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Memorial call for Shropshire naval hero

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Is one of Shropshire's most famous sons being practically ignored by his home town? Andy Richardson finds out more.

Andrew Finch has got a bee in his bonnet. Funny the way these things happen. He's fed up that Darwin basked in a year's worth of glory last year, during the evolutionary scientist's bicentenary, yet another of Shropshire's most famous sons seems almost to have been forgotten.

"Benbow," he says, as though he's an extra in a Harry Potter film, daring to utter the forbidden words Lord Voldemort, instead of mouthing 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named'.

"Nobody seems to care about Admiral Benbow. You know, the point is, Shrewsbury's stolen Darwin. There's a tug of war about who should really claim him. The people in Kent say he's theirs, because of the time he spent at Down House. But Admiral John Benbow was Shropshire through and through."

Andrew is just warming up. "I tell you what, you go down to Portsmouth or Plymouth and you'll find they all know Admiral Benbow. They celebrate his contribution to our Naval history. He was a really key figure. But you go up to most people in Shrewsbury High Street, on the very roads that he would once have trodden, and they won't have a clue who he is. It really gets to me.

"Benbow is one of the most significant figures in our history and yet we don't celebrate his legacy, certainly not in the same way we celebrate Charles Darwin. It's about time we did. The people of Portsmouth and Plymouth acknowledge him, it's high time we did too."

Earlier this year, Andrew started a campaign on Twitter and Facebook. He was inundated with responses. Many of the people who contacted him were in agreement that the county's rulers ought to create a permanent monument to the glorious seaman.

"A few of the people who contacted me provided really interesting historical facts about him," says Andrew. "But the majority could have been categorised as being people who didn't have great knowledge but who knew enough to realise that a lasting memorial is long overdue."

There are, as Andrew says, an even bigger number of people who don't know their history. So let's run through a quick lesson. Right, eyes down at the back, no talking.

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John Benbow was born in Shropshire and lived from March 10 1653 to November 4 1702. It's believed he spent his formative years working in a bargeman-type role on the River Severn, before joining the Navy aged 25. He saw action against Algerian Pirates and fought against France during the Nine Years War.

Benbow's courage and bravery saw him promoted through the ranks to Admiral and he commanded many English vessels, taking part in the battles of Beachy Head, Barfleur and La Hogue.

His fame arose from campaigns against Sale and Moor pirates, for laying siege to Saint-Malo and for fighting against France in the West Indies during the War of the Spanish Succession.

He died in Kingston, Jamaica, after being wounded in the leg. In short, Benbow was not a man to be trifled with. The chorus "Rule Britannia . . . Britannia Rule The Waves" was written because of people just like him.

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His legacy was immortalised, in part, by an English Folk Song, called Admiral Benbow, and through the creation of the Admiral Benbow Inn, the fictional home of Jim Hawkins in the novel Treasure Island.

There are also memorials to Benbow at St Mary's Church and at the Old Royal College, in Greenwich, in addition to a number of pubs around the UK, including one in Shrewsbury's Swanhill. Intriguingly, there is also a memorial in Shrewsbury which comprises a glass case, which is kept privately at Benbow Quay, in Shrewsbury. Inside the case is a section of sycamore tree with a key hanging from a rusty nail.

Andrew says: "It was said that the sycamore was where Benbow hung his house key before running off to sea."

Such memorials, however, are not enough for Andrew, who lives at Wattlesborough, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, and the supporters of his online campaigns. "We started the campaign initially to find the location of the Benbow key, held in the glass case. My one aim was to have the key gifted to Shrewsbury museum, however finding the owner has proved to be a problem.

"The key is, to be honest, probably a part of folklore. However, it is still affiliated with the story of Benbow.

"Our next aim is to have a statue of Benbow put up in Shrewsbury. We have the Darwin statue and we have the Percy Thrower bust. We even have the Queen Mother, but, as yet, we have no Benbow, despite him being one of Shrewsbury's most famous sons.

"It appears Benbow has been, or is being, ignored by his home town. The Facebook campaign is growing for some type of statue for Benbow and it has support from local businesses, as well as local people and people afar.

"The ideal place for it would be the Quarry Park, in Shrewsbury, somewhere along the river bank, near to the statue of Hercules.

"He started his career, so it seems, on the River Severn before he went to sea. So a statue on the banks could look out across the flowing water."

Andrew is taking his campaign to MPs, the Royal Navy, Shropshire Council and others. It's still early days and he's in the process of contacting those who may be able to help.

He adds: "Aside from Darwin, I think he's the most significant figure. I can't understand why Shrewsbury doesn't promote him. We live in a town with great history and Benbow is part of the story. It's high time we told it."

* Details of the Facebook campaign are available by sending an email to HoneysuckleHomes@aol.com

By Andy Richardson

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