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Davis, Arthur Hoey (1868–1935)

by Van Ikin

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

Arthur Hoey Davis (1868-1935), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

Arthur Hoey Davis (1868-1935), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-13

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/882

Arthur Hoey Davis (1868-1935), writer, was born on 14 November 1868 at Drayton, Queensland, fifth son and eighth of thirteen children of Thomas Davis, Welsh blacksmith and selector, and his Irish wife Mary, née Green. Leaving the Emu Creek school at 12, Davis began work on local properties and developed his love of horses. He became a clerk in the office of the curator of intestate estates in Brisbane in 1885, and in 1889 was transferred to the sheriff's office in the Supreme Court. In 1893 he was appointed secretary of a treasury committee investigating the Queensland National Bank. During this time he shared lodgings with Cecil Boland, who introduced him to the work of Scott, Thackeray, and Dickens—later his favourite. On 26 December 1894 Davis married Violet Christina Brodie at Greenmount; they had three sons and a daughter.

Davis had written skits about rowing, which he enjoyed, for the Brisbane Chronicle signed 'Steele Rudder' (from essayist Richard Steele and the part of a boat). This was later shortened to 'Steele Rudd'. His first rural sketch, 'Starting the selection', based on his father's experience, appeared in the Bulletin on 14 December 1895. Davis became a regular and popular contributor and in 1899 the Bulletin published an illustrated collection of the sketches under the title On Our Selection. This was followed by Our New Selection in 1903. Their success was partly due to the suggestion of A. G. Stephens that the sketches, written originally about different families, be reconstructed as the experiences of the Rudd family.

Promoted to under-sheriff in 1902, Davis had to give the signal at the hanging of Patrick Kenniff; subsequently opposed to capital punishment, he was nervous and irritable for months after the execution, and described the occasion in The Miserable Clerk (1926). In January 1904 Davis lost his post under (Sir Arthur) Morgan's Special Retrenchment Act. Despite convincing official reasons, he believed that his seniors, had been jealous of his success ever since the Bulletin revealed 'Steele Rudd's' identity in 1897.

Violet Davis, who valued the security of a weekly wage, was aghast when he refused inferior public service employment and formed a company to produce Steele Rudd's Magazine; it ran from December 1903 to 1907. Davis began to drink socially to promote circulation and advertising and moved his family to Sydney. Violet's disapproval brought recriminations and discord when the family returned to Brisbane after the magazine collapsed. This marked the start of her serious nervous breakdown.

In 1909 Davis reluctantly bought a farm at Nobby, Queensland, on his wife's insistence. The rights to a stage version of On Our Selection were leased to Bert Bailey; it was first produced by his company on 4 May 1912 at the Palace Theatre, Sydney. Though it did well in Australia, it failed in London in 1920. Davis remained dissatisfied with Bailey's meagre royalty payments.

Davis became president of the Darling Downs Polo Association in 1913. Chairman of the Cambooya Shire Council in 1914-15, he chaired the local recruiting committee in World War I. The deterioration of his wife's health when their son Gower was wounded on the Somme forced the family to return to Brisbane in 1917 so that she could receive special medical attention. In the same year the play Grandad Rudd was produced, and Davis revived his magazine as Steele Rudd's Annual (1917-23). By 1919 Violet Davis had broken down completely and was permanently hospitalized. Her affairs were placed in the hands of the public curator and she remained in care until her death at Toowoomba in 1952. The loss of assets made over to her further damaged his finances.

In 1921, Davis became vice-president of the new Queensland Authors' and Artists' Association, and acted as steward in the equestrian section of the Royal National Agricultural and Industrial Association's exhibition in 1920-24. He toured with a print of Raymond Longford's film version of On Our Selection in 1922. Living in a Brisbane hotel in 1923, Davis formed a close friendship with Winifred Cook who had reverted to her maiden name of Hamilton. She became sub-editor of his magazine which, under the name Steele Rudd's, was a monthly in 1924-25. With the venture faring badly, Davis moved to Sydney in 1926 to be joined by Winifred Hamilton a few months later. In 1926-27 the magazine became Steele Rudd's and the Shop Assistants' Magazine, but Davis continued to live in hardship.

The Depression brought further financial setbacks through the failure of the film version of The Romance of Runnibede and the bankruptcy of the producer of the stage version of The Rudd Family. Steele Rudd Productions Pty Ltd, which published the magazine, was in difficulties too. Davis was in dire straits when the Bulletin rescued him. A benefit performance on his behalf and a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension from October 1930 also helped.

Winifred Hamilton became engaged to another man in 1932, and Davis took lodging with Mrs Beatrice Sharp, whom he had met in 1931. In 1934 he was divorced and became engaged to Beatrice Sharp, but they never married. Davis was awarded the King's silver jubilee medal in May 1935. He died in the Brisbane General Hospital on 11 October 1935 of cancer, and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His estate was valued for probate at £501.

Davis wrote twenty-four books and six plays and saw three silent and four sound-film adaptations of his work. His early books were his best, providing a wry, sympathetic account of the demanding life of the selector and offering a rounded portrait of Dad Rudd. The work of his middle period was repetitive and stale, with Dad Rudd becoming increasingly farcical. Though Davis was undoubtedly exploiting the character for money by this time, he was also responding to its stage and media metamorphosis. The stage Dad was a less earthy character, and on screen and radio he lost all homespun stolidity and became the grumpy, lovable buffoon of today. At the end of his career, Davis turned to more personal subjects and once more produced work of higher quality. Though he is typically seen as a skilful hack-writer, Davis is better described as a would-be artist who failed. A portrait by Joseph Wolinski is held by the Queensland Art Gallery, and the premier of Queensland unveiled a memorial stone over the grave in 1956.

Select Bibliography

  • E. D. Davis, The Life and Times of Steele Rudd (Melb, 1976)
  • A. H. Davis papers (MS 4591, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Van Ikin, 'Davis, Arthur Hoey (1868–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-arthur-hoey-5911/text10067, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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