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Davis, Jack (1917–2000)

PUBLICATION: Jack DavisA Boy’s Life, Magabala Books, 1991, Western Australia

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: March 1917

BIRTH PLACE: Perth

FIRST LANGUAGE: English

SIGNIFICANT LOCALITIES:

  • Pilbara: Jack’s parents were both born in the North of the Pilbara in Western Australia. (p.1)
  • Lake Clifton: a small community in Western Australia, fifty kilometres west of Waroona, where Bill Davis operated a boiler that powered a lime lake. (p.3)
  • Waroona: When lime extraction in Lake Clifton stopped, the Davis family and the other thirty residents of the community were sent by train to Waroona. (p.6) Bill obtained a job managing a farm for Whittakers Timber Company. (p.6)
  • Yarloop: The Davis family moved to Yarloop in 1923, after a bush fire destroyed the farm in Waroona. (p.7) They settled into the community easily, and had a happy family life. (p.10)
  • Jack’s mother left Yarloop six months after his father died, and her children soon followed. (p.142)
  • Perth: Jack and his brother Harold stopped in Perth in 1932 on their way to the Moore River Native Settlement. (p.117)
  • Moore River Native Settlement: a settlement that housed Aboriginal people from across Western Australia. (p.119) Jack and his brother Harold were sent to the Moore River Native Settlement in 1932 to learn farm skills. (p.119) The Davis brothers left Moore River and returned home to Yarloop, at the request of the Aboriginal Department in Perth. (p.130)
  • Gascoyne: Jack worked as a stockman in Gascoyne during the Second World War. (p.143)

INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL:

  • n/a

EXPERIENCES OF EDUCATION:

  • Jack briefly attended school in Lake Clifton with only a dozen other students. (p.3)
  • The Davis family moved to Yarloop when Jack was five. (p.6) He remembers walking two kilometres to school with his three older siblings. (p.11) On his first day, an older boy named Lennie stuck a pencil in Jack’s back after he refused to give up his sandwich, and he retaliated by punching the boy in the face. (p.13) Later in the day, Jack was pinned to the ground outside the toilet by one of his fellow student’s dogs. (p.14)
  • After school, Jack saw a car for the first time. Overwhelmed by excitement, he flung blackboy rushes into its open engine and brought the car to a halt. (pp.15-16) While fleeing from the angry driver, he ran in front of a horse and toppled its rider. (p.16)
  • Despite this rocky start, Jack and his ten siblings soon settled into the larger school at Yarloop. (p.6) The Davis children never wore shoes, which were too expensive during the Great Depression, and they were all tall for their age. (p.21)
  • Yarloop Primary hosted an annual Pet’s Day on the day before the school broke for the Easter break. (p.52) Students brought their animals to be judged by a panel of members from the local Parents and Citizens Association. (p.53)

EXPERIENCES OF EMPLOYMENT:

  • Jack followed his parent’s advice and left school in 1932, when he was fourteen. (p.116) The Chief Protector of the Aborigines in Western Australian at that time, Mr A. O. Neville, offered to teach Jack and his brother Harold farming skills at the Moore River Native Settlement. (p.116) Bill Davis was reluctant to send his sons away, but eventually agreed because there was no employment in Yarloop during the Great Depression. (p.116)
  • Jack and Harold were made to work in the field with the other men from Moore River, but received little education in agriculture. (p.120) His favourite job was killing noxious palms with crowbars. (pp.121-122)
  • Jack and Harold were relieved to return to Yarloop at the request of the Aboriginal Department in Perth. (p.132) They were still unable to find work, so the boys spent most of their spare time hunting and searching for bush honey. (pp.134-136)
  • Jack and his brothers left Yarloop after their father died in a hunting accident. (p.143) Jack worked as a stockman in Gascoyne throughout the Second World War, and later became a poet. (p.143)

EXPERIENCES OF RELIGION:

  • The Davis family were practising Christians. Jack’s mother was involved in the local Methodist Church. (p.8) At dinner, the Davis children took turns in saying grace. (p.61)

IMPORTANT INSTITUTIONS:

  • The Aboriginal Department: In 1932 the Aboriginal Department in Perth offered to teach Jack and his brother Harold farming skills at the Moore River Native Settlement. (p.116) This turned out to be a false promise, and the boys learnt little at Moore River. Jack and Harold were relieved when the Department requested they return to Yarloop after one year. (p.132)

SALIENT LAWS AND POLICIES:

  • n/a

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Jack burned himself badly by drinking boiling water straight from a teapot while living in Lake Clifton. (p.4) He was sent to hospital in Perth, where they operated on the blisters in his throat. (p.5) Jack spent six months recovering in hospital before returned to Lake Clifton. (p.5)

