Andrew Bent’s Irish born wife, Mary Kirk, arrived in Van Diemen’s Land, like her husband, as a convict. We know she played a central role in his story for thirty years, supporting him through the good and bad times, leading up to, and consequent upon the birth of the free press in Australia. She may have often despaired of his reckless propensity to risk, time after time, the ruination of his family. Together Mary and Andrew had eleven surviving children. He was utterly bereft when she died in Sydney in December 1846. She had been his rock. Yet, as is the case with so many colonial women, we obtain only fragmentary glimpses of Mary – through a handful of convict records, a marriage register and some baptisms, birth announcements in the newspaper, a few property documents and shipping lists where her name appears alongside Andrew’s, and some favourable testimonials as to her domestic virtues and the creditable way she had brought up her children written in Sydney in the 1840s. The only time we hear Mary’s own voice directly is in her 1821 memorial seeking remission of her sentence. She was obviously a capable and practical woman, but the full extent of her contribution to her husband’s initial rise to prosperity and business success will probably never be known.
Conviction & Transportation
Mary Kirk (alias Mary Brown) arrived in Hobart Town on 28 April 1816 on H. M. armed brig Kangaroo. She had traveled out from Ireland on the 227-ton Alexander, via Rio, with 82 other female convicts, three of whom died on the passage. Sixty of them, including Mary, were sent to Van Diemen’s Land shortly after their arrival in Sydney. There was still a great imbalance of the sexes in Hobart Town.
William Murphy. Green Street Court House, Dublin. CC BY-SA 3.0
Mary was tried in Dublin in August 1815 and convicted of possessing a forged Bank of Ireland five-pound note. She had been before the court the previous month for attempting to pass a forged note outside the theatre, but having partially destroyed the evidence by putting the note into her mouth, was acquitted. Peace Officer George Ward, knowing her, as he said, to be a dealer in forged notes, continued to keep an eye on her, lured her into a public house, searched her, and found the ‘amazingly well executed’ note in her pocket-book. A lively report of the trial appeared in Freeman’s Journal of 1 September 1815. Mary was ably represented by her defence counsel, Mr. M’Nally, who was possibly the infamous United Irishmen traitor Leonard McNally, or more probably his son. The jury obviously had some doubts. They recalled some of the witnesses for further questioning and recommended the prisoner to mercy after ultimately delivering a guilty verdict. When the Recorder, unmoved, pronounced the obligatory sentence of fourteen years’ transportation, pandemonium erupted in the court. Mary’s ‘shrieks were terrific’, and she declared she would destroy herself. ‘The Court was so interrupted by her continued shrieks, that she was removed from the dock to Newgate, screaming the entire way.’
We know very little about Mary’s early life and family background or even what she looked like.
When she married Andrew Bent in September 1816 she gave her age as 19, so on that basis she was probably born around 1797, most likely in Dublin. Convict records for the relevant period do not survive in Ireland, and the newspaper report of her trial, while stating that her connections were ‘respectable,’ did not mention her age. In those convict records which survive at the Australian end Mary Kirk (aka Mary Brown) has become inextricably muddled with another Mary Brown from Dublin who came out on the same ship and who was also sent to Hobart. On the embarkation list both are recorded as 20 year old servants transported for 7 years for stealing a watch. The ‘other’ Mary Brown had indeed, earlier in 1815, been sentenced to 7 years for stealing a watch. The records in Sydney, and those sent from thence to the Home Office, reflect this confusion, as do the entries in Tardif’s Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls. It is clear from Mary Bent’s memorial to Macquarie (1821) that she was tried in August 1815 and sentenced to 14 years’ transportation. This tallies with the newspaper reports of her trial, the list of convicts per Kangaroo and the information Mary herself gave at the Hobart Town musters. The confusion between the Sydney and Hobart records must have been apparent to the authorities in Hobart in 1822. Mary’s name was included in a list of convicts sent to Sydney so their details could be checked against the indents held there.
We have not found a convincing baptism for Mary. We know from later records that, unlike many Irish women convicts at that time, she was quite literate and wonder if she may have had some prior knowledge of printing or book selling. What else (apart from the fact that her prospective husband had a government job and a gentle disposition) might have attracted her to the ‘lame little and ugly’ Andrew Bent?
It is possible that she was the Mary Kirk baptized at the Catholic Church of St. Michael and St. John in Lower Exchange Street Dublin on 28 September 1794. This child was the third of five children born to Patrick Kirk and Elizabeth White. The church was close to the area of Mary’s operations at the time of her arrest and also to Chancery Lane where a bookseller named Patrick Kirk is recorded from about 1809 to 1820. A Catherine White was a sponsor at the baptism of one of the older siblings. But this baptism is about three years too early and although Andrew and Mary named their second child Catherine there is no Patrick among their sons.
It is tempting to speculate about a different possible connection – to a Catherine Kirk and her husband Philip (alias Philip Fox) who were associated with a long standing gang of forgers in Dublin and were old enough to be Mary’s parents. Both were before the courts in 1805 and both were transported after the gang was finally broken up in 1810. Catherine was sent to Van Diemen’s Land in 1814 and died in Hobart Town in 1818, shortly before her aged husband arrived from Sydney with permission to join her. While this would make a great story (and might provide Mary with some proficiency in the art of forgery and a working knowledge of printing) there is unfortunately no actual evidence. This connection could hardly be described as ‘respectable’, as the newspaper reported at the time of her trial. The name Philip does not appear among Andrew and Mary’s sons either. Perhaps Mary’s father was a Robert Kirk, as they named their second son Robert.
Early colonial experiences
We don’t know what happened to Mary immediately after her arrival in Hobart Town, or how she and the then newly installed government printer Andrew Bent met, but on 19 September 1816, less than two weeks after Bent had collected his conditional pardon from the Secretary’s office, they were married by special licence by the Reverend Knopwood at Cottage Green.
