Thomas Benjamin Davis
Thomas Benjamin Frederick Davis 1867-1942
Early life and education
TB Davis, as he is always known, although his friends called him Tom, was born at Havre des Pas, St Helier, on 25 April 1867, the son of Thomas Leopold Davis, a poor fisherman and ship's carpenter, and Jemima Vickers. They struggled to find even 2d a week to contribute towards his education at nearby St Luke’s School, and he went to sea as a ship's boy aged 15 on the vessel Satellite, a 245-ton three masted schooner owned by R and George Allix of Havre des Pas, Jersey, which was a busy shipbuilding area at the time.
Davis was to go on to make his fortune in stevedoring in South Africa but his career was nearly cut short on his his first voyage when the ship ran aground in heavy weather off the coast of Norfolk and he was carried away from the vessel when a rope snapped casting him adrift in a dinghy with the ship's papers and valuables. He drifted for some time before being picked up by a Norwegian vessel, by which time the Satellite had refloated and returned to Southampton, to report him missing, presumed drowned. It has been recorded by historians, most notably George Balleine, in his Biographical Dictionary of Jersey, that he made it back to Jersey just in time to catch the end of his memorial service in St Luke's church, much to the astonishment of the congregation, and his mother, who reportedly fainted.
Unusually for Balleine, this account is made to seem somewhat fanciful, however, by more recent research, included in the Jersey Evening Post article on 20 April 2011 on the opening of an exhibition paying tribute to Davis at Jersey's Maritime Museum, which suggests that the young sailor's rescue had already been reported in local papers before his return to the island. Raoul Lempriere, in his article in the Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise in 1968, says that Davis went home immediately on returning to Jersey on a Sunday and that his parents sent him to St Luke's Church, where his shipwreck was to have been mentioned in the service (perhaps giving thanks for his rescue rather than regretting his demise?).
Davis went back to sea and obtained his Extra Master's ticket at the unusually young age of 25. He served in the Royal Naval Reserve between 1896 and 1899 and taught gunnery on The President.
In 1899 at the age of aged 32 he moved to South Africa, finally settling in Durban and taking over a stevedoring firm. He eventually controlled all of the stevedoring business from Port Elizabeth to Dar-es-Salaam and became a very rich man within ten years.
His passion was yacht racing, and in 1924 he bought the schooner Westward, wanting a vessel at least the equal of the Royal Yacht of his friend King George V. He raced Westward in European waters for ten years and developed a fierce and friendly rivalry with the King.
Following the death of the King in 1936 Davis more or less gave up racing. He had a motor fitted in Westward and used her for cruising.
As a boy TB Davis had boasted that he would return to Jersey as a rich man, and he fulfilled that promise. Tragically his younger son Howard had died of wounds received in the Battle of the Sommme during the First World War, and this had a profound effect on him. He determined to ensure that the people of his native island and his adopted country of South Africa benefited from his wealth.
Howard Davis Farm
In 1927 Davis bought Parkfield near Trinity Church in Jersey and the States of Jersey accepted the property, consisting of a house, farm buildings and some 40 vergées of land. The bequest was made on the understanding that it be renamed the Howard Davis Farm and that it should be used as an experimental center for the development and study of agriculture and for the instruction in this science of young Jersey peoples.
Howard College, Durban
Davis founded and endowed the Durban campus of the University of Natal. In 1926 he donated £140,000 for the building and Howard College was officially opened in 1931. The College began by holding classes in Commerce and Engineering and remains a campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Howard HallVictoria College but he set up the Howard Leopold Davis scholarship trust with the aim of ensuring that boys who had attended primary schools in Jersey, as he had, would not be prevented by financial reasons from going on to Victoria College and eventually to Cambridge or Oxford.
An old friend from his schooldays at St Luke's was John St Helier Lander, the eminent portraitist, and in 1934 Davis commissioned him to paint a portrait of King George V, to commemorate the endowment of the scholarship. In his memoirs, Jersey's wartime Bailiff Alexander Coutanche recalls visiting the College with the artist and "Tom" to discuss with the headmaster where the portrait might hang.
"We were forced to the conclusion that there was simply no room for it. The hall was already full, as it was right tht it should be full, of beautiful pictures. Here was the opportunity for Tom Davis to make one of those gestures of which he was so fond. I can see him now. He was a tall, magnificent man, with grey hair and bristling eyebrows. Looking at us he said 'Well now, what do we do? There is no place in the hall to hang it. Do you know what the answer is? It is very simple. WIth your permission. Mr Headmaster, I will build another hall in the grounds so that the portrait of my King can be properly hung. Let us go at once and choose the spot'."
So they did, and the portrait hangs in the Howard Davis Hall to this day.
Howard Davis Park
Perhaps the greatest of all TB Davis's gifts to Jersey is the Howard Davis Park, the acquisition of the site for which fulfilled a boyhood promise, perhaps even a threat, to the previous owner of the property where it is located. The story is also told in Alexander Coutanche's memoirs. As a boy Davis was in the choir at St Luke's Church and one Sunday he went looking for conkers with a friend, Walter Braithwaite, later a General, in the gardens of the neighbouring house, Plaisance. They were caught by the owner, Jurat Joshua George Falle, who let Braithwaite go with a letter asking his mother to punish him suitably, but confined Davis to his cellar cleaning boots, while he had lunch.
When he was eventually freed Davis, who had a colourful vocabulary for a young boy, told the Jurat:"One day I shall be a rich man. I shall buy your ...... house and I shall pull it down stone by ....... stone". True his word, TB made his fortune overseas, returned to Jersey a very rich man, and bought Plaisance from Lily Falle, the Jurat's daughter. He had to leave for South Africa but instructed his friend Coutanche to ensure that the building was demolished and not a stone left standing. On his return he was less than pleased with the result, telling his friend "you have left the ...... cellar in which I was imprisoned. Get it out!"
Within weeks of the opening of the park and the unveiling of a statue of King Georve V, commissioned by Davis before the King's death in 1936, the Second World War was declared and German forces occupied the island. Despite this, the statue of King George V and the park itself came through the five long years of Occupation virtually unscathed.
Davis also purchased a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat for the cost of £3,623. It was named the Howard D and was the first motorised lifeboat to be stationed at St Helier, Jersey. She arrived at the St Helier station in August 1936.
In addition to his philantrophy in Jersey Davis never forgot what South Africa meant to him an early in the Second World War he established a fund of £100,000 to help dependents of South Africans serving in the forces.
He died in October 1942, in Durban, at the age of 75.
- T B Davis - benefactor, another biography