William Thomas Dent

William Thomas Dent was born in Durham UK in 1844, the same year his father Mark was a key leader in the Miners’ Union in a bitter industrial dispute with colliery owners over working conditions. Having gained a reputation as a troublemaker, mine managers were reluctant to employ him, and Mark was forced to leave his native land to seek work in Australia.

He arrived alone in the early 1860s, and was joined in 1866 by his family, including 22-year-old William. They settled in Lambton, both father and son working in Lambton colliery. Like his father, William was active in the miners’ union, pressing for better conditions. In June 1874 he became a newspaper reporter and was the Lambton correspondent for “The Newcastle Herald and Miners’ Advocate” until 1880.

William also used his skill with words to address local concerns. In 1873 he penned “Lambton Bleatings”, a poem in which he satirized the local aldermen for their failure to maintain the streets of the town. His discontent with local governance did not stop there, and in 1877 he became an alderman himself, on the receiving end of complaints.

In 1882 his father died, and when a new road on the North Lambton hill was created the following year, the name Dent St was probably bestowed in honour of Mark Dent the famed mining unionist, rather than William the junior alderman.

He went on to serve on the council for 17 years, many of them alongside Thomas Croudace the mine manager. He was elected Mayor five times, and in 1890 oversaw two significant events in Lambton’s history – the electric light scheme and the park rotunda. After working many years as Secretary of the Northumberland Permanent Building Society, ill-health forced him into retirement. He died at his home in October 1901, aged just 56. Today, 120 years later, the handsome rotunda built at his suggestion still stands as Lambton’s most iconic structure, with his name justly honoured in the column ornamentation.

William Thomas Dent and family in front of their Pearson St home, January 1897. Photo by Ralph Snowball. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
William Thomas Dent was the instigator of the Lambton Park rotunda, erected in 1890.

The article above was first published in the October 2021 edition of The Local.


Arrival in Australia

The passenger ship Racehorse arrived in Sydney from Liverpool on 22 September 1866., The immigration list shows that William Thomas Dent, miner aged 22, his wife Isabella aged 21, and two children, Elizabeth and Sarah. In the column “Relations in the Colony” the list shows “Father, Miner in New South Wales.”

Immigration list of the ship Racehorse, September 1866.
William Thomas Dent and family in the immigration list.

The Hartley Vale question

As I was researching this story, a number of sources (Ancestry web site, Story of Lambton page 288) stated that when William Thomas Dent arrived in Australia he first settled in Hartley Vale in the Blue Mountains and worked in the kerosene shale mines there before relocating to the Newcastle area. But I wonder if this is correct? Another possibility is that Dent came straight to Newcastle where his father was, and started work at James and Alexander Brown’s Hartley Vale colliery, located in Broadmeadow.

The only historical source I could find for the idea that Dent lived in the Blue Mountains, is in his obituary in 1901, some 35 years after his arrival.

He first settled at Hartley in the Blue Mountains, but as the work at the mine was erratic and irregular, he left and came to this district in 1867, working in the mine for a time both at Minmi and Wallsend. He came to Lambton in 1869, where he has since resided.

Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 15 Oct 1901.

We know that his father Mark Dent emigrated to Australia earlier in the decade, and there is a brief mention of a Mark Dent working at the Minmi colliery in August 1863. If this was his father, then it would be natural that William would come to the same district to seek work when he arrived in Australia in 1866. James and Alexander Brown had commenced development in 1863 of a 310 acre mining lease in the Broadmeadow area that they named Hartley Vale colliery. It proved to be an unprofitable venture and was abandoned around 1868.

So the timing is certainly valid for William Thomas Dent to have worked at the Hartley Vale colliery in Newcastle, rather than the Hartley Vale locality in the Blue Mountains.

Lambton Bleatings

Dent penned his poem Lambton Bleatings in 1873, at the height of the debate on which route the main road from Lambton to Newcastle should take. He recited the poem at a dinner at Waratah on 1 August 1873. Two years later in November 1875 he recited the poem again at a dinner to celebrate the “opening” of the northern route of the main road. (The celebration was somewhat premature, as it was the alternate southern route that eventually won the day.)

