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John Kent (1843-1916)

John Kent (1843-1916), Accountant and YMCA supporter

John Kent

John Kent

 John Kent was born in 1843 in Hinton Waldrist, Berkshire, England, the son of John Kent, a farmer with some 435 acres and employing 15 labourers, and Jane Gee. John was the fourth child and the eldest son among seven children. Around 1860, John left the farm and at 17 was placed under a private commercial tutor for special training in accountancy and commerce, possibly in connection with the drapery business.[1] After gaining experience in a solicitor’s office that specialised in bankruptcy, further work in private banking and then in a sales department of a warehouse in London, he decided on a commercial career in Australia.[2]

Kent arrived in Sydney in 1863[3] and obtained a position with the drapers and silk merchants Francis Giles and Co and by September 1864, the company had been placed in the hands of administrators as its debts were twice its assets.[4] This experience provided John with a personal understanding of company insolvency, and this proved very useful for his later business career which involved overseeing and administering such insolvencies. His employer’s business was bought by John Thompson and continued to trade under the name of Francis Giles and Co with Giles as manager.[5] It is possible that Kent retained his job despite the difficulties, but may have left after a fire destroyed the business in 1867.[6] Kent’s obituary says cryptically that after his time at Francis Giles and Co he spent some time in the country and then, after three years, ‘resumed his business career’.[7] It is probable that he spent some time, at least up to 1869, as an ‘Episcopalian catechist’ in the Kurrajong/North Richmond area.[8] During his time there he was involved in public controversy over the abandonment of denominational schools and the commencement of public ones. Kent was concerned that the public education system would not allow the scriptures to be taught within it, a concern he maintained throughout his life. On his return to Sydney he began work for W Gardiner and Co who ran a soft goods warehouse, a similar line of business to his former employers.[9]

In 1871, John married Helen Clayton (nee Felton) (1828-1902), a widow with two daughters Elizabeth (1856-1916) and Catherine (1857-1913), and John and Helen had one son, Walter John (1872-1873), who died at eight months and three weeks.[10] Initially living in Francis Street, Sydney (1871-1879), they began to move with the increasing success of John’s business. They moved first to Marlborough Street, Leichhardt (1880-1883), then to Marion Street, Leichhardt (1884-1897), followed by O’Hara Street, Marrickville (1898-1904) then, after Helen’s death, John moved to  Union Street, North Sydney (1905-1910) followed by a final move to Cleveland Street, Wahroonga (1911-1916).[11] At least from 1888, Kent also owned a country residence, farm and orchard of some 445 acres at Barber’s Creek, later known as Tallong.[12] Here he planted apples with a view to exporting them to England[13] which he did from 1892,[14] for he correctly foresaw that England could become a major market for the export of Australian fruit.[15]

In 1887, John left with his wife to travel to England, leaving their daughters Elizabeth and Catherine in Sydney and sometime after his return, around July 1888,[16] he resigned from W Gardiner and Co and went into business for himself as an accountant.[17] Around 1892, he moved offices to The Strand Arcade[18] and, due to increased business, Arthur J Brierley[19] joined the partnership and the firm became known as Kent and Brierley Accountants.[20] The partnership operated as ‘Accountants, Auditors, Arbitrators and Trade Assignees’ and also acted ‘as Finance, Property and Insurance Agents.’[21] It is evident that Kent had timed his entry into private practice well. The increasingly difficult economic conditions of the colonies proved a time of expansion for the indispensable services of the likes of John Kent and over the next decade Kent and his colleague were busy auditing, advising and liquidating companies during this challenging period. In 1901, Edward Sully, who had long been the chief clerk of the firm, became a partner in the practice which then became known as Kent, Brierley and Sully, Public Accountants.[22] Edward was already known to John for in 1895, he had married John’s stepdaughter, Elizabeth.[23]

 As an important part of his business Kent became the manager of The Strand Arcade, which was opened by the Mayor of Sydney on April 1, 1892.[24]  He was also manager of the allied Strand Lighting Company which supplied electricity to the arcade and the surrounding area. John also had many other business interests, acting as Chairman of the Oriental Timber Company[25] which imported timber into Australia from Siberia and had it milled in Geelong, Victoria. He became the manager of the short-lived Lux Light Company that sold incandescent Kerosene lamps[26] and, in 1905, Manager of the Dixson Trust Pty Limited, The Buckenbowra Wattle Bark Co Ltd,[27] and he was also a director of James Elliott and Co Ltd, butchers.[28]

