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Davies, Maurice Coleman (1835–1913)

by J. R. Robertson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Maurice Coleman Davies (1835-1913), timber merchant, building contractor and pastoralist, was born in London, son of John Davies and his wife Catherine, née Hart (1795-1889). At 5 he went to Van Diemen's Land with his parents, who took up pastoral pursuits. After some eleven years he went to Victoria and worked on the Blackwood diggings. He then engaged in a mercantile and shipping business in Melbourne and later in Adelaide, where in 1867 he opened as a general commission agent and merchant in Gilbert Place. When he moved to Grenfell Street in 1877, he was dividing his time between South and Western Australia. As a member of Baillie, Davies & Wishart in South Australia he carried out several government contracts. One of them, for the second section of the Melbourne-Adelaide railway, introduced Davies to Western Australian hardwoods, and on Christmas Eve 1875 in Perth he applied for a lease of 1920 acres (777 ha) of forest in the Bunbury district. In 1876 he set up a steam sawmill in the Collie Ranges, about twenty miles (32 km) from Bunbury. The Collie mills operated successfully for eight years. Private visitors and government officials were favourably impressed with the efficiency of his station and, although Davies disputed with local authorities over the upkeep of roads used by his horse and bullock teams, an official investigation left no doubt that Davies's operations greatly benefited the district. For several years until 1878 he was also a shareholder in the Jarrahdale and Rockingham Timber Co.

Jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) was milled at Collie, and in 1883 Davies owned a tuart (Eucalyptus gomphocephala) mill on the Capel River. But the timber whose name is almost synonymous with his own is karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor). He claimed, probably correctly, that karri was unknown to the world's timber users before he began milling it. By 1877 he was interested in the timber between Cape Hamelin and Augusta in the extreme south-west. He took up a licence to cover the area and began cutting in 1879 in what became the Karridale estate; there in the 1880s and 1890s he built several large mills, townships, roads, railways and jetties, and installed a telephone system, library and sports ground. He shipped timber from Hamelin Bay on the west coast, and Flinders Bay on the south coast. Under Davies a close-knit, self-sufficient patriarchal society developed on the estate. Much use was made of the truck system and money was almost unknown; the account of each employee was credited with wages and interest and debited with expenses such as rent and purchases at the company store. Davies recruited his labour from afar and at least once tried to indenture Chinese workers. His venture prospered and in 1890 Karridale was the colony's biggest single timber-exporting station, accounting for over one-third of total shipments. In 1897, when large amounts of English capital were being invested in the Western Australian timber industry, his interests were bought by the M. C. Davies Karri and Jarrah Co., incorporated in London with a capital of £250,000; Davies was its first managing director. The company operated the Karridale mills until in 1902 it was absorbed, with seven other major timber companies, into Millars' Karri and Jarrah Co. Ltd. Thereafter he had no active role in sawmilling.

Davies had become involved in the gold-mining industry and was a shareholder in the West Australian Shipping Association, formed about 1884, but his most important investments were in the pastoral industry. In 1881 he helped to form the Kimberley Pastoral Co. and was its managing director until 1913. The company took up the Liveringa station on the Fitzroy River. Davies also had a share in the station of the Luluigui Pastoral Co. Ltd, downstream from Liveringa. In 1884 he bought Balmaningarra in the Kimberley and his family controlled Napier Downs. He also had large holdings in the Kojonup and Katanning areas, under the name of the Palmirup Grazing Co. In his last decade his pastoral interests overshadowed those in the timber industry. Described as a retired pastoralist, he died at his home, Peradeniya, St George's Terrace, Perth, on 10 May 1913. He held large shares in several companies not connected with rural industry, and his land investments in Perth alone were valued at £8000. He also had property at various towns and suburbs in Western Australia, at Adelaide and at Colombo, Ceylon. His probate was sworn at nearly £38,000.

In Adelaide on 24 March 1858 he had married Sarah Salom (b. 26 September 1838). He was survived by six sons and two daughters of their twelve children. The sons became prominent in the timber industry: despite the family wealth each began his career as a labourer; two were Australian directors of the M. C. Davies Karri and Jarrah Co. and in 1902 five held high positions in the firm. One, Walter David 'Karri' (b. 14 June 1867), achieved prominence at the time of the Jameson raid as a member of the Uitlanders' Reform Committee; he later fought in the Boer war.

M. C. Davies was one of the handful of men whose career bridged the pioneering phase of Western Australian timber industry, the boom of the 1890s and the consolidation of the early twentieth century. His financial rewards were a measure of his skill as a timberman; none before him had worked Western Australia's forests so successfully and on such a scale. His greatest contribution to the colony's development was probably his promotion of karri. His efforts to bring it to the notice of buyers included showing it at the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886 and at Melbourne in 1888 where he won a trophy. He and his sons travelled widely in their attempts to open new markets for karri. At times his business practices were criticized; his company was detected selling karri as jarrah for marine works, and several controversies arose over the alleged leniency of the government's terms when granting him timber licences. But he rose high in the social scale of the colony. His burial in the Jewish section of Karrakatta cemetery was attended by representatives of many leading families.

Select Bibliography

  • Herald (Fremantle), 1 Nov 1879, 19 Nov 1881, 6 Jan 1883
  • West Australian, 11 Feb, 22 July 1881, 25 Jan 1886, 12, 13 May 1913
  • B. F. Hamling, Maurice Coleman Davies of Karridale and Liveringa, essay, 1961, Claremont Teachers' College (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • CSO records (State Library of Western Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. R. Robertson, 'Davies, Maurice Coleman (1835–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davies-maurice-coleman-295/text5109, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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