The chamber door is open wide
And fast the people pass inside,
Pull off their hats and take a seat,
Smooth down their beards, keep still their feet,
And wait to hear the Lambkins bleat.
At table top there sat the Mayor ;
The clerk was on his right,
And Mr. Simmons taking notes,
With specs to help his sight.
Fast and fleet the pencil goes,
Anon he makes a stop,
Settles his specs upon his nose
And rubs his slippery top.
The business of the night began
And all looked very wise,
Determined was each alderman
To ope the natives’ eyes.
One alderman rose on his feet
He said, to move a motion,
That they should start to make a street,
But how, he had no notion !
As then they had no funds in hand
And none was like to come
As the people would not pay the rates
(The mayor said that was rum !)
But he thought that they should borrow some
The rates would surely free it ;
But the others all looked very glum
And said they could not see it !
Up rose one with little head
Although called light of foot
He’d been and made a speech, he said,
Which would the question suit.
The township folks had spragg’d the car
And made the civic wheels to jar ;
Had tried to blast their future fames,
And called them all most ugly names.
What ! borrow without security,
And without the least assurity
That they would pay the rates !
No ; not for a principality,
Much more a municipality,
Or yet for Alderman Yates.
To pay the rates they did refuse,
In Elder-street they made a noose
To fit his little head ;
But they would find him wide awake,
And then he gave his head a shake,
And nothing more he said.
An alderman of burly size
Was seen from off his chair to rise
About an inch a minute.
He said they might think it rather funny,
But if they meant to borrow money,
They would not catch him in it.
But as he then was on his feet,
And by degrees had left his seat,
He’d let them plainly see
He would go and leave them to their fate,
And then where would they be ?
At this the lambs all looked like sheep,
The Council Clerk looked blue ;
They all cried out with one accord,
” Whatever will we do !”
Oh ! Davy, do not leave us yet,”
They cried, in deep despair.
He gave a sigh of deep regret ;
And then, while every eye was wet,
Dave dropp’d into his chair.
They all began to rub their eyes,
And nudge each other’s ribs.
I was waiting for the next to rise,
Expecting Alderman Gibbs ;
But a Dark Creek alderman arose
And spoke with feeble voice.
He said, if they could meet his views
He’d very much rejoice.
He thought ‘twould save a great expense
If they could make a quarry,
They could then got stones to make the streets
Independent of Big Harry.
Some did not think it worth their while ;
Them he would soon convince.
Patterson then began to smile.
Order ! bawled out Vince ;
‘ Silence that dreadful bell !’
‘ Bobby,’ just stop your caper,
Mr. Clerk, you know full well,
That business isn’t on my paper.
There’s the motion by Alderman Yates,
To bring the road through the White Gates,
With the separate branch that runs
Across the creek at Betty Bunns’,
And forms a junction as they are telling
Upon the hill near Peacock’s dwelling.
There ; what more do you want ?
Then the speaker looked like Stone.
The mayor he gave another grunt,
And the clerk tried to atone.
But the mayor said, hold ! stop your bleating,
I postpone the business till the next meeting !
Go forth, my lambs, he kindly said,
Seek your homes and go to bed ;
But as you go pray mind your feet,
Don’t break your necks in Grainger-street.

Dent’s house

William Thomas Dent’s house, photographed by Ralph Snowball in January 1897, was located in Pearson St. Dent purchased Lot 12 of Section J in October 1876 (Vol-Fol 262-127) and Lot 11 of Section J in October 1882 (Vol-Fol 61-240) . He subdivided and sold the north part of lot 11 (on Kendall St) to Henry James Noble in August 1887.

Vol-Fol 262-127
Vol-Fol 61-240
W T Dent and family, Pearson St Lambton, January 1897. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.
The location of Dent’s house, 18-20 Pearson St, Lambton.
W.T. Dent [and family], Lambton, NSW, January 1897. University of Newcastle, Living Histories.

Newspaper reporter

After working as a miner in Lambton, Dent was appointed in June 1874 to be the local reporter and agent for the Miners’ Advocate and Northumberland Recorder. (This paper merged with The Newcastle Chronicle in 1876 to become The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate.)

Miners’ Advocate and Northumberland Recorder, 17 June 1874.
W T Dent’s occupation is listed as “Newspaper Reporter” in a land title document from October 1876. Vol-Fol 262-127.

Dent resigned as a reporter in August 1880, with the editor of the paper glowing in his praise.

Mr. W. T. Dent, our Lambton correspondent and agent, one of the oldest and most efficient of our literary staff, has resigned his position. In accepting his resignation, we may say that we do so with regret, having for some years experienced almost daily proofs of his unflagging energy and zeal in the interests of this journal. In parting with Mr. Dent’s services, however, we cannot refrain from wishing him every success in the new line of duties he has undertaken, and we have no doubt but that the same steady determination to advance the interests of the Northumberland Permanent Building and Investment Society, of which he is Secretary, will characterise his future as it did his past connection with the Herald and Advocate. Mr. Dent has attained his present position by honesty of purpose and steady perseverance, having followed the occupation of a coal miner for many years.

