William Holman Bentley

The place-name KIBENTELE commemorates this famous Old Boy of Sudbury Grammar School, probably the only one to have a town named after him. Kibentele is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Belgian Congo where, when it was still under Portuguese control, Bentley went, in 1879, as a Baptist missionary.
The son of the Revd. William Bentley, minister of Sudbury Baptist Church, W.H. Bentley was born in the Baptist Manse at Bank Buildings on 30th, October 1855.  A commemorative plaque has been affixed to the house by Sudbury Freemen’s Trust. Bentley, the youngest of four brothers, was educated at Sudbury Grammar School c1864-1867.
A gifted linguist, he read the Hebrew Psalter, and the Greek Testament in the train on his way to work as a bank-clerk, before being accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society for work in the Congo. For this purpose, he learnt Portuguese, and was sufficiently proficient to deliver his first sermon in the language after six months.
Once at the mission field he noted down every Congolese word he heard. In 1887, with the aid of a Congolese assistant, Nlemvo, he published the first Congolese-English dictionary, and he also produced a Grammar of the Congo language and a Congo Primer. These works are said still to be in use.
Bentley spent furlough 1892-93 in Sudbury, where, at the house in Friars Street, now called Bentley House, he completed his translation of the New Testament into Congolese. His literary work also included, in 1895, an appendix of 4,000 words to his Dictionary; a Congolese Hymn Book of 381 hymns, 32 being his own composition; translations of Genesis, Proverbs and Psalms. In 1900 appeared his autobiography, ‘Pioneering on the Congo’.
Bentley recounts a thrilling tale of his many adventures, including encounters with hippopotami and crocodiles. He was one of the first Europeans to reach Stanley Pool, (now known as the Pool Malebo), and later, he travelled as far inland as Stanley Falls, (now known as Boyoma Falls). He explored widely in the Congo, establishing and consolidating mission-stations and schools. He was widely known and respected.
Bentley was a most active and devoted missionary and showed great strength of character yet revealed qualities of great humility and deep spirituality. In 1897 he received a diploma and gold medal for his literary achievements. Glasgow University awarded him a Doctorate in Divinity.
Overcome by the rigours of work and by the tropical climate, Bentley’s health deteriorated. He had already, in his thirties, lost his sight. William Holman Bentley died in December 1905, when on sick leave, then aged only fifty.

Anthony R. Wheeler
(Edited and reprinted with kind permission of the Sudbury Grammar School Old Boys’ Association)

We would like to thank Neil Garland, (who came across William Holman Bentley’s grave whilst on a walk through the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol), for sending us these photographs. (February 2023)

A remarkable woman with an adventurous life

The monument also marks the site of Mrs Holman Bentley’s grave. Hendrina Margo Kloekers was born in Shanghai in 1855 to Dutch parents but was educated in England. She was an accomplished musician who worked as a music teacher in London before her marriage in 1885. In 1905, for example, she composed a cantata with the title ‘The Great Commission’ which was first performed at Totterdown Baptist Chapel in Bristol.

Hendrina’s parents had been missionaries and she wanted to take up similar work. This became possible after her marriage to the Rev. William Holman Bentley and, from 1886 to 1904 they lived and worked in the Congo and had two children at a time when tropical diseases and cannibalism made life very dangerous. She was a brilliant linguist who was able to speak five languages with fluency; she became the first European woman to learn the Kikongo language and was able to not only help with her husband’s linguistic work in the Congo but also to transcribe religious material into the Kikongo language.

She was a woman of strong personality with considerable literacy talents. After her husband’s early death she wrote an account of his life: ‘W. Holman Bentley The Life And Labours Of A Congo Pioneer’. She continued in literary work until her own death in December 1938 at Eastbourne.

The photograph shows the Bentley family, (on the left), at Bentley House, Friars Street, Sudbury. The image was taken 1892-3 when the property belonged to the Ray family. (The photograph was loaned to the Suffolk Free Press by Mr. R.H. Mattingly and published with an article entitled ‘Famous Sudbury Missionary’ in June 1943.)