Davies Gilbert, PRS, MP

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Davies Gilbert (Giddy), PRS, MP

Death: December 24, 1839 (72)
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Edward Giddy and Catherine Giddy
Husband of Mary Anne Gilbert
Father of Annie Gilbert; John Davies Gilbert, Esq. of Trelissick; Catherine Gilbert; Mary Susannah Gilbert and Hester Elizabeth Gilbert

Managed by: Woodman Mark Lowes Dickinson, OBE
Last Updated:

About Davies Gilbert, PRS, MP

Family and Education b. 6 Mar. 1767, o. surv. s. of Rev. Edward Giddy, curate of St. Erth, Cornw. by Catherine, da. and event. h. of John Davies of Tredrea, St. Erth. educ. Penzance g.s. 1775-9; by his fa. 1779-82; Donne’s mathematical acad., Bristol 1782-5; M. Temple 1783; Pembroke, Oxf. 1785. m. 18 Apr. 1808, Mary Anne, da. and h. of Thomas Gilbert of Eastbourne, 2s. 4da. suc. fa. 1814; fa.-in-law 1816 and took name of Gilbert 3 Jan. 1817.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Cornw. 1792-3.

Member, board of agriculture 1808-22, vice-pres. 1815; pres. R. Soc. 1827-30.

Biography Giddy’s background was solidly Cornish, his maternal grandfather whose small estate he inherited being ‘the representative of several old Cornish houses’. The curacy of St. Erth was the ‘only preferment’ his father ‘ever enjoyed’, though he secured a competence by dabbling in mining ventures. Cyrus Redding, who knew Giddy as a boy, recalled that he was ‘whimsical, full of projects, of which he would demonstrate the feasibility by algebra’, but added ‘ingenious as he was, [he] never brought to pass anything of moment. He loved money, and fluxions, and in politics was one day a Royalist, and the next a Cromwellian— never fixed.’ He realized his great ambition of becoming an FRS at 24 and kept company with radical intellectuals like Thomas Beddoes. Dr Parr, the Whig panjandrum, dubbed him ‘the Cornish philosopher’.1

In politics, Giddy first admired Pitt and canvassed for the minister’s friend Francis Gregor* in the county election of 1790. He then went through a radical phase, during which he more than once attended debates at Westminster. He was weaned from this by Sir Francis Basset’s* securing his nomination as sheriff in 1792: ‘it took me from companions who might have hurried me into excesses, notwithstanding my own moderate opinions’. In May 1796 he took down a copy of the French constitution of 1791 that had hung on his sitting room wall since then and concentrated on his scientific pursuits.

Giddy was returned by (Sir) Christopher Hawkins* for Helston in May 1804 just after Pitt’s return to power. He had assisted Hawkins to secure the patronage of the borough, but was his guest. Charles Williams Wynn, meeting him on the London-Oxford coach, reported to Southey on 6 May 1805:2

His conversation was the most entertaining and full of information, his appearance disgustingly mean. Since that time one who knows him intimately has told me that his coming into Parliament was equally extraordinary with everything else about him— inasmuch that with decided opposition principles and an independent fortune he had accepted Sir Christopher Hawkins’s offer of being brought in professedly to support the minister for the time being, whoever he may be, in order to foster Sir Christopher’s jobs and that he makes no secret of the wish he entertains in contradiction to every vote he gives.

