Was there a family connection between printer Andrew Bent and Sir Thomas Bent (1838-1909), the colourful, controversial and often corrupt land speculator, politician and premier of Victoria?
There are some interesting parallels between the lives of the two Bents. Both were self-made men who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps from humble (and equally obscure) origins. The notion that they were related has cropped up repeatedly in seemingly unrelated contexts and while it seems unlikely, we have been unable to disprove it.
Andrew Bent and three (at least) siblings were born in St. Giles in the Fields, London, between 1789 and 1797. Sir Thomas Bent was born in Penrith, New South Wales, in 1838. His father, James Bent, was a Lancashire weaver convicted of larceny in Liverpool in 1832 and transported to New South Wales on the Asia. Convict records, death certificate and his own statements all indicate a probable birth year of 1804 for James Bent. The indent and certificate of freedom give his native place as Lancashire, but he himself twice stated that he was born in Dumfries Scotland, and this is what is recorded on his death certificate.
A possible scenario is that James Bent was a younger sibling or half-sibling to Andrew, Benjamin and Richard Bent. Some of the evidence is garbled and unreliable and each assertion, individually, can probably be explained away. All it would take to dispel this idea for good is a convincing baptism record for James Bent, but we have not yet found one.
EVIDENCE FOR A CONNECTION
- Craig has notes of a conversation with his grandmother and great aunts in which they said that their grandfather Edmund Bent (youngest son of Andrew Bent junior) was Tommy Bent’s cousin.
- Sir Thomas, while premier, reputedly attended a family wedding in Geelong — probably that of Edmund’s daughter Ada in December 1908.
- A newspaper article (unfortunately not annotated) about the erection of Sir Thomas Bent’s statue in Brighton was stashed away among other press cuttings relating to their own family members.
- And why was it that in 1910 Edmund Bent named his youngest son Richard Thomas Brighton Bent, obviously referencing Sir Thomas with his multiple strong connections to Brighton?
- It is also a curious coincidence that the name Edmund occurs in both Bent families. Andrew Bent had a son and a grandson of that name. Thomas Bent’s younger brother was also Edmund. He and Andrew Bent’s grandson Edmund both lived in Geelong although we do not know how well they knew each other.
Sir Thomas may of course have attended the wedding as a friend rather than a relation. He had a dairy farm at Port Fairy, and would have known the groom’s family, the Trews, who were pastoralists in the same district. Ada’s father Edmund was also involved in the breeding of Jersey cows. But it does seem that, although they could have been mistaken, there was a definite belief in some sort of family relationship on the part of Ada’s daughters. This oral tradition may have been wishful thinking, but so often these family stories, even if the details have become distorted, have some basis in reality.
On 20 August 1904 a throw-away remark appeared, unsourced and utterly devoid of context, in the “Clakkery” column of a Hobart newspaper, the Clipper.
Seems pretty well established that Andrew Bent, ancient Hobart newspaper proprietor, and uncle of Tom Bent, Victoria’s Gravel Pit Premier, died in Sydney Benevolent Asylum. [continues briefly about Bent’s belligerent journalism and then passes on to unrelated chit-chat]
How did the Clipper learn of the family relationship it expressed with such offhand assurance? Although it could have reflected a belief in the general community or just been made up by the reporter it is worth noting that two of Andrew Bent’s grandsons were then living in Tasmania. Alfred J. Hall was a dentist in Launceston and his older brother Frederick (my great grandfather) had a farm at York Plains. Both maintained contact with their mother Catherine (nee Bent) until her death in Melbourne in 1902, and with their Victorian-based siblings. In all probability Andrew Bent junior’s family in Geelong kept in touch with their relations in Melbourne too and through them, with those in Tasmania.
In 1900 the Clipper had reported the death of Elizabeth Warner in Auckland, noting that she was the oldest daughter of Andrew Bent, and mentioning how A. J. Hall (her nephew in Launceston) had received the news, so someone in the family was in touch with that newspaper. Perhaps these snippets were relayed by my other great grandfather, Christopher Luke Rooney, whose involvement in left-wing politics brought him into regular contact with the Clipper. He knew Fred well, had a farm in the same district and his son had married Fred’s daughter.
