This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979
George Henry Bennett (1850-1908), brewer and radical politician, was born in Buckie, Banffshire, Scotland, son of George Bennett, schoolmaster, and his wife Margaret, née Young. He arrived in Victoria with his mother in March 1855, joining his father who later became town clerk of Collingwood. After education at St Patrick's College, he began work with a carrying firm which he managed when only 19. After managing the Victoria Sugar Co. he joined Timothy Lane who had operated a porterbrewing business, known as the Excelsior Brewery, in Collingwood and Richmond from about 1877. When larger firms captured much of the market the partners turned to manufacturing aerated waters and cordials at Richmond. From August 1883 Bennett carried on the business alone. By 1902 his well-equipped factory included stables for fifty-six horses.
Bennett lived at Richmond and was an enthusiastic promoter of local cricket, football and athletics clubs. Long-connected with friendly societies, he held high office in the United Ancient Order of Druids. In 1880 he became the youngest councillor in the colony when he was elected to the Richmond town council; as mayor in 1886-87, he helped to restore faith in an administration maligned because of financial mismanagement. In May 1889 he was elected with W. A. Trenwith to the double-member seat of Richmond in the Legislative Assembly, and was undefeated in the next seven elections. A liberal and protectionist, he joined the radical wing in opposition to the Deakin-Gillies government. He opposed its handling of the maritime strike and constantly supported measures favouring the working class.
Bennett was president of the Licensed Victuallers' Association for some years, and continually stressed the need for lower duties on liquor and extended trading hours. His support for measures such as the eight-hour day sprang as much from an understanding of the benefits to employers as from sympathy for the lot of the worker. He chastised fellow employers for antagonism towards trade unions, claiming that 'the employers had obtained all they wanted without coercion'.
Bennett found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his position as a successful industrialist with duties to a working-class electorate. A stubborn opponent of female suffrage, he reneged when confronted by local support for the issue. In 1903 he risked his majority by crossing the floor to vote for the railways employees strike bill: while still professing sympathy for the workers, he maintained that 'if the House allows them to do as they like they will defy the country'. He never held ministerial office but acted as Speaker and chairman of committees.
Bennett held emphatic views yet his integrity and humaneness were unquestioned. His political vision was uncomplicated; his radicalism owed little to ideology and his success was due to a whole-hearted involvement in the local community. However, his paternalism and faith in the common interests of labour and capital grew increasingly irrelevant.
Bennett had married Jessie Mill of Collingwood on 25 September 1879 at St Ignatius' Church, Richmond. He was an active Catholic. On 8 September 1908, aged 58, he died of pneumonia at his home and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, survived by his wife and two of their three daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £17,573. His bust stands outside the Richmond Town Hall, and bears the inscription:
Formed on the good old plan,
A true and brave and downright honest man.
A tear for pity and a hand open as day for melting charity.
Chris McConville, 'Bennett, George Henry (1850–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-george-henry-5209/text8767, accessed 5 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979