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Davies, Sir John George (1846–1913)

by Peter Boyer

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

This is a shared entry with Charles Ellis Davies

Sir John George Davies (1846-1913) and his brother Charles Ellis Davies (1847-1921), newspaper proprietors and politicians, were sons of John Davies, founder of the Hobart Mercury, and his wife Elizabeth, née Ellis. John George (George) was born on 17 February 1846 at Melbourne, and Charles Ellis on 13 May 1847 at Wellington, New South Wales. George was educated at the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and The Hutchins and High schools, Hobart, before entering his father's newspaper business as office-boy. He was, however, trained as a journalist and advanced through the ranks to become general manager, though he later relinquished this position in favour of his brother. Charles was also educated at The Hutchins and High schools, graduating associate of Arts in 1865 under the Tasmanian Council of Education's tertiary scheme. He was employed by the Victorian Railways as an engineer in 1866-69 when he too joined the Mercury to be trained for management.

The brothers took over the Mercury in 1871, eight months before their father died. During their proprietorship the business, which became a limited company in 1895, firmly established itself as the colony's dominant newspaper and printing works. It retained a conservative attitude but its new owners, by continually expanding and modernizing, placed the Mercury in an unchallengeable position. The weekly Tasmanian Mail was begun during their term of management in 1877.

Charles, as managing director, was effectively in charge of Davies Bros Ltd; George devoted much of his time to public affairs. He was an organizer of the 1883 Juvenile Industrial Exhibition in Hobart and a justice of the peace. Elected an alderman of the Hobart City Council in 1884, he served six terms as mayor before his retirement in 1901. He was in charge of the Tasmanian industrial court at the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888, and was honorary commissioner for Tasmania at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Chief magistrate of Hobart in the 1890s, he was appointed first chairman of the Metropolitan Drainage Board in 1899 and was also for many years chairman of the Public Cemetery Trust and of the Hobart Licensing Bench.

Member for Fingal in the House of Assembly from 1884, George Davies was a successful candidate in the newly formed division of Denison in 1909. He had always been politically conservative, having in 1887, for example, opposed changes to the outdated Master and Servant Act (1856). He later joined the Liberal Party, but was never comfortable as a party member. This attitude, strengthened by his newspaper interest and his sensitivity to accusations of bias caused him to reject the option of entering government. He was, however, chairman of committees from 1892 and Speaker in 1903-13, guiding the assembly through the inevitable dislocation of the new Federal system and of continually fluctuating party alliances. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1901 and was knighted in 1909.

George also had a distinguished career in the local defence forces and as a sportsman. When 17 he joined the Hobart Town Volunteer Rifles; he was made a captain in the Tasmanian Rifle Regiment in 1860 and retired as lieutenant-colonel in 1891. A fine marksman, captaining the Australian team which won the Kolapore Cup at Bisley, England, in 1902, he was an office-holder in both Tasmanian and national rifle associations during the 1890s and early 1900s. A 'crack bat', he eventually captained Tasmanian cricket teams touring other Australian colonies and New Zealand in 1866-88. He was a founder of the Southern Tasmanian Cricket Association and was largely responsible for the establishment of Tasmania's cricketing headquarters on the Queen's Domain. He wrote cricket articles for the Tasmanian Mail under the pseudonym 'Nat Lee'. He was also a football administrator and, as an owner, took a strong interest in horse-racing.

Charles Davies's interests were only slightly less extensive than his brother's. Newspapers, Freemasonry and politics dominated his life—probably in that order—but the theatre (he was co-owner of Hobart's Theatre Royal in the 1890s), agriculture (he helped form the Southern Tasmanian Agricultural and Pastoral Society in 1874 and was its secretary for twenty years), sport, and horse-ownership and racing administration (he died while travelling to the Launceston Cup in 1921) also attracted his attention. As chief executive of the State's biggest newspaper, he was Tasmanian representative at the Imperial Press Conference in London (1908) and Ottawa (1920). His twenty-three-year political career began in 1897 with his election to the Legislative Council seat of Cambridge. Strictly independent and, like his brother, refusing to represent any government for fear of conflict with his newspaper proprietorship, he was sometimes called the 'uncrowned King' of Tasmania.

Their Jewish ancestry notwithstanding, both brothers were Freemasons. Their dominance of the Grand Lodge of Tasmania (George, deputy grand master in 1896-1914, was made past grand master in 1910; Charles was grand master in 1896-1914 and 1917-21) was intimately involved with their business and political success and their achievement of a social status sought, but never realized, by their emancipist father. They were both elected members of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1884.

Both brothers married twice. George, on 27 January 1869 at St John's Church of England, New Town, married Sarah Ann Pearce (d.1888): they had seven children. His marriage to Constance Charlotte, sister of W. R. Giblin, on 19 November 1891 at New Town produced two sons. Charles married Sophia Margaretta Wilson on 16 March 1870, at the Brunswick Street Wesleyan Church, Fitzroy, Melbourne, and second, on 24 March 1909 with Anglo-Catholic rites, at Evandale, Nellie Grace Collins, by whom he had a son and daughter.

Sir George Davies died of kidney disease on 12 November 1913 at New Town, leaving an estate valued for probate at £23,419. The Mercury editorialized: 'He was in no sense a decorative man, but in place of brilliant talents he had solid capacity, the outlook on life of a plain and moderate man, good judgement, and a very genuine desire to give service to his country and his fellow-citizens'. Charles died on 1 February 1921 at Pontville. Both as managing director of the Mercury and as a politician he had been conservative and pragmatic, exercising throughout his career, according to his obituary, caution and common sense. His estate was valued for probate at £52,480. The brothers were buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. Sir George's youngest son from his first marriage, Charles Reginald (1883-1925), having become secretary of Davies Bros Ltd in 1914, took over in 1921 as chairman of directors.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • History of Freemasonry in Tasmania (Launc, 1935)
  • R. Page, A History of Tasmanian Cricket (Hob, 1957)
  • P. Bolger, Hobart Town (Canb, 1973)
  • Mercury Centenary Magazine, 5 July 1954
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Sept 1979, p 85
  • Mercury (Hobart), 13 Nov 1913, 2 Feb 1921
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 12 June 1902.

Citation details

Peter Boyer, 'Davies, Sir John George (1846–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davies-sir-john-george-5909/text10063, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 August 2017.

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

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