Most legislative chambers have complete collections of paintings or photographs
of individuals who have held the office of Speaker. In 2004 the author
learned that the collection of Speakers portraits which encircle the floor
of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador was incomplete. There
was no existing likeness of Thomas Bennett, who held the office of Speaker
from 1834-1837. With the blessing of the Clerk, a comprehensive search
was started by the Legislative Library for a likeness of Speaker Bennett.
This article outlines the steps that led to the completion of the Speakers
portrait collection, thereby filling a longstanding gap in that provinces
The Speakers portrait collection is proud testimony to the history and
governance of Newfoundland and Labrador. John G. Higgins, Leader of the
Opposition, while speaking about the hanging of portraits of pre-Confederation
Speakers in the House of Assembly said in 1951:
we are reminded of the men who played a big part in the pages of Newfoundland
they should serve us as an example of modesty, to be modest in
our own ideas, not to think too much of ourselves, not to feel we are the
only statesmen in the world, the only ones that God created in this country.
I think I heard someone say one time: The men here are the finest body
of men who ever sat in this House.1
One of the first actions of any elected Assembly has always been the selection
of a Speaker. This activity must take place before any other business can
be brought before the House. This practice dates back to when the House
of Assembly first met in St. Johns on January 1, 1833. The initial order
of business was the selection of John Bingley Garland for the position
of Speaker. Garland held the post until he was appointed to the Legislative
Council shortly thereafter. This vacancy meant that a new Speaker had
to be chosen. On January 29, 1834, on the first day of the third session
of the first General Assembly, Thomas Bennett was chosen as the second
Speaker of the House of Assembly, after a close contest and vote. Over
the next hundred years, until the arrival of Commission of Government in
1934 and up to Confederation with Canada, twenty-five Speakers, referred
to above as the finest body of men who ever sat in this House, held office
after Thomas Bennett.
In 1949, shortly after Newfoundland joined Canada, Premier Joseph Smallwood
commissioned Frederick Steiger to paint portraits of all of the pre-Confederation
Speakers of the House of Assembly. Steiger was paid a lump sum of $6000.00
to deliver 26 framed portraits to the House.2 At that time, no likeness
of Bennett was found, thereby preventing his portrait from being painted.
Who was Thomas Bennett?
Thomas Bennett was born in Shaftesbury, England in 1788. He held a position
in the British Commissariat Department prior to the end of the Napoleonic
wars. He moved to St. Johns, likely in the early 1820s, to join his brother
and business partner, Charles Fox Bennett, who later became Newfoundlands
fifth Prime Minister. The Bennett brothers had financial interests in the
Riverhead Brewery (only later called the Bennett Brewery when taken over
by the unrelated Edward W. Bennett). They also had a stake in the copper
mine at Tilt Cove, which brought miners from Cornwall to mine its pockets
Thomas Bennett married Hannah Hutchings on January 9, 1828. He was elected
to the House of Assembly in the first General Election in 1832 as the first
Member for the District of Twillingate and Fogo. He held the position of
Speaker from 1834-1837. When he was chosen as Speaker, Thomas Bennett spoke
to the House of Assembly, saying:
Gentlemen, I beg to offer you my most sincere thanks for the honor you
have conferred upon me by placing me in the highest elective situation
in this Colony; and I assure you it shall be my unceasing duty to merit
the confidence you have reposed in me, by a strict attention to the many
duties of the important Office with which you have been pleased to invest
me. I shall most anxiously guard the privileges of the House on all occasions,
and I trust, by your assistance and support, those privileges will be at
all times exercised, consistent with the prerogatives of the Crown, and
the rights of the other Branches of the Legislature.3
Thomas Bennett must have had a lively role to play during his tenure as
Speaker, given that in 1836, the Speaker cast the deciding vote on no less
than fourteen occasions.4 Thomas Bennett resided at Mount Dorset, a home
on Waterford Bridge Road. In 1848 he was appointed as magistrate in St.
Johns. He was a member of the Church of England, and served as a director
of both the St. Johns Hospital and the St. Johns Academy. He was appointed
to investigate the election disturbances in Harbour Grace in 1859, which
involved a crowd carrying off the polling book on the first day of polling,
complaints that one of two members had been improperly elected, and that
a third candidate had been intimidated into withdrawing by various threats.
