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Bent, Sir Thomas (1838–1909)

by Weston Bate

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Thomas Bent (1838-1909), by unknown photographer

Thomas Bent (1838-1909), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H23028

Sir Thomas Bent (1838-1909), politician and land speculator, was born on 7 December 1838 at Penrith, New South Wales, the eldest of four sons and two daughters of James Bent, hotel-keeper, and his wife Maria, née Tomey. His father went to Melbourne in 1849, seeking a new start after financial difficulties; for some years he lived at Fitzroy and took cartage contracts. Thomas finished his schooling there and worked as a grocer's boy. The family then moved to East Brighton, to a market garden on which all the boys worked. By 21 Tom Bent had his own successful market garden but in 1861 he gave it up to become the Brighton rate-collector, a post he filled with energy and efficiency. In 1863 he was elected to the Moorabbin Roads Board and became chairman in 1867 and 1868.

Bent's knowledge of and feeling for the locality, as well as his reputation as a sportsman (among other things he was a formidable left-handed, round-arm fast bowler with the Coast Cricket Club), were the basis of his astounding electoral success in 1871, when he defeated George Higinbotham for the Legislative Assembly seat of Brighton, though rather than Bent winning, Higinbotham seems to have lost the seat through his disdain for localism and his constitutional radicalism. In parliament Bent honoured his promises to his electorate by working skilfully behind the scenes and carefully selling his vote for benefits to Brighton. He was essentially a Conservative. He opposed payment of members and tried to arrange a conference between the Houses during the 1878 deadlock, rather than support the radical programme of Graham Berry. Indeed he was a leading member of a faction which attacked Berry, for by that time he was a master of lobbying, log-rolling and obstructive tactics.

Bent believed strongly and sincerely in progress. He confidently expected Victoria to become a paradise for both capitalist and working man, and true to that faith gave all his considerable energies to directing and sustaining the land boom. He worked tirelessly on the Brighton and Moorabbin Councils and was mayor of the former and chairman of the latter simultaneously in 1884, 1885, 1887 and 1888. He was associated with the floating of every loan and guided every major project in Brighton between 1874 and 1894. Within a year of joining the Brighton Council in 1874 he was elected mayor. This was just after his land speculations began, for in 1873 he had bought the unsold portions of Dendy's special survey (1841), although he subdivided only a small section of it before 1883.

In the late 1880s Bent followed his success at Brighton with speculation in land companies all over Melbourne. In a parliament of 'boomers' he worked hard for the expenditure of public money to underwrite expansion. In 1881-83 when commissioner of railways for twenty months in the O'Loghlen government, he brought in the first 'octopus' bill, promising lines to all electorates in order to gain general support. He achieved the duplication of the Brighton line in 1882, so essential to the pace of his own subdivisions. In 1890-92 while the first stage of the depression crippled land speculators, Bent was chairman of the Railways Standing Committee which was ostensibly engaged in pruning expenditure. It is apparent, however, that he and others intended through public spending to assist private liquidity.

Bent was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1892-94, and despite some quaint rulings acted with dispatch and common sense. But he was defeated at the 1894 general election, discredited by revelations about his earlier parliamentary tactics and by the depression. Yet, while many of his colleagues went insolvent, he kept afloat and helped to restore his finances by dairying at Port Fairy.

His tenacity in adversity was extraordinary. He travelled hundreds of miles to council meetings at Brighton and Moorabbin; at last after failures at South Melbourne and Port Fairy he was re-elected for Brighton in 1900. He was minister of railways in 1902-03 and from February 1904 until January 1909 was premier and treasurer. He visited England in 1907 and was knighted next year. His death at Brighton on 17 September 1909 was partly the result of the strain of facing a royal commission appointed by his successor to investigate allegations of corruption and irregularity in government land purchases. Although the commission established that Bent gained nothing financially from the purchases, it censured him strongly for unconstitutional behaviour and cast suspicion upon the reasons for rerouting the recently constructed electric tramway from St Kilda to Brighton past an estate which he owned.

This and other scandals have often been given undue weight in assessments of Bent's career, which reached a pinnacle with the premiership. They detract from his tremendous capacity for work, his care for detail, his ability to see the essence of a matter, his organizational skill and his determination to carry out what he intended. He must be given credit for supporting the University of Melbourne and the Public Library and Museum when others whose support might have been expected seemed indifferent to their fate.

His character and motives remain something of an enigma. He was bluff but sensitive to criticism, vain in some things but humble in others, public spirited but self-seeking, an individualist but intensely loyal to his friends, ruthless but kind-hearted, conservative yet egalitarian, frank but a poseur who carefully practised his earthy asides. He had extraordinary energy and strong appetites, but above all, perhaps, he was a fighter. His style was typical of that of a generation of politicians for whom there were no organized parties on which ministries could be based, and to whom heavy government and local government spending gave opportunities for patronage and log-rolling upon which parliamentary majorities depended.

His beliefs, not just his appetites, seem to have been expressed in the land boom; and the striking thing about his high-handed action in pushing through government land purchases between 1904 and 1906 is that he had once been a large shareholder in most of the estates involved. He seems to have behaved sentimentally, as if to prove that he had always been right about their value.

Bent was married twice: first to Hannah Hall who died childless; second to Elizabeth Huntly, sister of a Brighton market-gardener and councillor. Of their two daughters, Elizabeth married G. Bleazby and was one of the first women municipal councillors in Victoria.

A portrait of Bent is in the Brighton Town Hall.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Bate, A History of Brighton (Melb, 1962)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 17 Sept 1909
  • Age (Melbourne), 19 Sept 1909.

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Bent, Sir Thomas (1838–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bent-sir-thomas-2978/text4343, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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