Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Davidson (1865–1936)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

James Davidson (1865-1936) shearer, manufacturer and inventor, was born on 18 November 1865 at Barwidgee station, near Mortlake, Victoria, son of William Davidson, sawyer, and his wife Eliza, née Ogilvie, both from Aberdeen, Scotland. He began work at 12 'picking up' at Quamby, near Woolsthorpe; at 16 he was shearing and registering a tally of 69; and at 20 had achieved the old allotted tally of 110 a day at Barwidgee and was third best in a team of 28. In 1888 at Dunlop station, Louth, New South Wales, he was one of the forty shearers who—using Frederick Wolseley's invention—completed the first entire machine shearing of a flock.

From 1890 Davidson devoted his life to the promotion and improvement of the shearing machine. Employed by Wolseley as a demonstrator at £4 per week and expenses, he toured Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland with John Howard on a sales drive, often in the face of hostility and incipient Luddism from shearers who felt their jobs threatened. In 1892 he became handpiece inspector in Wolseley's Sydney workshop.

The machine made inroads against the blades but the depressed 1890s, general ignorance and the conservatism of graziers resulted in slow sales. In 1900, travelling by bicycle, Davidson toured northern New South Wales and outback Queensland in an unprecedented feat of salesmanship. Carrying seventy pounds (32 kg) of shearing gear (a complete stand) which could be speedily erected and powered by someone pedalling the bicycle, Davidson demonstrated the superiority of the machine over the blades to the unconvinced and often scornful. He showed graziers, in particular, that they were losing about fifteen ounces (425 g) of wool per fleece by adhering to the blades: sales flourished. In 1901 he became second in charge of the Wolseley workshop (from 1893 controlled by Dangar, Gedye & Co.) and personally erected seventy-two stands at Franc Sadleir Falkiner's station, Tuppal, in the Riverina. In 1908 he succeeded Howard as workshop manager. The same year he appeared in The Squatter's Daughter at Sydney's Criterion Theatre, in a scene where he sheared a sheep with the blades.

In 1909 Dangar, Gedye & Co. arranged with the engineering firm R. A. Lister & Co. of Dursley, Gloucestershire, England, to manufacture a new machine. Davidson went to England with a successful design, and so began his long and fruitful association with the Lister company whose workshop in Sydney he managed for many years. From 1911 until 1936 he patented many improvements to the shearing machine.

Short, stocky, patient, always optimistic and kind to the underdog (he put fifteen fatherless boys through apprenticeships in his workshop), Davidson possessed great mechanical skill and inventiveness; he kept close to the shearers by visiting the sheds from time to time and understood, as only an old blade ringer could, their demands for technical improvements. He won widespread admiration and respect for his great contribution to the wool industry. He died of cancer at his home at Chatswood, Sydney, on 3 October 1936 survived by his wife, Sophia, née Dinger, whom he had married on 5 January 1892 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Bathurst, and by a son and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Smyth, The Man and the Industry (np, 1936)
  • F. Wheelhouse, Digging Stick to Rotary Hoe (Melb, 1966)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 1936.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Davidson, James (1865–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 November, 1865
Barwidgee station, Mortlake district, Victoria, Australia


3 October, 1936 (aged 70)
Chatswood, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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