Benjamin Burgess occupied a unique position in the history of Portsmouth in that he was a major player in the formation of a non-conformist community within the town, one that would have so much influence on its development.
Little is known of his early life apart from his marriage to Susanna Dummer at Symondsbury in Dorset on 2nd May 1654 and his attendance at Christ Church, Oxford where he had attained a Master of Arts degree in 1650. He quickly gained a reputation for sincerity, wisdom and religious conviction such that at the age of 29 years, in November 1658, he was appointed vicar of St. Thomas's Church, Portsmouth. This placed Burgess at the heart of the politial drama that unfolded in the months that followed the death of Oliver Cromwell.
On 13th October 1659 General John Lambert and his troops marched to Parliament, turned out the Members and effectively took control of the country. Some of the Members including Sir Arthur Haslerig, Colonel Valentine Walton and Colonel Herbert Morley plotted with Colonel Nathaniel Whetham, Governor of Portsmouth, who agreed to hold the town on behalf of Parliament. On the 3rd December that year the conspirators travelled to Portsmouth where they settled down at The Red Lion on High Street (later known as the Three Tuns) where further planning took place, almost certainly in the presence of Benjamin Burgess and Thomas Brague, Chaplain to the Garrison.
A small army of up to 5,000 men began to assemble at Portsmouth prior to a march on London which it reached on 29th December 1659 shortly after the Rump had been re-established. Haselrig, Morley and Walton went straight to the House where all present gave thanks and resolved that that 4th January would be set apart for Fasting and Humiliation. Benjamin Burgess was ordered to assist and the day after the Thanksgiving, at which Burgess had preached, the House formally thanked him for his work. On a more practical level he was admitted a Burgess of Portsmouth Corporation and appointed chaplain to the regiment of Colonel Whetham, the Governor of Portsmouth.
An intriguing reference to Burgess appears in the works of Pere Cyprian de Gamache, Chaplain to Queen Henrietta, in which the author tells of the time his mistress was returning to France in February 1661, when ill health forced the ship to put in at Portsmouth. The Chaplain who found Portsmouth 'extremely dull' and 'destitute of all amusing things' sought out the company of Benjamin Burgess having heard him preach at St. Thomas's. During conversation it is alleged that Burgess 'admitted that there was error in the religion he professed; that the Catholic was the safest, but that he could not follow it, having a wife and children, and no other means of subsistence but his living'. Pere Cyprian reported this incident to the Queen who agreed to settle an annuity on Burgess if he would convert. Burgess declined the offer but said he would write further on the matter to the Queen in Paris. If he ever wrote that letter it was not received by the Queen.
In his 'Illustrated History of Portsmouth' William Gates wrote "The Presbyterians, to which party, no doubt, Benjamin Burgess belonged, are stated to have been the chief instruments in effecting the restoration of Charles II. Charles assured them that the existing state of the Church should not be altered; yet within two years of his regaining the throne the Act of Uniformity was passed, which enjoined the sole use of the Common Prayer book in public worship, required from every clergyman a declaration of entire assent and consent to its contents, and an acknowledgment to the duty of passive obedience and non-resistance to royal authority under any circumstances."
"Burgess was one of many clergymen who would not conform to this, and on the 24th August, 1662, he was ejected from his living at Portsmouth, along with the Rev. Thomas Brague. A few days later these two gentlemen, with a large number of the Aldermen and Burgesses of Portsmouth, about 90 altogether, were expunged from the Corporation as being 'disaffected to his Majestic and his Government.' Mr. Burgess appears to have committed some further offence against the new laws, for which he was imprisoned; an officer of the garrison, writing on November 9th of the same year, to Sir Charles Berkeley, Governor of Portsmouth, states that he has 'taken bail of Mr. Burgess not to draw the inhabitants to Nonconformity; he promises to leave the town speedily, and is released to prepare the sooner.'" Burgess did not travel far though as in 1664 he is recorded as paying Hearth-tax in Copnor and serving as a Collector for the Poor at Kingston (Fratton).
By 1667 Burgess was reported to be preaching to fellow Dissenters in Gosport, a location chosen because it was well outside the Borough of Portsmouth. For the next few years, preaching to non-conformist remained a dangerous activity which took place largely in private houses, halls and barns, until in 1672 the Declaration of Indulgence allowed Burgess to obtain a licence to preach. Gathering a growing congregation about him, Burgess preached in rooms on Penny Street and then later in St. Thomas Street. Although he had no permanent church building Burgess is nevertheless now regarded as the first minister of the Unitarian Church.
Benjamin Burgess died on the 24th November, 1673, aged 44. Surprisingly he was buried in the chancel of St. Thomas's Church which presumably means that he either renounced his non-conformity at the end or, that he was just a very popular local clergyman. The ledger stone, or slab covering the grave, can still be seen behind the free standing altar, though it no longer covers the grave.
"The Illustrated History of Portsmouth" by William Gates
"Portsmouth Parish Church" by Henry Lilley and Alfred Everitt
"Unitarianism in Portsmouth", a collection of essays published by Portsmouth Grammar School.