RELATIONSHIP WITH PARENTS:

  • Mother: Jack’s mother was born in the North of the Pilbara in Western Australia. At the age of seven, she was taken from her Aboriginal mother and sent to work for the Stretch family. (p.2) The Stretches were kind employers, but did not educate her with their own ten children. (p.2)
  • At the age of fourteen Jack’s mother went to work for the manager of the local bank, and travelled with his family to Perth when he was transferred. (p.2)
  • She met and married Bill Davis while living in Northam, and they had eleven children together. (p.3) Bill’s mother was a member of the Methodist Church and euchre club. (p.8) She was a great storyteller, and was always calm in an emergency. (pp.19-20)
  • Jack’s mother delighted in trips to the theatre in Yarloop. The films were silent, and Bill often accompanied his mother to read the subtitles aloud. (p.83)
  • When Bill Davis died, Bill’s mother was forced to apply for government rations. (p.140)
  • Jack’s mother stayed in Yarloop for six more months after Bill’s death, before moving to Brookton to be near her sister Maude. (p.141) She had remarried by the time Jack returned from working as a stockman in the Gascoyne district. (p.143)
  • Bill Davis: Jack’s father was the son of a Sikh man named Bung Singh. He was taken from his family as a young boy to work for the Davis family at Roeburn (p.2) Bill didn’t like his father’s surname, so took his employer’s name as his own. (p.2)
  • Bill was a stockman from the age of eight, and never learned to read and write. (p.34) He was a great storyteller, and told his children how he was once electrocuted during a storm while moving sheep. (pp.90-94) Bill also told Jack that his employers obtained a permit from the local police station, which gave them the authority to shoot Aboriginal people on their property. (p.2)
  • Bill met Jack’s mother in Northam when he was twenty-five. (p.3) He worked a number of different jobs, before being employed as boiler operator in Lake Clifton. (p.3) When the lake lime in Lake Clifton closed, Bill managed a farm for the Whittakers Timber Company outside Waroona. (p.7)
  • Bill and his family left Waroona after a bush fire destroyed the farm in 1923. He then got a job with the Millars Timber Company in Yarloop, and stayed there until he died. (p.7)
  • Bill Davis enjoyed following sport, particularly boxing. Jack used to read his father the boxing report in the newspaper. (p.72) Bill was also a coach and masseur for local footballers, crickets, boxers and cyclists. (p.8)
  • Bill was an excellent shot, and often took his sons on weekend hunting trips, where they would catch kangaroos, ducks and pigs. (p.10, 75-77, 83) He also killed possums for their skin during the Great Depression, although sometimes he let the children keep them as pets. (pp.108-109)
  • Jack recalls one occasion when his mother bet his father that she couldn’t shoot a bottle. (p.86) To save her pride, Bill surreptitiously took the shot and gave his wife the credit. (p.86)
  • Bill was not a harsh father, but he could demand discipline from his children when necessary. Jack recalls that his father forced him to wear braces to school, and punished him severely when he went against his will. (p.68)
  • Bill sometimes played practical jokes on his children. Jack liked to watch his father shave in morning; and on one occasion Bill tricked him into believing he had cut himself, using red dye. (p.21)
  • When the Great Depression hit Yarloop, the employees at the Millars timber mill were offered work only every second week. (p.136) On his week off, Bill often went hunting with his sons to supplement their income. (p.136) One evening in 1933, a bull attacked and killed Jack’s father when he was returning from a hunting trip with his sons. (p.138)
  • After Bill’s death the Davis family went their separate ways: his wife left Yarloop and remarried, and the children spread across Western Australia looking for work. (p.141)

RELATIONSHIPS WITH PARTNERS:

  • n/a

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHILDREN:

  • n/a

IMPORTANT/INFLUENTIAL FIGURES:

