John Davis 1821-1861

Love and money put the heart at risk

1 Birr Main st

This is the fifth in a series of articles here on the family of William Davis, an Irish rebel of 1798 who was exiled to Australia, and there became very wealthy. He was known to all as the Wexford Pikemaker, rumoured to have been making weapons for the uprising, although nobody knows for sure. In Australia he worked as a publican in Sydney, obtained his freedom, and bought land. A lot of land; some of which he donated to the Catholic church and on which was built Saint Patricks Cathedral in the Rocks district of Sydney. Earlier articles have been on William’s adopted son Joseph, that Joseph’s children, on Joseph’s possible father, another Joseph, and on William himself. Now here is the story of William’s grand nephew and heir, John.
He was one of my great great grandmother’s brothers and had a fairytale kind of life. He was lifted suddenly into great wealth through an unexpected bequest at age 20, sailed to Australia and met the love of his life on the voyage, and for a time was the soul of generosity to his friends and relations, and the proud father of a growing family. Then his wife died, aged only 35. He was prosecuted, he thought unfairly, by the husband of a woman whose guardian he was, and stripped of much of his wealth. He retired to a country town, where he had a short, unsuccessful career as a publican, and died suddenly two years later. He was only 40.

John Davis was the son of a coach builder of Dublin also called John. John the son was born about 1821, it is thought in Birr, in County Offaly, then called Parsonstown, King’s County, which was about 130 km due west of Dublin town. His father John had married a woman called Catherine Morris about 1805, perhaps in Birr. There was a family of at least six children, and two of the sons, if not all, assisted their father in his business by working as a coach smith, forming the metal undercarriage for each vehicle.

2 Birr

In a letter of 05 July 1843 to her son John in Sydney, his mother Catherine Morris gives the news from home. We learn that the eldest son, Michael, is doing well in Dublin (he was a coach builder as well, located in 1850 at 13 Mark Street), that the children’s father John has as much work in that line as he can do, and that three other children, Catherine, Mary Anne (who was apprenticed to a dress maker) and the youngest, James, are all in Dublin, and that she herself has just returned from there. Twelve months later, in another letter, Catherine refers to the death of her second son, Patrick, who had died aged only 23. Two of these children, James and Mary Anne, were to join their brother John in Sydney.

Judging by surviving records John, and presumably the other sons of the family, was given a good education. He is fluent in his language, well informed, ‘polite’ in the contemporary sense of being civilised, and had no trouble at assuming the role of a gentleman in Sydney. His mother Catherine, who was uneducated herself, may have insisted on this. In her letters she shows herself very solicitous for her family’s welfare.

This Davis family, like many Irish people, had been involved in the desperate uprising of 1798 in which the Irish had tried to throw off the exploitative and destructive rule of England, with the help of the French (whose own revolution of nine years earlier was about to be terminated by Napoleon). One of the centres of revolt was County Wexford. A publican of Birr who was a brother of the younger John Davis’ grandfather, and whose name was William Davis, was captured by the English, believed to be making pikes (short spears) to arm the rebels. He was transported for life to Australia, without a trial, in 1799, and became known as the Wexford Pikemaker. This William prospered in Australia, and shortly before his death wrote to the family in Birr in about 1840 and nominated John Davis the younger, his grand nephew, as his heir.

Assessing how wealthy William Davis was is difficult, but his holdings included 17 houses and their land all located in Sydney’s Rocks district near Circular Quay, and 1200 acres of farmland out of Sydney, as well as an unknown amount of money, shares and personal property. He was probably, at today’s prices, a billionaire. His assets would have been worth many thousands of British pounds at his death in 1843. Now, suddenly, he nominated a 20 year old grand nephew to inherit and administer all this. I think myself William wanted his nephew John the coach builder to be his heir. This John comes first in William’s list of bequests, and was likely first in his thoughts as he drew up his will, and William would have known this John the elder well, who had been running a successful coach building business in Dublin for many years. John would not, or could not, come to Australia, and may have nominated his son John in his place.

