Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davidson, Sir Walter Edward (1859–1923)

by Chris Cunneen

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

Sir Walter Edward Davidson (1859-1923), governor, was born on 20 April 1859 at Valletta, Malta, son of James Davidson of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, principal agent in the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., and his wife Sarah, née Humfrey. After education at Magdalen College School, Oxford, he kept three terms at Christ's College, University of Cambridge. In 1880 he entered the Ceylon civil service as a writer. By 1898 he had risen to be chairman of the municipal council and mayor of Colombo, where in 1882 he had married Lillie Harriet Baber. At the Paris exhibition in 1900 he was Ceylon's commissioner and in 1902 was appointed C.B.E. He was colonial secretary in Transvaal, South Africa, in 1902-04, governor of Seychelles Islands in 1904-12, and of Newfoundland in 1913-16. In 1907 he had married Margaret Agnes Fielding in London. His long colonial service was rewarded in 1914 by his appointment as K.C.M.G., and in September 1917 he succeeded Sir Gerald Strickland as governor of New South Wales.

On his arrival in Sydney with his family on 17 February 1918, he was described as over 6 ft (183 cm) tall, carrying 'an almost pronounced military air'. Despite a reduction by Premier Holman in the governor's allowances, the Davidsons entered enthusiastically into the round of gubernatorial duties, with speeches, official openings and vice-regal functions. For her work with the Red Cross Society, both in Newfoundland and Sydney, Lady Davidson was appointed D.B.E. in 1918. In August 1920 she presided at a meeting to inaugurate the State branch of the Girl Guides' Association. After the war they also had to dedicate numerous war memorials.

In January 1921 Labor premier John Storey sought Davidson's views on the question of additional appointments to the Legislative Council. Though he was then of the opinion that the Upper House ought not to be increased, in August he approved of Storey's nomination of sixteen new members. The refusal by Davidson of a request for a dissolution from Storey's successor James Dooley in December 1921 aroused only token Labor Party objections. On Dooley's advice, Davidson then commissioned Sir George Fuller, but the ministry lasted only seven hours. Davidson then refused Fuller's request for a dissolution and re-commissioned Dooley, who subsequently was granted a dissolution. This series of events testified to the governor's impeccable constitutional instinct and political impartiality. Upon Dooley's defeat in the March elections, Davidson wrote to the secretary of state, W. S. Churchill, of his 'Labour friends: they were likeable men, upright and simple, and not ashamed to take advice'. But he liked 'the new lot also: most of them. They are less easily guided'. In September 1922 it was announced that his term of office would be extended until March 1924.

Davidson was influential in organizing the exhibition by Australian artists which was shown at the Royal Academy, Burlington House, London, in October 1923. He was a knight of grace of St John of Jerusalem and a member of the Savile Club, London. He published two books on Ceylon and one on the archives of the Seychelles. While still in office, Davidson died of cardiovascular disease at Government House on 16 September 1923, survived by his wife, one son of his first marriage and two daughters of his second. After a solemn lying-in-state at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral and an elaborate funeral, he was buried in South Head cemetery, where in 1925 a memorial was erected by public subscription. His portrait was painted by Norman Carter. Lady Davidson Hospital, Turramurra, commemorates his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Sept 1917, 16, 18 Feb 1918, 14, 17 Dec 1921, 4 Jan 1922, 17 Sept 1923
  • Town and Country Journal, 19 Sept 1917
  • 'Death of Sir Walter Davidson', Times (London), 17 Sept 1923, p 19
  • CO 418/168, 208/9818, 5380, 220/27440.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Davidson, Sir Walter Edward (1859–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-sir-walter-edward-5904/text10055, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 November 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Life Summary [details]

Birth

20 April 1859
Valletta, Malta

Death

16 September 1923
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation