Today is the birthday of Ernest Davis (February 17, 1872–September 16, 1962). “Sir Ernest Hyam Davis was a New Zealand businessman, and was Mayor of Auckland City, New Zealand from 1935 to 1941. He was also on other Auckland local bodies (Fire Board, Hospital Board, Drainage Board) and on various philanthropic and sporting organisations. He was Mayor of Newmarket (a small inner-Auckland borough) 1909–1910.” His family owned several breweries and Davis was instrumental in the creation of New Zealand Breweries Limited, a merger of 10 breweries in 1923. It became known as Lion Breweries in 1977, and in 1988 merged with LD Nathan & Co. and became Lion Nathan. In 2009, Lion Nathan was bought by Japan’s Kirin.
Here’s a biography of Davis from the “Dictionary of New Zealand Biography,” published in 1998:
A brewery baron for half a century, and the liquor trade’s master tactician against the prohibition movement, Ernest Hyam Davis exerted enormous influence at the highest political levels. He combined this with a complex business career and an unbounded enthusiasm for yachting, racing and philanthropy.
He was born in Nelson on 17 February 1872 (registered simply as Hyam), the son of Moss Davis, an immigrant Jewish merchant, and his wife, Leah Jacobs. He attended Bishop’s School in Nelson, but completed his education at Auckland Grammar School after his father joined, then acquired, the Auckland liquor firm of Hancock and Company. Ernest disliked academic study and his final report described him as ‘utterly incorrigible’, although he subsequently attended evening classes at Auckland University College. His first position was with the ironware merchants William McArthur and Company, but he soon quit this for a brief stint working in Brisbane and a walking tour of Fiji.
In 1892 Davis joined his father’s firm as a director along with his brother Eliot, and three years later added the directorship of another family acquisition, the Captain Cook Brewery, then the largest in New Zealand. When Moss Davis retired in 1910 to England, the two brothers took charge of Hancock and Company. With his portfolio of controlling shares, Ernest was appointed managing director, a position he retained until his death. On 2 August 1899, at Auckland, he married Marion Mitchell. They were to have a son and a daughter. At the same time, Davis evidently found ample opportunity for extra-marital affairs.
As well as managing his brewery interests, Davis was prominent in the liquor trade’s efforts to counter the flourishing prohibition movement. Between 1894 and 1910 the number of licensed premises slumped from 1,719 to 1,257, and in 1908 Hancock and Company lost 14 Auckland hotels without compensation. The 1911 triennial liquor poll, at which prohibition was almost carried, induced the brewery interests to intensify lobbying, and funds were channelled to political supporters.
Davis adeptly orchestrated this flow, and capitalised on the fact that among his brewery’s employees for a decade after 1908 was a rising labour activist, Michael Joseph Savage. Davis materially assisted the New Zealand Labour Party over a lengthy period, and probably foresaw that it would ultimately emerge as a governing force. He lodged securities for gaoled agitators during the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike, provided a hotel for John A. Lee to manage when he lost his parliamentary seat in 1928, and made standing donations to Labour candidates’ election funds until his death. His support was not based solely on cynical commercial motives.
From his 30s Davis showed an enormous capacity for a multitude of interests. He was prominent among the early members of the Auckland Rowing Club, and was a foundation member of the Auckland Orphans’ Club. In 1909 Davis became mayor of the small borough of Newmarket, and was re-elected in 1910. Moving on to Auckland City, he was elected as an independent councillor in 1915 and served until 1920, when he resigned, only to regain office in 1921. Later it was estimated that he held significant positions in at least 94 sporting and social bodies, 11 of them at the national level, including the presidency of the New Zealand Football Association. He also served on the board of management of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation.
Davis played a pivotal role in the 1923 formation of New Zealand Breweries Limited from 10 existing companies, but this did not prevent his deepening immersion in local body affairs. In the 1920s and 1930s he served on the Auckland Harbour Board, Auckland Hospital Board, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board and Auckland and Suburban Drainage Board. He crowned his municipal career by narrowly winning the mayoralty of Auckland in 1935 as the Auckland Citizens’ and Ratepayers’ Association candidate and, as Sir Ernest (he was knighted in 1937), comfortably secured re-election in 1938. Taking office at the end of the depression, he initially stressed economy and prudence, but later oversaw construction of the municipal bus terminal and parking station, Scenic Drive, and the Chamberlain Park Golf Course. In the early phases of the Second World War he was at the forefront of patriotic endeavour, but chose to retire from the mayoralty in 1941, basking in valedictories that hailed his calm progressiveness, executive capacity and exceptional popularity.
