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Kent, Thomas (?–1832)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Thomas Kent (d.1832), merchant and speculator, had been a druggist in Tonbridge, Kent, England, when Samuel Enderby who knew his family, recommended him to the former governor, Philip Gidley King, as 'rather too gay for business, but is unimpeachable as an honest, good Man'. King in turn interviewed Kent and in December 1807 supported his application to the Colonial Office for a land grant. He was also recommended by Edward Thornton, a director of the Bank of England. With these strong references Kent was given an order addressed to Governor William Bligh for 600 acres (243 ha) and six convict servants.

He arrived in Sydney in the Speke on 15 November 1808 with little capital but many ideas. He soon formed a partnership with J. C. Burton, a Bengal merchant, with whom he proposed to take up land and seek government aid in importing coolies and machinery for growing and manufacturing hemp. Bligh, who was then under arrest, thought him a 'stranger in this artful school of iniquity', and 'cautioned him how he acted with the usurpers of my government'. However, Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson gave Burton 500 acres (202 ha) near Toongabbie and Kent 1230 acres (498 ha) near Cobbitty. Nothing came of the proposed venture, the partnership dissolved and Kent talked of returning to England. He changed his mind after Governor Lachlan Macquarie arrived in January 1810 and made a great flourish by proposing, with Simeon Lord and Alexander Riley, to form a settlement in New Zealand for growing flax. Macquarie recommended their plan to the Colonial Office and offered to make Kent a justice of the peace for New Zealand but, when news of the Boyd massacre reached Sydney in March, Kent and Riley withdrew from the project. Kent had had to surrender his grant at Cobbitty, but it was restored by Macquarie and he settled there. He grew wool and grain, dabbled in trade, imported Bengal rum, and in August acted as an assessor in the Governor's Court.

In 1812 Kent moved to Van Diemen's Land with an order from Macquarie for 1230 acres (498 ha), which he located near Sorell. He bought large numbers of sheep and cattle, built a slaughter house on crown land at Kangaroo Point and contracted to supply the commissariat with meat. Claiming that bushrangers had driven off his livestock, he proposed to change to kangaroo flesh. His unreliability annoyed the commandant, Andrew Geils, whose complaints to Macquarie produced strict limits on Kent's activities. Unrepentant, Kent bought a house from Captain John Murray, and found that it belonged to the government. Later he built sheds and a store near Bridgewater on land that belonged to Robert Knopwood; he pestered Macquarie for a grant to recoup his losses but was refused, for by 1813 the governor had come to consider him a mischievous person and cautioned Lieutenant-Governors Thomas Davey and William Sorell against his designs.

Kent got on well with Davey. They tippled together on Kent's imported rum and arranged for Kent to supply hay to the government at famine prices. Sorell was less amenable: he cancelled Kent's contracts for hay, flatly refused to pay old accounts, rejected his appeal for more convict servants as harvesters, curtailed his import of spirits and, when Kent officiously seized the Lady Melville for illicit trading in 1818, denied him legal protection. These buffets had little effect on Kent, who was busy with new speculations. In his roaming around Van Diemen's Land he had already found and tested a coal seam at Adventure Bay and experimented with burning seaweed to make alkali. In 1818 he made an establishment on the Huon River to produce a tanning extract by crushing and boiling wattle bark and evaporating the liquid into tar. In June 1819 he took two tons of this extract in four casks to Sydney, where successful tests by a local tanner attracted the attention of Simeon Lord, on whose advice the casks were sent to London in the Surry.

Kent returned to Hobart in October as a partner of Simeon Lord with some £800 to expand the new industry. The money was in the form of bills for woollen manufactures that Lord had sent to Hobart merchants without orders. The merchants refused to pay, so Kent took the goods and bartered some of them for provisions and wattle bark and the rest for cedar which he sold to pay his labourers. Commissioner John Thomas Bigge showed great interest in the new industry, but Kent made little progress. Lord pressed him for another cargo and, when it was not produced, sued him for £1000. In 1822 Kent absconded to England in the Lusitania, captained by William Langdon. They sailed by way of Macquarie Island, where Kent was recognized by sealers, to some of whom he was in debt. When news of his 'escape' reached Sydney, Kent's creditors issued writs against Langdon, who was duly fined £800 for a breach of regulations.

In London Kent signed a petition to the Colonial Office for the legal and commercial independence of Van Diemen's Land and in 1825 published a letter to Barron Field, in refutation of 'hasty, inconsiderate and groundless assertions' made by Field in an address to the Agricultural Society to the prejudice of Tasmania, a name which Kent claimed to have coined. At the Colonial Office he gained the attention of Wilmot Horton, who asked the Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Science to report on the quality of Kent's new tanning substance. According to the society's committee of colonies and trade, it had been a timely discovery, for a mighty influx of South American hides had exhausted supplies of British oak bark and the tanners who tested Kent's extract found it a superior substitute. Next year the society awarded a gold medal to John Petchy for producing greater quantities of tanning extract and Kent was given thirty guineas for his samples. In letters to Hobart Kent boasted his triumph and the Colonial Times, 1 June 1827, reported: 'What do you think of “mad Tommy Kent” now, with his boats, casks and extracts down the river. Everyone laughed at him for making it. But the tables are now turned, and … colonists should pay much closer attention to natural resources'. With unusual generosity the Colonial Office in 1828 added an order for 5000 acres (2024 ha), free freight for his machinery, and a promise of another 5000 acres (2024 ha) when he produced 50 tons of extract.

In Sydney Lord had secured a judgment against Kent in his absence, and he arrived in 1828 to be arrested for debt. With creditors clamouring for his 5000 acres (2024 ha), Governor (Sir) Ralph Darling did not issue orders for their demarcation until April 1831 and they were used to satisfy his creditors. Next January Governor (Sir) Richard Bourke ordered an unspecified area for Kent but in December 1831 the Colonial Office had given instructions that the grant be withheld. There is no record of a deed issued for either grant, although Robert Dixon's map and Raymond's Calendar indicate that they were located west of Lake Bathurst. Kent died in a Sydney boarding house on 29 March 1832.

Kent was reputed to have married the widow of Captain John Murray of the 73rd Regiment and sometime commandant at Hobart. She returned to England after Kent's death and in 1846 her relations attempted to claim his land near Lake Bathurst.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 6
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 6-7, series 3, vols 1-4
  • E. C. Rowland, ‘Simeon Lord: A Merchant Prince of Botany Bay’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 30, part 3, 1944, pp 157-195
  • A. Jose, ‘Kents Galore: The Troublous Thomas’, Forum (Sydney), 19 Dec 1923, p 16
  • Hobart Town Gazette, 28 Feb 1818, 10 Dec 1824
  • Sydney Gazette, 16 Dec 1824
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 6 Nov 1829
  • manuscript catalogue under Thomas Kent (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CSO 11/40/964 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

'Kent, Thomas (?–1832)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kent-thomas-2299/text2971, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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