3 Bridge st Birr

The suddenly chosen heir, John Davis, departed Liverpool on 06 November 1841 on the ship Sir Charles Napier, and arrived in Sydney 10 April 1842 (the shipping list refers to a John Davies, 24, a blacksmith living at Dublin, parents John and Catherine, which fits reasonably closely with what we know of John Davis). Later John testified in a court case that he had left Ireland November 1841. Also on board the Sir Charles Napier were two sisters, Rose and Mary Dooling, whose name is also spelt Dowling, Doolan and several other ways. They came from a hamlet near the town of Athy in Laois, or Queen’s County. The girls were under the care of a Patrick Linegar and his wife. John formed a close friendship with both sisters, and refers fondly to one, Rose, who married a Thomas Carew and migrated to San Francisco, in a surviving letter to Thomas.

John Davis married the girl he met on the immigrant ship, Mary Dowling, on 10 January 1844 in St Marys Cathedral. There were three known children of the marriage, William, born 1846, John Jerome, born 1847, and Mary, born 1848. Suddenly, on 17 October 1852, Mary, John’s wife, died of unknown causes at his home in Harrington Street in the Rocks. She was 35.

Writing to his friend in San Francisco Thomas Carew 29 August 1855, John says “I feel anxious to hear how Rose and the children are. John must be a fine boy by this time, I suppose he entirely forgets his uncle. If so it is not much to be wondered at as he left here so young. Tom and little William I hope are also well. Let me know if you get constant employment and in what circumstances you are living. It is with great pleasure I tell you that my children are all well. William is grown a beautiful boy, tall and manly, not losing any youthful handsome features. He is fast improving in his education, he is at boarding school with Mrs Cahill in Liverpool. John Jerome is with him as well, growing a fine little fellow. A short time back I put them into their first jacket and trousers which becomes them very well. Mary is at home with me. She is not as well as the boys, she is suffering from the effects of a cold she got some long time back…I intend (if possible) in another year or two to either take or send William to Ireland to have him educated.”
Of the children of John’s marriage to Mary Dowling, John’s son William became General Manager of Tooheys Ltd, married Bridget Ryan, child of a family from Tipperary living in Braidwood, in 1883 and had children of his own. John Jerome died in 1884 unmarried, and Mary became a Sister of Charity, Mother Mary Gertrude.

4 Telescope inn Birr

In 1851 more Davis family members arrived from Birr. John’s brother James Morris Davis, and his sister Mary Ann, my great great grandmother, arrived in Sydney on the ship The Duchess of Northumberland, and were provided for by the generous heir at his house in Harrington Street in the Rocks.

William Davis the Pikemaker had entrusted to the care of John his heir the guardianship of three young children of his adopted son Joseph, who had disappeared, believed dead, in 1835. This responsibility was about to cause John a lot of trouble, and led, indirectly, to his financial ruin. The trouble started when Catherine, one of John’s wards, married John Carew in 1852. John Carew had come from Kilfeakle in Tipperary, arriving in Sydney in 1839 with his family on the ship China. He had some legal training, and eventually became a barrister in Queensland. Now he took John Davis to court, alleging that the monies spent on Catherine’s upkeep and education should have come from William Davis’ estate, not that portion of it left to Catherine in William’s will, and laid a claim on the estate for restitution. John Davis had not made any separation of monies according to the will, providing for the wards as needed from his inheritance, and was caught by surprise by the claim, which the court upheld. In the letter to Thomas Carew referred to above, dated 1855, John Davis refers bitterly to Thomas’ brother John’s behaviour, which was unexpected, as the Carews had been living at John’s expense in his house for some time.

