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.
Obituary. Mr. William Davis, J.P. [1821-1910]
During the past week the deaths have occurred and been announced of two prominent residents of Queanbeyan and district. In our last issue we briefly chronicled the departure of one of these; whose death occurred suddenly shortly before seven o'clock on Wednesday evening last at the residence of his son-in-law, Mr. W. J. McKay, at Brisbane Grove, near Goulburn. An hour or so prior to his death he had been pruning his trees when he fell, but was able to reach the house. However, heart failure followed, and he died shortly after.
Up to the time of his death he had enjoyed wonderfully good health, although in the ordinary course of events, his immediate friends had noticed lately a falling-off in his customary activity. As one of the pioneer residents of this district, a gentleman of position and influence, who took a prominent part in the affairs of the district in the bygone times, and whose memory will be cherished by the few of his compeers who still survive him, his passing calls for more than a bald statement of the fact. His memoirs are, indeed, part and parcel of the early history of the district ; and on that score we are sure the details and incidents we are about to record will be read with avidity by the older residents, and to the enlightenment of the later generation.
Back in the early days --- in the thirties of the last century --- Mr. William Davis, senior, father of the subject of these memorials, purchased Booroomba, the estate over the Murrumbidgee River, since so magnificently improved and extended by the enterprise of the McKeahnies into whose possession it fell by purchase, and where Mr. C. H. McKeahnie, J.P., is now so successfully, and with his characteristic enterprise, carrying on his stock-raising and other pastoral pursuits. There with his parents, his sister and three brothers, Mr. William Davis, jun., spent the days of his boyhood and youth. The family had, not long before they took possession of Booroomba, emigrated from Tiverton, Devonshire, England.
In his early manhood the deceased gentleman took charge of some pastoral properties on the county Murray side of the river, and shortly afterwards, he purchased the Ginninderra estate which he occupied for many years, and during his residence there, upon the passing of Sir John Robertson's Land Act in 1861, free-selected the now magnificent estate of Gungahlin. It is upwards of 20 years ago since he sold both Gininderra and Gungahleen to the late Mr. E. K. Crace, father of the popular president of the Yarralumla Shire Council, and purchased a fine property known as Leeston, near Woodhouselee, in the Goulburn district, which he vastly improved, and where he resided till advancing years led to his retirement from active pastoral pursuits and with the determination to spend the evening of his life reposefully in Goulburn, where he passed away as stated.
Mr. Davis married a sister of the late Mr. P. C. Palmer of Jerrabomberra. She died in the Goulburn district some years ago, as also did the father, who on retiring from Booroomba, resided with his son. Mr. Davis left no family, Mrs. W. J. McKay at whose residence he died, being an adopted child. Two of his brothers, Fred and Harold, and his sister (Mrs. Cameron) survive him. In the passing of William Davis, departs the last survivor of the principal old pioneer land-owners of the district - the first generations of the Campbells, Cunninghams, Davises, Halls, Hayleys, Masseys, McLeods, Murrays, Powells, Rutledges, Wrights (Cuppacumbalong) and others.
The writer of these memoirs, who was in frequent correspondence during his lifetime with the late venerable Usher of the Black Rod in the State Parliament of New South Wales, (Mr. S. W. Mowle, who once resided at Duntroon) feels justified in quoting this pathetic passage from one of his last letters, written just before his death : " I am now a lonely, aged man. All my old associates in your beautiful Queanbeyan district are gone, save one, Mr. William Davis. Which one of us will be the last survivor?" This record furnishes the answer. Mr. Davis was all his life time a leader of popular sports and pastimes in the Queanbeyan district. Under his captaincy the old, original and invincible Gininderra Cricket Club became the most famous in the colony. It included a couple of aborigines – Bobby, and another whose name does not now occur to the writer. There are few of these players yet alive, but they include Messrs. T. Gribble and E. Holland.
But it was not cricket only in which the deceased gentleman excelled. He was a lover of good horses, and kept a racing stable. But he was weaned of his love for horseracing by a fatal accident which befell his nephew (Ernest Palmer) in the Queanbeyan Park during a horse-jumping contest there. Out beyond Woodhouselee on an elevated site alongside the road stands a beautiful memorial church, erected by Mr. Davis to the memory of his ill-fated nephew.
As a shot, with rifle or fowling-piece, he was all but peerless. On one occasion whilst shooting and fishing on the Murrumbidgee, down near Yeumburra, the writer sat with the deceased after breakfast while the rest of the party were away looking after their lines, when a fine wedge-tailed eagle was seen to alight on a tree on the range across the river some 800 yards distant. The bird was not visible in the thick foliage, but the bullet sped on its message. A momentary flapping of the huge wings was the only answer ; the distance and foliage rendered it impossible to see whether the bird fell. He certainly did not fly away.
Later on that same morning one of the party came back to the camp breathless and scared. He had been chased by a mad bullock half-a-mile down the flat. Mr. Davis, taking up his rifle, and observing "That brute is not fit to be let live," asked some of the party to accompany him to the shooting of it. Four of them went ; but there was only one rifle. In due time the enraged beast was sighted, and first pawing the ground he came on to charge the party. " Don't one of you move ; keep shoulder to shoulder close to me," said the man with the rifle. On came the beast ; and when within less than ten yards of the party, and with a bullet in his forehead, he fell dead almost at their feet.
There is an episode of the bushranging days, in which Mr. Davis played a conspicuous part, well worth relating here, as furnishing another instance of his coolness and intrepidity. Returning from Goulburn on the mail-coach with only another passenger, at the foot of Geary's Gap hill, coming up out of Lake George; as the custom was, the two gentlemen alighted while the lumbering coach ascended the pinch. At the top of the hill, while the horses were getting their breath, the two gentlemen afoot saw three men come out of the bush and interview the driver. They were the bushrangers Hall, Gilbert and Dunn. Then the mail bags began to be thrown out, and one of the men took up a rifle (Mr. Davis's, which he had left in the coach), and looking down the road, exclaimed, "Come on, Mr. Davis ; you've lost your chance this time. You have long been threatening to pot Ben Hall at sight whenever you met him. Now take my advice, for I am Ben Hall; and in future always carry your rifle in your hands when travelling if you intend to put your threat into execution."
Then relieving him also of his gold watch and bead-worked waistbelt, which, with the rifle the bushranger said he would keep as souvenirs of a brave man and dead-sure shot, and having rifled the mail-bags, the coach and party were allowed to go on their way without further molestation. The most curious thing connected with this episode is that when Ben Hall, outlawed, some years afterwards, met his death at the hands of the police, he carried Mr. Davis's rifle, watch and waist belt, the latter being perforated by one or more bullets from the police rifles. They were duly returned to their owner, who doubtless valued them all the more for their strange history.
Mr. Davis was an expert also at billiards which was his favourite pastime in his declining years. He never lost his attachment to his old friends and old scenes around Queanbeyan. It is not so long ago that he gave a gramophone entertainment here for the benefit of the Queanbeyan hospital. His funeral took place last Friday after-noon, the remains being interred in the old Church of England cemetery at Goulburn. Some of the officers of the Goulburn Club, of which Mr. Davis was a vice-president, attended.
[Queanbeyan Age), Tuesday 19 July 1910, p 2]
- 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