Kent’s main work, however, came as an auditor for various companies which included the Mount David Gold Mining company,[29] the Electric Light and Power Corporation,[30] Harrison, Jones and Devlin Ltd,[31] the Taranganba Propriety Gold Mining Company Ltd,[32] Perpetual Trustee Company Limited,[33] the Anglo-Australian Investment and Finance and Land Company,[34] Leichhardt Council,[35] the Australia Hotel Company,[36] Mercantile, Building, Land and Investment Limited,[37] and Henry Tait and Company.[38] In his role as Liquidator, John was involved in the South Great Colliery Company Limited,[39] Taranganba Proprietary Gold Company Limited,[40] the Anglo-Australian Investment and Finance and Land Company,[41] Eaton, Grant and Co Ltd,[42] Ray Chemical Company Limited,[43] the Dixon Tobacco Company,[44] and The Strand Company Limited.[45]

The Strand Arcade

The Strand Arcade

Kent was deeply involved in The Strand Company Limited which had begun at a difficult financial time during the depression. He was not a significant shareholder nor a director, but was the secretary pro tem when the prospectus for the company was issued in August 1892.[46]  Appointed manager, he was desperately seeking to fill the Arcade with tenants and was eventually elected as the Company’s liquidator. In difficult times, when valuation of properties such as The Strand Arcade had plummeted, the Company could not sell enough of its shares to cover the £50,000 building cost.[47] Kent rode out these times and was probably one of the few involved who gained an advantage from the Arcade, obtaining cheap office accommodation within it, the role as manager of the Arcade, Broker of the company that built it,[48] and finally its liquidator.

This venture was illustrative of his business life. Commencing in private practice at the end of the long boom in economic activity in NSW as an accountant, auditor and liquidator, his services were in considerable demand both despite and because of the difficult times. The 1890s may have been difficult times for business in the colony, but for Kent they were a great opportunity to establish himself and he did this capably. He was well regarded in the profession which no doubt gained him his clientele and he, in a time of increasing professionalism and formal qualifications, maintained his expertise becoming and advertising himself as a Fellow of the Institute of Accounts, Victoria (FIAV) and a Fellow of the Corporation of Public Accountants (FCPA).[49] He also became a Justice of the Peace in 1896.[50] And while John was a successful commercial figure in Sydney, he maintained other interests that were of a philanthropic nature ranging from involvement in the short-lived Sydney Mercantile Provident Association[51] to a life-long commitment to other philanthropic causes.  He was interested and involved to different degrees in the Ragged Schools, the Anglican Church, the Bible Society and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).

It was clear that Kent had been involved with the Ragged Schools as a young man for he said that he did not speak in support of the Ragged Schools as a theorist, but from his own knowledge as he had ‘for a long time been, a worker in connection with these schools.’[52]  He could testify to ‘the good which had been accomplished, and of the need there was for continued and increased exertion for the benefit of those children-for the improvement of their intellectual, their moral, and their religious nature’.[53] The order of his words was telling. He strongly supported the Ragged Schools for their religious value as a means of winning souls to Christ by telling the children ‘of a Saviour willing to renew, to regenerate, and to bring them into the way in which it was desired they should go’.[54] Yet the great purpose of the Ragged Schools was not, in John’s view, just to evangelise and give moral values, but to educate. He believed that ‘every member of the community was just worth to the community what he knew and what he was able to use for the benefit of others’[55] so he strongly supported compulsory education for children and the Ragged Schools as a means of reaching children of the poor with education. While he strongly supported the use of the Bible in education, and urged ‘upon all connected with the schools to found their work on a Scriptural basis, which was the only sure one’,[56] he was not unappreciative of the value of education in itself. He did not believe, as did some in the Ragged School movement, that ‘no course of instruction-from which the Holy Scriptures are excluded will have any effect in forming the character’ of the ragged children. ‘While it was all important that the Holy Scriptures should be taught, and while very little would be gained without such instruction being imparted, he was not prepared to say that nothing could be taught without the Bible.’[57]

