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Davidson, Sir Colin George Watt (1878–1954)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Sir Colin George Watt Davidson (1878-1954), judge, was born on 18 November 1878 at Mudgee, New South Wales, eldest son and second surviving child of native-born parents George Davidson, solicitor, and his wife Jessie, née Watt. He was educated at the Grammar School, Mudgee, and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1899; LL.B., 1901); he helped to support himself by coaching.

Davidson was admitted to the Bar on 24 October 1901, entered Selborne Chambers and read with (Sir) David Ferguson. By 1905 he had joined his lifelong friend John Hammond in Wigram Chambers. Briefs being scarce, they collaborated in writing the Law of Landlord and Tenant in New South Wales (1906, 2nd edition, 1920), for which they received £100 each and much recognition. In 1912-23 he lectured at the university, promoting his view that a law school 'is not a mere factory'. After limiting a wide practice to equity matters, he took silk in 1926.

Three months later Davidson was appointed an acting Supreme Court judge; his appointment was made permanent on 14 February 1927. His fine bearing seemed even more distinguished in his judicial robes but, more than looking the part, he was at home in all jurisdictions and was rarely reversed on appeal. He 'found somewhat irksome at first various traditional restrictions', but increasingly appreciated their advantages. In 1928, as sole royal commissioner, he investigated and found proven allegations of attempted bribery of a minister of the Crown by a member of the Legislative Assembly. In 1930 he heard the long, drawn-out Massy will case: in pronouncing against the validity of the will he castigated the psychiatrist, who had found Massy in full testamentary capacity. In 1940 he became senior puisne judge.

In 1929 Davidson was appointed chairman of the joint Commonwealth and State royal commission into the coal industry. In the comprehensive report he recommended that a board with wide regulatory powers be set up, and warned that half measures would be ineffective. In 1938-39 he chaired the New South Wales royal commission upon the safety and health of workers in coal mines; many of the commission's proposals were incorporated in the Coal Mines Regulation (Further Amendment) Act of 1941. In February that year he became chairman of the Commonwealth Coal Board and in August consultant to the Commonwealth coal commissioner. In January 1945 Davidson was appointed chairman of the Commonwealth royal commission into the industry. He was severely criticized by Idris Williams of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' (Miners') Federation, but on 4 March 1946 was named sole commissioner. He inspected mines throughout Australia and wrote the exhaustive report himself. Critical of the government's failure to back arbitration decisions and of the miners' lack of discipline, he recommended greater mechanization and a Commonwealth statutory authority to control coal mining. He was made an honorary member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1952.

Davidson was elected to the university senate in 1939 but resigned in 1941 with Sir Percival Halse Rogers, Sir Henry Manning and Sir John Peden, in protest at the senate filling two chairs in the faculty of law, as they believed that permanent appointments should not be made during the war. Soon after the outbreak of World War II Davidson had been appointed chairman of an advisory committee to hear appeals against the exercise of the National Security (General) Regulations and by internees; he was also an official visitor at internment camps at Cowra, Hay, Orange and elsewhere. In 1945-46 he chaired a committee to arrange refresher courses for legal ex-servicemen.

On 17 November 1948 Davidson retired: the chief justice Sir Frederick Jordan praised his 'profoundly judicial mind' and his courtesy. Davidson regretted that the expansion of modern legislation had 'made judicial duties far more arduous', preventing judges from observing 'a former custom of taking a prominent part in cultural and charitable movements in the community'. He was knighted in 1952.

At St James Church, Sydney, on 20 December 1928 Davidson had married Phyllis Hinder, daughter of Dr Richard Theophilus Jones; they lived at Killara and visited Europe in 1934 and the East for three months in 1939. All his life Davidson enjoyed golf and was a member of the Union, Australian and University clubs, Sydney. Sir Colin died in hospital at Chatswood on 8 July 1954 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife; they were childless. His estate was valued for probate at £9229.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydneyites as We See 'Em, 1913-14-15 (Syd, 1915?)
  • T. R. Bavin (ed), The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney (Syd, 1940)
  • P. H. Davidson, An Outline of the Official Life of the Hon. Sir Colin Davidson, Justice of the Supreme Court of N.S.W., 1926-1948 (Syd, 1964)
  • New South Wales State Reports, 48 (1948)
  • Australian Law Journal, 10 Dec 1948, 22 July 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1921, 12 Mar, 2 June 1926, 12 Feb 1927, 4 Oct 1930, 27 Sept 1939, 14 Feb, 5, 6 Nov 1941, 23 Mar 1946, 6 Jan 1952, 9, 13 July 1954.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Davidson, Sir Colin George Watt (1878–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-sir-colin-george-watt-5896/text10039, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 December 2014.

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

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