This is borne out by a letter from Lord de Dunstanville (the former Sir Francis Basset) to Addington, the fallen minister, 16 Nov. 1804, in which he wrote, ‘Davies Giddy and his father are your sincere well-wishers; you know however that Mr Davies Giddy is so circumstanced that he cannot show it as he wishes’. In fact, two days after taking his seat, he was at first reported as having voted against Pitt’s additional force bill, 8 June 1804, with his patron; but the report was contradicted. Addington, who seems to have thought Giddy and his patron were on his side, had to make do with Giddy’s apologies until his reconciliation with Pitt gratified them both.3

Giddy was listed ‘Pitt’ in September 1804 and July 1805, having voted like his patron against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805, but against his own judgment. Like other Cornish Members he had voted against the salt tax bill, 4 Mar.: it was the subject of his maiden speech, in the interest of the pilchard fisheries. He brought in a bill to promote them on 27 June. He remained a champion of Cornish interests throughout his parliamentary career. On 7 June 1805 he voted against compensation for the Duke of Atholl and on 19 July spoke to the same effect, arguing that if compensation was insisted on, it should be out of the public purse. He was a spokesman on corn bounties, 28 June, having published an anonymous pamphlet on the subject the year before. On 28 Mar. 1806 his patron, having found a bidder for Giddy’s seat on the change of ministry, asked him to surrender it in a manner as ‘unliberal as unexpected’. De Dunstanville offered to find him a seat elsewhere.

Giddy was returned by De Dunstanville for Bodmin at the general election of 1806. In one source he was listed in the minority on the Hampshire election petition, 13 Feb. 1807, but on 16 Feb. he applauded the Grenville ministry’s ‘new plan of finance’, which he claimed to have scrutinized. Like his patron and Sidmouth he turned against the ministry a month later. In the Parliament of 1807, when he might have come in for East Looe had he not preferred to remain Member for Bodmin, he began to speak regularly in the House, being an assiduous attender. Farington reported that Giddy was ‘devoted to the business of Parliament and is becoming so well informed in all that relates to it, that it is not improbable but that he may at some period be the Speaker’.4 He was a critic of Whitbread’s Poor Law and parish schools bills and of trade unions, April and July 1807. He supported ministers on the militia transfer bill, 28 July, and, unlike Sidmouth, did not oppose the Copenhagen expedition, though he favoured the restoration of the Danish fleet, 29 Mar. 1808. He supported the orders in council, 24 Feb., and stayed up until five in the morning to vote against Whitbread’s resolution for peace negotiation, 29 Feb. 1808. On 7 Apr. he suggested an alternative pension scheme to reward public servants in place of sinecure offices. He conceded the need for Poor Law repeal, but opposed wage regulation, 19 May, and government interference in agriculture, 27 May, and supported the agricultural lobby against distillation from sugar, 13 June 1808, 6 Feb. 1809. He voted against the convention of Cintra, 21 Feb., and thought the Duke of York not entirely cleared of the charges against his conduct, 20 Mar. 1809. On 11 May he made his first major speech, against Madocks’s accusation of ministerial corruption in elections, insisting that the influence of property (the landed interest, the army, the navy, the law and the moneyed interest) should always prevail in the House, and that while proven corruption should be exposed, visionary reform would not do. Elaborating on this in a speech of 26 May, he commended the openings provided by the boroughs for men of ambition and talent and on 6 June distinguished between corruption and influence (‘without a system of influence no government could exist’). ‘On mature consideration’, he supported Curwen’s reform bill, 12 June. That month he chaired the committee of the House on the third report of the finance committee.

