1790-1851 | Tasmania | Publisher
Andrew Bent was Australia’s first fighter for press freedom and the first newspaperman to be jailed for libel. He has been called the “Father of the Tasmanian Press” and "The Tasmanian Franklin". Bent was transported to Hobart Town in 1812, became Government Printer in 1815 and began the Hobart Town Gazette the following year. On 4 June 1824, Bent sacked the official editor and censor of the Gazette and became the first publisher to conduct a truly independent Australian newspaper. Lieutenant Governor George Arthur jailed Bent twice for criminal libel and again for breaching a press licensing law, known as Bent’s Act because it was so targeted. Bent’s Act was later held by the British authorities to be repugnant to the laws of England.
The battle for Press freedom in Australia was joined around 1.40 pm on Friday, 4 June 1824 at Hobart Town. At that moment, Henry Emmett, the Government censor and “editor” of the Hobart Town Gazette, signed a letter of complaint to the colony’s Lieutenant Governor Arthur after realising that the printer-publisher Andrew Bent had started the presses without seeking his approval for the page proofs. Bent, an ex-convict, had, in effect, sacked Emmett.
Just two days before, Bent had written to Emmett in withering terms: “…as you never performed, nor until now by your own confession understood the duties of an Editor to the Hobart Town Gazette, you will not by me either be expected to attempt, or paid for continuing to neglect them.”
Until the Hobart Town Gazette of 4 June 1824, newspapers in the Australian colonies were printed only with the authority and approval, including censorship, of the colonial governors.
Emmett’s sacking caught the newly-arrived Arthur by surprise, as he tried to grapple with the local scene. Arthur moved to regain control of the Gazette but Bent claimed the presses and type were his own private property, having just repaid a loan from government - probably on the same day Bent wrote to Emmett. The Gazette printery was in a purpose-built building on land owned by Bent in Elizabeth Street. As for the newspaper itself, Bent claimed to have established this at his own expense in 1816, though still a convict under sentence at the time.
Bent appointed his own editor, Evan Henry Thomas, and immediately sent him to Sydney to convince Governor Brisbane that he was the rightful owner of the Gazette and printing equipment. In late August 1824, over Arthur’s head, Brisbane validated Bent’s claims.
By this time, William Charles Wentworth and Robert Wardell in Sydney were looking to begin The Australian newspaper as a private concern, with the first number published on 14 October 1824, six months after Bent published the first newspaper to fall from a free press in Australia.
A week after the first “free” edition of The Australian, Robert Howe’s long-running Sydney Gazette was released from official censorship. Governor Brisbane reported to London that he considered it “most expedient to try the experiment of the full latitude of the freedom of the Press”. For a time, this latitude was even greater than the freedom allowed to the British press. The settlers of Van Diemen’s Land took full advantage of this latitude, using Bent’s paper to agitate public issues and hold government to account.
For more than a year, Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in Hobart had no choice but to pay Bent to publish Government orders and announcements, before eventually establishing his own newspaper. Then, from 24 June 1825, two rival Hobart Town Gazettes were published weekly and simultaneously - the “official” Gazette under Arthur and Bent’s “opposition” Gazette.
The first number of Arthur’s newspaper announced Bent’s sacking as Government Printer. Bent complained about the “piracy” of his copyright but, after an eight-week standoff, re-named his paper The Colonial Times. Soon after, Bent was charged and convicted of criminal libel for, amongst other things, referring to Arthur as the “Gideonite of tyranny”.
The British press mocked the unfairness of the trial, with Bent tried by a military jury under Arthur’s command. Bent was fined and jailed for six months. His wife Mary kept the newspaper going while also caring for their five children under eight years of age. Around this time, Edward Smith Hall of the Sydney Monitor started referring to Bent as “The Tasmanian Franklin”, after the US printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.
As a further measure, Arthur introduced a press licensing law widely known as Bent’s Act. Arthur refused to licence Bent who continued to publish The Colonial Times as an advertising sheet without news and at no charge. He was prosecuted for infringing the Act anyway and jailed again. On Christmas Eve 1828, at the point of giving up entirely, Bent heard news from England that Arthur’s licensing law would have to be repealed as it was contrary to the laws of England.
Bent revived The Colonial Times as a proper newspaper, opening his columns to the biting satire of an anonymous writer, “The Hermit”, later identified as the convict Henry Savery. One of The Hermit’s targets, Gamaliel Butler, sued Bent for defamation in what would become the first trial by civil jury in Van Diemen’s Land. In 1830, under financial pressure and facing further litigation, Bent sold The Colonial Times to Henry Melville.
Bent was widely acknowledged as a fine printer. In the early years of the Gazette, he showed resourcefulness in getting his paper out despite shortages of paper, ink and type. He made his own ink and exported some for the Sydney press. Bent acquired his skills from a young age as an apprentice in London.
When convicted in 1810, Bent was still apprenticed at The Public Ledger newspaper to John Crowder, who would later become Lord Mayor of London. Bent was caught trying to sell stolen boots and apparel in a pub off Drury Lane, but his death sentence for burglary was commuted to transportation. He was baptised in the nearby church of St Giles-in-the-Fields on 24 October 1791 but was orphaned by age 14. Bent was described as “awkwardly made” and “lame, little and ugly”. In Hobart Town, he was sometimes mocked for his low cockney accent.
By starting the Hobart Town Gazette in 1816 and using his distribution networks in Britain, Bent helped to put Van Diemen’s Land on the map. In 1819, he published the first work of general literature in Australia, a book titled Michael Howe: The Last and the Worst of the Bushrangers in Van Diemen’s Land, which attracted the attention of the famous novelist Sir Walter Scott.
Following Arthur’s recall to England in 1836, Bent unsuccessfully petitioned the British parliament for compensation, including for his prosecution under the repugnant licensing law. Soon after, he took his family to Sydney to try for a fresh start. He published Bent’s News and then printed The Australasian Chronicle before moving to Kempsey, from where he reported as an occasional columnist for the Sydney Herald. In the 1840s Bent suffered many misfortunes and declining health. The last straw seems to have been the death of his wife Mary in 1846. Andrew Bent died in the Sydney Benevolent Asylum on 27 August 1851.
Michael Smith is a former editor of The Age and chair of the Advisory Panel for the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
The only probable image depicting Andrew Bent, from the title page of The Hermit in Van Diemen’s Land, (Hobart Town: A. Bent, 1830). Courtesy of National Library of Australia.
Click above to see the full June 25 1825 edition of The Hobart Town Gazette. Courtesy of National Library of Australia.
Hobart Town, 1816: Andrew Bent and Fermenting Change, Craig Collins and Sally Bloomfield, Papers & Proceedings: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, pp. 32-57, Vol. 64 (1) April 2017.
Andrew Bent and the Freedom of the Press in Van Diemen’s Land, Joan Woodberry, Cox Kay Pty Ltd, Hobart, 1972.
'Bent, Andrew (1790–1851)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, E.R. Pretyman, Australia National University, 1966.