School photograph of John Bennett.

John Noel Patch Bennett (1912-1930) was a contemporary at Westcott House of Alan Turing and Duncan Carse (of Dick Barton fame) but he left school eighteen months early in April 1930, two months before his 18th birthday, ‘for fear of breaking out’.

John had secured a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge and, although today it has become the norm for students seeking adventure in foreign countries to take a gap year between school and university, in 1930 the concept was unheard of.  But John Bennett never took up his place at Cambridge because in May 1931 his bleached, wolf-gnawed skeleton was found on the Pine Pass in British Columbia, where it was presumed he had died the previous November.

But why did this English schoolboy’s ‘adventure of a lifetime’ end in tragedy?

John Noel Patch Bennett was born on 21 June 1912 at York Lodge, Sea View Road, Herne Bay, Kent, which his parents, Henry George Dudley Bennett and Florence Laura Bennett (née Aaronson), rented as a holiday residence.  John came from a theatrical dynasty: his ancestors had toured the country with Patch and Bennett’s travelling theatre before setting down to manage theatres including the Alhambra Theatre in Stourbridge, the Coventry Opera House, the Burton upon Trent Opera House, the New Theatre Coventry, and the Shakespeare Theatre in Clapham.  When John’s father died on 16 October 1918 he left an estate valued at over £71,000.

John Bennett with his hawk outside Westcott House in 1928.

John attended Coventry Preparatory School and Beaudesert Park School in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire.  He then secured a scholarship at Sherborne School, where he arrived in September 1926, boarding at Westcott House with housemaster Geoffrey O’Hanlon.  Amongst John’s contemporaries at Sherborne School were Alan Turing (Westcott 1926-31), John le Mesurier (Lyon 1926-30), John Tallent (The Green 1924-29), Charles Dick (School 1927-31), and Duncan Carse (Westcott 1927-30) – boys who would all go on to make their mark on the world.

John was obviously a very bright boy and on his arrival at Sherborne he was placed straight into the Upper Fourth and just two years later, in September 1928, he joined the 6th form (classical) set.  However, John’s interests were not solely on the academic side.  He had a great love of nature and the countryside and made friends with the local gamekeepers and gypsies, and it was even said that he was accepted in any caravan in the district.

Geoffrey O’Hanlon’s personal photograph album includes photographs of John with his pet hawk on his arm and also on horseback.  In March 1930, John penned a letter with others to the editor of The Shirburnian, asking that riding should be put on the school prospectus as an extra, like boxing and fencing.  They argued that ‘why should this accomplishment, which it befits every gentleman to possess, be neglected at a Public School. Very many people in after life regret not having learnt to ride in their youth, and we are certain that if it was made a school extra a large proportion of the school would take it up.’

John Bennett at a meet of the Blackmore Vale Hunt in the Courts on 27 March 1930.

By his last term at Sherborne, John’s frustration with the strictures of school life was clearly displayed in another letter he wrote to the editor of The Shirburnian, in which he complained about the organisation of the Easter term, which was too full and chaotic, with Thirds finals, Fives, Steeplechases, sports practice and hockey, leaving boys expected to do three or four things at once or, as John put it, ‘one damn thing after another’!

Westcott Senior XV, Lent term 1930.  John Bennett is sitting in the middle row, second from the left.

The affection with which John was held by his contemporaries at Sherborne is revealed in a letter written on 16 February 1930 by Alan Turing to his mother.  In the letter Alan talks about the death of his school friend Christopher Morcom, who had died unexpectedly on 13 February 1930, and how John had tried to comfort him:

‘Dear Mother
I wrote to Mrs Morcom as you suggested and it has given me a certain relief… I feel sure that I shall meet Morcom again somewhere and that there will be some work for us to do together, and as I believed there was for us to do here.  Now that I am left to do it alone I must not let him down but put as much energy into it, if not as much interest, as if he were still here.  If I succeed I shall be more fit to enjoy his company than I am now.  I remember what G O’H[anlon] said to me once ‘Be not weary of well doing for in due season ye shall reap if ye faint not’ and Bennett who is very kind on these occasions ‘Heaviness may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.’  Rather Plymouth brotherish perhaps.  I am sorry he is leaving.  It never seems to have occurred to me to try and make any other friends besides Morcom, he made everyone seem so ordinary…

In the Easter holidays of 1930, Geoffrey O’Hanlon took a group of the senior boys from Westcott House to Cornwall where they explored the north Cornish coast between Porthcothan and Port Isaac.  The group included John Bennett, Duncan Carse and Alan Turing, and the holiday was to be the last time that John’s school friends would see him alive, for by November that year he had perished on the Pine Pass in British Columbia.

John Bennett standing behind Alan Turing (arms folded) while on holiday in Cornwall in April 1930.

The story of what happened to John after his left Sherborne in April 1930 is told by Geoffrey O’Hanlon in the obituary he wrote for John in The Shirburnian, and perhaps gives some clues as to some of John’s personal traits which may have contributed to his untimely death:

‘His adventurous and fearless spirit showed itself from the first: he cared nothing for pain, wherever it might fall.  His forgetfulness, which no Pelmanism could cure, was a trouble in every form, and not least in the VIth; but his good humour turned away wrath.  He had a love of literature, and of music, though his singing was another trial.  But that which chiefly won affection was his own capacity for friendship.  He had also a great love of the country and a still greater love of birds and animals.  In his wanderings round Sherborne he made friends of all keepers and most gypsies, into whose brotherhood he had an uncanny faculty of entering.  The desire to gain his freedom made him leave eighteen months before he was due to go to Cambridge “for fear of breaking out”: and, with a Virgil stowed away somewhere, he worked his passage on a Welsh collier to Canada, and roughed it through various places and with all sorts of companions, until winter came on.  Then he determined on a lonely trek of 275 miles, from the Peace River district over the Pine Pass to Prince George.  His journey began on October 20th and ended about November 19th.  It was a challenge to the rain and snow: and they took it up.  Six months later, at the end of May, his bleached skeleton was found, wolf-gnawed, lying under a clump of willows.  With the skeleton was his diary, and its simple entries make a tragic record of misfortune and suffering, borne uncomplainingly with unflinching fortitude and hope: in it, those who knew him can hear his voice.’

