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John Davan Lewis (1923–1996)

by Mark Dunn

This article was published online in 2023

John Davan Lewis (1923–1996), businessman, was born on 2 September 1923 at Coogee, Sydney, youngest of three children of English-born parents Allen Charles Lewis, businessman, and his wife Beatrice Agnes Monica, née Atkinson. Educated at The King’s School, Parramatta, John was an average student, matriculating in 1940 with straight Bs. His future was with his father’s construction company, where he gained experience while working as a billy-boy, making tea for the construction crews during school holidays from the age of eleven.

In 1941 Lewis began an engineering degree at the University of Sydney but, mobilised for service in World War II, enlisted in the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on 24 August 1942. He was promoted to midshipman (February 1943) and to acting (September) and confirmed (March 1944) sub-lieutenant, while serving in motor launches based in Sydney. In February 1945 he joined HMAS River Snake, which inserted Services Reconnaissance Department operatives on Japanese-occupied Roti (Rote) Island, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), in April. As first lieutenant of HMAS Nyanie, from July, he took part in the occupation of Ambon Island in September and briefly commanded the ship (October–November) in NEI waters. Returning to Sydney, he was promoted to lieutenant in March 1946 and demobilised on 29 May.

On his return to Australia, Lewis joined his father’s Concrete Constructions Pty Ltd, working first in Sydney on the Ryde Municipal Council’s postwar housing scheme before relocating to South Africa to gain experience with Lewis Construction Co. (South Africa) Ltd, an arm of Concrete Constructions. Working as a foreman, he later credited the time with developing his interest in the building industry. In 1950 he returned to Australia as a director of Lewis Constructions in Melbourne, moving to Sydney in 1952 as a director of Concrete Constructions. He married Mari Ann Livingston, a secretary, at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point, on 6 October 1955. Known by her middle name, Ann would take on the directorship of Gallery A at Paddington in 1964, rising to become one of the most significant gallerists, art collectors, and patrons in the country. The couple were well known for their extravagant dinner parties hosting some of the country’s best-known artists and collectors.

Lewis was made managing director of Concrete Constructions in 1958. It was the beginning of a period of rapid growth for the family-owned company as it tendered and won new projects for high-rise construction in Sydney. A major commission was the new Australian Mutual Provident Society headquarters building at Circular Quay, which at twenty-six storeys was Australia’s tallest building when opened in 1962. Later projects included the Centrepoint Tower, Westmead Hospital, and Quay Apartments in Sydney, and the Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne. The company’s biggest public contract was the building of new Parliament House in Canberra, which it undertook in conjunction with the civil engineering firm John Holland (Constructions) Pty Ltd. Beginning construction in 1981, the project made up for the partnership having missed out on their tender for the Sydney Opera House. It also marked a shift in relations with trade unions on Concrete Constructions worksites, with the company agreeing workers would be paid-up and card-carrying members to work on the site. In 1980 the business was described as Australia’s ‘largest privately-owned civil engineering and building company’ (Angly 1980, 100); by 1988 its annual turnover was nearly $1 billion. On his retirement, Lewis commented that he had probably ‘built more buildings than anyone in Australia’ (Concretes 1993, 4).

After his father’s death in 1970, Lewis took his seat as a board member of Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd as well as taking over as chairman of Concrete Constructions. John to his friends and JD to his business associates, he was an intensely private man. He reportedly kept up friendships with members of the concrete gangs he had worked with in his early years, while maintaining a hands-on approach to the business, frequently visiting work sites in progress. An avid sailor, he also held some interests in racehorses in the 1990s. In 1991 he was appointed AM. He retired from his company in June 1993 and died on 17 June 1996 at Rose Bay; he was cremated. His wife and their two daughters and two sons survived him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Angly, Patricia. ‘Inside the Company That Will Build the New Parliament.’ Bulletin, 9 September 1980, 100–104
  • Concretes. ‘It’s Always Been Enjoyable, Says John Lewis.’ 2, no. 2 (June 1993): 4
  • Dean, Anabel. ‘John Davan Lewis: Company Man.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1986, 25
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, LEWIS J D
  • National Archives of Australia. A6770, LEWIS J D
  • Zvirblis, Mark. ‘Construction Giant Built Reputation Set in Concrete.’ Australian, 4 July 1996, 14

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mark Dunn, 'Lewis, John Davan (1923–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewis-john-davan-32721/text40673, published online 2023, accessed online 20 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

2 September, 1923
Coogee, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

17 June, 1996 (aged 72)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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