A brewery baron for half a century, and the liquor trade's master tactician against the prohibition movement, Ernest Hyam Davis exerted enormous influence at the highest political levels. He combined this with a complex business career and an unbounded enthusiasm for yachting, racing and philanthropy.
He was born in Nelson on 17 February 1872 (registered simply as Hyam), the son of Moss Davis, an immigrant Jewish merchant, and his wife, Leah Jacobs. He attended Bishop's School in Nelson, but completed his education at Auckland Grammar School after his father joined, then acquired, the Auckland liquor firm of Hancock and Company. Ernest disliked academic study and his final report described him as 'utterly incorrigible', although he subsequently attended evening classes at Auckland University College. His first position was with the ironware merchants William McArthur and Company, but he soon quit this for a brief stint working in Brisbane and a walking tour of Fiji.
In 1892 Davis joined his father's firm as a director along with his brother Eliot, and three years later added the directorship of another family acquisition, the Captain Cook Brewery, then the largest in New Zealand. When Moss Davis retired in 1910 to England, the two brothers took charge of Hancock and Company. With his portfolio of controlling shares, Ernest was appointed managing director, a position he retained until his death. On 2 August 1899, at Auckland, he married Marion Mitchell. They were to have a son and a daughter. At the same time, Davis evidently found ample opportunity for extra-marital affairs.
As well as managing his brewery interests, Davis was prominent in the liquor trade's efforts to counter the flourishing prohibition movement. Between 1894 and 1910 the number of licensed premises slumped from 1,719 to 1,257, and in 1908 Hancock and Company lost 14 Auckland hotels without compensation. The 1911 triennial liquor poll, at which prohibition was almost carried, induced the brewery interests to intensify lobbying, and funds were channelled to political supporters.
Davis adeptly orchestrated this flow, and capitalised on the fact that among his brewery's employees for a decade after 1908 was a rising labour activist, Michael Joseph Savage. Davis materially assisted the New Zealand Labour Party over a lengthy period, and probably foresaw that it would ultimately emerge as a governing force. He lodged securities for gaoled agitators during the 1912 Waihi miners' strike, provided a hotel for John A. Lee to manage when he lost his parliamentary seat in 1928, and made standing donations to Labour candidates' election funds until his death. His support was not based solely on cynical commercial motives.
From his 30s Davis showed an enormous capacity for a multitude of interests. He was prominent among the early members of the Auckland Rowing Club, and was a foundation member of the Auckland Orphans' Club. In 1909 Davis became mayor of the small borough of Newmarket, and was re-elected in 1910. Moving on to Auckland City, he was elected as an independent councillor in 1915 and served until 1920, when he resigned, only to regain office in 1921. Later it was estimated that he held significant positions in at least 94 sporting and social bodies, 11 of them at the national level, including the presidency of the New Zealand Football Association. He also served on the board of management of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation.
Davis played a pivotal role in the 1923 formation of New Zealand Breweries Limited from 10 existing companies, but this did not prevent his deepening immersion in local body affairs. In the 1920s and 1930s he served on the Auckland Harbour Board, Auckland Hospital Board, Auckland Metropolitan Fire Board and Auckland and Suburban Drainage Board. He crowned his municipal career by narrowly winning the mayoralty of Auckland in 1935 as the Auckland Citizens' and Ratepayers' Association candidate and, as Sir Ernest (he was knighted in 1937), comfortably secured re-election in 1938. Taking office at the end of the depression, he initially stressed economy and prudence, but later oversaw construction of the municipal bus terminal and parking station, Scenic Drive, and the Chamberlain Park Golf Course. In the early phases of the Second World War he was at the forefront of patriotic endeavour, but chose to retire from the mayoralty in 1941, basking in valedictories that hailed his calm progressiveness, executive capacity and exceptional popularity.
Belying his 70 years, Davis then resumed an active business life, holding many directorships including that of the Auckland Meat Company, Bycroft Limited, Kawerau Hotel, and the Northern Steam Ship Company. He chaired the Devonport Steam Ferry Company for 20 years and for a similar period was a trustee of the Auckland Savings Bank, serving as chairman in its centennial year (1947). In 1960 he became a foundation director of the New Zealand Distillery Company.
With trusted lieutenants to manage his brewery and hotel empire, Davis was free to indulge his sporting and cultural interests. About 1939 he bought a Rotorua farm, which subsequently became a model for a town-milk supply enterprise. An inveterate yachtsman, he owned several notable craft and had life membership of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron conferred on him in 1957. He became an avid racehorse owner, the success of his stable making him the leading stakeswinner four times in the mid 1950s. He commissioned for the city portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Lord Freyberg and Sir Edmund Hillary.
Late in life Davis distributed much of his immense wealth in the form of widespread charitable benefactions. He also gifted Motukorea (Browns Island) to the citizens of Auckland, established the superb medical library at Auckland Hospital in honour of his wife (who had died in May 1955), and funded the construction of the Tiritiri Matangi Island shipping light. To celebrate his 90th birthday, the Auckland City Council hosted a formal civic reception. He died on 16 September 1962 at his central city residence in Waterloo Quadrant, survived by his daughter.
Although one of New Zealand's most successful and eminent businessmen and a peerless political manipulator, Ernest Davis always regarded himself as a man of the people, obliged to set an example of good citizenship. About the virtues of Auckland he confessed a feeling near to adoration. His ability to juggle an astounding array of business, sporting and social priorities never faltered, and he was at the centre of civic life in Auckland for over 50 years.