Last November the colonial printer, Andrew Bent, was celebrated at the Australian Media Hall of Fame dinner as ‘Australia’s first fighter for press freedom’, having wrested control of the Hobart Town Gazette from government on 4 June 1824. Just months before this milestone moment for the free press, Bent announced the birth of his first son, Andrew Bent Jr – who would later carry his father’s trade to Geelong.
Andrew Bent Jr arrived in Geelong, aged 24, to begin work as a printer with the Geelong Advertiser on 8 March 1848. Aside from other ventures, he worked with the Addy for at least 40 of his next 62 years. He died in 1910, aged 86.
The younger Bent joined the Addy when Geelong really was a ‘sleepy hollow’, not yet counted as a township. Soon after, he claimed credit for setting into print the one big news story which forever changed not just Geelong, but the whole of Victoria and the face of Australia as well.
On 12 August 1851, the Geelong Advertiser published a scoop about the discovery of high-quality, alluvial gold found at Buninyong, near Ballarat. The rush to get there was instantaneous. Workers downed tools and bolted. Four days later, Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe reminded colonists that all gold in the ground belonged to Queen Victoria, unless taken with a proper licence. Equally futile was his call for diggers to carry proof of discharge from any previous employment.
The Addy halved its price to 3 shillings and ramped up its print-run, as locals scrambled to post the newspaper to family and friends around the world. News travelled just as fast as sail and wind could carry it, before returning ships conveyed a stampede of mass migration, up to 20,000 people each week. In the decade from 1851, Victoria’s countable population grew from about 75,000 to 540,000.
The rivalry between Geelong and Melbourne was fought out in the press. Both arrival ports competed with claims of better access and proximity to the goldfields. The Addy boldly called the area ‘the Geelong goldfields’. The Melbourne press retaliated with reports timing the run of a horse and cart from Moonee Ponds to Buninyong, ahead of the same conveyance from Geelong. A distorted map was drawn and distributed, nudging Melbourne closer than the ground allowed.
Despite the clamour for fresh news and advertising, the newspapers also suffered from the labour shortage. Some Melbourne newspapers closed. By August 1852, James Harrison, the first and long-time editor of the Geelong Advertiser, reported that ‘never, even at the time of the first rush to Ballarat, have we severely felt the want of workmen as at the present time’. Weeks later, with his despair emphasised, he reported: ‘IT HAS COME TO THE WORST – the editor is left alone this morning to bring out the paper with his own hands’.
Rushing to the goldfields was not the only hope for prosperity. By 1853, Bent was running a lodging house and dining rooms at the wharf end of Moorabool St, catering for the mass of sailors and hopeful transients spilling ashore. He called his Geelong establishment ‘the Ballarat Boarding House’. He later ran the ‘British Dining Rooms and Boarding House’ in Corio Street. Beds were a shilling a night, as was a 3-course meal. He conducted the nearby Commercial Hotel from 1862-5. Despite these ventures, the younger Bent was raised by his father to the printing trade, which remained his life-long vocation.
James Fenton, in his memoirs of the year 1836, recalled watching Bent Senior working his small hand press ‘with occasional assistance from a little son’. Andrew Jr, aged 12, was also noticed about Hobart Town carrying Bent’s News for lodgement with the Colonial Secretary’s office. Both Andrew Jr and younger brother Robert were schooled in the ‘Art of Printing’ by their father. In 1838, the brothers were named printers and publishers of the Horn Boy – a free advertising sheet with an initial circulation of 8,000 copies.
In 1839, Andrew Bent Sr took his family to Sydney for a fresh start, after a string of libel actions and a Sheriff’s sale of property. His sons continued to help at the press, initially with Bent’s News and then at the Australasian Chronicle. With his father moving out of newspapers, Andrew Jr worked at the Sydney Gazette and then the Colonial Observer, conducted by the ultra-liberal Rev Dr Lang. Around this time, the senior Bent wrote with evident pride that his eldest son was ‘rather clever at the printing business, at case as well as Press’.
Bent Jr sought a fresh start of his own following the death of his mother Mary in 1846. He took a steamer from Sydney to Melbourne, accompanied by his Irish wife Honora and a small child, taking up his position as foreman printer with the Geelong Advertiser in 1848.
