DEATH OF SIR THOMAS BENT.
REMARKABLE CAREER CLOSED.
THE POLITICIAN AND THE MAN.
RECORD OF HIS LIFE.
VICTORIA'S PROFOUND REGRET.
General and sincere regret will be felt at the death of Sir Thomas Bent, M.L.A., ex-Premier of Victoria, which occurred at his residence, Bay-street, Brighton, yester-
Though able to attend to his public du- ties Sir Thomas Bent had not been in very good health for the last two or three years. In 1906 he suffered from blood poisoning and his friends became anxious about the general condition of his health. The trip he subsequently made to England bene- fited him considerably and on his return to Victoria he appeared to have recovered his old vigour. He suffered from ill health again last year, however, and the great strain of the political warfare which marked the end of 1908 and the beginning of the present year told severely upon him.
A few weeks ago he developed malignant diabetes and Dr Macansh, his medical ad- viser and intimate friend, says this ap-
THE LATE SIR THOMAS BENT.
peard to be caused, to a great extent, by the nervous strain Sir Thomas Bent suf- fered through the attacks made upon his public character and the subsequent in- quiries of the commission appointed to in- vestigate the charges. His last public ap- pearance was in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday week. He was seriously un-
well when he returned to his home from the House, and he gradually sank, until on Sunday he became delirious. From then until his death he rarely regained con- sciousness, though he rallied somewhat on Thursday evening, and again early yester- day morning. However, after daybreak yesterday he sank rapidly, and his death
occurred at 8 o'clock.
Both in public and private life there were sincere expressions of regret yes- terday wherever the news of Sir Thomas Bent's death was received, and the flags on public buildings throughout the State were hung at half-mast in silent respect to his memory. The Minister tor Agriculture and Water Supply (Mr. Graham), in the absence of the Premier (Mr. Murray), who was at Ballarat, immediately conveyed to Mrs. Bleasby, the ex-Premiers daughter,
the Ministry's offer of a State funeral. Mrs. Bleasby submitted the offer to a number of her late father's friends, and they de-
cided to accept it.
Although so closely identified with the municipal and Parliamentary life of Vic- toria, Sir Thomas Bent was not a native of this State. He was born a Penrith, New South Wales, on December 7, 1838. Whether his boyhood gave any promise of the career that was before him is difficult to say. Sir Thomas Bent himself did not dwell upon his early years. Questioned once upon the subject by an interviewer, he cut short possible discussion. "What about your boyhood, Sir Thomas?" he was asked.
"Boyhood ?" was the reply. "I never was a boy!" Be that as it may, Sir Thomas Bent was only 11 years of age when he crossed the border. The circumstances which led to that migration are best told in Mr. Bent's own words. He referred to them many years afterwards, when, as Vic- toria's representative at a conference of Premiers, he was present in Sydney. He was walking down Castlereagh-street with a friend and at an intersection the friend, looking up saw the printed legend, "Bent-street," on the side of a building.
"Hello!" he said. "Bent-street!"
"Yes," said Sir Thomas Bent. "At one time my father owned the land abutting on that street. But he went surety for a friend, and I came to Melbourne on a
The first work undertaken by Mr. Bent's father on his arrival in Melbourne was the carting of bricks for the Benevolent Asylum building in which his son assisted him. Afterwards the Bent family took up their abode near M'Kinnon, in the East Brighton district, and here, among the mar-
ket-gardeners of the suburb, young Bent found the cradle of his fame. His father erected the original ' Gardeners' Aims Hotel," a small building, now enlarged and transformed out of recognition In those days the hotel was the only house of call for some considerable distance, and, as its name sought to imply, it was the princi-
pal resort of the market-gardeners of the district. It was not difficult to prophesy that, with such an environment, young Bent would himself become a market gardener when he grew up; but no one foresaw for him the public career which his dogged perseverance and pertinacity made possible. There are those who have marvelled at the market gardener's pro- gress, speculating as to the even greater heights he might have attained had he had the advantage of a liberal education. But it is quite possible that such an education, in the accepted sense of the term, might have repressed his individuality, robbed him of many of the characteristics by which he is best remembered, and cast him in a mould which would have handi- capped rather than helped in the difficulties he overcame. Thomas Bent was his own educator, and he educated himself in his own way, having full faith in the driv- ing-power with which he was endowed. His energy was not to be measured in foot-
pounds but on more than one occasion his political opponents were willing to be con- vinced that it could move mountains.
