By Charles Priestley
Webmaster's Note: Some years ago, 'Crossfire', the magazine of the ACWRT (UK) featured Judah Benjamin's London legal chambers. In 1995 a US reader pointed out that Robert D. Meade, in his 'Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Statesman' (1) mentions that the London city directories listed Benjamin's addresses. I recently published a short article here in response to his suggestion of photographing the addresses. I withdrew this, following correspondence with Charles Priestley, who has written various articles on Benjamin for 'Crossfire'. Here, Charles puts the record straight, with the sort of diligent research that readers of our magazine will be familiar with.
He then became Attorney General in the Cabinet of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. During the Civil War Benjamin also served as the Confederacy's secretary of war and secretary of state. At the end of the war, Benjamin managed to escape to Great Britain. In 1866, he began to practise law here, was appointed a Queen's Counsel (QC) in 1869, and until his retirement in 1883 was considered one of the most learned members of the British bar. His Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property (1868) became a legal classic in this country (2). He died in 1884. Charles continues:-
While looking on the Internet for references to Judah P Benjamin, I came upon the Round Table's page on Benjamin in St James's, which I had never seen before. I do hope that you will not mind if I correct a couple of points.
The Round Table member who supplied details of Benjamin's London residences was Glen Wiche (pronounced "Wicky"). Glen is a Chicago bookseller and a very old friend of mine. Glen is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the Civil War. He is also a great lover of Britain. I did in fact take Glen up at the time on his suggestion that one of us might like to locate and photograph the buildings, setting out for St James's with a London A-Z and a camera. However, I came back without having taken a single photograph, convinced that the two buildings no longer existed. Research in my local library confirmed this.
If we take Ryder Street first, the London directories of the time show that No. 17 was at the end of the street, on the corner of St James's Street, and that No. 15, where Benjamin lived, was next to it. This would place the Christie's building, the only one of about the right period, too far up the street to be No. 15.
Volume XXIX of the LCC "Survey of London"'(1960) gives the history of that part of the street in some detail.
The Christie's building, which was built in 1864 -1865, was in fact No. 11 in Benjamin's time. Christie's bought the site primarily as a means of access to the rear of their premises in King Street, planning to let the new building as residential chambers. When they failed to do so, the building became instead Dieudonne's Hotel, which it remained until the First World War. In 1911, wishing to expand, the proprietor of the hotel bought up the two neighbouring properties, Nos. 13 and 15, and had them rebuilt.
Although rebuilt in a different style from that of the main building, they were an integral part of the hotel numbered as such. The result is that, while it is perfectly possible today to identify the building which was No. 15, it is the 1911 construction on the site of Benjamin's old lodgings and not the No.15 where he lived.
The situation with 29, Duke Street is rather simpler. The directories of the period show that the block now occupied by Fortnum and Mason consisted in those days of Nos. 22-27. No. 27 was at the junction with Piccadilly, and No. 29 (another lodging house, apparently owned by a certain Samuel Elston) was directly opposite No. 27, on the corner of Piccadilly where the modern block which contains the French Tourist Office now stands.
What this means, I am afraid, is that neither of Benjamin's two London residences is still standing today, and we have to add them to the list of buildings associated with him which no longer exist - his mansion in Paris, his London chambers and even Inner Temple Hall, the scene of his farewell dinner, which was destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War. What is the problem with Benjamin and buildings? Even the church in Paris where he saw his daughter married in 1874 was, according to the Michelin Guide, "rebuilt in 1937"! At least his grave in the Père-Lachaise cemetery is still there! (Webmaster's note: see Charles's article in Crossfire No. 66 about Benjamin in Paris).
What we can certainly say is that the Christie's building (or at least the façade, since the interior was gutted in 1941) was there in Benjamin's day, and that it would have been very familiar to him, since it was only two doors up from where he lived from 1873 to 1877. Both 15, Ryder Street and 29, Duke Street, incidentally, are listed in the directories of the time as "lodging houses", the former apparently being owned by one Geo. Henry Burchell (presumably the spouse of Mary Anne, listed owner of 13, Ryder Street)
I have since discovered yet another London building associated with Benjamin that no longer exists. According to Meade's biography of him, Benjamin, who was in effect a bachelor when in London, spent much of his spare time at his club, the Junior Athenaeum. Having found out from the directories of the time that this had been at 116, Piccadilly, I set off with high hopes to find it. Needless to say, it turns out today to be a modern hotel (called the Athenaeum, admittedly, but the name is the only thing left).
To console myself, I ordered a first edition (1868) of Benjamin's apparently classic work on the sale of property from a company that I found on the Internet. I don't suppose it will be exactly bedside reading, but it's not every day that you have a chance to buy a first edition of a book by a member of the Confederate Cabinet. Just in case any other member of the Round Table might be interested, they have two other, later copies (1884 and 1888) at reasonable prices. The company is called John Rees Rare Books, and their Internet address is www.lawbooks.co.uk, but I had trouble making contact with them on the Internet and finally went back to the telephone (020 8870 3279), which worked much better.
© ACWRT(UK) 2001
Picture of Judah P Benjamin: ArtToday.com: All Rights Reserved
1 New York: Oxford University Press, 1943
2 "Benjamin, Judah Philip," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopaedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.