  • Tommy Davis: Jack’s eldest brother. (p.9)
  • Tommy was a talented musician. Mrs Wilson offered him free piano lessons, but he gave up because his peers teased him. (p.47) As a teenager he worked at the weekly picture show in Yarloop, which was run by the father of his friend Peter. (p.47)
  • Tommy often got into trouble with his best friend, Mac Jackson. Mac once broke his arm falling out of a tree, while the pair was spying on the girls getting changed into their bathers. (p.64)
  • Mac and Tommy also ambushed Mr Willis’s fruit cart. (p.64) They stopped doing so when Mr Willis laid a rabbit trap. Tommy got caught in the trap, knocked over a gasoline lamp, and set fire to a hessian sack. (pp.65-66)
  • By 1932, when Jack left school, Tommy was working for a travelling dentist. (p.116)
  • Kathleen: Jack’s eldest sister. (p.9) Kathleen looked after Jack on his first day of school, and used to report to their mother when he got into fights. (pp. 11-16, 24)
  • Kathleen and Ethel Edna shared a pet cat called Ginger, which they entered in the Yarloop School Pet Day. (p.52) Jack’s older sister was horrified when he announced that they’d found Ginger’s body on the train line, and that it resembled the family's favourite meal: spaghetti and kangaroo meatballs. (p.60)
  • While all members of the Davis family were talented singers; Kathleen had the best voice. (p.100) She sometimes performed during the intermission at the local picture show. (p.100)
  • Kathleen and Ethel Edna both contracted pneumonia after playing in damp sawdust in 1932. (p.103) While her younger sister recovered, Kathleen died from the illness. (p.102)
  • Jack’s mother kept Kathleen’s possessions in a box for many years, until Bill encouraged her to give them to Ethel Edna. (p.102)
  • Harold: Jack’s second oldest brother. (p.9) Harold was an athletic child who was big for his age. (p.32) The Yarloop students kept their distance from him, after he beat up a child for calling him Felix: the black cat from a popular cartoon. (p.32)
  • At home, Harold was a thoughtful boy who loved to read. (p.32) He would often get lost in a book, and didn’t like to be interrupted. (p.33) Jack recalls that one night Harold was reading a ghost story, and a tomcat started fighting under his chair. (p.33) His older brother screamed and dived through a window into the bed they shared. (p.34)
  • Harold was sent to Moore River Native Settlement with Jack, to learn farm skills. They both returned to Yarloop after one year. (pp.110-11)
  • Harold later fought in the Second World War, and was taken prisoner at Tobruk. He was sent from Northern African to Italy, where he escaped and fought with the partisans. (p.143)
  • Teddy: Jack’s younger brother by two years. (p.9) Tommy was an absent-minded boy with a vivid imagination, and so their mother never entrusted him with errands. (p.35)
  • Tommy often imagined he was a cowboy from their favourite comics. (p.35) He would pretend to shoot Indians on his way home from school, and then make them a small grave out of twigs. (p.36)
  • Once, while making believe he was a cowboy, Tommy climbed a tree to look at a magpie nest. He got his foot caught in a hollow and was attacked by the bird, and had to be rescued by his father. (p.39)
  • Ethel Edna: One of Jack’s younger sisters, who was very ladylike. (p.9) Ethel Edna and Kathleen entered their cat Ginger in the Yarloop School Pet Day. (p.52) Jack claims she looked very cute wearing a yellow dress and carrying Ginger. But Ethel Edna ruined the act by telling the judges that the cat had been “cut”, not realising that “cut” was a euphemism for castration. (p.57)
  • Ethel Edna contracted pneumonia when she was eight, at the same time as Kathleen. (p.103) Jack’s younger sister was sent home to recover after a few weeks, but her older sister died in hospital. (p.102)
  • Dorothy (Dotty): Jack’s younger sister, who was a fast runner. (p.9)
  • Barbara: Jack’s younger sister, who was very beautiful (p.9)
  • May: Jack’s younger sister, who was always thin despite her enormous appetite. (p.9)
  • Frank: Jack’s youngest brother. (p.9)
  • Judith: Jack’s youngest sister. (p.9)
  • Lennie (Freckles): Lennie was an older boy at Yarloop, whose nickname was Freckles. On his first day of school, Freckles stuck a pencil in Jack’s back because he refused to give up his sandwich. Jack retaliated by punching Freckles in the face. (p.13)
  • Later, they reconciled and became close friends. (p.29) Freckles and Jack always sat with their friend Nick at lunch. (p.29)
  • Wenceslaus Nickleby (Nick): Wenceslaus was a short, rotund boy who started school at Yarloop when he was ten. (p.29) Jack and Freckles befriended the new student, and gave him the nickname Nick. (p.30)
  • On one occasion, Jack and Freckles coaxed Nick into climbing the water tanks behind the railway station. (p.40) Nick froze in terror half way up the tank, and urinated involuntarily on Jack, who was below him on the ladder. (pp.42-43) Jack had to guide Nick down the ladder by biting him to make his legs move. (p.44)
  • Nick became a bomber in the army during World War II, and died during an air raid on Germany. (p.142)
  • Mrs Wilson: An older woman who lived in Yarloop. Jack and his friends often stole grapes from her tree. On one occasion, she offered them a bunch of grapes in return for removing a beehive from her back yard. (p.48)
  • Mrs Wilson offered Jack’s older brother Tommy free piano lessons, but he stopped attending when his friends teased him. (p.49)
  • Agnes Martin: an intelligent girl who lived next door to Mrs Wilson. Agnes volunteered to help Jack and his friends remove Mrs Wilson’s beehive. (p.50) She dropped the bag, was bitten by bees and exposed her bloomers to the boys. (p.50) Jack responded by throwing bees at Agnes to make her move. (p.50)
  • Mr George Willis: a door-to-door vegetable salesman who owned a farm outside Yarloop. (p.63) Mr Willis was forced to carry a horsewhip because Tommy and Mac often ambushed his cart. (p.63) He put a stop to the raids by laying a rabbit trap to catch the thieves. (p.64)
  • Geordie Donaldson: one of Bill Davis’ workmates at Yarloop. (p. 75) Geordie was an Englishman, who had been in Australia only a few years. (p.76) On one occasion Bill took Geordie hunting with his sons, and they had a close encounter with a wild boar. (pp.76-77) The Davis’s were surprised to learn that Geordie had never eaten damper. (p.77)
  • Aunty Maude: Bill’s maternal aunt, who lived in the town of Brookton some 300 kilometres from Yarloop. (p.94) Bill’s mother went to visit Aunty Maudie for two weeks, and brought her eldest son Gerry back to Yarloop to live with them for the summer. (p.94)
  • Gerry: Bill’s cousin, who came to live with the Davis’s for a summer when he was twelves years old. (p.94)
  • Gerry was the fastest runner at the Yarloop School, and was admired by all the girls. (p.95) He beat the other boys in schoolyard fights, but was unable to swim. (pp.95-96)
  • Bert Miles: a friend of Bill Davis, who owned a Chevvy four cylinder car. (p.112) Bert took Bill and Jack duck hunting in the car, in an effort to convince him it was a superior form of transport; but the Chevvy got bogged and had to be rescued by a horse. (pp.112-115)
  • Mr A.O. Neville: The Chief Protector of the Aborigines in Western Australian when Jack left school in 1932. Mr A. O. Neville offered to teach Jack and his brother Harold farming skills if their parents sent them to live at the Moore River Native Settlement. (p.116)
  • Mr Neal: the Superintendent at the Moore River Native Settlement when Jack and Harold arrived in 1932. (p.118)
  • Lucy Movell (Aunty Lucy): an old lady who lived in the camp surrounding the Moore River Native Settlement with her grandson Joey. Aunt Lucy offered to look after Jack and Harold when they moved from the dormitories. (p.121) She made them do lots of chores, like carting wood and water, while Joey relaxed at home. (p.121)