Northumberland Permanent Building Society

The report of W T Dent’s funeral notes that the funeral cortege passed through Waratah where he “commenced his commercial career in that town twenty-five years ago.” William Thomas Dent was elected as one of the directors of the Northumberland Permanent Building Society on 24 June 1876. At that time the society did not have its own building, but rented space in the council chambers on Georgetown Rd.

Waratah Municipal Council Chambers 1873-1882. The Northumberland Permanent Building Society rented space in this building for their office. University of Newcastle, Cultural Collections.

In January 1877 Dent became Secretary of the society when the previous secretary, John Wood, could not continue his duties due to illness.

When the government decided to purchase the council chambers building to use a courthouse, the Northumberland Building Society decided in 1878 to erect their own building in Turton St, giving it the name Northumberland Hall. The building was formally opened with a celebratory banquet on 9 January 1879. In a strange coincidence, when the building society no longer needed the building, it became the Waratah Town Hall from 1898 to 1926.

Waratah Town Hall in Turton St. Prior to its use by the council it was Northumberland Hall, built for the Northumberland Permanent Building Society. Newcastle Region Library.
Northumberland Permanent Building and Investment Land and Loan Society Building, corner of Blane (now Hunter) and Burwood Streets, Newcastle, NSW, [1887]. WT Dent worked as Secretary to the society in this building until his retirement due to ill health. University of Newcastle, Special Collections.

Illness and death

On 14 September 1896, while working in the Northumberland Building Society office in Hunter St Newcastle, Dent suffered a “severe stroke of apoplexy”, with a partial loss of use of his right limbs. He was returned to his home in Lambton to convalesce. His son William Thomas Dent junior carried on the work of father at the building society. Dent senior recovered sufficiently to make a trip with his wife back to England in February 1897, returning in October 1897. Although the paper optimistically described him as “looking all the better after his eight months travelling in the mother country”, his health continued to decline, and by August 1898 he was described as “unable to get about, having lost the use of his arms and lower portions of his legs.”

He continued to deteriorate and in February 1899 he was confined to bed … “his condition is considered very serious by his medical attendant (Dr. Stapleton), who does not now entertain any hope of his ultimate recovery.” WT Dent died two and half years later on 14 October 1901, aged just 56. He was buried in Sandgate Cemetery on 16 October 1901.

“At the grave, which is in the Primitive Methodist section of the cemetery, the Revs. S. Kessell and W. Atkinson conducted an impressive service, the latter in a brief address paying a high tribute to the deceased as an open hearted brother and citizen. He referred with expressions of regret to the five years of suffering Mr. Dent had endured before God was pleased to take his soul, and concluded with the kindest expression of sympathy for the bereaved widow and family.”

Portrait of William Thomas Dent that appeared in the newspaper report of his death in the Newcastle Morning Herald.

After the death of William Thomas Dent junior continued as secretary of the Northumberland Permanent Building Investment Land and Loan Society for a total of 43 years.

The name of W.T. Dent on the engraved foundation stone of the Lambton Mechanics’ Institute in Elder Street.

Mark Dent

Although my article for the October 2021 issue of The Local started out being on William Thomas Dent, Lambton Mayor, it turned out to be as much about his father Mark Dent, internationally famed union activist. In particular I found it fascinating how in the space of one generation we go from Mark Dent the father, in relative poverty in the UK unable to work as a miner because of his union activism, to William Thomas Dent the son, in Lambton Australia, a relatively wealthy man working as the head of a major financial institution, and serving as an alderman on Lambton Council alongside the manager of the Lambton colliery.

Mark Dent was born in Durham UK in 1816. He worked as a miner and married Sarah Hann in 1839. In 1844 he played a key role in an industrial dispute between the miners and the masters, and suffered much as a result. The key details can be gleaned from a testimonial given to Mark Dent 32 years later in Lambton on 19 February 1876.

“Mr. Dent took a very prominent part in connection with the Miners’ Union in the county of Durham, England, during the memorable struggle of 1844, when the miners of Northumberland and Durham succeeded in breaking up one of the most tyrannical combinations of capital for the oppression of the working man that has ever existed in the world’s history.

We desire, in a special manner, to acknowledge your noble and manly efforts in defence of your own and fellowmen’s rights during the long and arduous struggles in which you were engaged on behalf of the miners of England. Through these you have won an unquestionable title to our respect and regard; and although far removed from the scenes where you assailed so vigorously the many abuses which have grown us with the coal trade, still we cannot forget that to you and your noble colleagues we owe a deep and lasting debt of gratitude.”