Possible first cousins? Sir Thomas Bent and Andrew Bent Junior.
NEW SOUTH WALES
On 27 March 1907, and far away from both Hobart and Melbourne in country New South Wales the Braidwood Dispatch and Mining Journal ran a story about Thomas Bent’s activities as Premier of Victoria. Noting his rise from humble origins, it stated
It is not generally known that he has a brother somewhere in the Braidwood district known as Dick Bent. The successful politician has several times made inquiries about his brother and offered to assist him, but Dick, although not in the best of circumstances, refused to be under any obligation to him.
A similar, more garbled, assertion was made later when reporting Dick Bent’s death.
Deceased was a very old resident of the district, and was a brother of the late Sir Robert [sic] Bent, who was at one time Premier of Victoria. (12 Mar 1913)
Richard (or Dick) Bent was one of Andrew Bent’s younger sons, an eccentric man who spent much of his life in gaol on repeated vagrancy convictions.
While it is just possible Thomas Bent could have been Andrew’s nephew, he definitely was not his son as these comments implied. If it were not for the earlier statement in the Clipper the reports in the Braidwood paper could probably be dismissed as nonsense, possibly originating from an untrustworthy witness in poor Dick himself (although he was probably not as simple minded or addled in his wits as some thought) and further muddled by the newspaper. The first statement might even confuse Thomas Bent with Richard’s famous thespian nephew Horace who, according to one local old-timer, did offer to help him. Apart from his contact with Horace it is not clear whether Richard remained in touch with his relations scattered around Tasmania, Victoria, Queensland and New Zealand.
A CURIOUS COINCIDENCE
This was noted by Margaret Glass in her 1993 biography of Sir Thomas, Tommy Bent: Bent by Name and Bent by Nature. In 1873 he made his first big land purchase from Nicholas Were, brother to J. B. Were. Were’s reasons for selling were not altogether clear, but it just so happened that in the same year a possible relation, William Davey Were, married a woman named Jane Bent. Glass wondered whether Jane and Thomas Bent, being of a similar age, were cousins, and whether Jane’s marriage was somehow connected to Bent’s land speculation. She noted that Jane’s father was a Benjamin Bent who died in Hobart in 1843, but was unaware that he was Andrew Bent’s brother. Benjamin’s widow and family had moved to Victoria after his death. It is not known if they had much contact with Andrew’s descendants there. This speculation is perhaps less convincing than the other examples, especially as Jane Bent and Were lived together for many years, and had several children, before they eventually married in 1873.
- While Andrew Bent’s mother Elizabeth possibly died in 1801 she may have lived until 1805, and if she had another son he may have been among the many poor London children who were sent north to the textile industries as apprentices. However, while large portions of the original St. Giles baptism registers for the 1790s are illegible, from 1800 on there are Bishop’s transcripts which are very clear. There is no baptism record for a James Bent during the appropriate period in St. Giles and we have found no other in London.
- When Andrew’s brother Benjamin was admitted to the Philanthropic Institution early in 1808 he was said to be an orphan. His only family consisted of two brothers, one older and one younger. These equate to Andrew and Richard. If there was a younger sibling the authorities (and seemingly Benjamin) did not know about him.
- James Bent, at 5 feet 6 inches, was considerably taller than Andrew, Benjamin and Richard, although if he was only a half-sibling this may be less significant.
- Importantly, when asked point blank by “Old Chum”, a writer for the Truth newspaper, if he was related to the printer Andrew Bent, Sir Thomas categorically denied it. There is no evidence that “Old Chum” had been influenced by the earlier newspaper speculation. His curiosity was aroused simply by the fact that Sir Thomas had been born in Penrith, and spent his early years in Sydney and that Andrew Bent had moved to Sydney late in his life.
Wishing to make my knowledge of Andrew Bent as complete as possible, for future use, I wrote Sir Thomas Bent, then Premier of Victoria, asking if the Van Diemen’s Land pioneer journalist were any relation. Sir Thomas courteously replied that Mr. Andrew Bent was not a relative, and that he knew nothing of his history. (Truth (Brisbane) 7 February 1909)
Given Sir Thomas’s known sensitivity about his humble origins and lifelong propensity to deal with unpleasant truths by outright denial and bluster, it is hard to know whether to take this statement at face value – although if there was a connection, he possibly did not know about it.