Kent was deeply involved in the Anglican Church and his standing and value were acknowledged when the Primate of the Anglican Church, John Charles Wright, preached the sermon at his funeral. The Primate spoke of Kent’s involvement in a Bible Class at the Cathedral under the late Dean William Cowper and of his life-long support of both the Cathedral and the Anglican Church. Also mentioned by Wright was Kent’s Trusteeship of Moore College, the Anglican Clergy training facility, membership of the Cathedral Chapter, of the Diocesan Synod, the Provincial Synod and the General Synod and a membership of the standing committee of the diocese.  He had also been involved with Church Missionary Association of which he had been a Trustee since its formation in 1892 and its treasurer since 1893. He was a frequent attender of its public meetings and often addressed the meetings on various subjects, and his interest was to become deeply personal as his niece, Katie Miller, went to Mpapus in German East Africa in 1905 to serve the mission there.[58]

Laying the foundation stone of Bible House (Kent is standing third from the left)

Laying the foundation stone of Bible House
(Kent is standing third from the left)

John was a member of the NSW Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society, a vice president (1910-1916), a trustee and a committee member (1893-1916).[59] He was appointed to a committee to find a site for a Bible House[60] and is pictured below at the laying of the foundation stone by the Governor Sir Harry Rawson.[61] At the centenary of the Bible Society in 1904 he told the 2,000 children gathered, with an eye to future, that ‘all our hopes in the future of the Society … are centred in you. In a few years’ time you will take the place of those who are now the workers, and we are hopeful that you will carry out the work even better than it has been done in the past.’[62]

Though he gave considerable time to the Ragged Schools, the Anglican Church and the Bible Society, the devoted service for which John was best known was his commitment to the YMCA. The Sydney Morning Herald noted that he had been a ‘sterling worker for the Sydney YMCA for upwards of 30 years’[63] which was a little understated as it was closer to 40 years, for he had been a member of the governing committee from at least 1878[64] and most likely was involved well before that date. He acted as General Secretary in 1888 when David Walker was overseas and was president of the Association in 1903 and 1914-1916.[65] On his election in 1903, Kent was aware that he did not have the social profile of previous Presidents such as the Honorable John Fairfax, Judge Foster, Acting Chief Justice, the Honorable M H Stephen and Sir James Fairfax, but he did have something they lacked. Kent was not just a figurehead President, albeit with a genuine interest in the YMCA, but he ‘had more intimate knowledge of the details of all the branches of the work of the association’ and he took his election as ‘evidence of their confidence in him and in his experience in connections with the board of management for a period of about a quarter of a century’.[66]

For the YMCA, John’s death on 16 November 1916 was, in the words of J J Virgo the then General Secretary of the YMCA, the ‘passing of one of our greatest leaders and the best of men’.[67] John certainly was, along with men like Sharp Lewis and David Walker and many others, a significant contributor to the development of the life of the YMCA in Sydney. Yet, as his life showed, he had broader interests than the YMCA, being also deeply involved in the life of the Anglican Church as well as the commercial life of Sydney.

 Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow, Christ College, Sydney.


The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. John Kent (1843-1916), Accountant and YMCA supporter. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, August 19, 2015. Available at

[1] The 1861 English Census has a John Kent, 17, who was born in Duxford Berkshire (a very short distance from Hinton) as an assistant draper living in Finsbury Square London with a group of drapers. That this entry probably refers to John is supported by his employment in NSW by companies concerned with drapery.

[2] SMH, November 17, 1916.

[3] Possibly on the Cossipore which arrived in Sydney from London on July 14, 1863. SMH, July 15, 1863.

[4] SMH, September 21, 1864

[5] Empire, October 7, 1864.

[6] Sydney Mail, July 6, 1867. Thompson and Giles did however, recommence business

[7] SMH, November 17, 1916.

[8] Empire, August 31, 1869; September 9, 1869, Queanbeyan Age, May 27, 1869 and Windsor and Richmond Gazette, December 17, 1898.

[9] It is not known exactly when he commenced with W Gardiner and Co the earliest evidence is in early 1879. From the nature of the reference, where he acts as spokesman for the employees at the Manager’s farewell, he would appear to have been an employee for a number of years and a senior member of staff.