In responding to the testimonial, Mark Dent gave some details about his involvement and the cost that he bore

“I happened to be one of the half-dozen men who went to London to collect subscriptions and enlighten the coal consumers and Parliament as to the effect of the coal-owners combinations. We held public meetings in most of the large halls, and presented petitions to Parliament, when the discussion of the abolition of the 4s export duty on coal came before the House. We primed the Liberal members, and the discussion resulted adversely to the reputation of the coal-owners.

The action of the unionists resulted in the breaking up of the coal owners monopoly and …

“The trade was placed upon its natural and normal basis, and the history of the last 30 years amply proves the advantages accruing to every-one connected, when we consider that no serious conflict has taken place except in isolated cases in that time.”

But Mark Dent bore a personal cost for his efforts, with false accusations made against him that he was profiting from his union endeavours …

Mr. Chairman, it might be interesting to you to know in what light the labours of this London deputation was regarded by those we went to serve. They got it into their heads that we had made fortunes by appropriating the monies collected. I was six weeks in London, and was either speaking at public meetings, or attending trades meetings every night, and walking about in the day time, seeking out places where trades societies were held, without spending a single penny of the money collected, I never had a drink at any man’s expense; my board and lodgings were all that the funds were charged with on my account.”

It was two years before I got the chance of a job, and when one short week had expired my notice was handed to me. On applying to the Viewer to know the reason of my discharge he said, – “We dinnet want nee looterers amang wor men; we canna manish them as it is” I then went to his master, who’s reply to my question as to the reason of my dismissal was characteristic: “We give no reasons here for what we dee, thoo may be a decent man, likely; but we dinnet want thou here.”

The inability to get work put Mark and his family into poverty, and he describes how

“many a time I might have been seen exhuming a turnip from the snow for a Sunday’s dinner for my wife and two children.”

The chairman at his testimonial in 1876 alluded to these circumstances as …

“… the many hardships you have undergone in being driven from your native land, to seek a home for yourself and family [in Australia]”

The exact date of Mark’s arrival in Australia is uncertain. The 1861 census of England shows that Mark’s wife and five children are residing with his wife Sarah’s parents, Thomas and Elizabeth Hann. Presumably Mark’s absence from this census is an indication that he had already left for Australia.

1861 Census of England, showing Sarah Dent residing with her parents.

Some pages in the Ancestry website suggest that Mark first moved to Hartley Vale in the Blue Mountains to work in the kerosene shale mines. This is unlikely to be the case as coal was only discovered there in 1865, some four or five years after Mark arrived in Australia. There is a very brief mention of Mark Dent working in the Minmi colliery in 1863 …

On Wednesday, 5th instant, Mark Dent received severe injury whilst in the act of filling his wagon in one of the pits at Minmi. He was standing at the time near some coal, ready for taking down, which fell, jamming him between it and the wagon, whereby he received severe injuries. Medical aid being procured, he was found not to be dangerously though seriously injured.

The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, 13 August 1863.

Mark’s wife Sarah died in August 1873, and it seems that it was about this time that Mark’s health failed, to the point that he was no longer able to work. One of the reasons for his testimonial in 1876 was to present him with a financial gift as he had been “unfit to follow his employment for the last three years, through failing health.” The substantial sum of £102 presented to him, donated from a wide variety of sources, was a glowing testament to the high regard in which he was held.

The miners of this district have long wished to show in a substantial manner their appreciation of the achievements of Mr Dent and his colleagues, and about three months ago a movement was set on foot to rise funds for the purpose of presenting him with a testimonial. The Lambton Miners’ Committee went into the matter with a determination which does them infinite credit. The other collieries were asked to assist, and many of them have responded nobly. The ironworkers of Sydney, feeling that they were somewhat indebted to the miners of the Newcastle district for pecuniary assistance rendered during their late struggle, have also contributed liberally. The business people of Lambton and others totally unconnected with the miners have also added considerably to the amount. Independent of Mr Dent’s past career in connection with the Miners’ Union, he is universally respected by all who know him, and his many services for the benefit and advancement of the public institutions of this district deserved some recognition at the hands of the public.

Mark Dent died on 27 October 1882 in Lambton, his achievements in advocating workers’ rights warmly remembered.

To those acquainted with the history of the miners of the counties of Durham and Northumberland, in England, Mr. Dent’s name will be familiar. In a book, written by Mr. Richard Fynes, containing a history of their social and political progress, the great strike of 1844 is referred to, and Mr. Dent’s name frequently appears as having taken an active part as an earnest advocate of their rights, and as one of those reformers, the result of whose zealous and patriotic labours the miners of the present day are enjoying.

