Benn, Edward (1798–1874), philanthropist, industrialist, and antiquarian, was born in Tandragee, Co. Armagh, third of four sons and five daughters of John Benn, Belfast brewer, and Elizabeth Benn (née Craig). With his younger brother George (qv), from whom he was inseparable throughout his life, he ran a distillery at Downpatrick, Co. Down, and later moved to Glenravel estate near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, where they developed the surrounding district during the 1830s, built numerous houses and new roads, and reclaimed and cultivated land, and where Edward built (1842) Glenravel House. Although innovative and ambitious in their enterprises, the brothers did not always prosper, and a potentially significant attempt to distil spirits from potatoes was frustrated by excise regulations, which prompted a sarcastic letter from Edward to Lord John Russell (1792–1878) complaining of the ‘mystery of the British excise’ and their ‘new way of increasing the revenue of the county by destroying and wasting the property of the country ’ (Heatley, 23). This costly reverse and the impact of potato blight obliged them to pursue alternative business interests in Liverpool. Their fortunes greatly improved on returning to Ireland, when rich iron-ore deposits were discovered in the Glenravel hills. Edward oversaw (1851) the first smelting activities and was the first in the area to exploit the deposits commercially (c.1867). An important local industry developed, resulting in great wealth.
He is best remembered for his philanthropic endeavours in health and education, some of them not completed until after his death. Recognising the importance of specialist hospitals, he helped to develop three of Belfast's six: the Benn Ulster Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital (founded 1871), was rebuilt (1874) at his expense, as was the Belfast Hospital for Diseases of the Skin (founded 1865), which moved to a new building financed by Benn in Glenravel St.; he founded the Samaritan Hospital for Women and Children, and his brother-in-law John F. Hodges (qv), professor of agricultural chemistry at QCB, laid (18 August 1874) the foundation stone. Benn was a man of advanced ideas: his hospitals were non-sectarian and open to all, and were financed by subscriptions for the poor and by fees for the more affluent. With an anonymous donation from him (1870), two wings were added to the Belfast Charitable Society (popularly known as the Old Poor House) and later named after him, and his donation to the (Royal) Belfast Academical Institution enabled it to open (1879) the school of mathematics.
Interested in history and archaeology, Edward joined (1837) the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, to which he bequeathed his antiquarian books and valuable collection of antiquities, which comprised more than 1,500 objects and were housed in the Benn Room before being transferred to the Ulster Museum, Belfast. He contributed antiquarian articles to various journals, including the Irish Penny Journal and the Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, and published the pamphlet Objects in glass (1855). A non-subscribing presbyterian, unmarried and ‘peculiarly retiring’ (Heatley, 23) according to his brother, he suffered ill health in later life and died 3 August 1874 at Glenravel House and was buried in the family grave in Clifton St. cemetery, Belfast. He bequeathed his estate to George, who donated plaques and portraits of Edward to the Samaritan Hospital and the Charitable Society. The Benn papers are in the PRONI.