Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Walter Davis (1840–1923)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

William Walter Davis (1840-1923), pastoralist and politician, was born on 5 July 1840 at Bathurst, New South Wales, son of Ebenezer Davis, plasterer, and his wife Louisa, née Brairley. At 13 he ran away from home to help to drove a mob of cattle to Burrabogie station, near Hay, where at 16 he was head stockman and developing into a fine horseman. About 1858 he went to the Bourke district as a cattle-dealer and undertook a number of successful pastoral and commercial ventures. At the Sydney Hotel, Rutherglen, Victoria, on 30 August 1861 with the rites of the Independent Church, he married a Catholic dressmaker Annie Heair. On 14 November 1870, describing himself as an auctioneer and widower, he married Catharine Maxwell in the Church of England, Bourke.

In 1874 with Alexander Ross & Co. he acquired the 600-sq. mile (1554 km²) Kerribree station fifty miles (80 km) north-west of Bourke. Davis was manager and overlanded large mobs of cattle to Melbourne and Adelaide. The firm became Davis, Dale & Co. and in 1886 purchased from Mary Hannay Foott and her father Dundoo station, near Eulo, in south-west Queensland. The same year at a cost of £5000 Davis put down the first genuine artesian bore in New South Wales, striking on Kerribree a 15,000 gallon (68,191 litres) flow at a depth of 1200 ft (366 m). He converted the station to sheep; it sheared up to 130,000 annually, all the wool being scoured on the property. He had disposed of his pastoral interests by 1900.

In February 1889 as a 'fairtrader' Davis was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Bourke. Defeated in 1891, and as a protectionist in July 1894 and 1895, he regained Bourke for the National Federal Party, defeating E. D. Millen by nine votes in 1898. He then joined another auctioneer Charles Richard Green, a connexion, in partnership, on 1 August; on 27 August 1900 their firm was sequestrated with debts of £1203. Davis was discharged in April 1903 after an eighteen months suspension for alleged misdemeanours. He resigned from parliament in August 1900 but in September won the by-election and held the seat until July 1904. He was defeated for the Darling in 1907. In August 1900–October 1901 he sat on the royal commission into the condition of Crown tenants [in the] Western Division of New South Wales. By 1905 bad seasons and financial losses had forced him to retire to an orchard at Beecroft near Sydney. In August that year he claimed before the royal commission on the administration of the Lands Department, not without some reason, that he and every other settler in the Western Division had been 'rack rented and plundered' by the land agency boards.

Davis was known as 'Baldy' as one side of his head had been scalded in childhood; he always wore a wig. Henry Lawson in his story 'Baldy Thompson' described him thus: 'Rough squarish face, curly auburn wig, bushy grey eyebrows and moustache, and grizzly stubble—eyes that reminded one of Dampier the actor … a squatter of the old order'. He loved an argument, especially about unionism or politics, and was generally voted a hard case. Big-hearted and generous (never refusing a swagman 'tucker') he had a keen sense of humour, a fund of anecdote and was a good story-teller: he himself was the subject of many a camp-fire yarn.

Davis died on 14 September 1923 at his residence, Dutruc Street, Randwick, and was buried with Anglican rites in Randwick cemetery. He was survived by his third wife Florence Jane, née Whittaker, whom he had married on 12 March 1885 at the Church of England, Blayney, and by 16 of his 19 children: 5 sons and 3 daughters of his second and 3 sons and 5 daughters of his third marriage. A number of his sons settled on the land and two saw active service with the first Australian Imperial Force.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1906, 2, 514, 543, 579
  • Bourke and District Historical Society, Papers on the History of Bourke …, 2 (1967-68)
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Oct 1923
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1889, 18 July 1894, 29 July 1898, 15, 18 Sept 1923
  • Town and Country Journal, 20 Apr 1889
  • Carruthers and Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. Gormley reminiscences, newsclippings, vol 3 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • bankruptcy file 14/263 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Davis, William Walter (1840–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 July 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]


5 July, 1840
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


14 September, 1923 (aged 83)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.