one of the most colourful if not at times, controversial figures in
Victorian history, Bent was born at Sir John Jamison’s (1776-1844) grand
estate Regentville, Penrith, New South Wales on 7 December 1838
(“just five months after his parent's marriage”), the son of a convicted
house-breaker James Bent
(q.v.) and his wife Maria née Toomey (d 1867); there are doubts
whether James is the birth father (“he was not exactly warm and generous
towards Thomas”). The family arrived in the Port Phillip district in 1849
and Thomas continued his education at St. Mark’s Anglican School, Fitzroy
(“one of its first pupils”) which ended in 1851 when his father set up a
market garden in East Bentleigh. From the humble beginnings of a market
gardener, Bent rose to become Premier (1904-09) on little more than a gifted
tongue and an uncanny ability to sway an outcome. His cunning was evident
early in his career as rate collector for the Moorabbin Road Board (1862-63)
and later Brighton Borough (c1870-74) where he used the position to engineer
three election victories; after his astonishing 1871 defeat of
George Higinbotham (q.v.)
by just fourteen votes, irregularities were found that “had nothing to do
with human error” but Bent’s shrewd use of “his public position, the
provisions of the relevant Acts and an awareness of human foibles to stack
the electoral roles”. He served as a member of the Moorabbin (1863-65,
1865-1909) and Brighton City Councils (1874-1909) where he was able to wield
control of both through the election of many family and business associates
including his brothers Edmund and John,
O’Shea (q.v.), Walstab,
and Munro. In state politics as member of the Legislative Assembly seat of
Brighton (1871-94, 1900-09), Bent was a master of bluff, lobbying,
logrolling and obstructive tactics; he served in many ministerial positions,
including Railways (1881-83, 1902-03, 1904-09), Public Works (1903-04), Treasurer
(1904-09) and was Speaker of the Legislative Assembly in 1892-94 before his
defeat by William Moule
(q.v.). Ebullient and efficacious, he was above all cunning in his ability
to “use his political position for personal profit”; as Minister of
Railways, he was able to influence the duplication of the Brighton line in
1882 thus increasing the value of his land holdings in the area. At one
stage he was the largest land holder in the Brighton district and one of
many ‘land boomers’ in the Victorian parliament. Bent was to an extent an
enigma. “Bluff, but sensitive to criticism, public spirited but self
seeking, ruthless but kind hearted, conservative yet egalitarian”; he
possessed abundant spirit and zest. Twice married (Elizabeth née
Hall d 1861; Elizabeth née Huntley d 1903), Bent was knighted in 1908
and died on 17 September 1909 survived by his daughter Elizabeth Bleazby
(q.v.) who went on to become one of the first women councillors in Victoria.
The suburb of Bentleigh (East Brighton) was named in honour of Sir Thomas
Bent in 1907.
(above) Sir Thomas Bent
(La Trobe Picture Collection,
State Library of Victoria, H23028)
ADB Volume 3 1851-90 (A-C).
Glass, M., “Tommy Bent. Bent by name, Bent by
Thomson, K & Serle, G., “A Biographical
Register of the Victorian Legislature 1851-1900” (1972).
Cannon, M., “The Land Boomers” (1986).
Bate, W., “A History of Brighton” (1983).
Cribbin, J., “Moorabbin. A Pictorial History”
The Herald 17 September 1909.
The Age 19 September 1909.
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