Thomas Bent was the oldest of the four brothers who lived with their parents at
the Gardeners' Arms and one by one found employment in the district. He had two sisters, one of whom is the wife of Coun- cillor Huntley, of Brighton. The other sister married Mr. William Ellin, a butcher, still in business at East Brighton. Sir Thomas Bent himself was twice married. Some time after the death of his first wife, whose maiden name was Hall, and who died childless, he married a sister of Coun- cillor Huntley. She died a few years ago. Her daughter, Mrs. Bleasby, whose husband is employed in the Railways depart- ment, is the mother of a little girl of whom Sir Thomas Bent was extremely fond. His pride in his grandchild was evident when, at the entertainment in the Melboune Town-hall prior to his departure for Eng- land in March,, 1907, one of the speakers made a complimentary reference to her.
Thomas Bent attained his market gar-
den and his majority at about the same time. The garden, which, although small, was highly productive, was situated near M'Kin- non, and Thomas Bent was in the habit of driving his-own produce to market in a dray.
At that time the fine stone and iron roads, specially adapted for heavy traffic, were not in existence and the lorries and four-
wheeled market-gardeners carts, which are now so commonly met with on the Brigh- ton and St. Kilda roads, were unknown. The journey was trying, but not too trying for the future Premier, who harnessed his horse before midnight on Friday, drove through the night and the grey dawn, and arrived at Paddy's Market with his cab- bages and cauliflowers in time to meet the demands of the earliest purchasers. "He grew anything that came in his road, so long as it would pay," said one of Sir Thomas Bent's contemporaries, in speaking
of the early days of the municipality for which he has done so much. "He used to
raise some fine cabbages and pumpkins, and in those days the market gardeners used to make £50 or £60 out of a load of produce. Cabbages brought from 1/6 to 2/ apiece."
In his capacity as rate collector for Brighton, a position he obtained m 1861,
Thomas Bent used to ride round the borough on a flea-bitten grey. He has amused more than one audience by relating how he used to follow the hounds on the same horse, half a loaf of bread in one pocket and a tin of sardines in the other. An undoubted factor in his success, both as a rate collector with the people of the borough, and, in later years, as a politician with the people of the state, was what the late Davison Symmons de- scribed as "his personal popularity." At the time of his entry into municipal life, he was a slim young fellow of 23 years, and it was characteristic of him that he had a joke for everybody. He would stop his horse at the house of a ratepayer, throw one leg across the saddle, so that he sat sideways on the back of the "flea-bitten grey," and about cheerfully to the house-
holder, who was probably at work in his garden, "Brown, I want your rates!" He usually received them. He is described by one who knew him as a pleasant young fel-
low, who had no reason to be ashamed of his personal appearance. False pride was never his besetting sin, and he was always the same to his friends-"a good follow all round." He was, nevertheless, possessed
of a certain amount of reserve, and although the number of his acquaintances increased as he became better known, he seems to have made no intimate friendships in his early years. He was a man who had no "chum." Probably he was too busy to make one, for even as market-gar- dener and rate collector his time was fairly well occupied. Push and enterprise were two of his strong characteristics, and if he sustained a loss of any kind he made it his business to regain what he had lost. To use a colloquialism, he was "game;" and that quality of gameness displayed it- self in the disastrous years which followed the boom.
