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Davies, John (1813–1872)

from Mercury (Hobart)

We believe we [in] no ways exaggerate public feeling when we say that seldom has there been such a general expression of regret as was caused yesterday forenoon by the unexpected death of Mr. John Davies, so long connected with this journal. The news spread over the city with remarkable celerity. Few could realise the fact that one so lately taking a prominent part among us had been removed from his sphere of usefulness; and all spoke as if a calamity had befallen the community. The sad event was the subject of general conversation and regret. A gloom overspread the city. Did we consult our own feelings we should have abstained from speaking of the career of the remarkable man whose "sun is gone down while it was yet day," for we feel we are unequal to the subject; and by silence we believe we should have followed the course that would have been most consistent with the wishes, had he had time to express them, of the deceased gentleman. But some allusion will be expected of us to one who has for so long a time exercised no little influence on the public affairs of Tasmania; an influence that even those who differed most from his views were prepared to admit, was always directed to the public good. Had his patriotism and public spirit been less a guiding principle with him, and had he been more self-seeking, it might have been better for the interests of himself and his family, but it will scarcely admit of question that Tasmania, which some make it so much the custom to decry, would not have occupied the favourable position it does. We have no desire to claim for Mr. Davies exertions in behalf' of every public, and every good work, any undue importance, but the citizens of Hobart Town, and the Colonists of Tasmania do not require to be told that wherever the public interest was to be promoted or defended, he was at his post; and that wherever distress presented itself, his sympathy was not confined to pecuniary assistance. His personal labours were ungrudgingly bestowed, and many a widow and fatherless family have had occasion to thank his good offices for securing them substantial help. Whatever in the cause of suffering humanity he took in hand, he spared no pains in carrying out. Into this, as into his own business, he carried unflinching energy and perseverance, and with nothing less than complete success was he satisfied. 

As a man of business he had few equals. Eighteen years ago having purchased the Guardian newspaper he, in partnership with another gentleman, started The Mercury, under by no means encouraging circumstances. But he was not a man to be easily daunted. In a few weeks he became the sole proprietor. Of the results of his labours it is not for us to speak; but not a few are yet alive who can contrast Tasmanian journalism of the present day with that of twenty years ago. In the conduct of The Mercury Mr. Davies brought to bear a long experience connected with the press in India and in the neighbouring Colonies; and in its management he displayed that strong common sense which was a distinguishing trait in his character. 

Almost as a necessary consequence of his being a journalist in a young Colony, Mr. Davies became a politician and a public man. It is not our purpose to follow him through his career, but we may not pass over a few of its more salient points. He first offered himself as a candidate for Parliamentary honours at the general election of 1861, and was returned second on the poll for Hobart Town. That honour he resigned in consequence of an interpretation of the law as to the insertion of Government advertisements in The Mercury constituting him a Government contractor, an interpretation that was at the time very much questioned. The following year he was elected for Devon, and continued to represent that constituency in the Assembly till the last general election, when he was defeated under circumstances that it is not necessary to further refer to than to say that they were of such a nature that his rejection was an event of which he had no reason to be ashamed. Within a few days after his defeat at East Devon he was returned for Franklin by a very large majority over a gentleman of considerable local influence; and we feel sure that whether the electors of East Devon ever regretted their treatment of Mr. Davies or not, the constituency of Franklin have never regretted their having elected him. As a representative he was most indefatigable in his exertions to benefit the district that had intrusted its political influences to his keeping; and in Devon not a few evidences exist of improvements and public works effected through his instrumentality. The same zeal he displayed there, he carried into effect at Franklin; and if time has not been allowed him to be of equal service, the loss is one that will be felt by the constituency, between whom and Mr. Davies a strong sympathy had sprung up—between many of whom and that gentleman a political acquaintance had ripened into private friendships. By a singular coincidence the day of his funeral will be that fixed for his taking part among them in a public ceremonial, and to which he looked forward with considerable pleasure. 

But while Mr. Davies watched so carefully over the progress and prosperity of the district he represented, he was equally careful in the discharge of his public duty. No member of the House was more regular in his attendance, or took greater interest in every public question. He never shirked hard work, and was consequently a most valuable member of committees. Though taking an active part in the discussions of the House, he never joined himself to any party, but supported or opposed the Ministry of the day according as he considered it most consistent with the public interest; and amid all the comments made on his Parliamentary career, he was never accused of acting from selfish or personal motives. Pecuniarily he was, no doubt, a great loser by occupying a seat in Parliament, but he felt he was doing his duty to Tasmania, whose best interests he never lost sight of. His influence in Parliament, always considerable, was latterly increasing, but, though he had played a prominent part in making and unmaking Ministries, he never sought, but rather shunned office, feeling he could be of more use as a private member. As such his value was acknowledged, and now that his voice will no more be heard within the precincts of Parliament, a void is made which it will be found difficult to fill. 

