BENNETT, DAVID, soldier and musician; b. 11 Dec. 1823 in Carlisle, England, son of Thomas Bennet and Elen Ryen; m. with three sons and two daughters; d. 9 Aug. 1902 in St John’s.
David Bennett enlisted with the Royal Newfoundland Companies in October 1838 at the age of 14, to be trained as a musician. The following June he was made a drummer. He would remain with the military for nearly 25 years, until he was discharged in 1863 with a good conduct medal and the rank of corporal. Following Bennett’s discharge, Bishop John Thomas Mullock* appointed him instructor in music at the recently established St Bonaventure’s College, a position he held until the 1880s. He became familiarly known as Professor Bennett.
His musical skills had quickly brought him into prominence as a performer, bandmaster, and instructor. Many 19th-century organizations in St John’s had bands attached to them, and he became involved with a number of these. His first job as an instructor came in the 1850s, when he was appointed in that capacity to the Total Abstinence and Benefit Society, and he remained with the association for 20 years. Subsequently he became bandmaster to No.2 (Queen’s) Company of the St John’s volunteers and after the merger of the five companies a few years later, to the whole battalion. He also instructed or led the bands of the Benevolent Irish Society, the Star of the Sea Society, and St Bonaventure’s College, and eventually he established his own ensemble.
Musical groups played an important part in the social life of the community. The hauling of firewood and building materials, the laying of cornerstones of public buildings, the towing of sealing ships through harbour ice, the arrival and departure of visiting dignitaries were all occasions when music was obligatory. Among the public events at which Bennett performed were the visits of Prince Hendrik of the Netherlands in 1845, the Prince of Wales in 1860, and apostolic delegate George Conroy* in 1878. He played at the laying of the cornerstone for the Hospital for the Insane by Governor Ker Baillie* Hamilton in 1853, at the consecration of the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist in 1855, and at many other church and secular occasions. He was involved in the production of a popular operetta depicting the arrival of the Presentation sisters in 1833 [see Miss Kirwan*, named Sister Mary Bernard], composed by Bishop Michael Francis Howley* and first performed in the episcopal library. Proficient on a number of instruments, Bennett also composed his own music.
A contemporary described David Bennett as the “soul and life” of band music in Newfoundland in his day. “Social and genial, affable and kind in disposition, he endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact.” Despite the loss of his instruments and music in the fire that devastated St John’s in 1892, he continued active into his late seventies. His legacy was carried on by the pupils he trained at St Bonaventure’s College and Mount Cashel orphanage. Among his protégés was the celebrated musician Charles Hutton*. All his children were musically gifted. His youngest son, John, instructed the band of the Newfoundland Constabulary for many years.
Cumbria Record Office (Carlisle, Eng.), St Mary’s parish, Carlisle, Roman Catholic chapel at Irish Gate, reg. of baptisms, 19 Dec. 1823. PRO, WO 97/1711: 55–58 (mfm. at NA). Daily News (St John’s), 11 Aug. 1902. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 11 Aug. 1902. The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood et al. (6v., St John’s, 1937–75), 5: 541. Encyclopedia of Nfld (Smallwood et al.), 3: 669–72. Wallace Furlong, “The little known history of St. John’s, chapter viii: ‘The pioneer band master of St. John’s,’” Seniors’ News (St John’s), June 1983: 27–28. Paul O’Neill, “Around and about,” Monitor (St John’s), 47 (1979), no.6: 28; Breakers: stories from Newfoundland and Labrador ([St John’s], 1982), 105–9. H. F. Shortis, “Professor David Bennett, the veteran musician of Newfoundland,” Nfld Quarterly, 1 (1901–2), no.2: 18–19; a partially reworked version of this article appeared under the same title in the Newfoundland Weekly (Boston), 19 Dec. 1925: 3. When was that? (Mosdell), 136–37. Paul Woodford, “We love the place, O Lord”: a history of the written musical tradition of Newfoundland and Labrador to 1949 (St John’s, 1988).