Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edward Warner Benham (1872–1948)

by Margaret J. Jennings

This article was published:

Edward Warner Benham (1872-1948), lawyer and academic, was born on 20 January 1872 at Norwood, Adelaide, second child of Richard Somersal Benham, a librarian from England, and his wife Margaret, née Haynes. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter (1882-87) and the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1891), Edward was articled to J. R. Anderson in 1892 and admitted to the Bar on 12 July 1895. He specialized in civil cases, particularly property, became managing clerk in 1897 with Anderson & Castle and later entered partnership with R. A. C. Castle. With Alexander McLachlan, Benham worked on a revised South Australian Magistrates' Guide (1906) which comprised 589 detailed, comprehensive pages of legal procedure, schedules and forms, ranging from 'Abduction' to 'Yards' (cleansing thereof).

While continuing to practise in the city, from 1910 Benham lectured at the university. After turning off his hearing aid, he dictated rather dull, uninspiring lectures, with little explanation or discussion. A hard examiner, he seemed reserved, remote and a very private person to his students, but they recognized his high ideals, his professionalism and his mastery of the law of property, and—beyond his earshot—called him Teddy. He also taught private international law in 1923-26 and, from 1928, the law of Equity. Having applied for the chair in 1919, he withdrew from the field one month later. He was troubled by continuing sickness and next year travelled to New Zealand. On 21 June 1924 at St Cuthbert's Anglican Church, Prospect, he married 37-year-old Violet Margaret, daughter of Hugo Muecke; they were to remain childless. In 1935 they visited England and Scotland where he observed the teaching of law. After acting as dean of the faculty at the University of Adelaide in 1937 during Professor Arthur Campbell's absence, Benham retired next year.

Among the literary and debating societies to which he belonged were the St John's Young Men's Society (affiliated with the South Australian Literary Societies' Union), the exclusive Pickwick Club, the Adelaide branch of the English-Speaking Union (president 1934-37) and the Eucalypts Society (president 1938). Benham's initial speech (1912) to the last-mentioned body was on optimism and pessimism in the works of Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Hardy; in succeeding years he favoured European literary and political topics. Richard Benham had been the State's first public librarian and in 1932 his son was a member of the committee that established the Friends of the Public Library of South Australia (vice-president 1942-48).

Following a long and painful illness, Edward Benham died on 21 June 1948 at his Thorngate home and was cremated. After his widow's death in 1969, the details of his will were made public. The bulk of their estate (approximately $200,000) was left to the University of Adelaide which endowed two annual prizes, for theses in English literature and English political history, and used the major part of the bequest to buy books in those subjects and in law. $20,000 was spent on a bronze sculpture by Henry Moore, 'Reclining Connected Forms' (1969), for the university's grounds.

Select Bibliography

  • R. R. Chivers, The Benham Family in Australia (Adel, 1970)
  • A. C. Castles, et al (eds) for Faculty of Law, University of Adelaide, Law on North Terrace (Adel, 1983)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 Nov 1938, 23 June 1948
  • Eucalypts Society, Friends of the Public Library of South Australia papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • Literary Societies' Union (State Library of South Australia)
  • registry correspondence (University of Adelaide Archives).

Citation details

Margaret J. Jennings, 'Benham, Edward Warner (1872–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 January, 1872
Norwood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


21 June, 1948 (aged 76)
Thorngate, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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