Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Davies (1839–1896)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

John Davies (1839-1896), ironmonger and politician, was born on 2 March 1839 at Sydney, son of John Davies, engineer, and his wife Honorah, née Roberts. Baptized a Roman Catholic, he had little education and at 9 worked as a messenger in an ironworks. Astute and frugal, he matured as a teetotaller and non-smoker, became a blacksmith and in 1864 set up as an ironmonger in York Street. His Catholicism eroded, he joined the Loyal Orange Lodge, and on 3 April 1861 at Sydney he married Elizabeth Eaton according to Presbyterian rites. He emerged from obscurity to be president of the Protestant Friendly Society in 1864 and to rally Protestant support for James Martin's 1863-65 ministry and for the Martin-Parkes 1866-68 ministry; he was useful in the campaign for the Public Schools Act of 1866.

In 1868 Henry O'Farrell's attempt to assassinate the Duke of Edinburgh exacerbated the sectarian strand of colonial politics and improved conditions for the ascent of Davies. In July he became president of the Protestant Political Association, newly formed to secure the return of Protestants to parliament and the city council, and provoked the first of many public censures when (Sir) William Macleay claimed that 'Mr. Davies is simply a political loafer … No language could be too strong to expose the character of the people … whose pretended Protestantism is simply a political cry'. But Davies found sustenance in such attacks and in the 1870s from his widening base of leadership of multifarious political temperance and wowser fraternities he became a significant political organizer. In 1874 he was elected to the city council, where he stayed until 1882, and to represent East Sydney in parliament, where, rebuffed by Parkes's earlier links with Edward Butler, he became (Sir) John Robertson's ingratiating 'whipper-in'. William Bede Dalley, friend and associate of Robertson, subtly disturbed Davies's zealotry; they joined Robertson's 1877 ministry, Davies as post-master-general. Davies was whip for the Parkes-Robertson 1878-83 coalition and in 1880-81 exhilarated his temperance supporters by helping to pass restrictive licensing laws. In 1880 he had lost his seat in East Sydney, but won South Sydney, where the breweries were.

In 1875 Davies had become a magistrate and in 1879 as acting British commissioner at Sydney for the Melbourne International Exhibition was appointed C.M.G. In 1882 he was a commissioner for the Amsterdam Exhibition. In 1881-82 he was an effective chairman of the royal commission on friendly societies. His enemies increased: in 1879 he was assaulted on one of his frequent harbour picnics; on 14 February 1880 the infant Bulletin, gaily unaware of its own brand of dissimulation, lampooned him as a chameleon who 'used the Orange institution … at the same time that he retained the support of the other sect by exposing to their gaze … an Agnus Dei upon his breast, and getting for some poor Irish labourers billets under the Corporation'; to the Bulletin he remained 'oleaginous John'. His 1882 appointment to the licensing bench aroused (Sir) George Reid and the 'liquor interest' to ask how a teetotaller could cope with the duties. Slanders and libels enveloped him. In March 1883 he won a verdict of 40s. against the alderman, J. D. Young, and in June a more significant farthing, with costs, against John Harris, mayor of Sydney.

In 1882 Davies lost South Sydney but in 1885 was at the head of the poll, allegedly with the aid of an 'underground bit of machinery, which is painted green, and fires up on alcohol'. In 1886 he was a member of the royal commission on intoxicating drink. He could not adjust his style to the 'fiscal elections' of 1887, lost his seat and was appointed to the Legislative Council by Parkes. He also helped to organize the laying of the foundation stone of the Queen's statue at the top of King Street, and in 1888 with others he proposed a statue in Dalley's memory. In 1887 he became a commissioner of the Adelaide Jubilee and Melbourne Centennial Exhibitions and was appointed chairman of the Casual Labour Board, entrusted with the expenditure of £250,000. Davies worked long hours on the board but in 1889 an inquiry found that he had apparently embezzled £112. Although counsel reported that Davies had 'sailed very close to the wind' and no criminal charge could be laid against him, he was charged and acquitted; later, after a convulsive debate, he was voted £1102 for his services.

By this time, according to the Newcastle Morning Herald, Davies was 'a positive blight on the public life of New South Wales'. Anathema to Catholics, publicans, the fastidious middle-class, journalists and cartoonists, he had raised himself from poverty and obscurity to notoriety and comparative affluence, inspiring envy and arousing feelings of guilt in his detractors. He had provided a necessary, if often tawdry, leadership to a significant part of the population; his political manipulations reflected the peculiarities of colonial politics. His wide philanthropy, including the relief of destitute children, was not just the façade that his actions often suggested. He was not impervious to the Christianity he patronized. He died on 23 May 1896, survived by his wife, one son and five daughters, and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His estate was valued at £6296.

Select Bibliography

  • Illustrated Sydney News, 29 Nov 1879
  • Bulletin, 14 Feb 1880
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 29 July 1882
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 25 May 1896
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Davies, John (1839–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 March, 1839
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


23 May, 1896 (aged 57)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.