William was born in July 1873, the eldest son of Thomas Mansford Benton, a prosperous merchant and stockbroker who lived in Royal Avenue, Chelsea. He was said to be an emotional, headstrong boy who ran away three times from Framlingham College in Suffolk where he was a boarder; though he was also a prefect, winner of an elocution medal and essay prize, and member of the school’s football and cricket teams for three years until he left in 1890, the year of his father’s death.
His extraordinary life is recounted in Sportsmen Parsons in Peace and War ([?1919]) and in a biography on the Old Framlinghamianswebsite which contains pictures of him, his grave and the college war memorial, and transcripts of letters.
These recount how William became a stockbroker with his inheritance, but when the money ran out he enlisted in the Royal Marine Artillery on 8 April 1896. The discipline did not agree with him so he deserted and ran off to Australia and changed his name to Richard White. He served as Alfred Richard White, Gunner no. 2603, with the Australian Rifle Corps in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and remained in South Africa after the war in the Cape Mounted Police. He then took a job as cook/handyman at a leper colony on Robben Island.
His life changed completely at this point due to the preaching of a missioner, Father Fitzgerald, and the influence of Father Clinton Engleheart, Chaplain to the lepers, and he came to regret his past way of life. He became reconciled with his step-mother and family and determined to become a clergyman. It was necessary to submit to a court-martial when he returned to England in 1905 and resume his own name, (though he still sometimes used the name Dick): his Boer War service won him a King’s Pardon. He passed the Theological Colleges entry examination in 1905 and went to Litchfield College where he was ordained deacon in 1907. He then came to Durham, passing the first year’s theological examinations as an unattached student in the Easter Term of 1907, and subsequently returned to Lichfield where he was ordained priest in 1909.
He was an unconventional curate at Walsall, living in the rough end of the parish where he offered “free beer and baccy” for any man who wanted a chat and organised boxing matches. His health suffered, and two years later, after a haemorrhage, he went to Switzerland to convalesce. He then returned to South Africa where he worked in various parishes, and later made his way back to Robben Island. His health now restored, he married, returned to England, and in 1912 became Curate-in-charge at Holy Cross Church, Bearsted in Kent.
One Palm Sunday after being threatened in an anonymous letter he preached a sermon about a redeemed sinner, and revealed that it was his own story, which disarmed those who had criticised his unorthodox methods and prompted a hunt for the letter writer by the choir, outraged on behalf of their popular priest. He also found time to play first class cricket, and played twice for Middlesex in 1913.
In August 1914 when war broke out he enlisted as a chaplain and then served in hospitals and clearing stations in France. In April 1915 he resigned and took a commission as a temporary lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment which had fought in the Boer War and appreciated his fighting experience. He was made Brigade Sniping Officer and soon promoted to captain. He was wounded first on the forearm, then later in the left thigh, and convalesced at home. He then went to Ripon where he trained men in sniping, disguise, and observation, before returning to France in February 1916 to join the 12th Battalion of his regiment in the 17th Division of 51 Brigade on the Somme.
On 8 August William’s wife received a letter from a fellow officer saying that he had been shot by snipers on 4 August while rescuing a wounded man after a failed attack, and had spent the night in the open. He was treated in hospital and had his right leg amputated but was not able to overcome infection and died of his wounds on 17 August 1916.
He is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Méricourt L’Abbé, and is commemorated on a war memorial and a plaque at Bearsted, and on war memorials at Herne and at Framlingham College.