Map showing John Bennett’s route over the Pine Pass from Pouce Coupe to Fort McLeod, British Columbia.

John’s failure to arrive at his destination in Prince George BC resulted in a $500 reward being offered by his family for his recovery dead or alive, but the hazardous conditions of the Canadian winter meant that it was not until May 1931 that Kelly Sunderman, a bush guide hired by Lloyds Bank Ltd.,  found John’s skeleton lying under a clump of willows on the bank of Tillicum Creek.  In John’s backpack were a diary and a Latin-English dictionary.  Kelly Sunderman reported at the inquest the discovery of John’s body: ‘We found a pair of khaki breeches, torn to shreds, a woollen scarf, a piece of navy blue overcoat, a fur cap with leather top, a .22 caliber rifle with the stock tooth-marked by animals, a Hudson’s Bay blanket, a packsack which was unopened and a little food.  We also found pieces of burlap in which the boy had evidently wrapped his feet.  He had lost his axe about a mile away from where we found the skeleton.  He had apparently broken small boughs in an attempt to make a fire, then dropped frozen and exhausted.  The body had been ravaged by animals that had dug it up from the snow.’  

Based on John’s diary found in his backpack, it was decided at the coroner’s inquest at Prince George that John had died between the 15 and 22 November 1930 from exhaustion and exposure through lack of proper clothing and extremely low temperatures.  The diary, which is now a treasured possession of John’s great-nephew the actor Edward Bennett, records John’s optimism in October 1930 when he set out with Betty his packhorse on the 275-mile trek over the Pine Pass from Pouce Coupe to Prince George.  However, things soon began to go wrong for John who was unprepared for the bad weather which left him wet and cold and disorientated.  Eventually, he had to admit defeat and decided to return to Pouce Coupe.  On 12 November 1930, having crossed the Missinchinka river barefoot, he arrived at an empty trapper’s cabin, where he stayed for two nights and ate some of the food he found there.  He left a note in the cabin saying ‘Have failed to get through to [Fort] McLeod.  Am entirely out of food.  The trip is useless, so am going back.  A list of supplies taken by me is here.  If you write me in care of the Imperial Bank of Canada, Vancouver, I will repay you back in full.  Meantime your cabin and food have just about saved my life, and I am deeply grateful.  I set out today, back across the Pine.  My fingertips and feet are frostbitten. I have abandoned my horse. However I think I will make it.  Sorry to have taken so much (food) but it was very necessary’.

On 15 November 1930, John wrote the last entry in his diary: ‘Woke at intervals during the night and ate macaroni and milk.  And tea.  Quite good, as milk provides flavour.  Finished one tin of milk, and will use other quickly, saving the other can.  Hands frozen.  Pretty painful but can’t be helped.  Ought to make cabin over summit Monday, then two days to the next cabin.  Three days then without crossing river, until Essweins.  Got to cross river four times before next cabin.’

Following the coroner’s’ inquest, John’s remains were shipped back to Liverpool on the liner Montclare and then taken by road to Coventry.  He was buried on 22 June 1931, the day after his 19th birthday, in the family grave at All Saints church, Allesley, Coventry.  The funeral service was conducted by John’s former tutor at Coventry Preparatory School, the Rev. Kenelm Swallow.  On his now faded headstone are the words:

JOHN NOEL PATCH
BENNETT SON OF
H.G. DUDLEY BENNETT
BORN JUNE 21 1912
AND FELL IN THE
ROCKY MOUNTAINS
NOV 20 1930
HE STROVE TO CONQUER

John Bennett’s final resting place in the Bennett family plot at All Saints’ church, Allesley, Coventry. (photographer: Alison Glover)

John left his mark on British Columbia where the John Bennett Creek is named in his memory, and at Sherborne School where pew no. 34 in the School chapel remembers his time at the School.

In May 2009, John Bennett’s great-nephew, the actor Edward Bennett, went to British Columbia to retrace John’s trek and to find the place where he died.  In October 2019, while playing Alan Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s play Breaking the Code at the Salisbury Playhouse, Edward Bennett was amazed to discover his great-uncle’s connection with Alan Turing and Sherborne School.

In an interview with the Salisbury Journal, Edward said, “It’s just amazing, isn’t it? I always knew about my great uncle – I went to retrace his steps in Canada – but I had no idea he actually knew Alan Turing… He was obviously there to look out for Alan and was a nice guy to have around.  I burst into tears when I discovered the connection.”

Edward Bennett as Alan Turing in the Salisbury Playhouse production of Breaking the Code, October 2019. (Photograph copyright Helen Murray)

Rachel Hassall
School Archivist
1 November 2019

Further reading:
John Noel Patch Bennett by Dorothea Horton Calverley, South Peace Historical Society.

For more information about the Sherborne School Archives please contact the School Archivist

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