His death was also reported back in his native land in the UK newspaper the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle of 23 December 1882.

The Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, published in New South Wales, reports the death of Mark Dent. Mr. Fynes says of him no man was better known in the two counties of Northumberland and Durham, and no one took a more active part in the great strike of 1844. At all the largest meetings he was always chairman.

Dent Street

In my local history research, very rarely do I find documentary evidence for the reason behind street names. Mostly we are left to make educated guesses at the reason, and sometimes we guess wrong. I had always assumed that Dent St in North Lambton was named after William Thomas Dent, alderman of Lambton for 17 years and Mayor for 5 years. But having looked at the timing of the origins of Dent St, I believe that it is much more likely that it was named in honour of his father Mark Dent.

Mark Dent died in October 1882. Just four months later in February 1883, Lambton Council resolved …

“That the Mayor be instructed to write to the Waratah [Coal] Company, asking them to dedicate a street at the west end of High-street, 66 feet wide.”

The Waratah Company obliged with the request in April 1883, and in October 1883 Lambton Council resolved …

“That the Mayor procure plans and specifications for forming, metalling, and blinding the western half of the street recently dedicated by the Waratah Coal Company, from Young to High streets, Grovetown.”

The following year, in May 1884, the name of the new street is first mentioned when council resolved …

“That Dent-street, from High-street to the main road, be cleared and formed twenty-three feet wide, and metalled and blinded with quarry chips.”

In 1884 William Dent had been an alderman for 7 years, so it is possible that the street was named after him, but unlikely. There are no other examples of Lambton streets being named after sitting aldermen, and it is improbable that William Dent would get a street named after him without arousing the jealousies of the other sitting aldermen, particularly as one of them, Thomas Grierson, had served as an aldermen for a longer period than William Dent.

Much more likely is that Dent Street is named in honour of Mark Dent, famed union activist, who died just a few months before the street came into existence.

The Waratah Coal Company held a large sale of blocks of land in the area around Dent Street on 24 October 1885. The first appearance of Dent St on maps is on land title certificates arising from that sale, such as Vol-Fol 771-98.

Dent St marked on Land Title Certificate Vol-Fol 771-98 in December 1885.

Newspaper articles

Article Date Event DateNotes
13 Aug 1863
5 Aug 1863
Injury to Mark Dent at Minmi colliery.
31 Dec 1870First mention of W T Dent in the newspaper, as Secretrary of the Lambton Mechanics' and Miners' Institute.
7 Aug 1873W T Dent recites his poem "Lambton Bleatings".
16 Aug 1873
14 Aug 1873
Death of Sarah Dent aged 50, wife of Mark, mother of William.
21 Feb 1874
20 Feb 1874
Meeting of Miners at Lambton. W T Dent is secretary.
17 Jun 1874W T Dent appointed as the Lambton reporter and agent for The Miners' Advocate and Northumberland Recorder newspaper.
29 Aug 1874"REGISTRY OFFICE OPEN DAILY, near the English Church, for the registration of births, deaths, and marriages. W. T. DENT, Asistant District Registrar."
12 Dec 1874First reference to W T Dent being a reporter for the Miners' Advocate.
4 Sep 1875"Mr. [Mark] DENT has resided for many years in this district, and his labours for the improvement of the social condition of the miners are too well known to be repeated. It was in the North of England, however, and at an earlier period of his life, when his energies were unimpaired, that he did his greatest work, and for doing which he was driven from his country, to seek a home in Australia. Mr. DENT has for several years been unable to work, and we regret to state that of late his health has become impaired to a greater extent, and he is in that position where help, if tendered at all, would be doubly needful just now."
26 Feb 1876
19 Feb 1876
Testimonial to Mr. Mark Dent.
10 Jul 1877W T Dent the only nominee for the council seat left vacant by the resignation of Alderman Abel.
6 Feb 1879W T Dent nominates for re-election to Lambton Council.
13 Aug 1880W T Dent resignes his position as Lambton correspondent and agend for the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate.
31 Oct 1882
27 Oct 1882
Death of Mark Dent.
13 Feb 1883The death of Mark Dent is reported back in his native land, in The Newcastle Weekly Chronicle of 23 December 1882.
15 Sep 1896
14 Sep 1896
"SERIOUS ILLNESS OF MR. W. T. DENT. About 12 o'clock yesterday Mr. W. T. Dent, secretary of the Northumberland Building Society, Newcastle, while busily engaged with his correspondence, unfortunnately sustained a severe stroke of apoplexy."
15 Oct 1901
14 Oct 1901
Death of William Thomas Dent.
17 Oct 1901
16 Oct 1901
Funeral of W T Dent.

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