Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ruby Claudia Davy (1883–1949)

by Joyce Gibberd and Silvia O'Toole

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Ruby Davy, 1918

Ruby Davy, 1918

Ruby Claudia Emily Davy (1883-1949), musician, was born on 22 November 1883 at Salisbury, South Australia, only child of William Charles Davy, shoemaker and brass instrument player, and his wife Louisa Jane, née Litchfield, singer and music teacher. The family's home became a centre of music and drama and Ruby was early encouraged to improvise and compose, to perform on and teach the piano, and to recite. Educated locally, she learned music from her mother and Ernest Mitchell who prepared her for the Elder Conservatorium of Music (B. Mus., 1907; D. Mus., 1918). She was the first Australian woman to receive a doctorate in music and to become a fellow of Trinity College of Music, London (1921); she also held a diploma in elocution from the London College of Music.

From 1909 Ruby Davy was composing, giving recitals and participating in ensembles. In 1912, as a temporary replacement, she taught theory and counterpoint at the conservatorium. Her parents moved in 1920 to Prospect, where mother and daughter taught music. They worked long hours and many pupils gained high distinctions, but after her parents died in 1929 Dr Davy collapsed and was unable to adjust to life alone. Four years later Pastor John Hewitt of the Apostolic Church persuaded her to return to music.

In 1934 she conducted successful performances of her song, Australia, Fair and Free, in Melbourne and Adelaide; it was later published. That year she began popular lecture recitals on radio and to various associations in Melbourne, where she settled next year: 'Threefold aspect of the beautiful in art' was illustrated with excerpts from the classics, musical monologues, and two of her original compositions for violin. She developed a controversial new topic, 'The evolution of chamber music with special reference to color', on which she gave three chamber music lectures in 1938. She and Issy Spivakovsky, violinist and cellist, established the Davy Conservatorium of Music at her South Yarra home. Davy's teaching was unconventional: students were encouraged to compose and to break down barriers between the arts.

In 1939 she toured England, Europe and the United States of America. Davy gave three lecture recitals in London with the eminent violinist Albert Sammons, but the critics preferred the sonata duos to the lectures. War curtailed her plans and she returned to Melbourne and teaching. In 1941 she founded and presided over the Society of Women Musicians of Australia, which gave regular monthly musicales in Melbourne. A mastectomy in 1947 affected Davy's playing; she became depressed and died on 12 July 1949. She was buried in West Terrace cemetery, Adelaide.

This frail, eccentric woman, with her expressive, haunting eyes and who dressed unfashionably in long black clothes, is remembered as a teacher rather than a composer. Although the Australian Musical News had described her as a 'pianist, musical historian, elocutionist, actress, raconteur, singer, poet and enthusiast', she failed to gain wide recognition; perhaps partly because she was a woman, perhaps because of jealousy of her high academic attainments, perhaps because of her limited experience and naive personality. Relics of her career were placed in Salisbury Institute in 1936. She left £300 to the Elder Conservatorium to found a commemorative prize for the composition of music.

Select Bibliography

  • Dr. Ruby Davy Biography (Melb, 1936)
  • Australian Musical News and Musical Digest, Feb, Mar 1935, Apr 1939
  • S. O'Toole, A Portrait of Dr. Ruby C. E. Davy (B.A. Hons thesis, La Trobe University, 1978)
  • R. Davy papers and scrapbook, 1939-40 (Elder Conservatorium collection, University of Adelaide).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Joyce Gibberd and Silvia O'Toole, 'Davy, Ruby Claudia (1883–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 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

Ruby Davy, 1918

Ruby Davy, 1918

Life Summary [details]


22 November, 1883
Salisbury, South Australia, Australia


12 July, 1949 (aged 65)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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