Monday, December 29, 2008

Founders of the Avondale Jockey Club: The Philanthropist

Image: Auckland Star, 3 January 1933

You may think it quite odd that I call this post about Moss Davis “philanthropist” instead of “brewery owner” or “merchant”, but aside from the neat tying in with the previous two posts, The Promoter and The Publican with the same letter P – Moss Davis in death was known and lauded more in obituary for his philanthropy than any other facet of his career.

In terms of the Avondale Jockey Club's origins, he was the silent partner behind the two more public figures of Harry Hayr and Michael Foley. He knew both of them, considered them friends, and when it came to putting two players in a business deal in the right place at the right time, Davis knew exactly what he was doing. With the financial backing of Hancock & Co, of which he was effectively managing director in the increasing absence of the then-owner, Samuel Jagger, he first saw detailed agreements of trade made with John Murdock, the last publican in Palmer’s ill-fated hotel which burned to the ground in April 1888, then arranged the purchase of the hotel and valuable adjacent paddocks from Robert Dakin, and the building of a finer, grander brick hotel. Come 1889, all that was needed to give the Avondale Hotel an edge over, say, those at New Lynn or Henderson was to set up a fine and enviable racecourse – and another market for his company’s wares. This, with Hayr and Foley, he achieved in 1890.

Moss Davis was born in London on 3 April 1847, but taken as an infant with his parents to Australia, then returning to London with them in 1855. He returned to Sydney in 1861, and came out to New Zealand on the brig Wild Wave, landing at Wellington.

He then headed to Lyttleton, joining his uncle who was a merchant there. The already well-travelled Davis returned to Australia in 1870 to marry his wife in 1871, before crossing the Tasman again to live in Nelson, and then Auckland. After taking over his father’s own merchant business, he was able to retire in comfort by the age of 36 – but, instead, he joined the firm of Hancock & Co in 1885.

Image: Cyclopedia of New Zealand, Vol II

The firm was an old one, founded originally in 1859 when Thomas Hancock purchased the Captain Cook Inn in Khyber Pass Road from Thomas Roche. The site had a plentiful supply of spring water, with which Hancock made his brews. A substantial brewery was built in 1862, and in 1868 Hancock took his son-in-law Samuel Jagger in partnership. Hancock retired in 1876, and sold his interest completely over to Jagger. Hancock died in 1885, Moss Davis entered the picture, and became a partner. Then Jagger died in 1890, Moss Davis completed a buy-out of Jagger’s shares from Charles Spooner, the executor of Jagger’s estate, and Hancock & Co was entirely in Davis family ownership.

Davis left New Zealand to live permanently in England in 1910, but every so often he’d come back to visit, and also every so often he’d buy up cultural and artistic treasures and ship them back to Auckland as gifts to her citizens. The Auckland Art Gallery apparently abounds with the proof of his generosity. He died in London , 2 January 1933.

His son Eliot, in his memoir A Link With The Past, recalls how his father died.
It so happened that it was my turn to be in London with him when he passed away on the 2nd of January, 1933. All the details of his illness are too harrowing for me to recount. I would just like to mention the fact that I was with him on the afternoon of the 10th of November, when he was taken ill. He had an appointment with his tailor at 4 p.m. He left at 3 p.m. to go to his hairdresser in Bond Street. He had a haircut and shave every Friday afternoon for as long as I can remember. While having his haircut on this occasion he was also being manicured. As he got out of the chair he turned around in his usual jocular manner, and said to the girl, “that ought to fetch them.” He hardly had his hat on when he was seized with severe pains and groaned in agony. With assistance I got him into the car which was outside and we reached home. Evans, the butler, and I carried him upstairs and got him into bed, where he suffered intense pain for seven weeks. We had all the medical advice possible, and Dr. Horder, one of London’s best physicians, told me after his first visit that afternoon, that it would be as much as we could expect for him to survive the night. Other doctors agreed, but, as I have said, he lived for seven weeks after that … He was just 86 years of age when he passed away.
The Cyclopedia of New Zealand had this to say in 1902:
Mr. Moss Davis … is one of Auckland’s most popular and highly-esteemed citizens. Though he is a prominent figure in business circles, he has not yet taken any active part in public life. He is an assiduous worker, and, having the responsibilities of a large concern on his shoulders, is necessarily a very busy man. Mr. Davis has assisted in improving the hotels in Auckland, and has also done much to raise the status of the trade by getting a good class of licensed victuallers into the houses, and securing a close observance of the licensing laws. He is assisted in the management of the business by two of his sons, Messrs Ernest and Eliot Davis, both of whom are popular in business circles.

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