“I frequently see your brother John, he appears to be very well, but as we do not speak to each other I can say little of him. About May 1853 he and family came to live in my house where they stayed for eleven months, themselves and servant, living at my expense. At the end of that time they left and almost the first I seen or heard of him or them afterwards was a lawyer’s letter demanding from me the money I spent in clothing, feeding and educating Catherine [John’s ward, John Carew’s wife]. He says I had a right to do all these things out of my own pocket and not out of the rents of the two houses left to her by old Billy. There is an action now pending in the Supreme Court on the matter, this is why we are not as great as ever. I could not think of meeting the man with a view of friendship who after living in my house free of rent, and himself and family eating and drinking also free of expense for the space of eleven months, and when this man’s first act after almost exhausting my generosity, a dunning letter to exhort a large sum of money. I became disgusted at his display of ingratitude and since pass him as a stranger. For nearly three years I suffered a great deal such treatment. I became tired of the way I was living, plucked by everyone who I had any dealing with. I determined to change my way of life. So necessity compelled me to again marry which I did last February. The person who I have married is a young woman from my own town and namesake and a distant relative. So since them my life is something more comfortable”.

What was worse, John Carew’s successful action at law led to a series of other claims on the Davis estate on similar grounds. There were five actions in 1859 alone, Davis and Ryan, Nolan and Wife, James Davis, William Davis, Brierley and others, all v. John Davis. That year John Davis had to declare himself bankrupt. He sold his house in Sydney, mortgaged other properties, and moved to the country town of Braidwood. His life of generosity and liberality was over.

5 Braidwood

Just a month before his lost court case in 1855 John Davis had remarried. His second wife was Mary Davis, the daughter of a cousin of John’s called William whom John had invited to join him with his family, and who arrived from Ireland in 1855 on the ship Gloriana. This William was another beneficiary of the Pikemaker’s will. His daughter had arrived in Sydney earlier, and had met John Davis the heir. The cousins were married 12 February 1855 in St Patricks, the church that William the Pikemaker had founded in the Rocks area of Sydney. There were two surviving children of the marriage, Henry Joseph, who died young, and Thomas, who married Amelia Tyerman, the daughter of a controversial C of E preacher who adopted and lectured on the precepts of Spiritualism and incurred the wrath of church goers as a result.

In 1859 John Davis moved from Sydney to the gold mining town of Braidwood with his family, and probably William, his second wife’s father, and two of William’s sons who had emigrated with him on the Gloriana. John purchased the Odd Fellows Arms inn in Cowper Street from Henry Sherriff Potter together with his brother James Morris Davis. Both brothers and their families lived there, until a disagreement in 1860 dissolved the partnership. In 1860 John became licensee of The Prince of Wales Inn, formerly The Dog and Stile, in Mackellar Street Braidwood. There were now at least five closely related Davis families living at Braidwood.

6 Braidwood1

Then, on 17 October 1861 the Herald had a death notice. “On the 15th instant, at Braidwood, after a few days’ illness, Mr John Davis late of Harrington Street”. The unexpected death required an inquest be held. It was concluded that while in a poor state of health John had had a sudden shock (“of a pecuniary nature”). He was ill for four days, then died. He is buried in the Davis plot at Braidwood, together with his second wife’s father William, and his wife’s second husband John Hurley.

John Davis never seemed to recover from the death of his first wife Mary Dowling. There is a letter from John’s mother Catherine Morris dated 1844, when John was first married and beginning to raise a family, which complains bitterly at not hearing from him, and warns him about false friends, and about drinking too much. It seems likely that John’s drinking did increase as things went wrong for him, and that drink and lack of care were the cause of his death; that, and a persistent brooding over having been betrayed by those he was generous to.

7 Braidwood hotel

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


4 thoughts on “John Davis 1821-1861

    1. Thanks Vince. I’ve added the info to my database. Named I suppose for his mother, who only six months earlier had chided him in a letter for neglect, and warned him of ‘bad company’.

  1. It’s actually St Patrick’s Church at Church Hill, Now known as The Rocks. Named chuch hill because st Phillips had already been built across from the site if at patricks. Also, William Davies (don’t know if you know) donated a cheque of 1000 pounds on the day of the laying of the foundation stone of st patricks. He died only approx 6 months before the chuch was completed.

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