In August 1870, Thomas Bennett retired to Shaftesbury, England. He died
there at the rectory of the parish of Shaftesbury St. James in 1872.5
Local resources were consulted in the early stages of research for a photo
of Bennett. Unfortunately, neither the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and
Labrador nor the Book of Newfoundland contained a picture. Searches of
several additional print sources were equally unsuccessful. As the search
continued, one could only hope that in the fifty-five years since the original
Speakers portrait collection had been completed, a photograph or line
drawing of Thomas Bennett might have surfaced, particularly within archival
collections within the Province. Many collections had been catalogued or
digitized in the interim. Unfortunately searches in the Legislative Library,
the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University, and The Rooms
Provincial Archives produced no images. The Newfoundland Collection at
the A.C. Hunter Public Library was also consulted where an obituary was
found for Thomas Bennett, who died on February 12, 1872. At that time,
regrettably, Newfoundland newspapers did not contain photographs. The only
images they printed were a few line drawings for advertisements. The search
continued at the Diocesan Archives and the City of St. Johns Archives,
all to no avail.
When local avenues were exhausted, the search was broadened to include
national collections. The Library and Archives Canada was able to produce
a photograph of the unrelated Thomas R. Bennett (1830-1901), who also
served as Speaker of the House of Assembly from 1869-1873. His portrait
was already hanging in our collection. Nothing related to Thomas Bennett
(1788-1872) was located.
Because of Thomas Bennetts close personal connection to Dorset, England,
searches within major British collections seemed a reasonable next course
of action. The following collections in England were consulted:
- the City of London Archives,
- the National Archives (formerly the Public Records Office),
- Cambridge Universitys digital collection (which includes several very
old photographs from Newfoundland),
- Oxford Universitys digital image collection,
- the British Library,
- the British Museum,
- the House of Lords Records Office and,
- the National Portrait Gallery
The Shaftesbury Historical Society was particularly interested and helpful
in finding a likeness of Thomas Bennett. They made contact with the Dorset
Records Office, placed an ad in the local paper in search of an 1872 copy
of the local church magazine, and searched the obituary columns of the
regional newspaper, since Thomas Bennett had died in Shaftesbury. Through
contact with the Parish of Shaftesbury St. James, where Thomas Bennett
was baptized and buried, it was learned that the church grounds contained
several memorials to the Bennett family, including Thomas Bennett, but
alasno likeness. It was very disappointing to have come so close to finding
a likeness there, especially given the benefit of the generous assistance
of local historians.
In the end, the Wessex Newfoundland Society provided invaluable assistance.
The Executive Director of the society, Ian Andrews, advised of a new discovery
of an old collection of photographs taken in St. Johns. With his help,
and through the carefully checked genealogical research of Robert Bayley
of Godalming, Surrey, a photograph of Thomas Bennett was located. Although
one can never have 100% certainty about its authenticity, (there is no
writing on the back of the photograph) we are as sure as anyone ever can
be that the photograph represents Thomas Bennett. Mr. Bayleys rigorously
checked family tree, combined with the dates and relative perceived ages
of persons in the groupings of the St. Johns photographs, served as the
beginning of the authentication process. The history of photography, the
contemporary styles of studio photography, and the provenance are pieces
which fit the puzzle. There is also evidence of the family face, assisted
by the existence of various likenesses of Thomas brother, Charles Fox
Bennett, at various stages of his life.
Robert Bayleys research concluded that his third cousin, Joseph Weston
Young, had married Anna Josephine Bennett on February 15, 1870 in Westbury
on Trym, now in Bristol. Anna Josephine was Thomas Bennetts daughter.
The photograph was in the possession of James Way, cousin of Robert Bayley.
Mr. Bayley advised his cousin to donate the original photograph to the
House of Assembly of Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the end of June 2007, Robert traveled to Newfoundland to pursue further
geneaological research. He graciously presented the photograph to the House
of Assembly. The photograph is very well preserved and is enclosed under
glass, in a handcrafted red velvet case which can be clasped with two rounded
hooks. Given that the photograph was taken in the latter part of the 1850s,
its presentation in the case would have been extremely lavish, well befitting
a man of Thomas Bennetts standing.
Newfoundland-born artist Gerald Squires was commissioned to paint a portrait
of Thomas Bennett. The unveiling ceremony took place on April 22, 2008,
and marked Thomas Bennett's return to the Legislature he once presided
over 171 years after his tenure as Speaker.
Finding a picture, and the subsequent painting of a portrait, makes certain
that Thomas Bennetts fruitful career and contributions will be remembered
together with the similar contributions of other pre-Confederation Speakers.
At long last, Thomas Bennett will take his place officially in the company
of his Speaker colleagues, and his rightful place in our parliamentary
Determination and tenacity in research are not always rewarded, particularly
in circumstances surrounding such a unique search as this. The three year
quest was fraught with hope and disappointment. However, Thomas Bennett
has been brought home and restored to a people whose pride of place and
history is unwavering.
1. House of Assembly Proceedings, 1951, p. 18.
2. House of Assembly Proceedings, 1949, p. 751-752.
3. Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland, 1834,
4. Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly of Newfoundland, 1836,
5. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. V.X: 1871-1880, 1972.