1813-1872 | Tasmania | Publisher
John Davies was a convicted fraudster when he was transported to NSW for seven years at the age of 18 in 1830. Twenty years later he took his family to Tasmania and in 1854 he founded The Mercury. As sole proprietor, Davies turned it into a daily and absorbed four other papers so that it became Hobart’s only daily by 1860. The Mercury stayed in the family for four generations over more than a century until it became a wholly-owned subsidiary of the News group in 1988.
John Davies was not one for standing aloof from the crowd. The former convict knew what a hard life was all about. So, he mucked in, getting his hands grimy and sometimes his knuckles bloodied.
The founder of the Tasmanian newspaper dynasty, controlled by the Davies family for more than a century, was a tough, uncompromising publisher, driven by a strong sense of social justice. He wielded his influence as a newspaperman not just through the columns of the Hobarton Mercury but also on the streets of the Tasmanian capital, in the Tasmanian Parliament, and in often unheralded good works.
Davies was never afraid of a fight, be it in the refined air of the Parliament or in settling an argument with his fists. Editors weren’t immune either. In 1860 he was convicted of assaulting one Samuel Prout Hill, who was editor of his newspaper at the time – and remained so for another year. He also had several brawls on the street with T.C. Yates, editor of the Daily News, and with J.C. Hall of the Hobart Town Advertiser. Who emerged victorious is not recorded, but Davies won the battle for power by taking over both papers.
Davies was equally fearless in helping his fellow citizens in need, putting the welfare of others before his personal health and safety – and that led to his untimely death at the age of 59. After going to the aid of fellow Hobartians made homeless by devastating floods, he fell gravely ill and died just days later, on 11 June 1872. As the obituary in his own newspaper noted on 15 June 1872: “Whenever the public interest was to be promoted or defended, he was at his post.”
It was a career dusted with grit, not glitter, born of hard graft, energy, ambition and perseverance chaffing against the social burden of the convict stain. As a Jew, Davies was also the victim of religious bigotry, being consigned to the back of the synagogue because he had married an Anglican. He finally left the Jewish faith, converted to the Church of England and was buried with the full rights of that church.
Davies was convicted of fraud in Middlesex Court, England, on 6 December 1830 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He arrived on the convict ship Argyle in Hobart Town in August 1831. He was 18.
There is no evidence but given Davies’ nature of not letting obstacles stand in his way there is a possibility he committed fraud so he could join his family in Australia. His father had been transported for seven years in July 1830, arriving in NSW with his wife, two sons and three daughters that December.
John Davies was reunited with his family in 1834 and was discharged as a convict in October 1837. He then worked variously as a police officer and clerk, interspersed with the first stirrings of interest in journalism.
He became a reporter with the Port Phillip Gazette in Melbourne in 1842 with a reputation as an aggressive campaigner for causes, before returning to the law as the chief constable in Wellington, Victoria.
It was his move to Van Diemen’s Land in 1850 with his wife and two sons that established him as a public figure.
It was a pivotal time in the island’s development, just 47 years after the first settlement. Transportation ended in 1853 and the population slumped as Tasmanians joined the Victorian gold rush from 1851. However, the colony was maturing socially and politically with a more assertive business and merchant class. The edge had been taken off Hobart Town’s wild reputation that had reached its apogee during its days as a major whaling port; it was declared a city in 1842 and when it became a municipality in 1852 it was Australia’s third largest city.
In 1856 Van Diemen’s Land, a name synonymous with the convict era, became Tasmania. Hobart Town became simply Hobart in 1881.
Part of that new vibrancy was a brace of lively local newspapers, carrying not just news but also strident opinions and robust debates. Into that milieu, already armed with a taste for the influence of journalism, stepped an ambitious and strong-willed John Davies.
In 1852, after operating a hotel at Brighton, he bought the Waterloo Hotel in Hobart. In a mix of occupations that would delight many an old hack to this day, Davies also started publishing a newspaper, the Hobarton Guardian.
The Waterloo is long gone but there remains a link with the Davies dynasty. The site on the corner of Davey and Murray streets is now the home of legal firm Butler McIntyre and Butler, which offers legal advice to the editor of The Mercury today – and in a much more refined manner than Davies had of dealing with his critics.
Davies’ partner in the Guardian was a wealthy pastoralist, but just weeks later the paper morphed into the Hobarton Mercury, first published on 5 July 1854 as a bi-weekly. By September, Davies was the sole owner.
In February 1857, the name was changed to The Hobart Town Mercury, and on New Year’s Day 1858, after absorbing the motley opposition - the Colonial Times, Tasmanian Daily News, the Daily Courier and the Hobart Town Courier - the newspaper became a daily. Finally, it became simply The Mercury on 2 July 1860.
From the strong foundation of his newspaper proprietorship, Davies became an influential and sometimes divisive figure. He vigorously championed causes – from building railways and bridges, sponsoring the arts as the owner of Hobart’s Theatre Royal, to helping the poor and the needy using his own resources. But he always maintained political independence as a proprietor, and as a member of the Tasmanian Parliament from 1862.
The Tasmanian Tribune, a competitor that started publication in April 1872, remarked upon Davies’ death that as the principal newspaper in Hobart The Mercury “gave Mr John Davies an almost overwhelming influence not only over the Legislature but over the whole social structure of Hobart Town.”
The Tribune, a minnow competing with a whale, closed in July 1876 and to this day the newspaper empire Davies founded has never been seriously challenged in the Tasmanian market.
On the death of John Davies, his two sons, John George (later knighted) and Charles Ellis took over, with C.E, as he was known, heading the business from 1872 until his death in 1921.
John Davies’ great grandson, George (Bill) Davies, best known universally and affectionately from the workshop to the boardroom as G.F, was the last Davies to run the business as managing director. He retired in December 1971 but remained chairman of directors.
After more than a century dominating the media landscape in Tasmania as Hobart’s only daily newspaper, the Davies family business eventually succumbed to the overtures of the giant Melbourne group Herald and Weekly Times in 1964. G.F Davies remarked that Davies Brothers Limited was now “placed securely under the umbrella of that powerful newspaper group.”
When Rupert Murdoch’s global behemoth, News Ltd, took over the Herald and Weekly Times in 1988, it scooped up the empire John Davies founded. And, in an acknowledgment of the rich history that came with its acquisition of Australia’s mostly southerly newspaper group, News Ltd has retained the business name, Davies Brothers Pty Ltd to this day.
The plain-talking, pugnacious, opinionated and ambitious John Davies – convict, police officer, publican, journalist, politician, philanthropist, campaigner, and a media mogul of his day – would be well pleased.
Garry Bailey started at The Mercury as a cadet on Australia Day, 1969, and spent all bar two years of his 43 years in journalism at the paper. He was editor of The Mercury, The Sunday Tasmanian and associated publications from November 2001 to January 2012.
Portrait of John Davies by photographer J.W. Beattie. Courtesy of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office.
'Davies, John (1813–1872)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, F.C Green, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972
Mercury (Hobart) obituary, 15 June 1872, on Obituaries Australia