When Perceval came to power, a bid was made for Giddy’s services: the secretaryship to the Board of Control was offered him. He declined it, 28 Nov. 1809, on his patron’s advice. De Dunstanville wrote of him to Sidmouth that day: ‘with much talent, great information, and a perfectly honourable mind our friend’s two faults (his only faults I believe) are a good deal of vanity and a love of money’— whence ‘something of a hankering after office’. Giddy’s marriage to an heiress who brought him £100,000 and a fine marine view at Eastbourne had already changed his prospects. If, as Bragge Bathurst suggested, he would have lost his seat by accepting office against his patron’s wishes, he was at that very time prepared to negotiate with the Duke of Bedford for his borough interest at Camelford which, if not on his own behalf, might have secured him a broker’s reward of a seat.5 After consultation with Sidmouth the day before, he voted for the address, 23 Jan. 1810, but on 26 Jan. in the opposition majority for the Scheldt inquiry, throughout which he remained hostile to ministers. Moreover, after he had supported Bankes’s bill to abolish offices in reversion, 31 Jan. 1810, Bankes secured his inclusion in the finance committee with Perceval’s concurrence; and, to his embarrassment, 2 Feb., he was proposed by William Smith as chairman of ways and means instead of Perceval’s nominee Lushington. He demurred, but was in the chair on the finance committee’s third report, 19 Mar. The Whigs labelled him a Sidmouthite and it was after consulting Sidmouth that he had declined a fresh offer from Perceval to make him secretary to the Treasury, 4 Mar. He played a part of his own in the proceedings against (Sir) Francis Burdett*. On 28 Mar. he tried to get immediate discussion of Burdett’s letter, in the face of Perceval’s wish for an adjournment. After voting against his committal to the Tower on 5 Apr., he seconded on 10 Apr. Curwen’s motion that the House should ignore Burdett’s outburst, but passed to the offensive subsequently. He was then made chairman of the select committee to examine Burdett’s manifesto and on 11 May moved their recommendation that the Speaker should answer Burdett in court. He opposed Romilly’s bid to reduce capital punishment for theft, 1 May 1810, contending for a ‘middle course’ on this subject thereafter. On 21 May he led the opposition to Brand’s motion for parliamentary reform: he believed democracy was the road to despotism. On 31 May, as chairman of the committee on sinecure offices, he presented their report recommending abolition, which was carried. He retained this function for the next three sessions and until 1812 supported Bankes’s efforts in this field.

Giddy was proposed by George Johnstone for the committee on commercial credit, 1 Mar. 1811, but no Member would second it. He supported the findings of the committee on bullion, 9 May 1811, having published a pamphlet A plain statement on the bullion question, which provoked two replies. A member of the select committee on the distress of the cotton workers, he was unsympathetic, advising them to go back to the land, 24 June 1811; on 5 May 1812 he denounced the Luddites. On 21 Jan. 1812 he ‘stated his conversion’ to relieving the crown of the droits of Admiralty.6 On 10 Feb. he was named for the civil list committee. He was an opponent of Catholic relief and voted against a change of administration, 21 May. On 26 May he was involved in a ludicrous exchange with Whitbread on the publicans bill allowing them to dispense with pewter. He maintained that his friend Sir Humphrey Davy had discovered that a galvanic influence which excited agreeable sensations was produced by drinking beer out of pewter. Whitbread, in reply, said he hoped some chemist would discover that roast beef derived a peculiar relish from being served on pewter plates and further stimulate production in the Cornish mines.

Giddy appeared on the Treasury list of supporters after the election of 1812. On 3 Mar. 1813 he criticized Vansittart’s new plan of finance as detrimental to the sinking fund, though he would not go so far as to vote against it. A week later he started his parliamentary campaign for the revision of the laws of copyright. The death of his eldest son in May 1813 depressed him and he was less active than in the previous Parliament. His support for alteration of the Corn Laws, on which he was a select committeeman, caused his town house to be attacked by the mob in March 1815. After the failure of his own proposals in 1813, he repeatedly opposed other proposals for reform of the borough of Helston until 1816. As chairman of the committee on Irish currency, he recommended the union of the two treasuries, 19 June 1815. He was in the government majority against inquiry into the Regent’s expenditure, 31 May, but in the opposition majority against the grant to the Duke of Cumberland, 3 July 1815: it was this kind of conduct that earned him the epithet (bestowed on him by Thomas Wallace*) ‘crotchetty’.7

