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Davis, Sir George Francis (1883–1947)

by R. Ian Jack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Sir George Francis Davis (1883-1947), industrialist, was born on 22 November 1883 at New Lynn, Auckland, New Zealand, third and youngest son of Charles George Davis, from Worcestershire, England, and his American-born wife Lillian Edwedinah, née Ball, whose father operated a glue factory at Leeds in partnership with one of the Davis family. Charles had migrated to New Zealand in 1879, intending to farm but instead used his small, inherited income to establish a modest glue factory at New Lynn in 1881. Acquiring a site at Onehunga on Manukau Harbour, in 1888 Charles built a new factory there. In 1892 his eldest son Charles Christopher (Chris) began to work in the factory. The second son, Maurice, went to sea as a marine engineer when he was old enough (and stayed away until 1915). In 1899 Charles formed the New Zealand Glue Co. Ltd, in which he held one third of the shares, and Chris became manager.

After schooling at King's College, Remuera, Auckland, in 1895-97, George went to sea under sail for four years. In 1901 he joined Chris in the factory, while their father went to England. Returning in 1903, Charles bought out the other shareholders and gave George and Chris shares equal to his own. The Davis family expanded the glue manufactory after 1903 and in 1909 bought its major rival at Woolston, Christchurch, where George became manager.

When Davis senior died in April 1913, his sons decided to diversify into gelatine, which was not made on any scale in Australasia at that time. To learn the craft, George went to London to a plant run by B. Young & Co., largely owned by his mother's family. J. G. V. 'Jack' Ball, George's cousin, educated him in the intricacies of gelatine production.

Plant for the manufacture of gelatine was erected at Woolston in 1913, catering for the whole of New Zealand and soon for Australia and Canada as well. His brother Maurice joined George at Woolston in 1915. After a share issue in 1916, the New Zealand Glue Co. expanded to Australia, establishing a gelatine factory in New South Wales. George was chosen to go to Sydney, where he arrived on 27 October 1917, accompanied by a Woolston colleague, an Auckland architect and Elizabeth Eileen Schischka, the Auckland-born daughter of a friend of George's mother.

Davis acted decisively. He purchased twenty acres (8 ha) of sand-hill country close to Botany Bay, formed Davis Gelatine Co. Ltd and married Eileen at St James's Church of England, Sydney, all on the day of arrival. In December 1917 the foundations of the new factory were laid and on 6 January 1919 the first commercial gelatine was produced.

The Davis family bought out possible competition in New South Wales, demolishing two existing factories, while Botany expanded. To reflect the new position of Davis gelatine in world markets, the company structure was progressively changed. In 1921 the Botany concern became Davis Gelatine (Australia) Pty Ltd, the principal holding company for the family; next year Davis Gelatine (Africa) Pty Ltd was formed in Cape Town to sell gelatine from both Botany and Woolston to African markets; in 1925 Davis Gelatine (Canada) Ltd was created; in 1926 the old New Zealand Glue Co. Ltd was restructured as Davis Gelatine (NZ) Ltd, a subsidiary of the Australian company; and in 1929 Davis Gelatine Pty Ltd was created in Victoria, with a factory in Melbourne to make glue and stock foods. Davis's cousin Jack Ball migrated from England to become works manager at Botany in 1924 and a director of the company.

Davis created a model environment at Botany, surrounding the gelatine plant with extensive landscaping: in the 1930s an industrial expert commented that with 'well kept lawn and park-like approaches, beautiful flower beds, tennis courts and bowling green, it does not look like a factory at all'. The remains were described in 2000 as 'the best surviving example in NSW of a factory garden inspired by the Garden City Movement'.

The company progressively diversified: first into limestone mining at Mount Frome near Mudgee after 1923, with a processing plant in Sydney at St Peters in the 1930s; then into diatomaceous earth at Bugaldie used for clarifying the gelatine at Botany. In 1933 George and some colleagues independently took over the lease of Cockatoo Island Dockyard in Sydney from the Commonwealth government, forming a new company, Cockatoo Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd, which revitalized the ailing facility and benefited from the challenges of World War II, employing 3500 workers at its peak, ten times the workforce inherited from the Commonwealth in 1933.

Fear of war in the 1930s also prompted the Federal government to consider the need to have a local source of oil and petrol, using the rich deposits of oil shale in New South Wales that had been exploited since 1865. The mines at Newnes had closed in 1922, but the shale seam in the Capertee Valley was still viable. The minister of development Senator A. J. McLachlan persuaded George and Chris Davis to form a subsidiary of Davis Gelatine—National Oil Pty Ltd, consolidated by Acts of both the Federal and New South Wales parliaments in 1937. The Davises put up a quarter of the initial capital, the State government another quarter and the Commonwealth the remainder.

George gave up most of his other business activities to lead the new enterprise. He travelled widely, especially in Scotland, the home of the oil-shale industry, in Estonia and in the United States of America to inspect retorts and other equipment. The new industrial complex in the Capertee Valley was named Glen Davis after George, the great vertical retorts were in operation by 1939, the oil refinery started pumping petrol in 1941 and the grandly planned township grew rapidly. In recognition, Davis was knighted in January 1941, but the new Curtin government took control of National Oil Pty Ltd in December and new directors were appointed. For the rest of World War II, Davis was largely preoccupied with Cockatoo Dockyard and with the Australian gelatine business.

Davis's business activities were his life: from 1917 he had lived next to the gelatine works in Spring Street, Botany, moving to Vaucluse only in 1930. He had no children. His hobbies were gardening, motoring and travel; deafness made him reticent in company. Smith's Weekly described him in 1940 as 'quiet and purposeful' in manner, and in appearance 'short and stubby, rather fat-cheeked, wearing a sound box just over his right lapel'. Davis died of cardiovascular disease on 13 July 1947 at his home and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife survived him. The Cockatoo Dockyard & Engineering Co. Ltd was acquired by Vickers in 1947, while the gelatine companies expanded worldwide in a number of combinations with other food firms. The Davis Botany plant was closed in 1990, and the company's interests were merged in Goodman Fielders and in Leiner Davis Gelatin Ltd, which in 1995 opened the successor plant to Botany at Beaudesert in Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • R. G. Parker, Cockatoo Island (Melb, 1977)
  • The History of Glen Davis (Syd, no date)
  • Heritage New South Wales, 7, no 3, Winter 2000, p 8
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney), 28 June 1924, p 2, 7 Sept 1940, p 5
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1940, p 15, 1 Jan 1941, p 5, 1 Nov 1941, p 3, 14 July 1947, p 3
  • H. E. Morgan, Cockatoo Dockyard, Oldest in Australia (typescript, 1958, State Library of New South Wales)
  • M. C. Davis, Davis Gelatine: An Outline History (typescript, 1993, Mascot Library, Botany Bay, Sydney)
  • M. C. Davis, A Few Notes Concerning Davis Gelatine and Some of its People (typescript, 1996, Mascot Library, Botany Bay, Sydney)
  • M. Barrow, A Report on the Archives of Davis Gelatine (Australia) Ltd (1997, placement report for MIM (Archives), University of New South Wales).

Citation details

R. Ian Jack, 'Davis, Sir George Francis (1883–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-sir-george-francis-12878/text23261, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 13 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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