Mary Elizabeth Davis was born in Portobello County, Edinburgh, Scotland on 26 December 1858. She was a business person and supporter of women’s causes.
Davis was educated first locally and then at the Edinburgh, Scotland training college for teachers. She came to Natal (now kwaZulu-Natal) in July 1881 because of ill health and took up a teaching appointment as English mistress at a Pietermaritzburg, Natal girls’ school. She relinquished this post when she married Peter Davis, junior, in April 1884 but retained a deep interest in the school and in girls’ education in Natal. Together they had five sons and four daughters.
She devoted a great deal of her time to social welfare work and to the interests of women in South Africa, particularly in Natal. In Pietermaritzburg, she established the Peter Davis Infants’ Home and was actively involved in the Pietermaritzburg Benevolent Society with which she was connected for three decades and of which she was President from 1893 to 1916. For this Society she organised the first Street collections for charity that were held in Natal.
Immediately after the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899””1902), Davis established the Pietermaritzburg branch of the Guild of Loyal Women; this later became the Victoria League and looked after South African graves of both English and Boer combatants. She was later a member and President of the South African War Graves Board until 1927.
Her most productive work for women was with the South African National Council of Women (SANCW) which was founded in the Cape Colony in 1909; she was a founding member of the Council, which was extended on a provincial basis to Natal in 1912, and presided at the meeting of the Pietermaritzburg National Council of Women in1919. She was a regular member of its biennial conferences and represented South Africa at the Oslo International Council of Women in 1920, the first time that the SANCW was represented at the international body.
Davis contributed immensely to the development of girl guiding in Natal and South Africa and was a prominent member of the South African National Society in the 1920s. She was particularly concerned in preserving places of historical interest in Natal, such as the home of Daniel Lindley (Longmarket Street) and the Provincial Council Building, and in conserving Bushman paintings in the Drakensberg Mountains.
During the Second Anglo-Boer War she substantially assisted refugees from the Transvaal and converted her home at Pietermaritzburg into a convalescent hospital. At this time she acted as secretary of the Patriotic League in Durban, Natal. For her war work she received the decoration of the Royal Red Cross. During the First World War (1914-18) she continued this work and for her efforts was awarded the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.).
Throughout her life she had taken a keen interest in her husband’s publishing and bookselling business, including The Natal Witness (a newspaper in Pietermaritzburg), and when he died she, in the absence of her elder son on active service, took over its management. She became Chair of the Board of Directors of The Natal Witness and made an exceptional showing as a business person.
Davis was a keen collector of books and her collection was later donated to Natal University (now University of Natal). She also collected paintings and antiques.
Mary Elizabeth Davis passed away on 24 March1929 in Pietermaritzburg, Natal.
• Beyers C.J. (Ed). Davis, Mary Elizabeth by B.J.T.Leverton, Dictionary of South African Biography. Vol.IV, p105”“106, Butterworth & Co. (SA) (Pty) Ltd. 1981, Durban