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Davies, Sir John Mark (1840–1919)

by R. D. Freeman

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

This is a shared entry with:

DAVIES BROTHERS: Sir John Mark (1840-1919), solicitor, politician and speculator, George Schoen (1841-1910), banker, company manager and accountant, Joseph Bartlett (1843-1924), accountant, banker and speculator, and Sir Matthew Henry (1850-1912), solicitor, speculator, politician and philanthropist, were sons of Ebenezer Davies and his wife Ruth, née Bartlett. Their father was born on 17 July 1808 at Tetbury, Gloucestershire, England, the sixth child of John Davies, Congregational minister, and his wife Dorothy Anna Maria, née Schoen. He had little education and, because his parents could not support him, left home at an early age. He was employed in general trading in London and later acquired a straw hat manufactory at Halstead, Essex. After inheriting an annuity of about £500 from a Welsh uncle he migrated with his family in the Travencore and landed in November 1849 at Geelong. He became a tannery and property owner and a director of the Geelong and Melbourne Railway Co. His wife died in 1853 at Geelong and in 1857 he married Jane Vines. He was a tireless worker in the interests of Geelong. He was also deeply religious, though something of a tyrant to his family, convinced that his duty to his children was only to educate them. He died at Armadale on 15 May 1886, survived by four of six sons and two of six daughters of his first marriage, and one of four sons and the one daughter of his second marriage.

His eldest son, John Mark, was born on 8 February 1840 at Halstead. He was educated in Geelong, articled at 18 and admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor and proctor in December 1863. He went into practice in Melbourne with J. M. Campbell as his partner. Like his brothers he had attended the Bible-class of James Balfour and was a regular worshipper in the Presbyterian Church. In 1865 he married Emily Frances Scales; they had six sons and eight daughters. He won profit and repute in the legal profession, and bought twenty-five acres (10 ha) at Malvern where he started to build the large mansion which later became Malvern Grammar School. In the land boom of the 1880s he speculated in bank and mortgage company shares and in 1886 formed the General Land and Savings Co. Ltd. He represented South Yarra Province in the Legislative Council in 1889-95, and in James Munro's cabinet was minister of justice from November 1890 to February 1892 and for two months in 1891 acting chief secretary and minister of health. He was largely responsible for the Voluntary Liquidation Act, 1891, which became significant in the depression.

The second son, George Schoen, was born on 26 October 1841 at Halstead. After education at Geelong Grammar School he joined the Geelong branch of the Bank of Australasia. He moved to Melbourne, joined the London Chartered Bank of Australia and later the Australian Deposit and Mortgage Bank Ltd, becoming manager in 1883. He had married Sarah Ann Staples in 1877 but she died in 1879, survived by their infant son; in 1887 he married Jessie Agnes McMurtrie. Conscientious and competent, he resigned in February 1889 to manage the Gascoigne group of companies for his brother Matthew Henry.

The third son, Joseph Bartlett, was born on 30 September 1843 at Halstead. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School and became an accountant. He tended to be led by his brother Matthew Henry and in 1882 was appointed managing director of his Freehold Investment and Banking Co. Ltd, which was primarily engaged in land subdivision.

The most notorious son was Matthew Henry. He was born on 1 February 1850 at Geelong. He went to the Grammar School and Geelong College and matriculated at the University of Melbourne in 1869. After some freelance journalism he was articled to his brother John Mark in February 1870. On 23 March 1875 he married Elizabeth Locke, eldest daughter of Dr Peter Mercer, Presbyterian minister. In April he was admitted a solicitor of the Supreme Court and set up his own practice. He was honorary secretary to the council of the Law Institute of Victoria for five years, became a justice of the peace and served as mayor of Prahran in 1881-82. After failing to win the East Bourke Boroughs seat he represented St Kilda in the Legislative Assembly in 1883-88 and Toorak in 1889-92. In 1886 he was a minister without portfolio in the Gillies government and visited London for the Indian and Colonial Exhibition. He sat on several committees of inquiry and as chairman of the royal commission on banking laws recommended the removal of restrictions for lending money on the security of freehold property. In October 1887 by a majority of one he was elected Speaker; he adorned the office by his impartiality and skill in conducting business smartly without limiting discussion. When knighted in 1890 he was already well known for his gifts to the Imperial Institute, public charities and the Young Men's Christian Association, and for founding the Cheltenham Convalescent Home. He was also well known for the splendour of his Toorak mansion and his lavish entertainment. His boundless energy combined with personal charm to make him an irrepressible advocate for the 'great city of Melbourne' which he and his fellow speculators hoped to build.