On 25 Oct. 1815 Sidmouth indicated that he would welcome Giddy’s replacing Hiley Addington as under-secretary to him at the Home Office, but nothing came of it then.8 He favoured the continuation of the property tax in 1815 and 1816, though he was against its extension to Ireland and wished tax relief to be offered to landlords who reduced rents, 25 Apr. 1815. The defeat of the tax made the continuation of more obnoxious indirect taxes inevitable in his view, 13 May 1816. In January 1817 Gilbert (as he now was) agreed to Sidmouth’s renewed offer to be his under-secretary, stipulating the Privy Council for himself, 3 Feb.; but after twice changing his mind, declined, 17 Apr., ‘after consulting Mr Tremayne* and thinking on it in the bed’. He had in any case become chairman of the finance committee to report on sinecures, 11 Feb. 1817. He reported on 27 Mar. and on 5 May was given leave to bring in ten bills to implement their proposals, denying that he was ‘the organ of government’. He was also a member of the Poor Law committees of 1817, 1818 and 1819. He voted for the suspension of habeas corpus, 23 June 1817, and stood by government subsequently, apart from votes with the opposition majority against the Duke of Clarence’s marriage grant, 15 Apr. 1818; in the minority against exempting foreign women married to Englishmen from the aliens bill, 22 May 1818; in the minority on the second division on the case of Wyndham Quin*, 29 Mar. 1819, as he wished, like seven other Members, to excuse the House from proceeding to expulsion; and in the minority against the salt laws, 29 Apr. 1819, which was on behalf of the Cornish fisheries. In April 1818 Sidmouth had again attempted to lure Giddy to the Home Office. This time, after hesitating, he gave explicit reasons for declining: ‘unsuited to my years, to my accidental situation in society, and to the part I have sustained in Parliament, during 14 years and among scientific persons for a longer period, and in the country ... I should be lowered in public opinion’. He added that the salary could not interest him and he thought he could best support ‘the constitution and the property of the nation by gratuitous services in and out of Parliament’. At the ensuing general election and again in 1820 he was regarded as a contender for the county representation of Sussex, though a newcomer there. By 1820 he was looking forward to taking over the patronage of Bodmin from De Dunstanville and he remained its Member. He also remained ‘one of the most assiduous senators, perhaps unequalled for his services on committees’. As a practical improver, he designed new ventilation for the House of Commons in 1819 which worked ‘tolerably well’, apart from his lifelong interest in Cornish mining techniques and his part in designing the Plymouth breakwater and the Cape observatory. His editions of the Cornish mediaeval classics and Parochial History of Cornwall (he had his own printing press) made him an ornament of learned society. To a ‘Roman simplicity’ he added ‘English and gentlemanlike courtesy’.9 He died 24 Dec. 1839.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820 Author: R. G. Thorne Notes 1. Gent. Mag. (1840), i. 208; Redding, Fifty Years’ Recollections, 2nd ed. (1858), i. 13. 2. NLW mss 4814. 3. Sidmouth mss; Morning Chron. 13 June 1804; see HAWKINS, Christopher. 4. Sun, 18 Feb. 1807; Farington, vi. 144; NMM, WYN/107, Pole Carew to Pole, 7 May 1807; Sidmouth mss, De Dunstanville to Sidmouth, 3 Jan. 1810. 5. Sidmouth mss, Bragge Bathurst to Sidmouth, 25 Nov., De Dunstanville to same, 28 Nov.; Blair Adam mss, Bedford to Adam, 3 Dec. 1809. 6. Creevey mss, Brougham to Creevey, 22 Jan. 1812. 7. Add. 40183, f. 273. 8. Sidmouth mss, Sidmouth to De Dunstanville, 25 Oct. 1815. 9. Ibid. Gilbert to Sidmouth, 19 Apr. 1818; Add. 33112, f. 374; Petworth House mss, Ashburnham to Egremont, 26 Feb. 1820; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 165; Colchester, iii. 103; Gent. Mag. (1840), i. 208.

Wikipedia Biographical Summary

Davies Gilbert (born Davies Giddy) PRS (6 March 1767 – 24 December 1839) was a British engineer, author, and politician. He was elected to the Royal Society on 17 November 1791 and served as President of the Royal Society from 1827 to 1830.