Although Sir Thomas Bent never made up the losses he had sustained through the collapse of the land boom of 1887-93-(at one time he informed a friend that he had at his control £80,000)-yet he never knew despair. Though he was not of an analy- tical turn of mind, his powers of assimila-
tion were great, and he was noted, from the time of his entry into municipal life, for not resting until he had mastered the whole of the problems which presented themselves to him. In matters which in- terested him, he was nothing if not stu- dious and he often sat up until two or three o'clock over this kind of work.
Sir Thomas Bent was one of the six men who inaugurated the land boom. His transactions were on a large scale, and, unfortunately for himself, his losses were commensurate with them. He was practi- callv ruined. But he did not relinquish the fight, and the stress of circumstance brought his combative qualities into full play. No less remarkable than praise- worthy was the extraordinary manner in which he repaired his broken fortunes. When he left Parliament after his defeat in the general election which followed his occupancy of the position of Speaker from 1892 to 1894, he set to work to rehabilitate himself lie made numerous sacrifices, and while he never lost the good opinion of his friends the remarkable efforts he made to secure a recovery deepened their strong feeling of admiration for him.
As Sir Thomas Bent has often confided to the public, his principal amusement as a young man was cricket. His performances are still remembered by the few of his con- temporaries who remain, He played with the Coast Club, and although he was a fair batsman, it was as a bowler that his side found him valuable his left hand delivery purling the hard bitters of the other side It is related of him that he could hold his own against almost everybody about Brighton. In later years he used to take part in the matches played between the Brighton and Moorabbin Councils.
In 1862 Thomas Bent was elected a mem- ber of the Moorabbin Shire Council, and has been twelve times president. In 1874 he resigned his position as rare-col-
lector, having been elected to the borough, council of Brighton as the representative of the Eastern Ward. He subsequently hold office nine times as mayor of Brigh- ton. He was a councillor at Moorabbin for 40 years, and at Brighton for 35 years. What he has done for the municipality
is a matter of grateful local remembrance. No matter how busily he was occupied by his political duties, he never entertained the idea of severing for good his connec- tion with Brighton's municipal life. Dur- ing the lost period, prior to his trip to England, for which he was mayor of Brighton, he did not miss a single coun- cil or committee meeting. When he became Premier, in 1904, he declined to entertain the idea of neglecting his municipal duties in any way. At the conclusion of a Cabinet meeting, he would hasten down to Brighton to take his place in the council chamber. He had had no time for tea, but his cus- tom was to walk up to the table on which the refreshments were served, provide him- self with a glass of water and half a dozen sandwiches, and transact business between mouthfuls. He displayed a most intimate grasp of the matters discussed by the coun- cil, and his practical, if perhaps not alto- gether tactful methods of settling ques- tions and difficultiess had much to recom- mend them. Sir Thomas Bent's business acumen and keen appreciation of a sound commercial proposition were equalled only by his bluff scorn of any attempt on the part of a deputation or a public body to ob- tain "spoon-feeding" to winch he did not consider it entitled. Especially were these characteristics noticeable when Sir Thomas
Bent was listening, in his capacity as Pre- mier and Treasurer, to the supplications of those who depended upon the Government rather than upon themselves to carry out work which they regarded as necessary.
