BENSON, WILLIAM THOMAS, manufacturer and politician; b. 20 April 1824 at Kendal, England, third son of Robert Benson and Dorothy Braithwaite, Quakers; m. 14 July 1858 Helen Wilson of Acton Grange, Cheshire, England, and they had one son and one daughter; d. 8 June 1885 in Cardinal, Ont., and was buried in Montreal, Que.
William Thomas Benson was educated in Kendal. In 1848 he began a career as a manufacturer of chemicals and entered into partnership with William Blythe, a Scot from whom he apparently received training in chemistry. Their firm, located in Accrington, produced chemicals used in finishing and dyeing textiles. Benson lived in Manchester and was probably in charge of the firm’s business and sales office there. In 1858 he immigrated to Montreal where he met an Englishman, Thomas Aspden, who pointed out to Benson that there was no starch factory in Canada, even though starch was being used in the manufacture of textiles as well as in households, in food, and for laundry. Benson and Aspden, as partners, established a starch factory in 1858 in the village of Edwardsburg (Cardinal), Canada West, a site that offered excellent facilities for water-power and for transportation by water and rail to the markets of Montreal and Toronto. In 1860 Aspden left the firm which then became W. T. Benson, Canada Starch Works, though it was usually known as either W. T. Benson and Company or the Canada Starch Works. Benson managed the firm himself until 1865, when it was incorporated as the Edwardsburg Starch Company, a joint stock company in which he initially held 59 per cent of the shares and was managing director. The president of the company was Walter Shanly*, engineer and railway builder; other prominent original shareholders were Charles John Brydges, Peter Redpath*, and William Workman. Benson ceased being managing director in 1875, when he took a two-year leave of absence because of ill health, but he retained the vice-presidency until his death. In 1875 also, the company increased its capital stock, reducing Benson’s holding to 40 per cent.
Benson expanded his enterprises in Edwardsburg to include a grist-mill, a sawmill, box and barrel factories, and, for a time, a general store for the employees’ use. He maintained an office in Montreal which served not only as a distributing centre for the starch factory but also as the headquarters of some of Benson’s own enterprises, notably his commission merchant business in chemicals, oils, and wool. The waste gluten from the manufacture of starch was sold to farmers for cattle feed; Benson himself operated a large stock farm which eventually comprised 200 cattle, 200 sheep, and 25 horses.
The Edwardsburg Starch Company was the only Canadian supplier of corn and laundry starch until 1868, and its chief competitor was a firm in Oswego, N.Y. The success of the Canadian venture depended on the protective tariff on manufactured goods, such as starch, coming from the United States, and on free trade in corn, the firm’s raw material. The tariff rates varied from time to time, and Benson viewed with alarm the free trade policy of Alexander Mackenzie*’s 1873–78 government. He supported Sir John A. Macdonald*’s National Policy, and was elected Conservative member for Grenville South in 1882, a seat he held until his death. In the 1870s and early 1880s the Edwardsburg Starch Company engaged in sporadic price wars with American competitors and with the British American Starch Company (later the Brantford Starch Works). In 1878 Benson’s firm began marketing starch that did not bear the company name and sold it for less than the price of the Brantford product. In the following year the Brantford firm unsuccessfully suggested that both companies sell at the same price. The two firms finally agreed to maintain identical prices in June 1883 and by February 1884 Benson recommended a joint reduction in prices to meet new competition from a Cincinnati-based starch company. The price-fixing arrangement ended in 1885. In 1882 the Edwardsburg Starch Company had begun producing glucose and corn syrup; the decision to expand was made at least in part because of the fear of competition from the newly established Toronto Glucose Company. The factory’s daily grinding capacity of 200 bushels in 1858 was gradually expanded to 2,500 bushels by 1900.
After Benson’s death his son George Frederick Benson became president and managing director of the company. He continued in these positions after the firm amalgamated with two of its Canadian competitors in 1906 to form the Canada Starch Company.
Benson lived in a stone house built about 1800 by loyalist Hugh Munro, founder of Edwardsburg; he modernized it by adding more windows and a verandah, and it remained in the Benson family until 1921 when it was sold to the village for use as a senior level school. It was closed in the 1950s and was later destroyed by fire. Although an Anglican, Benson donated land in Edwardsburg for the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Church built in 1875 as well as the Anglican St Paul’s Church in 1873. The luxuriantly bearded W. T. Benson presented a striking figure. He was an astute and imaginative businessman, paternalistic towards his employees, public-spirited, conservative in outlook, and “of the highest integrity.”
Gazette (Montreal), 9 June 1885. The Canadian album: men of Canada; or, success by example . . . , ed. William Cochrane and J. C. Hopkins (5v., Brantford, Ont., 1891–96), V: 139. CPC, 1885. Historical record of the Edwardsburg and Canada Starch companies, comp. G. F. Benson ([new ed., Montreal, 1959]). A history of Cardinal, [ed. F. B. Byers] ([Cardinal, Ont., 1967]).