Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Henry Davis (1815–1854)

by R. A. Daly

This article was published:

Charles Henry Davis (1815-1854), Catholic bishop, was born on 18 May 1815 at Usk, Monmouthshire, England, a member of an old Catholic family. At 11 he entered the Benedictine College at St Gregory's Monastery, Downside. When his schooling was completed Davis petitioned to join the Benedictine Order, received the habit on 1 March 1833, pronounced vows in June 1834 and was ordained priest on 8 November 1840. John Bede Polding had been his prefect in the college and his novice master in the monastery. After ordination Davis was himself prefect of the college and also precentor; he possessed considerable talents as an organist, a tenor singer and a composer of sacred music. In 1846-47 he had missionary charge of the parochial district at Downside. Davis's brothers, Richard (1805-1889) and Edwin (1819-1880), whom he ordained before leaving for Australia, were both monks of Downside.

The see of Maitland created by Papal Brief of 27 May 1847 was a titular one confined to the small township of East Maitland: the appointee was to be coadjutor to the archbishop of Sydney. The choice of Maitland was intended to match the erection of an Anglican see at Newcastle in 1847. The briefs appointing Davis were dated 24 September 1847 and he was consecrated by Bishop William Ullathorne at Bath on 25 February 1848.

Davis arrived in Sydney on 8 December 1848. His health had been satisfactory in England, but in Sydney he was seriously ill with a heart condition in May 1849 and again late in 1852. His work as coadjutor, for which he was often praised by Polding, was characterized by a vigour and thoroughness that gave little indication of his ill health. When he assumed office the business affairs of the archdiocese were disordered, partly through Polding's deliberate concentration on missionary work in preference to administration. Davis was appointed to help with administration and in about a year had diocesan affairs in much better order as a result of his attention to detail and a gentle but firm manner of transacting business. People found him easy to approach whereas they were inclined to be overawed by the stately manner of the archbishop.

With Davis in Sydney, Polding made further missionary tours into inland New South Wales and visited other colonies and Rome; he was away from Sydney for a third of the time between December 1848 and May 1854, and Abbot Henry Gregory, his vicar-general, and prior of the Benedictine Monastery attached to St Mary's Cathedral, was absent for half the same period. This left Davis in authority over the monastery for long periods, and the monks and students found him a sympathetic and amiable superior, but loyalty bound him to the existing order and he was unable to dispel permanently the discontent that developed within the monastery as Polding's vision of its function in the colonial church was increasingly questioned. A growing number of Catholic clergy and laity considered that the expanding and dispersed population could be best served by secular priests who were not bound by monastic rules.

Davis made frequent visits to the convent of the Benedictine nuns at Subiaco, near Parramatta, but beyond that made only one trip away from Sydney, when he went to Hobart early in 1850 in an unsuccessful attempt to mediate in the dispute between Bishop Robert Willson and Father John Joseph Therry.

Davis's most enduring work was in the field of education. On 10 February 1852 St Mary's College, Lyndhurst, was opened by Polding with an enrolment of nine boys. As first president of this college, Davis superintended it in the first two years, usually spending two or three days there each week. Lyndhurst provided a classical and literary education for sons of wealthier Catholics, and enabled students to matriculate for entry to the University of Sydney, inaugurated in October 1852. When Lyndhurst was closed in 1877 it had prepared for matriculation thirty-five of the forty-five Catholics who had graduated at the university by that time. Davis was also an original fellow of the senate of the university (1850-54). When the initial proposal to exclude clergy from any part in the management of the university had raised a widely held fear that the university would become 'Godless', William Charles Wentworth at length agreed to the nomination to the senate of one clergyman from each of the four main denominations. Davis was nominated as a representative of Catholics, William Purves of Presbyterians and William Boyce of Methodists. The Church of England stood apart until 1855, its leaders by then being satisfied with provisions for setting up colleges within the university but attached to religious denominations. Davis played a leading part in formulating these provisions although he did not live to see them become legally effective. As Francis Merewether said in moving the second reading of the affiliated colleges' endowment bill in November 1854, to Davis perhaps next to Charles Nicholson, 'the university was indebted more deeply than to any other individual. The sound views, the liberal opinions which he had ever advocated had done very much to promote that cordial co-operation on behalf of the objects of the university amongst all sects and parties on which its beneficial operations so mainly depended'. Everyone apparently spoke well of Davis and his work both in his lifetime and for years after. This was the more notable as Davis was English and most colonial Catholics at that time were Irish, and when it is taken into account that Polding and Gregory were so severely criticized that they went together to Rome in March 1854, Polding to offer his resignation to Pius IX.

Davis died on 17 May 1854 and was buried in the mortuary chapel at Subiaco Convent; his remains were transferred to St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, in August 1945.

Select Bibliography

  • P. F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia (Syd, 1895)
  • H. N. Birt, Benedictine Pioneers in Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1911)
  • M. Shanahan, ‘Bishop Davis: 1848-1854’, Manna, no 6, 1963, pp 50-62
  • R. A. Daly, ‘The Founding of St John's College’, Australasian Catholic Record, vol 35, no 4, Oct 1958, pp 284-306.

Citation details

R. A. Daly, 'Davis, Charles Henry (1815–1854)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 May, 1815
Usk, Monmouthshire, Wales


17 May, 1854 (aged 38)
New South Wales, Australia

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