LESTER, BENJAMIN, office holder, agent, and businessman; b. 13 July 1724 in Poole, England, fourth son of Francis Lester, merchant and cooper of Poole, and Rachel Taverner, daughter of William Taverner*; m. c. 1750 in Trinity, Nfld, his cousin Susannah Taverner, daughter of Jacob Taverner of Trinity; d. 25 Jan. 1802 in Poole, survived by one son and three daughters.
Benjamin Lester’s father, mayor of Poole in 1716, owned at least one ship in the Newfoundland trade in the 1730s and apparently concentrated on dealing in oil. Benjamin himself went to Newfoundland about 1737, evidently in the employ of John Masters, an eminent Poole-Newfoundland merchant who had married another daughter of William Taverner, and his Irish partner, Michael Ballard. The death of Benjamin’s father in 1737 presumably had made it necessary for him to pursue his own career, and his youth and probable lack of capital meant that he was unable to set up on his own in the fishery. In 1749 he was appointed a magistrate at Trinity, and in 1750 was acting as Ballard’s agent as victualler to the Trinity garrison.
Masters and Ballard died in 1755 and 1756 respectively, and Lester subsequently emerged as a merchant on his own account, eventually acquiring a substantial share of the Newfoundland fishery in partnership with his elder brother Isaac. Isaac, who had apparently inherited his father’s coopering business, remained in Poole, where he was well placed to supervise the British end, recruiting men and handling ships and supplies for the fishery. Benjamin’s interests centred on Trinity, where he normally spent the fishing seasons until he left Newfoundland in 1776 and where he built a large brick house, but they extended over Trinity and Bonavista bays and up to Fogo, as well as to the banks fisheries. His outstations included Scilly Cove (Winterton), Tickle Harbour (Bellevue), and Bonavista. Lester exploited the coast of Labrador as well from 1767, and in 1778 he pioneered the use of shallops there for seal fishing by water so that full advantage could be taken of the spring fishing season. By the 1770s he owned at least 12 ships, and by 1793 his fleet had grown to nearly 30, probably the largest then owned by a Poole merchant. He built many of his vessels in Trinity and had two sixth rates for the Royal Navy constructed there in 1790.
Lester was responsible for surrendering Trinity to the French during the attack on Newfoundland in 1762 commanded by Charles-Henri-Louis d’Arsac* de Ternay. Criticized by some of the inhabitants, who had at least talked of resistance, he was made to give up his magistrate’s commission by Governor Thomas Graves, but was shortly afterwards exonerated from charges of collaboration. In his defence it must be said that his conduct during the occupation undoubtedly minimized not only his own losses but those of the community in general.
Lester’s trade does not appear to have suffered greatly during the War of American Independence, in spite of difficulties in supplying provisions to Newfoundland and the depredations of American privateers off the coast. During the boom years of the 1780s he prospered greatly. In 1787 his eight bankers, manned by 87 men, caught 9,000 quintals of cod, and in the 1789 season he shipped to Europe 50,087 quintals of new fish and 2,469 of old fish, nearly seven per cent of the total taken in Newfoundland that year, together with 1,183 tierces of salmon. In addition, nearly 4,000 quintals of old fish were sold to the West Indies. The French revolutionary wars were a more serious threat to his interests. He lost seven of his ships between 1795 and 1798 and was affected by the closing of the Italian market and the depression in the Spanish and Portuguese markets, but his business was able to survive these difficulties. In 1800 he was assessed in Poole at £3,000 value in export and import rates, by far the greatest amount for a Poole merchant, and in 1801 his stations on Venison Island and elsewhere caught 2,900 of the total of 8,084 seals taken in Labrador that year.
Lester’s relations with other Poole merchants established in the Trinity area and trading in the same regions varied. Those with Samuel and Joseph White and Peter Jolliffe appear to have been initially friendly, but he quarrelled over business with Richard Waterman of Trinity and Jeremiah Coghlan* of Fogo during the late 1760s. About a decade later he became an opponent of John Jeffrey of Poole, who inherited the Whites’ business, but his relations with Jeffrey’s sometime partner Thomas Street were generally good. In 1776 he quarrelled with John Slade* of Twillingate when Slade engaged some men who had already taken service with Lester.
