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Davies, Bruce Richard (1925–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

There are inspired public works and planning decisions that seem eminently sensible, such as turning the former Ultimo powerhouse into a museum, the transfer of former Commonwealth land on Sydney Harbour to the state as dedicated public space and the preservation of stock routes throughout the state.

For all these decisions, there has to have been someone who had the foresight and skill to bring them into being. Such a person was Bruce Davies, who, at the peak of his public service career, headed the Premier's Department for four years and demonstrated an ability to think outside the square and to break established moulds.

With the transfer of Commonwealth harbour lands, which became the core of the Sydney Harbour National Park, a vexed question arose over their valuation. Over lunch with the head of the Prime Minister's Department, Davies suggested no money should be involved and therefore no valuation.

The agreement was made, before the end of the meal, that the land would be handed over and the state agree not to sell or use it commercially.

Bruce Richard Davies was born on January 8, 1925, son of a box maker, Richard, and Ethel (nee Merrick) and grew up in the south-western suburbs of Sydney. When he was an infant, he and his brother, Raymond, suffered a severe dose of influenza. Richard survived but Raymond did not.

Richard attended Canterbury Boys High, a selective school, and excelled academically. For the school athletics championships, he trained in secret for months, then entered every event and won them all, tackling distance running events by sprinting.

Davies joined the NSW public service in 1942 as a cadet in the Registrar-General's Department, then joined the naval reserve the next year. His planning ability and flexibility were soon recognised and he was transferred to Canonbury Hospital at Darling Point, where, after two weeks' training, he was put to work as an anaesthetist.

After the war, Davies returned to the Registrar-General's office and undertook an accelerated law degree at Sydney University, graduating in 1949. He was admitted to the bar and worked as a legal officer in the department. In October 1947, he married Gwen Eldridge, who had helped him study.

Davies was not a stereotypical public servant. He identified serious problems in the lands title system in NSW due to its cumbersome filing. Although only a 35-year-old junior, he approached the Registrar-General himself. This man saw the merit of what Davies said and gave him the job of special deputy registrar.

Davies then made many staff redundant – the first such large-scale moves in government – and brought in 200 photocopiers at a time when this new technology was not appreciated. He established a new administrative system and changed the definition of an original document, allowing for certified copies.

Appointed deputy head of the department, Davies undertook wider reforms. His land title reforms were so good they were adopted by other countries and he worked with several governments to implement change. In 1965, Davies was appointed deputy head of the Premier's Department, before heading the department in 1973.

Ministers who had attended meetings would often contact him, sometimes weeks later, to obtain details of what was discussed. Davies, who was a meticulous record-keeper, would fill them in.

When Neville Wran became Premier in 1976, Davies worked with him. Wran later said he had a great deal of respect for Davies, who had given him committed and unbiased guidance in his first year in office. But Wran chose someone else to head the department and offered Davies the position of Registrar-General and permanent head of the Lands Department.

He spent the next seven years reorganising, introducing new programs and initiating significant projects.

From 1981-84, he was the permanent head of the Department of Local Government. Davies retired in 1985 and had a range of outside interests, including a commitment to the Anglican Church. He loved travelling, especially to Japan, and for a period was the president of the Australia-Japan Society of NSW. He also played tennis and loved singing, jazz and classical music.

Saddened by the death of his archaeologist son Martin, who fell down a cliff in the Antarctic in 1995, and the declining health of his wife, he then committed himself to his family.

Bruce Davies is survived by his son Paul, his grandchildren, Chris and Aidan, and his daughter-in-law, Jenny.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 2011

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Davies, Bruce Richard (1925–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2020.

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