Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davidson, James Edward (1870–1930)

by Carl Bridge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

James Edward Davidson (1870-1930), journalist and newspaper proprietor, was born on 20 or 21 December 1870 at Pine Hills, Harrow, Victoria, elder son of James Johnstone Davidson, station-hand, and his Scottish-born wife Janet, née Aitchison. After attending Harrow State School, he worked on stations in western New South Wales but in 1887 he became a reporter with the Port Augusta Dispatch. From 1893 he worked as a shorthand clerk in the Treasury Department in Perth, then in 1895 became Premier Sir John Forrest's personal assistant. He wrote occasionally for the press, and next year joined the West Australian as a reporter. On 5 October 1896 he married Eugenie Louise Jerome Gilbert of Adelaide.

In 1897 Davidson joined the renowned Melbourne Argus. His shorthand skill suited him to verbatim political reporting; he became a leading political journalist and covered the Federal conventions. His reputation for fearless investigation grew with his insistent reports of the activities of (Sir) Thomas Bent, premier from 1904.

From 1905 Davidson edited the Weekly Times. To study technical and business aspects of newspaper production he worked on the Detroit Daily Free Press in the United States of America in 1906. Returning next year he was promoted to general manager and editor-in-chief of the Herald. Before his resignation in 1918, he had established this paper as Australia's leading evening daily and increased its circulation by 80 per cent. Next year Davidson acquired the Port Pirie Recorder and the Barrier Miner at Broken Hill, where he moved. During the 'Big Strike' of 1919-20 he gained notoriety when he encouraged his reporters to expose the sharp practices of some union organizers.

In 1922 Davidson moved to Adelaide and, in July 1923, began publishing the News, a tabloid which, by agreement, replaced the city's two former evening papers. In spite of a doubting market, he floated a public company, News Ltd, with a nominal capital of £250,000, became its managing director, and sold to the new company his two country papers. The presses he purchased from the Herald. By 1930 News Ltd was worth £750,000 and owned the weekly Mail (Adelaide) and Daily News (Perth). It also survived a costly failure to start an evening paper in Hobart in 1924-25.

'J.E.D.' was dark, sturdily built, of medium height. He was said to resemble Dickens's Boythorn in Bleak House—in speech an ogre, in conduct the kindliest of mortals. He had a deserved reputation as an astute businessman and was an honest, dedicated, professional journalist. His writing was concise, direct and morally committed. A socialist in his youth, he fought corruption wherever he found it. He was the first president of the Melbourne Press Bond in 1906 (forerunner of the Australian Journalists' Association) and in 1918 served briefly on the Commonwealth's press censorship advisory board. He was also an able lecturer, a Rotarian, a good amateur boxer and a collector of early Australian literature.

Davidson was a delegate in 1930 to the Imperial Press Conference in London. The day before it opened, on 1 June, he died of pneumonia and alcoholism and was buried beside his brother Alan, explorer and mining engineer, in Putney Vale cemetery. His son Alan had died in an air crash three years earlier. Davidson was survived by his wife, from whom he had separated, and a son Norman, a journalist with the News. His estate was sworn for probate at £20,130.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • G. Sparrow (ed), Crusade for Journalism, (Melb, 1960)
  • W. S. Holden, Australia Goes to Press (Melb, 1962)
  • Bulletin, 4 May 1905
  • Barrier Miner, 15 Feb 1919, 2 June 1930
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 2 July 1928, 1 Feb, 1 July 1930
  • News (Adelaide), 2 June 1930, 20-24 July 1973
  • Advertiser (Adelaide)
  • 3 June 1930
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4, 9, June 1930
  • Mail (Adelaide), 7 June 1930
  • B. Hammond, The Origins and Course of the Broken Hill Strike, 1919-20 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Melbourne, 1970)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Carl Bridge, 'Davidson, James Edward (1870–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-james-edward-5901/text10049, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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