Bennett, Sir Thomas Penberthy (18871980), architect and public servant, was born on 14 August 1887 at 39 Kensal Road, London, the elder child and only son of Thomas William Bennett (d. 1901), clerk for the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), and his wife, Ann Frances Hodge, née Penberthy. He was educated at St Augustine's church school, Kilburn. When his father died in 1901 he entered the drawing office of the LNWR at Euston, where he began his architectural training. He studied architecture at evening classes of the Regent Street Polytechnic under A. E. Richardson and won several prizes there. He obtained a place at the Royal Academy Schools, where he won a year prize for sculpture. He learned to draw at Heatherley's atelier, was a good watercolourist, and played the piano and organ well.
In 1911 Bennett left the LNWR for the architect's office of the Office (later Ministry) of Works: the chief architect said that he could not possibly be more of a nuisance inside the office than he had been knocking at the door. He qualified ARIBA in 1912 and FRIBA in 1922. When war broke out in 1914 he enlisted but was called back to supervise the construction of hutting in France and Wales. There he learned the value of good site management and labour relations. On 19 August 1916 he married Mary Langdon Edis (1883/41976), portrait painter, daughter of Charles Vessey Edis, a retired clerk.
In 1919 Bennett joined the firm of Méwès and Davis as chief assistant. He could have had a partnership there but, after eighteen months, left to set up his own practice with J. D. Hossack. At the same time he became head of the school of architecture and building at the Northern Polytechnic. He entered this field with great energy, and had become a recognized authority on technical education when in 1929 he resigned to devote more time to his practice. During the next ten years Bennett built a mass of buildings; large scale flats, of which he built many, including those at Westminster Gardens, Marsham Street, Eyre Court, Finchley Road, Hillcrest, Hampstead, and the Avebury estate at Bethnall Green, and public authority housing, offices, stores and suburban shops, banks and cinemas, the Saville Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue, and establishments for the Royal Navy. Many of these were designed with the help of Morris W. Linslade, his son Philip, and W. Bonham Galloway.
Bennett's reputation as an architect came from sound contract management and financial control rather than from innovation or refinement in design. He was not an architects' architect, and held the view that good architecture comes from good building backed by sound administration, and, in his case, from unbounded faith in his own judgement. His self-confidence brought many clients. His ability to assess the potential of a site, prepare alternative sketch plans, produce carefully worked out figures of costs and likely returns, and to complete his building on time made him popular, particularly with developers. As a clear-thinking, determined, and efficient architect he was without equal.
In 1940 Lord Reith called Bennett to the Ministry of Works to be controller of bricks. In 1941 he became director of works and played an important part in the construction of hospitals, airfields, ordnance factories, and naval and prisoner-of-war camps. In 1944 Lord Portal invited him to oversee contracts for the production of the temporary housing programme. Bennett returned to private practice at the end of the war. In 1947 he was invited by Lewis Silkin to become chairman of Crawley New Town. He had already made a name as independent chairman of the Board of Trade boot and shoe working party (which reported in 1945), and Crawley was a new challenge which once more exercised his flair for organization. Such was his success that in 1951 Lord Dalton, who had succeeded Silkin, asked him to be chairman of Stevenage New Town, the appointments to run concurrently. At Stevenage, Bennett found irreversible planning difficulties which he was unable to resolve and he resigned in 1952.
In 1960, with Crawley almost completed, Bennett retired from public life but continued with his practice. He became consultant to the partnership in 1967. He was appointed CBE in 1942, knighted in 1946, and appointed KBE in 1954. Of medium height and strongly built with a straight back, he walked with a measured tread. His voice was authoritative. He appeared to look neither to left nor right when speaking. A firm mouth contributed to a somewhat brusque manner. He was a keen golfer, and a proud life president of the Highgate Golf Club. When over ninety he was still playing, but only twice a week, apart from practice. His only son, Philip Hugh Penberthy Bennett CBE, succeeded his father as senior partner in T. P. Bennett & Son in 1967, before retiring in 1980. Thomas Bennett died at his home, The Sycamores, 19 North Road, Highgate, London, on 29 January 1980.
Gontran Goulden, rev. Kaye Bagshaw
The Times (31 Jan 1980) · RIBA Journal, 87 (April 1980), 29 · Building, 9 (Feb 1980) · Architects' Journal (6 Feb 1980) · RIBA BAL, biographical file · personal knowledge (1986) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1980)
RIBA BAL, MSS, BeT/1/1 | RIBA BAL, archives, RIBA/SPR/1
Wealth at death
£686,280: probate, 7 March 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales