Robert Davison (1809-1868) 



Robert Davison (1806-68) was born in Sunderland, Co Durham, England, in December 1806, the first child of John Davison (1764-1841) and Ann Bell (1775-1838)1. John Davison was born in Sunderland 2 and spent his adult working life at sea with the Hudson’s Bay Company, spending the summers in Canada and returning home during the winter 3. In March 1800 he and Ann married in Monkwearmouth, a Sunderland suburb4.  Robert was not baptised until January 18091 and indeed he shared the occasion with his four month old brother, John.  Over the next eight years another son and three daughters were born1.  The third son and the first daughter died in infancy1.  John Davison retired in 1828 with a pension of £100 pa having been a master mariner for the previous 13 years 3. Ann died in December 18385 and John Davison died in April 18416. His estate of £800 was left to his spinster daughters, Mary Ann and Anna Elizabeth then aged 26 and 246.

Nothing has come down about the early life of Robert Davison. His achievements and the standard of his writings indicate he had more than an elementary education. There is a family tradition of him studying medicine without qualifying. During the 1830s England experienced economic depression with significant unemployment because of the Industrial Revolution. There was also considerable political unrest. Meanwhile, in New South Wales a policy to encourage free settlers through the bounty scheme was established. All these factors probably led Robert Davison to consider a new life in New South Wales which he did when aged 30. He sailed from London in the Orontes on 3 December 18377.  He was not listed as an emigrant or passenger and from his subsequent career it is probable that he worked his passage as an assistant to the surgeon, W.G. Brock, MD.  There were 212 emigrants in the Orontes, including Samuel and Praxey Clarke, their two sons and three daughters8. Their eldest daughter was Anne Seeley Clarke who was aged 15 when they sailed. The Clarkes had been living in Dowgate Hill in London, just to the west of London Bridge where Samuel was a grocer9 although he described himself as a nurseryman and gardener when such details were recorded in Orontes8.  Samuel was from St Albans, Herts and Praxey (Baker) was from Tilshead, Wilts8 and it is possible they never married although they had their children baptised  - all on the same day9.

The voyage of 20 weeks in the Orontes presented an opportunity for Anne Clarke and Robert Davison to become well acquainted, for within six weeks of landing in Sydney their banns10 were read and they married in St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney in July 183811.  Anne stated she was 18 when the banns were read and Robert said he was 2810.  In fact she had turned 16 two days after the first reading of the banns and he was 31.  It is assumed Anne’s age was advanced on boarding to improve her employment and or marriage prospects. 

It is not known where the newly weds lived in Sydney however they were in Wollongong about a year after their marriage and made the town their home for about three years. Although cedar cutters and graziers had settled in the area from 1812, a town was not gazetted until November 1834. The Bulli Pass was completed in 1836. Whilst there Robert Davison had a store that stocked medicines, such as they were in those days. He was styled a druggist or what we would term a pharmacist. Robert Davison seems to have had some success with business for in January 1840 12 he was one of 17 inhabitants meeting to have a bank established in Wollongong. Two years later he was advertising his services, selling subscriptions for families wishing to use the local bath house.13 About the same time he was listed as the Wollongong agent for the Sydney Herald that was renamed Sydney Morning Herald a year later.  Indeed, he remained an agent for the Herald for at least another seven years. He was the agent in Wollongong until 12 September 1843 and the following day he was recorded as the agent for the District of Yass. From 31 July 1846 he was listed as the agent for the District of Gundagai for another six months when the banner changed to exclude reference to agents14. Whilst in Wollongong he had a notice of his father’s death published in the Herald. 2

The 1841 census recorded the Davisons living in a wooden house in Corrimal Street, Wollongong, one house from the corner with Market Street15.  George Brown was recorded as the owner of the house. They had a male servant and Robert recorded himself as a professional person.  He practiced as a druggist and chemist.  Robert Bell Davison, their first child, was born at Mount St Thomas in October 1842 and he was baptised in St Michael’s Church, Wollongong just before Christmas that year16. About this time an economic depression was affecting Sydney and the closer settlements leading the Davisons and others to consider a move. When baby Robert was strong enough to travel, the Davisons set out for Gundagai and established a store in Homer Street. For some years it was the only store between Yass and Melbourne17. Although the Davisons made Gundagai their home, they maintained links with Wollongong. In June 1852 Gundagai was swept away by the flooding Murrumbidgee River and a third of the population perished.18 The Davisons returned to Wollongong for two years where Robert wrote to the Government seeking to exchange his flood prone land for safer blocks.19 Eventually Gundagai landowners were able to sell flood prone blocks to the Government and purchase blocks on higher ground. In Gundagai Robert Davison became the postmaster20 and was licensed to sell spirits21 and whilst in Wollongong after the flood he became an agent for the Liverpool and London Fire and Insurance Company22. The Davison returned to Gundagai early in 1855. Anne Davison returned to Wollongong for the birth of their third child, Annie Australia Davison (1856-1953) in March 1856. 23

