Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bennett, Henry Gilbert (1877–1959)

by Graeme Osborne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Henry Gilbert Bennett (1877-1959), radical, better known as Harry Scott Bennett, was born on 1 June 1877 at Chilwell, Geelong, Victoria, only child of James William Bennett, Bristol-born carpenter, and his wife Charlotte Mary, née Phipps, a school-teacher. The family moved to Melbourne, where Bennett absorbed rationalism and republicanism from Joseph Symes and Charles Rose. There also he developed his early socialism, as a foundation member of the Victorian Socialist League in 1897, in H. H. Champion's Social Democratic Party from 1902, and in Tom Mann's Victorian Socialist Party from 1906. After leaving his employment as a draper's assistant for full-time public speaking, he won the Ballarat West seat in the Legislative Assembly for the Political Labor Council in 1904. He worked hard for his constituents, taking a lively interest in education, unemployment and civil liberties and, after his marriage with Unitarian rites to Caroline (Carrie) Thomas on 1 March 1905, seemed securely launched on a parliamentary career. But his eagerness for social change had bred impatience and a conviction that workers needed to be better educated to make the best use of parliament. He resigned his seat in 1907 and returned to full-time educational work. Generous, eloquent, with a gentle humour and a fine, cultivated voice, energetic, a prodigious reader with a photographic memory, he became one of Australasia's finest public speakers.

In 1907 Scott Bennett went to Sydney and worked in H. E. Hollands's International Socialist Club. He travelled widely and was a delegate to the Socialist Federation of Australasia. Late in 1909 he made the first of many trips to New Zealand, working there for the Federation of Labor and the Social Democratic Party and in industrial actions such as the 1912 Waihi strike. In 1913 in New Zealand Bennett was devastated by the death of his young wife, leaving him with two small daughters and a son. Soon afterwards he settled there temporarily as national organizer for the Social Democratic Party. In 1915, still restless over the loss of his wife, he went to the United States of America where he conducted a series of highly successful lecture tours for both the American Socialist Lecture Bureau and the National Rationalist Association. Returning to Australia in 1917 he threw himself whole-heartedly into the anti-conscription cause. He rejoined the Victorian Socialist Party as its principal lecturer and debater, undertook strenuous interstate propaganda tours, pamphleteered, ran speaking and social science classes, wrote for Ross's Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress, and was a foundation member of the Y Club. Bennett sought to unify the Socialist movement and equip it with a more effective strategy, but in the turbulent years after World War I both seemed distant. In 1920 he resigned his position with the Socialist Party to return to independent educational work, though his continuing ties were illustrated by his marriage in Sydney in November 1922 to an active party-member, Eliza Jane Joynson, 29-year-old daughter of a shearer.

Increasingly Scott Bennett felt that people had to acquire rational thought processes before they could grasp the importance of Marxist economics. He lectured more frequently under rationalist auspices, ranging over politics, economics, science and astronomy, and was among the pioneers in Australasia of public discussion of social issues such as the nature of marriage, birth control, sexual mores and practices, venereal disease, and mental health. Between 1922 and 1940 he made several successful lecturing tours for the New Zealand Rationalist Society, some of which were sponsored by anti-prohibition interests. He also tutored for seven years in public speaking for the University of Melbourne Extension Board, lectured for the Social Science Forum, promoted Esperanto, worked in the Movement Against War and Fascism and was active in defence of civil liberties—for example in the Book Censorship Abolition League and in the Egon Kisch case. In 1936 he settled in Sydney as lecturer and secretary for the New South Wales Rationalist Association. He lectured in public speaking until 1951 for the Workers' Educational Association and became a familiar figure in the Domain and at Ingersoll Hall, then Sydney's rationalist headquarters. He brought to Sydney rationalism tolerance, an active interest in a variety of progressive movements, and an insistence that rationalists should understand society's underlying economic relationships. This tolerance and his personal integrity ensured that he emerged untarnished from the internal crises that occasionally troubled the movement.

Scott Bennett gave his last public address in March 1959. He had suffered for many years from emphysema and chronic bronchitis and died on 24 May of coronary occlusion at Waverley War Memorial Hospital; his ashes were scattered in Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his wife and by three children of his first marriage. His only estate consisted of a fine library, now held by the Australian National University, and the enlightenment he gave during his life to thousands of his fellows.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Walker, ‘Harry Scott Bennett: an appreciation’, Labour History, May 1969, no 16
  • H. Scott Bennett collection (Australian National University Archives)
  • family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Osborne, 'Bennett, Henry Gilbert (1877–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-henry-gilbert-5210/text8769, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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