Lester had emerged as a spokesman of the Newfoundland merchants in Poole in their dealings with government by 1773, when he represented their opposition to the establishment of the custom-house in St John’s. In 1775, despite opposition in Poole, he secured the dispatch of a petition supporting the barring of the Americans from the Newfoundland trade, and gave evidence before the House of Lords in support of a bill to exclude them. After his final return to England in 1776 he used the political influence his brother had built up in Poole to have himself elected mayor of the town in 1779 and from 1781 to 1783, and he also served as member of parliament for the borough between 1790 and 1796. In the attempt to obtain better terms in the peace settlement of 1783 he attacked the concessions made over the French Shore and the French retention of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Lester supported Lord Sheffield, a leading authority on commerce, in opposing American trading rights with British colonies, and as one of the Poole representatives at the Privy Council committee for trade’s inquiry into this issue in 1785 he urged limitations on American trade with Newfoundland. But Lester and the other Poole merchants were persuaded by the government to accept the need for imports of foodstuffs from the United States into Newfoundland, and by 1788 they had come to realize that American supplies were essential, to the extent that they protested when the government sought to stop American supplies in favour of those from Quebec. Lester entered a further protest in 1791 when the government again attempted to restrict imports of American supplies. In 1793 Lester was a member of the House of Commons inquiry into the Newfoundland trade. Active too in securing posts in the Newfoundland government for his acquaintances, he assisted Richard Routh to become the customs collector in 1782, and D’Ewes Coke to obtain the customs controllership in 1783.
Since Lester’s only son, John, did not take much interest in the family firm, on Lester’s death his Newfoundland business passed effectively to his son-in-law George Garland, who had formerly assisted him in managing his trade, and then to the latter’s sons George* and John Bingley. Starting his career with apparently few advantages, Benjamin Lester had demonstrated great energy and enterprise in exploiting the Newfoundland fisheries and trade. Although he came to change his mind on such matters as the custom-house and American trade with Newfoundland, his attitude to the commerce and government of the island was fundamentally conservative, and typical of the view of the West Country merchants, who felt that they knew better than government or missionaries how to manage the island’s affairs, and who wished to be as free as possible from interference with the conduct of their business in Newfoundland. Characteristically, in 1764 Lester promised that the newly appointed Anglican clergyman in Trinity, James Balfour, would not “want for my assistance while he behaves as a Gentleman of his Cloth.” In his last years he opposed the extension of civil government in Newfoundland, telling Prime Minister William Pitt in 1792 that the establishment of a supreme court at St John’s [see John Reeves*] would make Newfoundland “a colony filled with lawyers; all harmony will subside, and the ruin of that valuable branch of trade of fishery will be fatal to this country.”
BL, King’s Maps CXIX, 107b. Dorset Record Office, 2694 (Life history of John Masters); D365; P227/RE3–RE10, reg. of christenings, marriages, and burials, 1722–1812. Poole Borough Arch. (Poole, Eng.), no.226 PBA, Town dues, 1731–32. PRO, BT 1/2: f.165; CO 194/12: f.184; 194/21: ff. 35, 84; PRO 30/8, bundle 151. USPG, B, 6, no. 157. The parliamentary history of England from the earliest period to the year 1803, comp. William Cobbett and John Wright (36v., London, 1806–20), 18: 426–27. Derek Beamish et al., Mansions and merchants of Poole and Dorset (Poole, 1976). McLintock, Establishment of constitutional government in Nfld., 67–74. E. F. J. Mathews, “The economic policy of Poole, 1756–1815,” (phd thesis, Univ. of London, 1958). A. C. Wardle, “The Newfoundland trade,” The trade winds: a study of British overseas trade during the French wars, 1793–1815, ed. C. N. Parkinson (London, 1948), 227–50.