BENT, Sir Thomas (1838-1909)

BENT, Sir Thomas (1838-1909)
was born at Penrith, New South Wales, on 7 December 1838. His father, a contractor, came to Melbourne in 1849, where he afterwards became a market-gardener. Bent's first position was in a shop, but soon afterwards he became an assistant in his father's garden. He had received little education and, in his own words, had no childhood. Before he was 21 he was working a garden of his own near McKinnon on the outskirts of Melbourne. In 1861 he was appointed rate-collector for Brighton, and a year later was elected a councillor of the shire of Moorabbin, of which he became president a few years later. In 1871 he opposed George Higinbotham (q.v.) for the Brighton seat in the legislative assembly and, to the amazement of everyone, was returned. But Bent was personally popular and had thoroughly canvassed the electorate. In 1874 he was elected a councillor for Brighton and resigned his position of rate-collector. He was afterwards mayor of Brighton no fewer than nine times. It has been stated that he never missed a council or committee meeting. In 1880 he became minister of public works in the Service (q.v.) ministry, and in July 1881 he was minister of railways and vice-president of the board of land and works in the O'Loghlen (q.v.) ministry which came in with the slogan "Peace, Progress and Prosperity", and, though looked upon by many as a stop-gap ministry, lasted until March 1883. Bent proposed an extensive programme involving the construction of 800 miles of railway. Possibly all the lines could not have been defended, but, though Bent has been accused of courting popularity by promising every district a railway, the outlay in most cases was warranted. The time had come to open up the country. In October 1887 Bent was a candidate for the speakership, but was defeated by Sir Matthew Davies. In October 1890 he was appointed chairman of the first railway standing committee and did good work, scrutinizing closely the question of cost in relation to public utility. In 1892 he was elected speaker, defeating two good candidates in Sir Henry Wrixon (q.v.) and John Gavan Duffy. Bent was scarcely suitable for speaker by temperament, and the extent of his knowledge of parliamentary law was at least doubtful. He was, however, a better tactician than either of his adversaries, and his personal popularity was always a valuable asset.
Bent was one of the early land-boomers and at one time thought himself to be a rich man. During the financial crisis of 1893 he became bankrupt of everything except courage and cheerfulness. At the election held in 1894 he lost his seat in parliament and retired to the country, where he made a living by dairy-farming. This placed him on his feet again, and in after years he often said that he never saw a cow without wanting to take off his hat to her. In 1897 he was a candidate for the Port Fairy seat in the legislative assembly, but polled so few votes that he lost his deposit. It was considered that his political life was over, and when he became a candidate for his old seat at Brighton in 1900, nobody thought that he had the slightest chance. However, he won the seat by a substantial majority. In June 1902 he became a member of the Irvine ministry as minister of public works and health and vice-president of the board of lands and works. From February to July 1903, he was minister of railways. It was during this period that the great engine-drivers' strike occurred, which was only broken by the firmness of Bent and the premier, Irvine. In February 1904 he succeeded Irvine as premier and remained in office for nearly five years. In addition to being premier, Bent had the portfolios of public works and railways. Much legislation was passed relating to improvements in public health, education, old age pensions, and water conservation. In March 1907 he took a trip to England for reasons of health, and returned in August. In June 1908 he was made a K.C.M.G., but on 4 December his government was defeated and went out of office. He was bitterly attacked in connexion with some land transactions on the route of a suburban railway, but an inquiry into his government's land dealings freed Bent from the suspicion that these had been carried out for his personal profit. He died after a short illness on 17 September 1909. He was married twice: (1) to Miss Hall and (2) to Miss Huntley, and was survived by a daughter of the second marriage.
Bent was a remarkable man, who made his way by a combination of astuteness and personal popularity. The slim youth with a joke for everyone, who was elected a shire councillor at 24 years of age, became a corpulent man in later life, with a determined heavy walk and a rolling body. He knew the weak side of human nature and could play on it, and he had a good command of English, which he used freely. He could play the buffoon on the public platform with snatches of song, reminiscences, and execrable jokes, apparently impromptu, but often carefully prepared. His appeal was to the average man and he knew what he was doing. In parliament he was an excellent whip and, in the cabinet, a man of force who believed in his country. He had been given little education, but accumulated a fund of knowledge. Some of the most important steps in the extension of secondary education were made while he was premier, and he came to the rescue of Melbourne university when better educated men seemed indifferent to its troubles. A man of action rather than a thinker, he succeeded in getting important things done when finer spirits might have failed.
The Age, 18 September 1909; The Argus, 18 September 1909; The Year Book of Australia, 1898 and 1902; Sir Ernest Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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