Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Davis (1854–1932)

by Arthur Corbett

This article was published:

Joseph Davis (1854-1932), civil engineer, was born on 3 November 1854 at Oldbury, Worcestershire, England, son of Elijah Davis, miner, and his wife Susan, née Clifton. He was educated at Dudley Grammar School and worked in 1872-73 with his father, by then a colliery owner and engineer. In 1874-75 he served his pupillage with William North & Sons, consulting engineers, and gained experience with several firms before migrating to Australia in 1883, with his wife Carline, née Sheddon, whom he had married at the Register Office, Dudley, on 14 May 1878.

Under a provisional agreement Davis was to have built a railway in Queensland, but with the company's concurrence he joined the New South Wales Department of Public Works on 27 August 1883 as a surveyor and draftsman. Promoted assistant engineer on 1 January 1889 he also became chairman of the Public Service Tender Board. Two years later Davis was appointed supervising engineer to the sewerage construction branch. In 1895 he was in charge of country towns' water-supply and sewerage as principal assistant engineer and in 1897 was also acting government architect. He became engineer-in-chief for sewerage construction in 1896 and was under-secretary of the Department of Public Works from March 1901.

In evidence before the 1896 public works inquiry commission Davis defended serious charges made in parliament against R. R. P. Hickson, engineer-in-chief for sewerage, regarding certain contracts. He became chairman of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Advisory Board on 25 March 1901 and in 1903 recommended that the tender of J. Stewart & Co. for a high level bridge should be accepted. In addition Davis chaired the royal commission on Sydney water-supply and the interstate royal commission on the River Murray in 1902-03. He also served on several committees of inquiry and on the royal commission into the working and administration of the government docks and workshops at Cockatoo Island.

A member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, Davis won its Telford premium in 1902 for his paper, 'The sewerage systems of Sydney'. He was also a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, and of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and a fellow of the (Royal) Sanitary Institute, London. He sported a neat beard and a luxuriant moustache, and usually wore oval steel-rimmed spectacles.

In March 1907 Davis was transferred to the Agent-General's Office in London as consulting and inspecting engineer. With Joseph Barling and (Sir) Timothy Coghlan he arranged the New South Wales court at the Franco-British Exhibition in London in 1908. While buying steel for railways he frequently met Krupp in Germany and that year warned Sir J. Hector Carruthers of the likelihood of war with Germany. On 9 October 1912 he was appointed director-general of public works and returned to Sydney on a salary of £1500. Among his many duties he served on the River Murray commission in 1916 and reported to the Commonwealth government on a sewerage system for Canberra and on the small arms factory at Lithgow. He advocated the North Shore bridge, and was involved in a 'tremendous amount of labour' winding up the affairs of Norton Griffith & Co. when it was unable to fulfil public service contracts during World War I. After Davis retired on 5 March 1917, he settled in London as consulting engineer to the New South Wales government. He was responsible for approving all the steel manufactured in Great Britain for the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as well as electrical equipment and rolling stock for Sydney's suburban railways.

Davis died at Dulwich on 20 January 1932, and was survived by two of his three daughters and by a son James Sheddon, who became a medical practitioner. His estate was valued for probate at £15,155 in New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1896, 5, 348, 1899, 1, 847, 1909, 5, 241, 1918, 5, 795
  • Institution of Civil Engineers (London), Minutes of Proceedings, Jan 1934, p 542
  • J. H. Carruthers, Autobiography (National Library of Australia and University of Sydney Archives)
  • staff records (Dept of Public Works, Sydney)
  • Coghlan papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Arthur Corbett, 'Davis, Joseph (1854–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 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]


3 November, 1854
Oldbury, Worcestershire, England


20 January, 1932 (aged 77)
London, Middlesex, England

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