Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Mysterious Mrs Bennett

Just inside the gates of Horsham’s St Mary’s church is a mysterious tomb that lies south to north and is believed to be the resting place of the mysterious Mrs Bennett.

Horsham Mystery

Who was Mrs Bennett?

Benoit, Comte de Boigne was one of the most famous European soldiers of fortune who found their way to India in the last quarter of the 18th century. So wrote Sir Evan Cotton in 1935 in Sussex Life Magazine. Comte de Boigne organised formidable battalions of troops for the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior and he retired to France an immensely wealthy man.

But in 1788 and before he retired, he married the 15 year old daughter of a Persian Colonel and brought her to England. They had two children (a boy and a girl ) and the children were taken by their father to his home in Chambery in France. As recently as 1935, the son’s descendants were still in Chambery, and perhaps they still are now.

Exiled to Horsham 

The Count’s wife converted to Catholicism and changed her name to Helena (an Anglicization of her name Halima ) and Bennett (an Anglicisation of the name Benoit).  However, for reasons unknown, the Count deserted her and married again in 1793. He died in 1830 and it’s believed that in about 1840, Mrs Bennett as she was by then moved to Sussex and lived in the eastern part of St Leonards Forest, first at Colgate Lodge (quite a large property) and latterly at an old cottage known as Rangers Lodge.  It’s believed that she died in 1854 at age 81 meaning she’d spent at least 14 years alone in the Sussex countryside and had been a widow for 24 years. Her daughter died in Paris in 1820 and her son died in 1853 (a year before her) although it’s not known that he ever visited her.

In 1900 during a trial between the Horsham Urban District Council and a Mr Molyneux regarding a certain footpath in St Leonards Forest, much reference was made to an elderly Indian lady who lived locally and used the path. The Rangers Lodge has been pulled down since but there are or were roses bushes and fruit trees on the site, all of which conjures up a rather tragic and mysterious portrait of the exotic Mrs Bennett who once lived in these parts.

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