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Benham, Frederic Charles Courtenay (1900–1962)

by Neville Cain

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Frederic Charles Courtenay Benham (1900-1962), economist, was born on 6 March 1900 at Bristol, Gloucestershire, England, son of Charles Courtenay Benham, leather merchant, and his wife Kathleen Grace, née Taylor. He was educated at Katharine Lady Berkeley's Grammar School, then at the London School of Economics and Political Science (B.Sc.(Econ.), 1922; Ph.D., 1928). A student of the redoubtable Edwin Cannan, he graduated with first-class honours and became a research fellow.

In 1923 Benham was appointed lecturer in economics at the University of Sydney under R. C. Mills, with whom he published Lectures on the Principles of Money, Banking, and Foreign Exchange … (1925). His non-monetary works were more numerous and significant in the policy milieu of the 1920s. Their focus was Australian, their conceptual frame Cannanian, their theorizing simple but consistent and directed always at the world of affairs. The substance of articles which first appeared in the Economic Record in 1926-27 and in such collections as London Essays in Economics (London, 1927) and The Peopling of Australia (Melbourne, 1928), re-emerged in The Prosperity of Australia: An Economic Analysis (London, 1928), for which he was awarded his doctorate.

Using per capita real income as the ultimate 'test' of economic success, Benham asked how efficiently the Australian population had exploited its resources. He found its stewardship wanting: because only an unfettered price mechanism would allocate resources ideally over space and time, the tariff and other market interventions had blunted Australia's per capita performance and population potential. Securely astride the free-market paradigm, he jousted vigorously with the Tariff Board and those of his colleagues who reasoned, somewhat elliptically, that the tariff-wage system had, up to a point, served the national population ambition.

Benham's place in Australian political economy is assured by three related factors: he added to the short list of pioneer national-income estimates a calculation, the conceptual basis of which first approximated modern ideas; at a time when economics, led by men of little formal background, was establishing itself as an independent discipline in Australian universities, he introduced some rigour into those debates which were helping a fledgling profession towards a sense of identity; and, asserting that 'general principles' would satisfy where his statistical demonstrations might not, he essayed the first comprehensive free-market overview of Australian economic practice in this century.

Benham left Sydney in 1929 to become a Rockefeller research fellow. In 1931-42 he taught at the London School of Economics and became a rapporteur to Chatham House on international economic problems. He was economic adviser to the comptroller for development and welfare in the West Indies in 1942-45, and to the commissioner-general for the United Kingdom in south-east Asia in 1947-55. In 1945-47 he had been professor of commerce at the University of London and from 1955 was a research professor at the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He published in the fields of monetary policy, economic welfare, taxation and the problems of underdeveloped countries. A gift for simple exposition was displayed in his enduring Economics: A General Textbook for Students (London, 1938).

'A delightful raconteur' and 'convivial companion', Benham was a fine bridge-player and as 'Fourchette' had written on the game in the Sydney Morning Herald. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1945 and C.M.G. in 1950. He died of rheumatic heart disease on 7 January 1962 at St Mary's Hospital, London, survived by his wife Suzanne Henriette, née Paitre, of Paris, whom he had married in London on 10 December 1932, and by a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • N. G. Butlin, Australian Domestic Product, Investment and Foreign Borrowing 1861-1938/39 (Cambridge, 1962)
  • C. D. W. Goodwin, Economic Enquiry in Australia (Durham. N.C., 1966)
  • S. J. Butlin, ‘Frederic Benham …’, Economic Record, Sept 1962
  • N. Cain, ‘The economists and Australian population strategy in the twenties’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Dec 1974
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 9 Jan 1962, p 13.

Citation details

Neville Cain, 'Benham, Frederic Charles Courtenay (1900–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benham-frederic-charles-courtenay-5201/text8751, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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