Davies Giddy was born on 6 March 1767, the second child of three, to the Reverend Edward Giddy, curate of [St Erth] church, and Catherine Davies, daughter of Henry Davies of Tredrea, St Erth. The first child, also Davies by forename, had died within 24 hours of birth in 1766, and the third child, daughter Mary Phillipa Davies Giddy (aka Philippa) was born in 1769. The Giddy family moved into Penzance, living on Chapel Street in 1775, until Giddy's mother Catherine inherited the family home of Tredrea back in St Erth. By 1780 the family returned to St Erth, and Davies was taught by his father, alongside his sister Philippa. Davies Giddy would later adopt Gilbert as his surname, the maiden name of his wife, the agronomist Mary Ann Gilbert, who he married at Easter of 1808.

Davies was educated first at Penzance Grammar School and then by his father, and by Rev Malachy Hitchens, the mathematical astronomer. At the age of 17, at the recommendation of Hitchins, he was sent to Bristol to join the Mathematical Academy of Benjamin Donne where he remained for three years. His sister Phillipa simultaneously finished her own schooling with the famous bluestocking Hannah More. He went up to Pembroke College, Oxfordin 1786, whence he graduated with a M.A. on 29 June 1789.

Davies was High Sheriff of Cornwall from 1792 to 1793. He served in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament for Helston in Cornwall from 1804 to 1806 and for Bodmin from 1806 to 1832.
Giddy was an intimate friend of physician Thomas Beddoes, had attended Beddoes' lectures in Oxford when the latter had become University Reader in Chemistry in 1788 and had been a confidant of Beddoes in his plans for the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. He noticed and encouraged Humphry Davy and convinced Beddoes that Davy was the man to work in the laboratory at the Institution.

The Dictionary of National Biography article says of him:

"Gilbert's importance to the development of science in the early nineteenth century lay in his faith that science provided the best means to tackle practical problems and in his facility as a parliamentary promoter of scientific ventures."

His mathematical skills were sought by such early engineering pioneers as Jonathan Hornblower, Richard Trevithick and Thomas Telford. He also had a great interest for the history and culture of Cornwall. For instance, he removed a Celtic cross from near Truro, on the Redruth Road (where it had found new use as a gatepost), and took it to a churchyard in his new home of Eastbourne. When asked why he carried off a Cornish Cross and re-erected it in Eastbourne by the Rev. Canon Hockin, of Phillack, Mr. Davies replied, It was in order to show the poor, ignorant folk that there was something bigger in the world than a flint!.

He assembled and published A Parochial History of Cornwall and collected and published a number of Cornish Carols.

He edited for publication a Cornish Language poem about the Passion: Passyon agan Arluth, as Mount Calvary (1826). He was elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1820. Gilbert was the President of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall from its foundation in 1814 until his death.

Marriage and family

On 18 April 1808 he married Mary Ann Gilbert, and in 1816 he took his wife's surname, Gilbert, to perpetuate it. This enabled the couple to inherit the extensive property in Sussex of her uncle, Thomas Gilbert, who had no male heir.

Three daughters and a son survived him. Their son, John Davies Gilbert (5 December 1811 – 16 April 1854) was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in April, 1834 [14] but he does not seem to have published any scientific work.

Their eldest daughter, Catherine, married John Samuel Enys (b. 1796) on 17 April 1834. She was the mother of the notable New Zealand naturalist, John Davies Enys (11 October 1837 – 7 November 1912).

Their second daughter, Annie, married Rev. Henry Owen, rector of Heveningham, Suffolk on 4 December 1851.

The other daughters were Mary Susannah and Hester Elizabeth.

SOURCE: Wikipedia contributors, 'Davies Gilbert', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 December 2013, 16:50 UTC, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Davies_Gilbert&oldid=5852...> [accessed 5 January 2014]

Other References