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Posted on 22 Feb 2024 in Non-Fiction | 1 comment

GRAEME DAVISON My Grandfather’s Clock: Four centuries of a British-Australian family. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress

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Graeme Davison’s book is an elegant waltz through one family’s history and its connection to large events, from immigration to world wars.

One of Australia’s leading historians, Graeme Davison notes in his introduction that ‘history is usually written forwards’ whereas ‘genealogy and family history are often written backwards’. This book,

combining history and family history … involves an oscillation between two modes of enquiry: one a tracing back to find my ‘lost relations’; the other a looking forward to consider how their actions and decisions affected their descendants, including me.

Clocks measure time and the grandfather clock that Davison’s great-aunt Cissie brought to Australia in 1934 (and was eventually bequeathed to him), connects six generations of Davisons dating back to John Davidson, breeches-maker of Annan, Scotland, in the eighteenth century. ‘Who were the ancestors who owned and used my grandfather’s clock when it was new? How did it order their lives and times?’ he wonders. ‘In reconstructing its history I am peering into that dark space where heredity and nurture, memory and history combine to make us who we are.’

In fact, Davison begins his investigation of Davidsons/Davisons (the names are interchangeable) in the middle of the sixteenth century, more than 200 years before the clock. No exact ancestors can be determined but most bearing that name were tenant farmers clustered near the Cheviot Hills straddling the Scottish-English border. As borderers’ allegiances were often fluid, in 1545 a battle at Ancrum Moor first saw the Davisons collaborating with the English invaders only to desert them in the heat of the conflict. As Davison admits, he faced a historian’s quandary. Were his forebears cunning and pragmatic, or should he condemn their knavery?

When the pattern of migration begins is uncertain. Davison surmises that an unknown ancestor was likely a drover who moved to the Eden Valley in Westmorland, England, but by the late 1780s agricultural life holds little opportunity for recently married John Davidson, who moves 50 miles north, back across the border to the thriving seaport of Annan, to learn the trade of making breeches. For the Davison men it’s also the beginning of lives in trade and industry and further migration for them and their families. William Davidson, who moves to Carlisle, England, is a block printer on calico in the textile industry, and his son Richard Davidson/Davison is a bootmaker in the same city. The next generation sees Thomas, a tinplate worker, move briefly to Manchester and then Birmingham; his son John is an ironmonger in Birmingham and a painter following his migration to Melbourne. George (the author’s father) is a plumber.

The family experiences ups and downs. In the 1830s, as a block printer in Cummersdale, a healthy semi-rural industrial village of Carlisle, William is paid by what he produces, and earning 30 shillings a week is then enough to qualify as a member of ‘the aristocracy of labour’. The clock had been brought from Annan and is a marker of ‘prosperity and personal respectability’. Twenty years later, however, his bootmaker son Richard experiences hard times in the industrial suburb of Caldewgate, ‘a hotbed of killer diseases like dysentery and diarrhoea’.

Tinplater Thomas begins work as a journeyman for JH Hopkins & Sons in Birmingham in 1864 and four years later is president of the Operative Tin Plate Workers’ Society. By 1875 he is promoted to foreman and in 1891 to manager. He appears to be rising to the status of a gentleman, but in 1898 (aged 60) the company’s collapse sees him lose his promised pension. He had been an apostle of labour and capital working in harmony and must have experienced some disillusionment towards his life’s end.

Davison describes his Birmingham ironmonger grandfather John Potter Davison as the most ‘elusive’ character in his story and the ‘author of the most radical change’ in the Davisons’ history:

In 1912, at the age of forty-three, he closed his business, uprooted his wife and four children, said goodbye to his father, mother, sister and brothers and, with only twenty pounds in his pocket, embarked for a country they hardly knew on the other side of the world. None of his children knew why he decided to emigrate.

Religion provides part of the explanation. John adopted his wife Ada’s Methodism on their marriage and the decline in wages and rising unemployment made emigration an attractive prospect. However, perhaps the clinching factor was the encouragement of friends from their Islington Wesleyan Chapel who had already departed for Australia and in one instance wrote home of immediately finding a job, being in ‘the best of health’ and having ‘no regrets’ about making the move.

