Thomas Benjamin Davis

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Biographical information

1
Synopsis:

business person and philanthropist, assisted in establishing Howard College, responsible for starting the South African Navy, established the Howard Davis War Fund to assist soldiers who had served outside South Africa during the Second World War

First name: 
Thomas
Last name: 
Davis
Date of birth: 
25 April 1867
Location of birth: 
Jersey, Channel Islands, Western Europe
Date of death: 
27 September 1942
Location of death: 
Durban, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal)

Thomas Benjamin Frederick Davis, the son of Thomas Leipold, a fisherman, and Jemima Davis was born in April 1867 in Jersey, Channel Islands, a British Crown Dependency in Western Europe. At the age of fourteen, he ran away to sea. Although he was shipwrecked shortly afterwards, he grew to love the sea, and eventually obtained his master’s certificate that would allow him to captain a ship.

During the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899””1902) his ship called at East London, South Africa where he obtained employment in the stevedoring business. Afterwards he moved to Durban, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) to take over the stevedoring firm. A shrewd and capable business person, he established the company firmly in Durban and within a few years expanded its activities to Beira (Mozambique), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Mombasa (Kenya). He also became involved in construction and engineering work and built up a substantial fortune.

Having little formal education himself, he was greatly interested in the education of others, especially in the field of technical education. In the early 1920s, as a result of his friendship with Dr S.G. Campbell and B.M. Narbeth, he gave a gift of £50 000 for the expansion of the Durban Technical College, but after the Durban municipality gave a sizeable piece of land to establish a university he decided to give the money to assist this project instead. The new university college was named Howard College (later Natal University and now University of kwaZulu-Natal), in memory of his son, Howard Leopold Davis, who died from wounds in August 1916 during the First World War (1914””18). Davis took a keen interest in the College and made many other gifts to it.

He retained his deep love for the sea throughout his life, and during the inter-war years (1919””38) regularly raced his schooner Westward in the Cowes regatta. In 1920 he purchased H.M.S. Thames, a 4 050 ton cruiser built in 1886, and the next year presented it to the South African nation for use as a merchant navy training ship. It was converted in Cape Town and renamed the General Botha in memory of General Louis Botha. Davis’s aim in providing the ship was to encourage sea training and a love of the sea among young English- and Dutch-speaking South Africans. The General Botha was rebuilt ashore in 1942 and the ship was sunk in 1947. The roots of the South African navy go back to Davis’s encouragement of mercantile sea training.

In January 1940, he donated £100 000 to establish the Howard Davis War Fund to assist soldiers who had served outside South Africa during the Second World War (1939””45). He also gave many substantial donations to his native island of Jersey.

He married Minnie Gertrude Glenham Bagg and had two sons and two daughters. Thomas Benjamin Frederick Davis passed away on 27 September 1942 in Durban, Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal).


References:
• Beyers C.J. (Ed). Davis, Mary Elizabeth by B.J.T.Leverton, Dictionary of South African Biography. Vol.IV, p105”“106, Butterworth & Co. (SA) (Pty) Ltd. 1981, Durban

Last updated : 11-Aug-2014

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Aug-2014