John King Davis (known as ‘Gloomy Davis’ by his crew) (1884–1967)

John King Davis
Captain John King Davis (Photo: Mitchell Collection, State Library of NSW)
Ross Sea party of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition A historic gatheringJohn King Davis in retirement

Born in Surrey, England to James Davis and Marion nee King, he was educated at Colet Court, London, and Burford Grammar School, Oxfordshire. Davis did not have a family of his own, but had an enduring love of the sea and exploration. Described by many as the greatest captain in Antarctic history, his contribution was honoured by the Australian Antarctic Division, naming one of its four permanent Antarctic research stations ‘Davis’, in 1957.

Work

As a 16 year old, he was steward’s boy on the Carisbrooke Castle before being apprenticed as a seaman on the Celtic Chief and visiting Australia. Perhaps it was during these formative years that he decided to settle in Melbourne when no longer seafaring.

Davis passed the Board of Trade examination to qualify as second mate, serving on the Westland and the Port Jackson. In 1906 he gained his first mate’s certificate in Australia, followed by his extra master’s certificate in New Zealand.

Davis met Ernest Shackleton at an exhibition of polar equipment, and became Chief Officer of Shackleton’s Nimrod, sailing to Antarctica in 1907. He met Mawson on this expedition, forming a long lasting friendship. Davis worked on the Nimrod until March 1911, when he was appointed master of the Aurora for Mawson’s 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition. When Mawson married Francisca Paquita Delprat in 1914, Davis was best man, and he fondly kept the newspaper clipping of the event in a book in his personal collection.

After making significant contributions to the war effort, he became Commonwealth director of navigation. He established a cyclone warning system on Willis Island. Davis was a member of the Australian Government’s planning committee advising on Antarctic policy and endeavours from 1947 to 1962.

World War I

Davis joined the military embarkation staff at Sydney, commanding the Boonah, transporting troops and horses to England and Egypt. As lieutenant-commander, Royal Australian Naval Reserve, he contributed to the repatriation of the Australian Imperial Force.

Achievements in Antarctica

The 1911–1914 expedition encountered many challenges: dangerous weather, unchartered coastline, and problems with the ship including failing pumps in the engine room. In the Sydney Morning Herald of the 30th May 1929, Close writes of Davis’s crucial role in the expedition:

“...so much of its safety and success hinged upon his masterly seamanship, firm decision of mind, and courageous daring in handling the expedition ship Aurora.”

Davis, as Master of the Aurora, made several crucial voyages, establishing and relieving the wintering bases at Macquarie Island and on the Antarctic mainland, at Commonwealth Bay and the Shackleton Ice Shelf.

Davis had to make the difficult decision, whether to wait for blizzards and harsh seas to abate to collect Mawson’s party, or to relieve the second base party led by Frank Wild. He chose the latter.

In October, 1916, he commanded the Aurora to rescue Shackleton’s shore party, left at McMurdo Sound to support Shackleton’s attempt to cross Antarctica from the Weddell Sea. The party had spent two winters in Antarctica with inadequate supplies and must have been most relieved to see Davis who transported them safely to New Zealand.

He commanded the Discovery voyage (1929–1930), a British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) under Mawson’s leadership. The expedition mapped the coast of Antarctica which was proclaimed Australian Antarctic Territory.

Awards

Davis was twice recipient of the King’s Polar Medal. He also received the Murchison Award of the Royal Geographical Society and became a fellow of the society in 1915. From 1920 Davis was a member of the Royal Society of Victoria, and was its president in 1945 and 1946. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire-Commander (Civil) in 1964.

The Davis Sea was named in recognition of his incredible skill in negotiating the dangerous waters and ice around Antarctica.

Davis’s portrait appropriately hangs in the ‘gallery of explorers’ in the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Imparting his knowledge of Antarctica

Davis’s publications include: With the ‘Aurora’ in the Antarctic, 1911–1914 (1919), Willis Island: a Storm Warning Station in the Coral Sea (1923), and High Latitude (1964), written with Bedford Osborne.

Personal attributes

Davis’s expertise during storms and dangerous ice conditions was praised by Shackleton. His personal attributes included being easy to talk to, big hearted, unselfish, influential, modest, and a stickler for discipline.

When Davis commanded the Discovery, on Mawson’s 1929–1930 expedition, there were disagreements between the two leaders on topics such as quantities of coal and the use of aircraft. Davis was adamant that it was the captain, not the expedition leader, who was responsible for decisions regarding the safety of the ship. Their friendship was strong enough to withstand differences in professional judgement, as they were united by a life-long passion for research expeditions to Antarctica.

This page was last modified on 17 June 2002.