PREOCCUPATIONS:

  • Mission life: Jack recalls the conditions at the Moore River Native Settlement, where he and his brother Harold were sent to learn farm skills in 1932. (p.110)
  • Moore River consisted of a series of dormitories and an administrative building enclosed within a tall wire fence, which was known as the compound. (p.119) More Aboriginal people camped outside the compound in family groups, adding to a total of 450 residents. (p.119)
  • Jack describes Moore River as a hostile environment. He and Harold were made to work in the paddocks, but were not taught agricultural skills as promised. (p.121) The buildings were infested with vermin, and fights often broke out in the dormitories. (p.120) Jack had his first fight after just two months at Moore River, and beat a boy three years his senior. (p.122)
  • Those who lived in the dormitories had to follow a strict routine: which began with breakfast being served at seven am, and ended with the dormitory doors being locked at seven pm. Native police upheld the laws of the settlement and tracked down any lovers who eloped. (p.129)
  • After six months in the dormitories Jack and Harold requested they move to the camp, where they would have more freedom. (p.121) They moved in with Aunty Lucy and continued to work in the field. (p.124)
  • As camp residents Jack and Harold received rations of tea, sugar, flour, fat, potatoes, an onion and tobacco on a Monday. (p.123) Tobacco was the currency of the camp, and it often changed hands through gambling. (p.124) Jack won sixteen sticks of tobacco in his first game of two-up, and gave them to Aunty Lucy. (p.125)
  • Jack recalls that station owners often preyed upon young women sent from the Moore River to work as domestics. (p.128) The girls would return to the Settlement pregnant, and their children would become property of the state. (p.128) Some babies were even disposed of in the pine plantation. (p.129)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION:

  • A Boy’s Life was written by Jack Davis.

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Davis, Jack (1917–2000)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/davis-jack-17788/text29364, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012