[10] SMH, April 7, 1873.

[11] Sands Directories, 1873-1916.

[12] The date of purchase would have to be around 1888 and its disposal took place after his death in 1922. Goulburn Evening Penny Post, November 14, 1922.

[13] SMH, March 21, 1890.

[14] Goulburn Herald (NSW), February 12, 1892.

[15] He engaged vigorously in the debate on the location of the Wholesale Fruit Markets in Sydney favouring a harbour-side location to facilitate the export of fruit. SMH, March 21, 1890; July 12, 1890; February 28, 1891.

[16] The first advertisement for John Kent at the Post Office Chambers is SMH, July 28, 1888.

[17] They left Sydney on March 18, 1887 on the RMS Massilla and returned on December 15, 1887 on the RMS Britannia. The Sydney Mail, March 26, 1887, SMH, December 16, 1887.

[18] SMH, March 23, 1892. He was also a former employee of W. Gardiner and Co. SMH, May 14, 1923.

[19] Arthur James Brierley, (1858-1923). SMH, May 14, 1923.

[20] SMH, April 6, 1892. The partnership commenced on April 1, 1892

[21] SMH, April 9, 1892

[22] Evening News, October 26, 1901.

[23] They were married on May 22, 1895. Sadly Elizabeth, who was to become a significant figure in the YWCA was to die on May 21, 1916 some six months before her step father did on November 15, 1916.

[24] Illustrated Sydney News, April 9, 1892.

[25] Geelong Advertiser, July 28, 1908. The company was registered in 1907 with A.J. Brierley being one of the signatories. Evening News, August 20, 1907. Brierley was later to become chairman. Kalgoorlie Miner, August 7, 1912.

[26] Evening News, January 31, 1906.

[27] Sands Directory 1906-1916.

[28] SMH, November 17, 1916.

[29] Evening News, February 24, 1898, Australian Town and Country Journal, August 30, 1902, SMH, December 24, 1908; December 24, 1912.

[30] SMH, August 10, 1910, in surely what must have been a conflict of interest but probably not considered so at the time. John Kent was also a director and his firm were the auditors. SMH, February 4, 1911.

[31] Sydney Mail and General Advertiser, November 24, 1888, SMH, November 21, 1889; November 16, 1910.

[32] Sydney Mail and General Advertiser, February 2, 1889.

[33] SMH, January 29, 1909.

[34] Evening News, June 17, 1892. He was appointed liquidator the next year. SMH, January 18, 1893.

[35] Evening News, March 10, 1885.

[36] Evening News, August 27, 1897.

[37] SMH, August 17, 1889

[38] Sunday Times, June 19, 1898.

[39] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, July 26, 1890.

[40] SMH, October 29, 1890.

[41] SMH, March 23, 1895.

[42] SMH, December 9, 1903

[43] SMH, June 22, 1910.

[44] SMH, February 10, 1906.

[45] SMH, October 19, 1894.

[46] SMH, August 31, 1892.

[47] SMH, June 4, 1896.

[48] SMH, September 1892.

[49] Sands Directory 1911.

[50] NSW Government Gazette, April 7, 1896

[51] Its purpose was to solicit funds from mercantile concerns to assist mercantile workers who had fallen on difficult circumstances.  It existed from 1885-1886 and Kent was on the governing committee SMH, March 30, 1885.

[52] SMH, August 9, 1881.

[53] SMH, August 9, 1881.

[54] SMH, August 9, 1881.

[55] SMH, August 9, 1881.

[56] SMH, September 28, 1886.

[57] SMH, August 9, 1881.

[58] SMH, March 15, 1905.

[59] SMH, November 17, 1916.

[60] SMH, November 22, 1902.

[61] Sydney Mail and NSW Advertiser, January 25, 1905.

[62] SMH, March 7, 1904.

[63] SMH, November 17, 1916.

[64] SMH, February 1; January 31, 1903.

[65] SMH, November 18, 1916.

[66] SMH, January 31, 1903.

[67] SMH, November 17, 1916.

1 Comment

  1. […] and with the guidance of Walker and his energetic endeavours, and with the help of others such as John Kent, the YMCA entered a period of vigorous growth and development. This stabilized the YMCA and allowed […]


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