In Gundagai, Robert Davison became a leading citizen. Not only was he the agent for the Sydney Morning Herald, he was their Gundagai correspondent. Periodically his articles appeared under the heading, “Intelligence from the Interior.” He was secretary and treasurer of the committee which saw the first school established in Gundagai in 184924 and was one of the four churchwardens when the  Anglican church was consecrated in 186725. He was also a justice of the peace from 185726 and senior magistrate in later life27. He gave his occupation at different times during his life as druggist, chemist, surgeon, landowner, storekeeper and gentleman. His death certificate used chemist and druggist28.  Following his death Anne Davison continued the business. Although the Davison’s store specialised in pills and potions (and possibly snake oil) on opening for business in the 1840s, forty years later they had become Gundagai’s department store. An advertisement in 1883 covered roofing iron, rope, doors, plough shares, iron bedsteads, chairs, ironmongery, tinware, crockery, drapery, hats and boots and shoes.  Some of the stock held by Davison’s then is not well understood today – “check and plain winceys, turkey stones and raddle,” were on offer.  One advertisement boasted, “In fact everything from a needle to a galvanic battery, will be found at this Establishment.” 29

In 1876 the Government of NSW passed an act to regulate the sale and use of poisons. A Board of Pharmacy was established to register persons who had carried on the business of a chemist and druggist prior to the act. They were seeking to register medical practitioners and pharmacists. The register included five women, admitted as “having carried on the business of a Chemist and Druggist prior to the Sale and Use of Poisons Act 1876.” One was Annie (sic) Davison of Gundagai. The five women were seen to have had a husband who was either a doctor or a chemist who trained them to assist and carry on whilst their own work took them away from home. They would not have been academically trained but had gathered a wealth of practical knowledge in small towns far from the city. Women were permitted to train as pharmacists after 1897. An account of the early women pharmacists in NSW in The Australasian Journal of Pharmacy considers that Anne Davison was probably the first woman in Australia to dispense drugs and medicines.30

J.W. Ellis

Mar 2013



TA                          The Australian

TYC                       The Yass Courier

TGT                        The Gundagai Times

TSH                        The Sydney Herald

SMH                      Sydney Morning Herald


1.     Bishopwearmouth, Co Durham, Register of Baptisms 1809

2.     TSH, 23 Aug 1841

3.    Hudson’s Bay Archives, A. 31/2, fo.146, Record of Service, John Davison
4.    Bishopwearmouth, Co Durham, Register of Marriages 1800
5.    Durham Records online – record No 4639791.2
6.    Durham Probate Records, 1841
7.    Ms note by Elizabeth Howe (née Davison) on reverse of photograph of Robert Davison
8.    Report of a Ship, Orontes, arrived in Port Jackson this 8th Day of May, 1838
9.    St Sepulchre, Newgate, London Register of Baptisms, 1834
10    St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney - Register of Banns 1838
11.   NSW Register of B, D & M Vol 22 entry 1714
12.   TA 7 Jan 1840                  
13.   TSH, 3 Jan 1842              
14.   SMH - daily under the title 1840-1847
15.   The 1841 Census of NSW
16.   NSW Register of B, D & M Vol 28, entry 1393
17.   Gormly’s Reminiscences
18.   SMH 8 Jul 1852
19.   ColSec correspondence register 1852-55
20.   CRS C3629/1 – Gundagai Post Office history file, NAA Sydney
21.   SMH 20 Feb 1850
22.   SMH 6 Mar 1856
23.   Annie Australia Davison birth certificate 1856-8442
24.   Gundagai, C. Butcher 2002, p 141
25.   Gundagai, C. Butcher 2002, p 154
26.   SMH 17 Jul 1857
27.   SMH 13 Apr 1853
28.   Robert Davison death certificate 1868-4249
29.   TGT 14 Sep 1883
30.   The Australasian Journal of Pharmacy, 30 Apr 1962