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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Davis, Thomas Martin (1856–1899)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Thomas Martin Davis (1856-1899), trade unionist and politician, was born on 22 January 1856 at Redditch, Worcestershire, England, son of Thomas Davis, fruit merchant, and his wife Ann, née Martin. At 3 he moved to Glasgow with his family. Educated at Glasgow High School and Garnet Bank Academy, at 13 he went to France to learn the language. In 1871-75 he worked at sea, interspersed with some light military experience in South Africa, service as an inspector of the railway line across the Sabi desert in India, and employment as an interpreter in the mines in New Caledonia. About 1876 he settled in Sydney.

Davis continued as a seaman and became a prominent trade unionist. In 1886 he was elected secretary of the Federated Seamen's Union; he was also secretary of its New South Wales branch and was active in the local Maritime Council. That year he was a member of a conference of shipowners and trade unionists which tried, unsuccessfully, to solve growing wages and conditions problems in the industry. In the late 1880s he played an important part in the shipping events that preceded the 1890 maritime strike. During the strike he was on the Labour Defence Committee which controlled the dispute in New South Wales, and on the Intercolonial Labour Conference which tried to control it nation wide; after the strike, he was a member of the royal commission that investigated and reported on it in 1891. His shrewd questioning at the inquiry elucidated many obscure aspects of the strike.

Davis was a foundation member of the West Sydney Labor League in 1891, and was selected as a candidate at the elections that year when Labor won thirty-five seats, including four at West Sydney, an inner-city, waterfront electorate. He was elected the first party whip and, with a clear view of the need for political independence and party solidarity, was one of the few members to remain loyal to conference decisions in 1891-94. He was re-elected in 1894 and 1895 (Sydney-Pyrmont from 1894). On 9 May 1892 at St Barnabas Anglican Church he married Jessie Shaw; they lived at Ashfield.

In parliament he concentrated on shipping problems, primarily to improve working conditions but also to modernize the industry. In evidence in 1897 to the royal commission on the marine board he stressed the need for a fully representative body and said that the Legislative Council had blocked his marine board reconstruction bill. By 1898 Davis, with his weight rapidly increasing, was seriously ill. He did not nominate for the July elections and died of heart valve incompetence on 14 July 1899, survived by his wife and three sons. He was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Royal Commission on Strikes (Syd, 1891)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1897, 7, 511
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 15 June 1894.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Davis, Thomas Martin (1856–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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