In 1891 Tannous Dabes (later known as Davis) travelled from his home village of Bkfaya, in Mt Lebanon to Ballarat in Victoria, Australia. He left behind his young wife, Elizabeth and three young children Joseph, Walter and Victoria. Elizabeth came from a well-educated family in Lebanon. She had been a schoolteacher before she married and she left behind one brother who was a doctor of medicine and another who was an Orthodox priest and, later, a bishop. Nevertheless, she was prepared to join her husband as he tried his luck in a remote country.
Tannous joined the tiny colony of Lebanese in Ballarat and began hawking in and around the Ballarat area. Other families in Ballarat at the time included the Batrouney and Doblie families and possibly others whose names have not been recorded. Just six years later Elizabeth and her three children came to Australia on the German steamer Frederick der Grosse arriving on 6 January 1897.
Tannous continued hawking in and around Ballarat and two years after the family’s arrival a fourth child, Minnie was born in September 1899. The stage was set for steady progress of this young Lebanese family in the colony of Victoria. However, tragedy struck the family when Tannous, the father and breadwinner of the family, died of the dreaded pneumonia on 26 October 1899. Elizabeth was left a young widow with four young children, the youngest of whom was a newly born babe. Tannous died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave in the new Ballarat cemetery. It was not until some years later that his sons were able to afford a tombstone for their father. The early Lebanese families in Ballarat experienced the hardships of hawking, separation from family and considerable poverty. The unmarked graves provide sad testimony to the hardships and poverty experienced by this small group of pioneers.
How were Elizabeth and her family to survive? Government assistance was non-existent and the small Lebanese community had precious few resources to help each other. So Elizabeth had to fend for herself and her family by continuing the hawking business her husband had started. She pulled her two boys, Joseph aged 12 and Walter aged 10 years, out of the Catholic primary school that they had been attending and, with her four children in a horse-drawn cart, commenced hawking in and around the Ballarat area. Fortunately, Joseph had completed primary school and Walter was well educated for a boy of his age. This was to serve the family well in the future.
Elizabeth’s determination and resourcefulness and the assistance of her two sons enabled the family to pull itself out of poverty. Over the next few years the hawking business prospered and the range of their activities increased. By 1906-1908 they were able to hire a railway carriage twice a year and stop at country towns sometimes for a week to sell their goods before moving on to the next town. An elderly lady in Mildura recalled the great excitement of the hawkers’ visits and the lovely goods they would sell. Despite the success of these ventures and the use of modern technology, namely the train, to sell goods by the first decade of the twentieth century the hawking days were rapidly drawing to a close.
Then came the second stage in the business activities of the Davis family: the establishment of drapery businesses. The first venture was a white goods factory in Prahran, which Joseph ran for a short while with his mother, Elizabeth, in 1908 while Walter continued hawking. Walter then opened a shop in 1917 at Bakery Hill, Ballarat. He was there only three years before he bought a larger shop at 86 Bridge Mall in the centre of the Ballarat retail area. Although this shop was originally quite small, it offered ladies’, men’s and children’s wear as well as manchester, carpets and other household furnishings. Over the years it began to specialise by becoming a ladies and girls fashion store which it has remained to this day. Perhaps one of the reasons for concentrating on ladies fashion was that by 1930 Joseph opened a speciality men’s wear store also in Bridge Mall. He was to run this business until he retired in 1944.
Joseph and Walter became known throughout Ballarat as successful and innovative business men. Walter introduced time payment to Ballarat, becoming known over time as ‘TP Walter.’ He also sold insurance and financial loans. Although success came their way it was only achieved through much hard work and sacrifice by all members of the family. In common with other businesses, the Davis brothers’ stores suffered during the early part of the depression. This did not prevent Walter from providing anonymous help to the needy. One story tells how, if he knew a woman to be needy, he would hand back the two shillings she brought to pay off her time payment account. When his book keeper would complain he would say: ’don’t worry it’s not your money; it’s my money; you look after the book keeping.’ By the end of the Depression, the Walter Davis Store was expanding with increased floor space and a wider range of goods. By 1929 there were seventeen on the staff. The Second World War were also years of business growth with American marines being quartered in Ballarat and bringing much money into the city.
All of the children of Tannous and Elizabeth Davis married into other Lebanese families who had migrated to Australia. Although her husband had been Melkite Catholic, on his death Elizabeth reverted to her Orthodox faith and her four children married into Orthodox families. Joseph married Kareeme Betar from Brisbane, Walter married Elizabeth Doblie from Ballarat, Victoria married Nicholas Beshara from Melbourne and Minnie married John Batrouney from Melbourne.
After many years as an invalid Elizabeth, the matriarch of the family, died in 1935 but not before she had the satisfaction of seeing her family grow in size and prosper in business. Towards the end of the war the numerous offspring from these marriages began working in the Davis family businesses. Joseph retired in 1944 and died at the age of 70 years in 1956. Walter continued to run his store until his death at the age of 63 years in 1952. The men’s wear store, established by Joseph, was sold in 1944. However the Walter Davis Store continues to this day.
Over the years the following family members have worked in the Walter Davis Store: Walter Davis, Joseph Davis, Elizabeth Davis, Freda Davis, Ron Davis, Eric Beshara, Norman Beshara, Enid Beshara, Bernice Beshara, Alec Beshara, Nance Beshara, Nola Batrouney, Susan Batrouney, Paula Batrouney, Lisa Batrouney.
This strong family involvement has made this a special business with a strong feeling of continuity. The Walter Davis Store, which began in 1920, is now 80 years old and still one of the premier ladies fashion houses in Ballarat. The sense of continuity is epitomised by Bernice Batrouney (nee Beshara), who commenced work in the store at the age of 14 years in 1929, and is still active in the business. ‘I just love the work,’ she says. Her four daughters, with a range of other qualifications and other work experiences are now all working side by side with their mother.
In many respects the Davis family has much in common with other first wave Lebanese-Australian families: engaging first in hawking and then in shopkeeping; establishing close-knit families; family members involvement in the businesses; and sharing family values such as diligence, thrift and tenacity. On the other hand, the Davis family is noteworthy for remaining in Ballarat and not following the drift to Melbourne; and for the impressive family involvement and continuity in the Walter Davis Store.
© Dr Trevor Batrouney
13 September 2000