Not alone as a member of Parliament did he labour for the good of the Colony. He had been identified for years with every public work that was at all likely to promote and develop the resources of the Colony. As a colonist and journalist he threw himself into every scheme of progress. Firmly believing that the Main Line Railway would be a great public boon, he was a strenuous advocate of the scheme, and no man in Tasmania was more rejoiced when he know that his labours had been crowned with success. In the Mersey and Deloraine Railway he took an active interest; and if his support of the Launceston and Western Line was more hesitating, it was because his great shrewdness led him to see that it was being conceived and constructed on a scale too gigantic for the requirements of the district. In the utility of the Sorell Causeway he was a sanguine believer, and he had planned an inspection of the work which the hand of death has prevented. The last public work in which he took an interest, and which he was not spared to see begun, was the bridge over the Huon. Into the promotion of that work he threw himself with characteristic zeal, firmly believing that it would prove an immense boon to the district, and a great public benefit. These are but a few of the great public works with which he was associated, or took an active interest in, and the most envious critic of his conduct could never lay to his charge any other desire than the public good. A selfish man he was not. He had his faults. Who has not? But with how few do the good qualities so much outweigh the faults as in the case of Mr. John Davies. With many he was much misunderstood; for he despised the calculating policy that proceeds on the principle that language is meant to conceal thought. Whatever he thought, that he said, when a more politic person would have held his tongue; but it was not in him to think one thing and say another, or to abstain from censure or opposition where he considered duty demanded an opposite course; and thus he not unfrequently found himself in conflicts which a more cautious policy would have avoided. But it was not his nature to harbour enmity, and many a time has he done a service the one day to those whom the day previously he had resisted. Thus, if he had many opponents, none had fewer enemies. This was exhibited in the many positions of honour conferred upon him by his fellow citizens and fellow colonists, with whom his name has long been familiar as a household word. 

His public advocacy was not alone on the side of liberty and progress in their purest and truest sense; he did not confine himself to what might give him a position, or engrave his name on the annals of the Colony us a public spirited Colonist; he was never known to turn a deaf ear to the cry of distress. In him was realised the sentiment, "Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto;" that is to say, he was a man who deemed nothing that related to mankind, foreign to his feelings, beneath his notice, or unworthy of his consideration. Thus actuated he threw himself heart and soul into every effort for furthering the progress of the Order of Odd Follows. Not that he could derive any benefit from it, but because he saw what good it was calculated to do, and how its tendency was to alleviate distress by inducing habits of carefulness and forethought. The value of his services was recognised by his having been no less than six times elected to the highest honour the Order could confer; and he has repaid the recognition of his services by placing the Order in a position of prosperity and success unequalled in any community of equal numbers. But he did not limit his benevolence to the mere systematic appliances of a regular machinery. His very last public act was on behalf of suffering humanity. 

Though his constitution had been considerably shattered by a serious illness immediately before the last meeting of Parliament, he risked, though cautioned against it, the danger of cold and wet, in his desire to be of service during the flood on Tuesday week, and, though in consequence not quite able for the task, he went about next day among the scenes of devastation; and having satisfied himself of the distress caused by the floods, he took a prominent part in getting up the meeting that has resulted in so substantial aid to the sufferers. None but the writer of these lines knew the sacrifice he thus made. But the knowledge of it need not now be held back. It is no secret to many of our readers, for they volunteered substantial assistance, that it was proposed by a public effort to relieve The Mercury of the consequences of a recent adverse decision in a Court of Law. In the full knowledge of such an intention, Mr. Davies having returned from inspecting the havoc of the flood, remarked to him who now relates the circumstances, that the distress far exceeded his worst fears, and that something must be done for the relief of the sufferers, "I know," he added, "the effect on the exertions of my sons' friends, but their interest must not be allowed to come into competition with so much suffering." The rest is known. At the meeting called to devise means for the relief of the distress, he urged the people of Hobart Town not to confine their exertions to the relief of their own people, but to go beyond the City boundaries, and extend a helping hand to the case where a poor man had lost his life in the discharge of his duty, leaving unprovided for a wife with eight helpless children. He hoped the meeting would "deal with that case with open hand and heart." And he who had so long taken a prominent part in public matters closed his life with these, his last public words: "Any one who has gone round as I have done, and has witnessed the distress that has been caused by the recent disasters would come to the conclusion that it was a privilege to do what lay in his power to assist in such cases. In proposing the resolution," he concluded, "I feel, I shall not say a pleasure, but that I am performing a duty of which any citizen may be proud." How little did any of those who applauded these words think they had for the last time heard the voice of the speaker! And who could wish his last public act to be a nobler exertion of the noblest faculties of our human nature? Thus passed away from among us one, who, in so far as Tasmania is concerned, has left behind him his "foot prints on the sands of time," and of whose death few will read without an involuntary application of the deceased's favourite poet's language— 

"He was a man, take him for all in all;
I shall not look upon his like again."

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'Davies, John (1813–1872)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/davies-john-3374/text25852, accessed 22 November 2017.

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