Singular courage, in view of the odds against him, must have been needed by Mr. Bent on the first occasion upon which he stood for election to Parliament, in 1871. He still held the positions of rate collector and valuer, which he did not resign until three years later. He was also electoral registrar, and in that capacity he had some correspondence, prior to the election of 1871, with the Chief Secretary's department. A question had arisen as to a consideration to which he regarded him- self as entitled, and, obtaining no satisfac- tion by letter, he waited personally upon the then Chief Secretary (Mr. J. A. Mac- pherson). Mr. Macpherson was a Minister of the old school, and by no means inclined to brook anything which might be regarded as criticism of his administration. The out- come of the interview was not satisfactory, and Mr. Bent walked down the steps with his mind made up. He was determined that he would seize the very first opportunity to stand for Parliament, and make himself as obnoxious to Mr. Macpherson and others of the type as lay in his power. The op- portunity came when Mr. Thomas Bent was nominated for the representation of his district against Mr. George (afterwards Chief Justice) Higinbotham, who had long been the member for Brighton in the Legis- lative Assembly. The spectacle was pre- sented of an obscure man, known only locally, standing against the greatest public figure of his time in Australia. His success was a surprise to everybody but himself; he had canvassed the district thoroughly. Beyond serving on several important com- missions and select committees, Mr. Bent did not come much into public notice, al-
though in Parliament there was no doubt of his remarkable keenness, his capacity for measuring men, and his instinct for manoeuvring. It was not until the debacle
of 1877 that he got the opportunity to prove himself to be a militant and astute Parliamentarian. When the shat- tered constitutional party formed its
ranks anew on the Opposition side of the House, in face of the overpowering ma-
jority under Sir Graham Berry, no more disconsolate spectacle could have been imagined. But the Opposition though few in numbers contained by far the ablest men in the House, and Mr. Bent's know- ledge of Parliamentary tactics was mar- vellous. He certainly was the life and soul
of the attack. With Mr. Murray Smith, Mr. Downes Carter, Sir John M'Intyre, and Mr. Gaunson, he formed what was known as "the Party of Com- bat." They never permitted the Ministry to rest for one minute longer than could be helped. While the front bench, which was occupied by the leaders of the Constitu- tional party, thundered away in debate, Mr. Bent and his colleagues seized every oppor- tunity for devising and carrying out guerilla attacks. In addition, Mr. Bent organised a campaign in the country, which was carried on with the utmost energy and intensity.
His great achievement was preventing the Berry Government from obtaining an abso- lute majority for their Reform Bill of 1879- he was the whip who brought them down. The result of the work done in Parliament and on the platform was that the great Berry Ministry, which came into power on May 11, 1877 with a majority of 59 memb- bers to 15 direct Oppositionists and 12 in- dependent members, found itself in 1879 struggling for its life. At the general elec- tion in Januarv 1880, it was defeated.
When Mr. Service took office after this election Mr. Bent became Minister of Public Works, but the Ministry being short-lived, he had no opportunity of dis- playing his administrative qualities.
After the second Berry Government had had its term, however, and had fallen to a motion proposed by Sir Bryan O'Logh- len, Mr. Bent joined Sir Bryan as Minister for Railways. He filled this office for about 20 months, and showed there the defects of his qualities. Under a strong leader who could exercise the necessary control over impulsive colleagues, Mr. Bent would have been a fine ad- ministrator, but Sir Bran O'Loghlen was too easy-going. Moreover, his tem- perament impelled him to "boom" things, and in Mr. Bent he certainly found a willing co-operator in this respect. This Ministry was the first to introduce what was known as an "octopus" railway bill. Almost every part of Victoria was pro- mised a line, and the bill had passed through the Legislative Assembly when the
adjournment for Christmas occurred. Be- fore the House met, however, Parliament
was dissolved, the Ministry expecting that the Railway Bill wold create such a strong feeling in their favour in the coun- try that they would be assured of a ma- ority. They were grievously disap- pointed, and were practically annihilated. The country decided that there must be sanity in politics, at any rate for some time. The Service-Berry coalition, changed to Gillies-Deakin coalition, remained in office from 1883 to 1890, and all the time Mr. Bent was in opposition. For the most part he was leader, but it was realised that so long as he remained in that position there was no hope of turning out the Government. Accordingly, Mr. James Munro and a number of his immediate fol- lowers in the Ministerial corner were in- duced to take seats on the front bench, and Mr Munro became Opposition leader, with the result that the Ministry was de-
Mr. Bent's next important venture was the most unfortunate in his political career. The Speaker's chair became vacant. Mr.