Unfortunately, John is slow finding work. For friendship and support he and his family rely on other Methodists from their Ascot Vale church and fellow English immigrants, which leads Davison to make a wider point:

My grandparents’ experience illustrates the importance of religion in the story of Australian immigration and settlement. The churches provided a lifeline and a spiritual home for the immigrants. In turn, the immigrants supplied the churches with new recruits from their homeland. While the migrants keep coming, the churches continued to grow; when the flow ended, the churches also lost part of their raison d’etre. The decline of mainstream Protestantism since the 1970s has coincided with the decline of British migration.

‘Migration is a lottery,’ he argues, with the adults who leave their homelands often struggling and their children reaping the benefits. But some of those benefits were slow coming. Davison’s father George completed his plumbing apprenticeship in 1931 and at the peak of the Depression couldn’t get a job anywhere, ‘his life choices were curtailed, and his values shaped, by the ordeals of that time’.

As the years move forward Davison describes his parents as conventional, his father the provider/protector and his mother (May) the mistress of the household. They acquire their own home, a five-room bungalow in Essendon, in 1939, and the author grows up in a world of gradually increasing modern conveniences and home entertainment, both indoors and outdoors. Davison, the urban historian, is probably most eloquent in the following passage:

Today, backyards have all but disappeared in the new suburbs, but in 1950s Banchory Street, where the houses were smaller and allotments larger, they occupied about half the average block. They were not dead spaces but vital parts of the household. As well as the usual laundry, lavatory and woodshed, they accommodated a range of other buildings and installations, such as workshops, ‘bungalows’, hen houses, dog kennels. pigeon lofts, bicycle sheds, garages, caravans, greenhouses, rubbish bins, compost heaps, potting sheds, children’s playhouses, climbing frames, clotheslines, rotary hoists, vegetable gardens and fruit trees. They provided space for cricket pitches, football practice, motorcar maintenance, and a hundred kinds of extempore work and spontaneous play. Add them up and I suppose that more than half the things we did as kids occurred in our backyard.

The author is a bright lad but nearing the end of primary school doesn’t know what he wants to be. ‘It all depends on what you want to be,’ his father tells him, and his world is to be far removed from the trades. ‘The manual dexterity that sustained five generations of Davison men had somehow stopped with me.’ Essendon High School emphasises academic and sporting success, school spirit, Australian patriotism and social responsibility, and he develops historical imagination, influenced as much by his maternal grandfather Vic Hewett as classroom lessons. Ideas thrill him at Melbourne University; history, he begins to see, ‘is not the cold retrieval of dry facts but a lively, open-ended discussion with the people of the past’. He shines academically and wins the 1964 Rhodes Scholarship, discovering when he arrives in Oxford that of the 70 new Rhodes Scholars from around the world only one other is a tradesman’s son.

What else is learned? Davison is British-Australian by heritage but Australian by identity, and Australian history would be his calling. From his ancestors he discovers continuities: skilled manual work, centrist politics, Methodist self-restraint, ‘occupying middling positions in the class structure’ sometimes as ‘lackeys of our employers’. Modesty prevails in this book and is summarised as follows:

There is really no such thing as a self-made man or woman. All of us are creatures of our times and of ancestral influences we may be reluctant to acknowledge, at least until age and curiosity make us ponder them.

Graeme Davison’s My Grandfather’s Clock is one family’s history but is also a superb model for all historians seeking to write expansive histories of their own families.

Graeme Davison My Grandfather’s Clock: Four generations of a British-Australian Family Miegunyah Press 2023 HB 320pp $50.00 ebook $32.00.

Bernard Whimpress usually writes on sport and his most recent book is On Sport: Reviews 1995-2023 available from

You can buy My Grandfather’s Clock from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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1 Comment

  1. I was lucky to attend a talk about this book by Graeme Davison in the theatre of the National Library of Australia some years ago.
    As I’d already read the book, I really got a lot out of it. At the end of his talk, everyone joined him singing ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’ and it was quite an occasion.