There is a three-in-four chance that Andrew Jr was one of the compositors involved in a notorious drinking binge. His foreman status might tilt the odds against this, unless he was leading others astray. On 30 December 1848, editor Harrison vented the following words, laid in type by his only sober compositor:
We have to apologise for the extremely meagre contents of this issue of our paper. The drunken and disreputable conduct of THREE-FOURTHS of our compositors ever since Christmas-day, has driven us to our wits’ end to bring out the paper, with regularity, in any shape. To-day we are compelled to resort to a course which, under any other circumstances, would be quite unjustifiable; namely, to insert some matter twice over. We shall take an early opportunity of making amends for present shortcomings.
Over the decades, fragments of Bent’s life were played out in the pages of the Geelong Advertiser, sometimes in the police reports. In the 1850s, his now estranged wife was reported throwing a brick, while drunk, through an upper window of his lodging house. This escalated, with Bent giving sureties for ‘keeping the peace’, his alleged death threats against her, and his claims of her adultery.
In 1856, fire damaged his hotel and dining rooms in Corio Street. In 1860, he was fined by the magistrate for using foul and insulting language towards a rival boarding house keeper. In 1867, apart from his insolvency, he was rebuked after two young sons were arrested in the billiard room of the Barwon Hotel at Winchelsea and held under the Neglected Children’s Act. An 1870 item mentions ‘Mr Bent, of cheap meals renown’. In 1882, his horse training son, another Andrew, was thrown from a horse and died, aged 34. Some of these reports might have been printed for the Addy by Bent himself.
The three-year-old accompanying Bent on the steamer from Sydney in 1848 was William Horace Bent. He became the most acclaimed Australian stand-up comedian of the nineteenth century. Billy took to the stage all around the country, also touring America and New Zealand. Theatre Magazine described him as ‘a celebrity, known all over Australasia as a king of laughter-makers and a fellow of infinite jest’. He became so famous that people thought he must be American. Advertisements for his Geelong performances might have been printed by his father.
Later in life, Bent ‘was wont to visit the Melbourne Museum to renew acquaintance with [an] old press which…is a rare curiosity there’. Bent used this press in his early years with the Addy. Known as ‘Fawkner’s Printing Press’ after the founder of the Geelong Advertiser, it remains on display to this day.
In 1933, long after his death, an old pamphlet was found in the Advertiser archives, with a biography of Bent written on the back. This told of him sailing down the Barwon river from Lake Connewarre to Barwon Heads with his companion, an indigenous boy named Sandy. With Buckley’s Falls behind them, the landscape must have evoked the story of William Buckley. Bent knew Buckley as a towering figure (some 200cm tall) rambling about the streets of Hobart Town. Sandy told Bent his tribal tradition of how two indigenous women, while out collecting some succulent grasses, found Buckley asleep on the beach at Barwon Heads (some 46 years before, in 1803).
Buckley was found holding a broken spear he’d picked up from the beach, belonging to a deceased man of the tribe. Embraced as kin by the Wallarranga people, he was named, Murrangurk (‘returned from the dead’). Some 32 years later, Buckley wandered into John Batman’s camp at Indented Head in 1835, with no memory of his English name or language. Escaping as a convict in 1803, he was given ‘Buckley’s Hope’ of surviving.
Bent died at home in Little Ryrie Street in 1910. His obituary recounted his days working as day foreman at the Addy, where he ‘put through a large school of apprentices to the trade’. It further noted that Bent:
…was full of interesting anecdotes…[and] his reminiscences of Geelong in the [1840s] were very numerous…He had a marvelous memory for figures, and could always be relied upon to give an accurate version of events. When Corio-street was studded with hotels, and was thronged with sailors from the big fleet of ships invariably in port, Mr Bent did a thriving business as a restaurant keeper there.
This prosperity – as for that of the city of Geelong and the newly formed colony of Victoria – was set alight by the Addy scoop about the Ballarat gold discovery in 1851.
Bent was laid to rest in Geelong’s Eastern cemetery alongside his second spouse, Elizabeth. Edmond Bent, his stonemason son, carved the headstone. The lifetimes of the two Andrew Bents – father and son – spanned the period from 1790 to 1910. They were ordinary, working class Australians. Each in their own way made their mark, leading colourful lives – human stories interwoven with the emergence of the Australian nation.
Featured image, the portrait photograph of Andrew Bent Jr, courtesy of Ann Peters.