Belying his 70 years, Davis then resumed an active business life, holding many directorships including that of the Auckland Meat Company, Bycroft Limited, Kawerau Hotel, and the Northern Steam Ship Company. He chaired the Devonport Steam Ferry Company for 20 years and for a similar period was a trustee of the Auckland Savings Bank, serving as chairman in its centennial year (1947). In 1960 he became a foundation director of the New Zealand Distillery Company.
With trusted lieutenants to manage his brewery and hotel empire, Davis was free to indulge his sporting and cultural interests. About 1939 he bought a Rotorua farm, which subsequently became a model for a town-milk supply enterprise. An inveterate yachtsman, he owned several notable craft and had life membership of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron conferred on him in 1957. He became an avid racehorse owner, the success of his stable making him the leading stakeswinner four times in the mid 1950s. He commissioned for the city portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Lord Freyberg and Sir Edmund Hillary.
Late in life Davis distributed much of his immense wealth in the form of widespread charitable benefactions. He also gifted Motukorea (Browns Island) to the citizens of Auckland, established the superb medical library at Auckland Hospital in honour of his wife (who had died in May 1955), and funded the construction of the Tiritiri Matangi Island shipping light. To celebrate his 90th birthday, the Auckland City Council hosted a formal civic reception. He died on 16 September 1962 at his central city residence in Waterloo Quadrant, survived by his daughter.
Although one of New Zealand’s most successful and eminent businessmen and a peerless political manipulator, Ernest Davis always regarded himself as a man of the people, obliged to set an example of good citizenship. About the virtues of Auckland he confessed a feeling near to adoration. His ability to juggle an astounding array of business, sporting and social priorities never faltered, and he was at the centre of civic life in Auckland for over 50 years.
Sir Ernest Davis receiving the St. James Cup from the Queen Mother in 1958.
This newspaper story is from “The Truth,” published March 3, 1927:
Ernest Davis in 1961.
And here’s his obituary, “Business baron’s greatest love was the sea:”
Entrepreneur and philanthropist, Sir Ernest Davis was also the “eminence grise” of New Zealand politics in the 1920s and 1930s, William Mace writes.
Brewery baron, two-time mayor of Auckland, knight of the British Empire, patron of the Labour Party and philanthropist. It is a distinguished list of honours, but Sir Ernest Hyam Davis may be best described – like many Aucklanders – as a yachtsman.
It was his love of the sea that drew him into an inauspicious start to his working life. A 1948 book by his brother Eliot Davis, A Link with the Past, exposes the consequences which led to Sir Ernest’s departure from the prestigious Auckland Grammar School in 1886.
He preferred to spend his school days looking after a yacht, Malua, which was owned by several local sailors who would take the 14-year-old on harbour and gulf expeditions.
One day, rather than turning up for an examination, “he persuaded the whole form he was “in to play the wag” so he could prepare the boat for an upcoming weekend voyage.
The next day young Ernest decided to stay home with a rheumatic relapse, nursed by his mother, while his younger brother went to school.
“The headmaster … was furious and the whole school was in a turmoil. Some of the boys gave the show away by saying that it was Ernest’s fault, with the result that he was promised the daddy of a hiding,” Eliot writes.
Eventually Ernest was forced to return to school, protecting himself with “three pairs of trousers and exercise books down his back, and extra flannel underwear on”.
But instead of the immediate punishment of a capital thrashing, Ernest was given homework to keep him busy over the holidays.
He gave every spare moment to his sailing hobby and failed to complete the schoolwork, “so he persuaded father to let him go to work”. His first job, with ironware merchants William McArthur and Company, was sweeping floors.
“Ernest was one of the annoying boys at school, always in trouble, although he was a favourite with the masters because he was very open and frank about it,” Eliot says.
In his last report before he left school a master described him as “utterly incorrigible”.
Described as equal parts persuasive, charming, frolicsome, incorrigible and enterprising, it was this mix of attributes that led Sir Ernest to climb the ranks of public popularity.
In 1892, at the age of 20, he joined his father, Moss Davis, in his liquor business Hancock and Company, as did his brother. Three years later the family bought the Captain Cook Brewery in Newmarket. When his father retired to England in 1910, Sir Ernest was appointed managing director of Hancocks.
He guaranteed his prosperity by facing the strengthening prohibition movement head on. Graham Bush’s biography of Sir Ernest says that between 1894 and 1910 “the number of licensed premises slumped from 1719 to 1257 and in 1908 Hancock and Company lost 14 Auckland hotels without compensation”.