We have found no records relating to Andrew Bent’s father apart from his appearance on the baptism records for his children (twice, and probably three times, as Andrew, and once, inexplicably, as Anthony). There is no convincing record of his marriage to Elizabeth in London or elsewhere. There are no criminal records. We have absolutely no idea what he did, where he came from or what happened to him, although by early 1808, when his son Benjamin was admitted to the Philanthropic Institution, he was either dead or missing. We do not know if “our” Bents were related to a few other persons with the surname Bent who are recorded in St. Giles parish records or nearby. Andrew was an uncommon name in London in the late eighteenth century, so it is possible that the family had moved to St. Giles, as so many others did, from elsewhere. Their origins may well have been among the large cluster of Bents we have found in Lancashire, notably in the parish of Eccles. The forename Andrew occasionally occurs among these Bents although none of them would appear to be our man. Scotland or Ireland are not impossible either, although Andrew Bent and his siblings were baptized in the Anglican church.
Leaving aside for now the slight doubt cast by Margaret Glass on whether James Bent was in fact Tommy Bent’s biological father, the question is: Could Andrew Bent senior have abandoned his family, either before or after the death of his wife Elizabeth, and had a child (James) with another woman after returning to Lancashire, or wherever else he had come from?
Glass and other sources give James Bent’s parents as George and Amelia but this has proved to be wrong. That James Bent, born in 1800 and baptized at Macclesfield Methodist Chapel in Manchester, was convicted at Cheshire in 1826, transported to New South Wales on the Midas, and after a very troubled history died in Victoria in 1875, coincidentally in the same year as Sir Thomas Bent’s father of the same name. A petition for clemency and his death certificate both confirm that he (and not Sir Thomas Bent’s father) was the son of George and Amelia Bent. Nor was Sir Thomas’s father the James Cook Bent who was baptised on 25 June 1804 at St. Mary the Virgin, Eccles, Manchester. He can be traced later on in England.
If James Bent laid a false trail in stating, when registering the births of two of his children, that he was born in Dumfries, Scotland, his choice of birthplace was rather odd. His death certificate also gives his birthplace as Dumfries, although the informant, youngest son George, did not know the names or occupation of James’ parents. While there seems little reason to doubt these statements we have been unable to corroborate Dumfries as the birthplace, although a family of interest has been noted in Scotland – a James Bent, weaver by trade, who married Diana Waterton in 1803. A daughter Margaret, born in 1804, was baptized at Inveresk; another, Betty (or Betsy Ann) was born in 1808, and baptised at Dalkeith. Both these towns are in Midlothian and are much closer to Edinburgh than to Dumfries but the register for the 1808 baptism states that James, the father, was a soldier in the Dumfries Militia. We have found no baptism record for a son James, but interestingly both the girls are recorded in Lancashire later on. James and Diana have proved impossible to trace either before or afterwards.
Our conundrum reflects the challenges faced by anyone researching Australian convict ancestry. There are many false trails laid by the documentary record which was so easily distorted – often deliberately so by those giving information. Convict origins were for so long something to be ashamed about and best left obscured. In the same way, family oral traditions can either be much more or less reliable than official records. Poverty and hardship in Britain, especially among the convict and working classes, caused mass family dislocations beyond the reach of parish records. The mass transportation of some 168,000 convicts from 1788-1868 further dislocated family connections, so often lost from memory if ever known.
In the absence of a convincing baptism for James Bent, all we can say is that some of Andrew Bent’s descendants and some slapdash newspaper reporters seemed to believe that there was a connection between the two Bent families. There is no definite proof that Andrew Bent was Thomas Bent’s uncle, but although unlikely, it is not completely impossible. If anybody researching Sir Thomas Bent and family has established a reliable place and date of birth for James Bent, or come across any other assertions of a possible relationship please do get in touch.
Featured image: Caricature of Sir Thomas Bent ca. 1901-3 by Bert. A. Levy. State Library of Victoria