Admiral Benbow’s Key - Atlas Obscura

Admiral Benbow’s Key

A famed admiral left behind this 17th-century house key when he joined the British Navy. 


Shrewsbury, a modest-sized town in western England, boasts several connections to some prominent, historical characters, one of which being Admiral John Benbow. The admiral was considered one of the greatest naval commanders of his time, equivalent to Francis Drake, James Cook, and Horatio Nelson. But, unfortunately for Benbow, he is not well remembered today outside of Shrewsbury and a few other specific locations.

The son of a tanner, Benbow was born in 1653. While details of his early life are spotty, he did an apprenticeship working on riverboats before joining the British Navy at the age of 25.

Benbow rose through Naval ranks, becoming captain of his first ship in 1689. During the Nine Years’ War (1689-1697), Benbow played a key role in British naval battles against France, which included destroying the French fleet in the Battle of La Hogue. From 1698 to 1700, he served as commander of the English fleet in the West Indies and later returned to the Caribbean in 1701 with the rank of vice-admiral.

When another war between the United Kingdom and France broke out in 1702, Benbow again fought against the French fleet. While skirmishing with French ships off the coast of Colombia, his leg was shattered by chain shot, but he continued to lead his ships into battle until his officers persuaded him to retreat to Jamacia.

After landing in Kingston, he court-marshaled two of those officers for insubordination and had them executed. He died soon afterward.

Having been recognized as a great war hero, several locations in Shrewsbury were named after Benbow. However, one of the oddest memorials is the so-called Admiral Benbow’s Key.

Supposedly, when Benbow left Shrewsbury to become a sailor, he left his house key hanging on a nail on a tree outside of his house. The history of the key is not entirely clear, but at one point, the supposed key (and a section of the tree that it hung on) was on display in a car dealership’s garage located on the site of Benbow’s home, just north of Shrewsbury’s city center.

When the dealership closed in 2005, the Benbow Quay apartment complex was soon built in 2006, and the key was placed in a display case outside the complex. The key has been on display at that location ever since, although the maintenance of the site has declined over time.

Know Before You Go

The display case containing the key (as well as the section of the tree that it was hung on and a historical plaque) is located on the grounds of the Benbow Quay apartment complex.

This complex is a 10-minute walk from Shrewsbury Rail Station and lies between the River Severn and the railroad tracks.

The display case can be found underneath a staircase behind the complex's rear corner in a triangular fenced area that faces Coton Hill.

Despite the gates, walkways leading from the street to the display case are open to the public. Unfortunately, plants have overgrown the area in front of the display case and the glass on the display case is dirty. The key itself is covered in cobwebs, but it is still visible inside the case.

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