If Mary was ever formally assigned to Andrew there is no record of it. She appears in some Home Office lists as ‘servant to Mrs. Reiby’ (possibly Ruby). This was probably Rebecca, wife of James Haydock Reiby, a son of the famous Mary Reiby of Sydney. The Reibys, who were married in Hobart early in 1816, had a store in Liverpool street. The 1820 muster, taken locally, shows Mary as simply ‘on store,’ and married to A. Bent, printer. While there is an entry for her in the local conduct record books, there is absolutely no information in it apart from the details of her arrival and original conviction.
Her conditional pardon of 1821 is listed in the Sydney register but (as appears to have been the case for most of the convicts sent to Van Diemen’s Land prior to 1825) no physical description is recorded.
It is probable that Mary gave Andrew a lot of encouragement and practical help in getting out the Hobart Town Gazette in its early years and may even have assisted him in publishing his 1819 pamphlet, Michael Howe. The decision to commence the newspaper, coinciding so closely as it did with Mary’s arrival, may even have been her idea, or at least the result of her encouragement. We will never know for sure, but an odd reference from 1818 to Bent’s ‘fertile assistant at the press’ – and the person responsible for the paper’s more ‘poetical effusions’ – which survives in the papers of the Bigge inquiry suggests that from the outset they worked as a team.
During Macquarie’s visit in 1821 Mary submitted a memorial for mitigation of her sentence, stating that she was ‘endeavouring with her Husband to become comfortable and happy, and to merit, if possible, the opinion of every one.’ Obviously aware that Andrew was about to receive an absolute pardon, she asked to share in Macquarie’s benevolence for the sake of her two children. Her request was endorsed by Reverend Knopwood who recommended her as a sober, industrious ‘and we believe honest and worthy’ woman. Governor Sorell also signed, and recommended a conditional pardon.
Mary’s memorial shows how both she and Andrew had been living soberly, working hard and endeavouring to leave the past behind and become respectable – they were upwardly mobile, but modestly so. This early period in fact shows a determined push towards reformation and respectability in a colony still riddled with immoral living. They were married (when so many former convicts and others simply cohabited) and Elizabeth and Catherine were both baptized as young babies, although this was not so for the later children.
In 1846 a grieving Andrew described Mary as a virtuous, fond and affectionate mother, a kind and affectionate friend and ‘a woman very much and highly esteemed for her genuine worth, and her benevolence, generosity and humanity, in the days of her prosperity.’ A few years earlier the Reverend Ralph Mansfield (former Wesleyan missionary in Hobart, and later newspaper editor in Sydney) had written how ‘by the creditable manner in which she has brought up a large family of daughters, Mrs. Bent has approved herself a pattern of domestic order and good management.’
Mary Bent, printer
In April 1826 Andrew was imprisoned for six months following his conviction for printing libels on the local government. At this time Mary had five children under the age of eight to care for, with Robert still a babe in arms. Yet she took over the practical running of the printery, managed the accounts, collected subscriptions towards her husband’s legal costs and fines, and oversaw the final publication of at least two pamphlets. Bookbinding continued to be done, and there were repeated advertisements for 2 or 3 apprentice compositors. (One might ask who was going to train them.)
From 14 April to 26 May 1826, possibly to circumvent a power grab for the newspaper by its then editor, R. L. Murray, while Bent was in jail (although Bent denied this) and much to the amusement of Robert Howe observing proceedings from Sydney, Mary’s name appeared as printer of the Colonial Times:
Printed by Mary Bent, Edited and Published by R. L. Murray, A. Bent, Proprietor.
Mary may have had her work cut out trying to keep Murray in check and there may have been some sharp words. Oh to have been a fly on the wall!
A copy of the official Hobart Town Gazette published by Ross and Howe during this period bears an annotation from Andrew Bent which shows how he delegated practical tasks to his wife at this time.
After this Mary mostly recedes into the background again apart from the newspaper announcements of the births of her children. We know that she was ‘lying on a bed of sickness’ in 1827, while pregnant with Hannah, and that in 1829 she gave Colonial Surgeon James Scott a piece of her mind when dissatisfied with his treatment (whether of herself or Andrew is not clear). Not long before the family left Hobart Town for good in 1839, Mary had to front up to the Chief Justice to renounce her right of dower to their once valuable property in order to secure her husband’s release from debtors’ prison.
After moving to Sydney financial difficulties led the Bents to relocate to Kempsey at the end of 1840. It was a disastrous move, and although Andrew returned to Sydney to seek work in 1843, Mary and the younger children remained in the frontier village. It was probably sometime in 1846 before Bent was able to get them back to Sydney. Mary died on 18 Dec 1846, presumably in Gloucester Street, in the Rocks, after a severe and protracted illness of six months ‘which she sustained with the most Christian fortitude.’ She was treated gratuitously by a Mr. Markham, doctor. Two months before her death Bent had written that Mary was
lying in such a dangerous state, owing to a disease of that nature which is attributable to mental suffering and distressed circumstances, that no hopes … are entertained of her recovery – indeed prayers have been offered up in her behalf at Saint Mary’s Cathedral … many will regret to hear of the approaching dissolution of a woman very much esteemed by persons of the highest respectability for her general worth, and now enduring her acute pains with resignation under calamity and my sad career of misfortunes.
Mary was buried in the Catholic section of the Devonshire Street cemetery on 19 December 1846. The burial record states she was 66 years old. This is obviously incorrect although the information must have come from Andrew or other family. Perhaps this was an attempt to veil her convict past. In the ‘ship came on’ column she is simply listed as ‘an emigrant’ which, in terms her arrival in the colony of New South Wales from Van Diemen’s Land, she was.