Rowland Robert Teape Davis was born near Bantry, County Cork, Ireland, probably in 1806 or 1807, the son of Elizabeth Barry and her husband, Richard Davis. Nothing is known of his childhood or education. From the late 1820s he was active in the political campaigns to promote the Reform Bill, the abolition of slavery, and Catholic emancipation, and was at some time president of the engineers', smiths' and machinists' union of the western district of London.
On 13 October 1829, at Stepney, London, he married Mary Ann Groombridge. They sailed for New Zealand on the Aurora with their three children in September 1839, and arrived at Port Nicholson (Wellington) on 22 January 1840. Five more children were born in New Zealand. Davis soon became a leading figure in the organisation of working class interests in early Wellington. In December 1840 he was involved in the formation of the Working Men's Association to organise discussions, lectures and a library. Later, he called a public meeting to protest at the treatment of immigrants, and with John Wade, an auctioneer, collected evidence of alleged mistreatment. This inquiry, Davis later claimed, resulted in the dismissal of an emigration agent. He supported the Wellington settlers' demand for the recall of Governor William Hobson in 1841, and at a meeting on 30 March 1842 was elected to a committee formed to monitor the measures of the Legislative Council.
On 11 February 1842 Davis chaired a meeting of mechanics and labourers, and was elected to a Working Men's Committee of 21 formed 'to watch over the interests of' the working classes in the implementation of the Municipal Corporations Ordinance 1842. A further meeting on 15 August put forward 18 nominations, including Davis, for the first municipal election. Another committee, dubbed the Gentlemen's Committee, countered with its own list. At the poll on 3 October Davis lost by one vote.
The Working Men's Committee had sought to represent fairly the 'three classes' in the community: 'landed, commercial, and working'. The committee itself was more broadly based than its name implies. It comprised only one labourer, a handful of businessmen and clerks, and a majority of skilled artisans. Davis was recorded as an engineer and a carpenter in the burgess rolls, before he turned to hotel-keeping. He kept the Aurora Tavern in Willis Street, which opened in 1844, and in September 1845 built the town's first theatre, the Britannia Saloon, adjacent to it. In 1848 Davis was involved in the Wellington Settlers' Constitutional Association, formed to push for representative government.
Davis moved with his family to Lyttelton in 1851, where, with his son, Richard, he kept the Canterbury Hotel. In the late 1850s he opened the Lyttelton Hotel in Christchurch, which he ran until 1864 when he moved to Heathcote. In June 1853 he offered himself as a candidate for the General Assembly but later withdrew his nomination. He subsequently stood for the Canterbury Provincial Council, basing his campaign on his history of political activism and his opposition to monopoly business practices and high land prices. The Lyttelton Times responded with a scathing editorial and Davis was defeated at the poll on 31 August 1853, after winning the show of hands. Despite declaring, with good humour, that he now intended to quit politics, Davis later served on the provincial council for Akaroa in 1856–57, and for Lyttelton from November 1857 to January 1864, but stood unsuccessfully for Port Victoria in 1866. He appears, however, to have been less outspoken on class issues in these years.
Davis was a well-known personality in Lyttelton and Christchurch. He was remembered as 'a big, portly Irishman, with an unctuous brogue & a fine volubility for chat and anecdote'. Henry Sewell was less impressed, describing him as 'a vulgar pushing fellow whom it would have been absolutely discreditable to send up to the General Assembly as representing the Social superiority of the Canterbury Settlement.'
In addition to his political career, Davis was a founding member of the Christchurch Mechanics' Institute in 1859, and served as city surveyor briefly in 1862. In the late 1860s he followed the goldrush to the West Coast, where he was inspector of weights and measures for Westland from September 1871 to July 1874. Returning to Heathcote, he was appointed clerk to the Avon Road Board in 1877. He died at Heathcote on 27 February 1879.