Bent, Sir Henry Wrixon, and Mr. Gavan Duffy were proposed as candidates. Clever canvassing won him a position for which he was scarcely fitted by temperament or knowledge of Parliamentary law. The bursting of the land boom, in which he was deeply involved, occurred before his term of office was up. At the general election he lost his seat for Brighton, Mr. W. H. Moule, now Judge Moule, being elected. It appeared for some time as if his political career had irrevocably closed. Indeed when on one oc- casion he stood for South Melbourne he actually lost his deposit. In due time, how-
ever, he regained the favour of his former constituents, and was re-elected as member for Brighton in 1900. In 1902 he became a member of the Irvine Ministry, and in February, 1904, as is a matter of very recent history, he assumed the Premiership. At the end of March, 1907, immediately following a general election, in which the Government secured 50 of the 65 seats, Sir Thomas Bent
left on a trip to England. This visit was necessitated by the state of his health, his medical adviser insisting that he must have a complete rest for some time. Advantage was taken by him of his visit to London to inquire into matters affecting finance, the export produce trade and the electrification of the metropolitan railways. He concluded the arrangements for the acquisition of the site upon which the new offices of the Agent-General have since been erected, and succeeded also in establishing conditions much more favourable to Victoria in its agreement with the London and Westmin- ster Bank, with regards to the flotation and the redemption of loans.
When he returned to Melbourne, in August, 1907, he was given a cordial re- ception, and Parliamentarians of all shades of opinion united in doing him personal honour at a gathering in the State Par- liament-house. During the session he maintained his sway in Parliament, and up to June, 1908, there appealed to be no obstacle to his continued occupancy of the Premiership. In that month he made a presessional speech at Brighton, and his references to land taxation then caused an uneasines amongst his supporters, which was never quite allayed. The coldness of some of his most faithful supporters after this did more to weaken his position than the vitriolic abuse to which he had been sub- jected by his avowed enemies, inside and outside Parliament. An answer to per- sonally vindictive attacks came a few weeks later m the form of a knighthood from the King. But the political situation got com- plicated, and the Government lost its hold on the Parliament. Mr. James Cameron, now an honorary minister, precipitated mat- ters by moving, on December 1, a motion of want of confidence. Two days later the Ministry was defeated by 37 to 25.
Sir Thomas Bent was determined to die fighting. He asked for an obtained a dis- solution of the Legislative Assembly, and on December 29, when a great portion of the population was temporarily dispersed on account of the Christmas holidays, the
election was held. No political changes of
importance were manifested as a result of the election. The Labour party gained a few seats, but it was evident that an adminis- tration had to be formed from the ranks of those who formed the original Bent fol- lowing. This party had a meeting, at which differences were to some extent com-
posed, and Mr. Murray was chosen as
Meanwhile, a question had arisen as to the circumstances under which Sir Thomas Bent had approached His Excellency the Governor with a view of obtaining the dissolution. Allegations were made that the Premier had assured the Governor that
he had the means by which he could legally
pay civil servants their salaries for Decem-
ber, when in fact Parliament had not granted the necessary supply. The elec- tion campaign had been fought with the
"gloves off," in other respects, and Sir Thomas Bent was accused of having been
interested in various estates acquired for public purposes while he was in power. After the Murray Government was formed early this year, Sir Thomas Bent pressed for a full inquiry into both these charges. The finding as regards the first was adverse to Sir Thomas Bent, and he was held to
have acted contrary to constitutional prac-
tice in paying the salaries of civil servants without Parliamentary authority. The
charge, however, relating to private bene- fits from public purchases was not sus- tained. No evidence whatever could be
found to support it, and the committee con- tented itself with findings expressive of their opinion as to the wisdom or other- wise from a public point of view, of some of tile purchases made by Sir Thomas Bent.
Sir Thomas Bent took his dismissal from
power quietly, expressing no regrets, and indulging in no recriminations. His very silence showed him to be still a strong man, willing to bide his time. His con- stituents took an early opportunity to ex- press their confidence in him, and, as far as they were concerned, it was evident that only the end of his life which has now come, could close his association with them.