When prohibition nearly carried at the polls in 1911, brewers around the country were stirred to action. The brothers were at the forefront of lobbying efforts to ensure prohibition’s “attendant evils of corruption and wickedness” did not grab hold in New Zealand.
Eliot Davis wrote in 1948: “No men of the present day … have been through the mill of trouble and anxiety in business that Ernest and I have been through.
“There is no-one in Auckland, and perhaps in New Zealand, today who can possibly imagine what it meant to go through the stress and strain of the licensing polls between the years 1893 and 1921.”
It was at this time that Sir Ernest began his association with the growing Labour Party movement. A young Labour activist named Michael Joseph Savage was among his brewery’s employees.
He donated money to the Labour cause, provided bail for agitators during the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike and provided a hotel for the radical John A Lee to manage when he lost his parliamentary seat in 1928.
The trump card for anti-prohibitionists came in 1918 when, according to Eliot, his father in England organised for returning World War I soldiers to vote on the issue – their desire for postwar freedoms more than cancelled out the teetotallers’ majority.
By 1919 in New Zealand the alliance for prohibition had huge resources behind it and looked to have won the domestic vote, but the still-returning New Zealand Expeditionary Force tipped the balance, as it had done in England.
Prohibition was defeated and in 1923 so was the spectre of nationalisation of the industry, as Sir Ernest played a prominent role in organising the incorporation of 10 regional breweries into New Zealand Breweries.
The conglomerate became Lion Breweries in 1977, Lion Corporation from 1985 and Lion Nathan from 1988.
Japanese brewer Kirin completed a full takeover of Lion Nathan last year and it has since been merged with National Foods and Dairy Farmers. Lion Nathan National Foods listed a profit of A$539.7 million (NZ$662.9m) for 2009.
But Sir Ernest’s brother and his biographer, Graham Bush, are both confident his public role was not a cynical attempt to further his business interests.
In 1909, he became mayor of Newmarket, then in 1915 he was elected to Auckland City Council and served until 1920. He also served on the Auckland Harbour Board, Auckland Hospital Board, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board and Auckland and Suburban Drainage Board.
He won the Auckland mayoralty in 1935, was knighted in 1937 and re-elected in 1938. He retired in 1941 while “basking in valedictories that hailed his calm progressiveness, executive capacity and exceptional popularity”, Mr Bush writes.
Sir Ernest had married an opera singer, Marion, later to be Lady Davis, in 1899 and they had two children.
His daughter Mollie, eventually a wealthy property investor in her own right, took in two children.
English war evacuee Georgie Williams, who was five years old at the time, remembers disembarking from a train from Wellington to be greeted by a tall man in a suit who bent down and uttered the words, “This one’s for my daughter”.
Georgie lived with her new mother in Parnell and spent time with Sir Ernest at his home, Longford, at Kohimarama.
She says the family wasn’t used to children and that she came in “like a bomb”.
She recalls Sir Ernest entertaining dignitaries such as Baron Bernard Freyberg, who spent the evening resting his foot on the hidden bell-push, resulting in a state of constant panic and annoyance for the kitchen staff.
In 1947, Mollie married Ted Carr and moved to Sir Ernest’s Highfields property in Rotorua. A young Clifford Gascoigne went to live with the family there and recalls Sir Ernest’s popularity with the British arts community.
Mr Gascoigne met Gone With The Wind actress Vivien Leigh several times, along with other silver screen legends Joan Fontaine and Jack Hawkins, and Irish writer George Bernard Shaw.
A ring gifted by Leigh to Sir Ernest as a token of their friendship was handed down to Mr Gascoigne by Mollie Carr and he still wears it occasionally.
As for a rumoured romance between Sir Ernest and Leigh, Mr Gascoigne says, “There was no romance at all, because Ernest used to joke about it and say, `if I was 40 years younger I’d be chasing after her’.”
There are further stories of a racehorse gifted to the Queen Mother and a reception for the Achilles warship returning from the battle of River Plate.
But throughout, Sir Ernest continued to nourish his love for sailing by corresponding with legendary sailor and teamaker Sir Thomas Lipton and becoming a lifetime member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
But despite owning several state-of-the-art yachts, such as Viking and Morewa, he confided in his brother that “he never felt such a thrill with them as he did with that flat-bottomed craft which he purchased for half a quid” – his first yacht.
In his later life he began to spread his wealth, donating Browns Island to the citizens of Auckland and funding construction of the lighthouse on Tiritiri Matangi Island. He also established a medical library at Auckland Hospital in memory of his wife, who died in 1955.
After his death in 1962 at the age of 90, his endowments still flowed through various community organisations. His daughter Mollie died in 1993, also in her 90th year, Mr Gascoigne says.