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Davidson, Sir Charles William (1897–1985)

by Darryl Bennet

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Sir Charles William Davidson (1897-1985), politician, army officer and farmer, was born on 14 September 1897 at Toowong, Brisbane, third child of Alexander Black Davidson, a Scottish-born sugar-planter, and his wife Marion, née Perry, who had been born in England. Leaving Townsville Grammar School in 1914, Charles worked as a stockman in North Queensland. On 14 February 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and from November served with the 42nd Battalion on the Western Front. He was commissioned in December 1917, promoted to lieutenant in July 1918 and wounded in action in September. His AIF appointment terminated in Australia on 31 October 1919.

Back in North Queensland, Davidson tried dairying on the Atherton Tableland then in 1925 bought a farm near Carmila, some 60 miles (97 km) south of Mackay, where he grew sugar cane. On 21 December 1929 at St Thomas’s Church of England, North Sydney, he married Mary Gertrude Godschall Johnson, a nurse. He was active in cane-growers’ organisations and in the 1930s took a leading part in moves to persuade the Queensland government to revise the peak-year scheme by which sugar farmers’ production quotas were determined. In February 1939 he was appointed as a lieutenant, 42nd Battalion, Militia. Mobilised for full-time duty as a major on 20 September 1941, he transferred to the AIF in August 1942. Next month he was promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel and given command of his battalion.

In January 1943 the 42nd sailed for Milne Bay, Papua. Moving to Tambu Bay, New Guinea, in August, the unit took part in the successful final stages of the Salamaua campaign then in further operations around Lae. Davidson performed well, gaining the confidence of higher commanders as well as his own officers and soldiers. He knew his responsibilities, spoke decisively and authoritatively, gave clear orders and, in action, frequently visited the troops at the front. According to S. E. Benson, he was `firm but not severe’ and `strict but just’ towards his subordinates, qualities the men respected. The battalion returned to Australia in May 1944, Davidson having departed from New Guinea earlier in the month to attend a senior officers’ course. Suffering from malaria, he relinquished his command in September and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 2 December. He was appointed OBE (1945) and twice mentioned in despatches for his service. After the war he was to become honorary colonel of the 42nd Battalion (1955) and patron of its association.

Continuing his efforts to promote the interests of cane-growers, Davidson was appointed assistant-secretary of the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association in November 1945. Next year he stood as the Country Party candidate for Capricornia in the House of Representatives. At the general election on 28 September he defeated the sitting member Frank Forde. Davidson switched to the newly created seat of Dawson in 1949 and was to hold it comfortably until his retirement. A member of the parliamentary delegation to Japan in 1948, he was to lead the visit to South-East Asia in 1963. He served on the Joint Committee on Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings in 1950-55. His party chose him as its whip (1950-56) and deputy-leader (1958-63) under (Sir) John McEwen. On 11 January 1956 he joined (Sir) Robert Menzies’ ministry as postmaster-general. Between October that year and December 1958 he held the additional portfolio of the navy.

Davidson assumed responsibility for posts and telegraphs at a time of rapid development in telecommunications technology. He effectively managed the political aspects of the changes. In 1959 he presided over the introduction of the teleprinter reperforator switching system that `mechanised the public telegraph service’, and the same year announced plans for an automated telephone service that eventually would be capable of handling subscriber-dialled trunk calls. His selection in 1961 of F. P. O’Grady as director-general, posts and telegraphs, assisted the department to keep abreast of the technological revolution. The Australian Broadcasting Commission was included in his portfolio. Sir Richard Boyer, the ABC’s chairman until 1961, considered Davidson to be `one of the best ministers who had been responsible for national broadcasting’. He retired on 18 December 1963, the longest-serving postmaster-general since Federation.

A good-natured, able and sensible man, Davidson had given dependable service as a middle-ranking army officer, advocate for sugar producers, and Commonwealth government minister. To Sir Arthur Fadden he was `a staunch and reliable mate’. (Sir) James Darling found him `pleasant and friendly’, as did many people. Of middle height, slim and with thinning, sandy hair, Davidson dressed neatly, wore a trim military moustache and had a staccato way of speaking. He was president (1964-73) of the Asthma Foundation of Queensland, and a director of Magellan Petroleum Australia Ltd and Telephone & Electrical Industries Pty Ltd. In 1964 he was elevated to KBE. Sir Charles lived at Yeronga, Brisbane, in retirement. His tastes were simple: he liked fishing, playing bowls, growing roses and eating Queensland mud crabs. He died on 29 November 1985 at his home and, following a state funeral at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, was buried in Mount Gravatt cemetery. His wife and their two daughters and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. E. Benson, The Story of the 42 Aust. Inf. Bn. (1952)
  • G. C. Bolton, Dick Boyer (1967)
  • A. Fadden, They Called Me Artie (1969)
  • J. R. Darling, Richly Rewarding (1978)
  • A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (1984)
  • R. Thomas, 42nd Infantry Battalion (1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 11 Feb 1986, p 238
  • Australian Sugar Journal, 15 Nov 1945, p 369
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 16 Sept 1956, p 22
  • series B2455, item Davidson C W, and series B883, item QX33882 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Darryl Bennet, 'Davidson, Sir Charles William (1897–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-sir-charles-william-12404/text22299, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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