William Davis (junior)
Born: 1821; Died: 1910; Married: Susan Adriana Palmer
William Davis (junior) is a controversial figure. He may only have lived in Ginninderra for about 22 years, but his impact in the region was significant. Arguably, he was the most influential of the Palmerville ‘squires’. To his credit, he turned the station into a model estate, fostered pastoral innovation and was a passionate advocate of sports, education, and the development of the community. After a violent beginning to white seizure of Aboriginal lands in the Limestone Plains, Davis was one of the first pastoralists to build positive relationships with local Ngunnawal people. He employed Indigenous stockmen at Palmerville and Indigenous cricketers were integral to the success of the early cricket teams he sponsored. However, his actions were not always commendable. He tried to influence voting for land reform in the local area and resisted the emergence of the small free holders after Robertson’s land reforms in 1861.
Davis was born at Bloxham in Oxfordshire in 1821 to William Davis (senior) and Elizabeth Jane Davis (nee Weston). His older siblings, Mary and John, were friendly with the Broughton family (early settlers of the Goulburn district) and travelled with them to Australia. William arrived in the colony himself on the Alfred in 1837.
He was first employed as a bank clerk in Goulburn and then by Charles Campbell at Duntroon station. With his brother, Henry Davis, he drove a large herd of cattle from Canberra overland to Adelaide in 1847. He also helped establish a cattle station in Gippsland for the Palmer family, the original ‘squires’ of Ginninderra. Around 1845 George Thomas Palmer (junior) had taken over the running of the burgeoning 11,729-acre Palmerville estate on behalf of his father who had returned to Somerset. In about 1849 the Palmers contracted Davis to manage the property for them. Davis turned the estate into a model pastoral enterprise.
In 1850, Davis became Palmer’s brother-in-law when he married Susan Adriana Palmer. When George Thomas Palmer (senior) died in England in 1854, the estate was left to Susan. As her husband, William Davis, now found himself in effective control of Palmerville.
He purchased more land and built Palmerville into the premier wheat, sheep and cattle station of the Limestone Plains. He introduced rust-resistant wheat strains from Adelaide. According to the Queanbeyan press, he ran ‘the best-ordered establishment … in the colony’ (Queanbeyan Golden Age, 1863). In 1862 Davis built a fine new home at Goongarline (now Gungahlin). He was a lover of most sports, particularly horse racing, shooting and cricket. He was widely considered the ‘father’ of Canberra/Queanbeyan cricket. The Ginninderra cricket teams were considered by some to be the best in the colony. Special matches were often followed by dances with a brass band and fireworks displays.
Lyall Gillespie, in his article on Davis in the Australian Dictionary of Biography described him as a progressive employer with an interest in education and law.
A generous and considerate employer, in 1857 Davis had established a school in a room in old Ginninderra on the estate and about two years later introduced a weekly half-day holiday for his employees, championing the introduction of such a holiday throughout the district. A justice of the peace, he sat on the Queanbeyan Bench of Magistrates.
As mentioned in the introduction, Davis tried to resist the emergence of the small free selectors after the NSW land reforms of 1861, which broke the long-standing dominance of the squatters and large-landholders. One local selector, Samuel Shumack, who witnessed this dramatic change at his own family’s 100-acre selection at Weetangerra, described the resentment of Davis to these developments.
William Davis - who was father’s employer and the squatter on whose land we selected - has 20,000 acres, excluding some thousands of acres of Crown land for which he paid very little, yet he resented our efforts to strike out for ourselves and laughed at what he derisively called ‘Shumack’s Folly’. ‘Three years’, he said, ‘will see Shumack and his family sadder and wiser, for shortage of water will drive them out.’ His prophecy miscarried!
It is also reported that he and other landholders deliberately misinformed their workers and tenants on the issue and manipulated the timing of shifts to make it difficult for voters who they knew to be in favour of Robertson’s reforms to get to polling booths.
It is said that in 1877, after the sudden death in a horse race of his nephew, Ernest, who had been managing the estate for him, Davis was ‘devastated’. He was very close to the young man and saw him as his successor, having no children of his own. Davis then employed Edward Crace as the new manager, but they did not see eye-to-eye. He soon sold his Ginninderra and Gungahlin properties to Crace and retired to Woodhouselee near Goulburn.
Susan died in 1902 and William followed her in 1910.
- Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, Melbourne, 1967; and Supplementary Volume, Canberra, 2005
- Body, A. H., Firm Still You Stand: the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, Its Parish and Parishoners, 1841-1984, Canberra, 1986
- Brown, N., A History of Canberra, Port Melbourne, 2014
- Faunce, T., ‘Alured Tasker Faunce and William Davis: The Founder and the Champion of Early Cricket and its Values in the Queanbeyan Canberra Region’, Paper presented to the Canberra District Historical Society 13 May 2014.
- Gillespie, L. L., Aborigines of the Canberra Region, Campbell, 1984
- Gillespie, L. L., Canberra: 1820-1913, Canberra, 1991
- Gillespie, L. L., Ginninderra: Forerunner to Canberra, Campbell, 1992
- Meyers D. (ed. K. Frawley), Lairds, Lags and Larrikins: an Early History of the Limestone Plains, Pearce, 2010
- Palmer, J., ‘The Palmers of Ginninderra’, CHJ, n.s. no. 2 (1978), pp. 26-31
- Shumack, S. An Autobiography, or, Tales and Legends of Canberra Pioneers (ed. J. E. and S. Shumack), Canberra, 1967
- Various editions of the Queanbeyan Age