ophthalmic surgeon, did valuable research in space perception. Benson's elder daughter, Antonia, married as her second husband (Sir) Cyril John (subsequently Lord) Radcliffe, and the other, (Eleanor) Theodora (Roby) Benson, became a novelist and writer of books on travel. Portraits by Hugh Eastman and Sir Frank Dicksee are in the possession of the family.
The Times, 5 February 1945
Contributor: Humphrey Sumner.