Much of his early legal work was connected with the property dealings of one of the greatest 'land boomers', Charles Henry James. By 1877 Davies had himself begun speculating in land. He formed his first company in 1882 and by 1887 had organized a network of about forty companies; their respectability owed much to the sponsorship of James Balfour. Davies was also active on the board of the Daily Telegraph. The great crisis in his affairs was in 1892. His Mercantile Bank declared an 8 per cent dividend in February but suspended payment in March. He resigned from parliament in April and left for England in the City of Chicago which was wrecked on the Irish coast on 2 July. With 200 other passengers Davies scaled the cliff on a 306-foot rope ladder and lost all his luggage. He reached London too late for a meeting of depositors who resolved to apply for voluntary liquidation of the bank. At a meeting in October he made a long statement but was severely criticized by angry shareholders. He returned to Melbourne to find most of his other companies in difficulty. In January 1893 he was committed for trial for conspiracy to defraud by means of a false balance sheet. The trial was delayed until May but before it ended the attorney-general, Sir Bryan O'Loghlen, decided to withdraw the charges. Davies was stricken with severe nervous prostration and ordered a complete change of scene; he sailed with his wife in the Salier. Meanwhile the solicitor-general, (Sir) Isaac Isaacs, had issued new writs. A telegram to Adelaide arrived too late for Davies's arrest. He was arrested in Colombo by a Victorian detective who had followed on a later ship, although Davies said he would return voluntarily. After several trials failed to unravel the transactions of his companies, he was acquitted but had to file his schedule in bankruptcy in 1894. His reputed assets of £650,000 in 1890 were gone yet he was soon discharged on the ground that his liabilities of £280,000 were caused by the depression. All his companies disappeared, with losses to the public of over £4 million. Davies returned to his legal practice. He failed to win the Melbourne seat in parliament but later became deputy-grand master of Freemasons and president of the Philharmonic Society. His health deteriorated but did not affect his handsome and unruffled appearance. He died at Mentone on 26 November 1912, survived by his wife, and by three sons and four daughters.

Joseph Bartlett, who had borrowed large sums to prop up his company before it was liquidated in February 1892, went bankrupt in April 1894 for £594,000, the highest personal debt of the family, and paid a ¼ d in the £. His valuable art collection and fine furniture were sold and after his discharge he worked as an accountant until his death on 28 October 1924 at a private hospital in Malvern. By his wife Mary Forrest, née Gardner, he had three sons and six daughters.

George Schoen also lost heavily on shares in his brother's companies, but he remained solvent by selling his assets and practising as an accountant. A staunch Presbyterian, he was a church elder and for ten years member of the assembly. He was highly respected, but unlike Matthew Henry was quiet and unassuming. He died on 1 February 1910 at Windaree, Williams Road, Toorak, survived by his wife and four sons.

John Mark struggled in vain in 1892 to reconstruct Matthew Henry's Mercantile Bank but his own company failed in 1893 and paid only 2s. in the £. He had to sell most of his land and other assets; despite heavy losses on his speculations, he remained solvent, although his debts were not finally wiped off until 1906. Meanwhile in 1895 he represented Victoria at the sixth session of the Federal Council, and in the September elections lost his seat for South Yarra. He represented Melbourne in the Legislative Council in 1899-1919. He was solicitor-general in Allan McLean's ministry in 1899-1900, and again in 1902-03 under (Sir) William Irvine, who also appointed him minister of public instruction for seven months in 1903 and attorney-general in 1903-04. In Bent's ministry he was attorney-general and solicitor-general in 1904-09. He acted as premier and treasurer in Bent's absence in 1907 and next year went to London as chairman of the Victorian commission to the Empire Exhibition. While in office he led the government party in the council and out of office was unofficial leader. On 6 July 1910 he was nominated president of the council by Balfour and elected unanimously. A competent parliamentarian, he was a tower of strength in cabinet and debate. After his resignation in June 1919 because of a stroke, members of both Houses waxed lyrical in praise. Without ostentation he supported many charities and served on many committees such as that of the Austin Hospital. In January 1918 he was appointed K.C.M.G. He died at his home in Malvern on 12 September 1919 and was given a state funeral. He was survived by his wife and by four sons and five daughters of their fourteen children.

Select Bibliography

  • Victorian Reports, 1893-94
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne: A Biography (Sydney, 1931)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melbourne, 1966)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1912, 1919
  • Messenger of the Presbyterian Churches of Victoria and Tasmania, 18 Mar 1910
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 16 (1892)
  • Australasian, 2 June 1888, 9 July, 20 Aug, 10 Dec 1892, 7 Jan, 8 July, 19 Aug 1893
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Jan 1890, 3 Feb 1910, 13 Sept 1919, 29 Oct 1924
  • Town and Country Journal, 19 Nov 1892.

Citation details

R. D. Freeman, 'Davies, Sir John Mark (1840–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davies-sir-john-mark-3376/text5105, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 2 October 2014.

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

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