Davies Gilbert

Davies Giddy

(1767-03-06)6 March 1767
St Erth, Penzance, Cornwall, Great Britain
Died24 December 1839(1839-12-24) (aged 72)
Eastbourne, Sussex, England
SpouseMary Ann Gilbert
Scientific career
InstitutionsRoyal Society
24th President of the Royal Society
In office
Preceded byHumphry Davy
Succeeded byPrince Augustus Frederick

Davies Gilbert FRS (born Davies Giddy, 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.[1][2] He changed his name to Gilbert in 1817.[3]


Davies Giddy was born on 6 March 1767, the second of the three children of Reverend Edward Giddy, curate of St Erth's church, and his wife Catherine, daughter of Henry Davies of Tredrea, St Erth in Cornwall. His parents' first child, also Davies by forename, died within 24 hours of birth in 1766, and their third child, Mary Philippa Davies Giddy (known as Philippa) was born in 1769.[4] The Giddy family moved to 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, whom he married at Easter of 1808.[2]

Davies was educated first at Penzance Grammar School and then by his father, and by Rev Malachy Hitchins,[5] 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 Philippa simultaneously finished her own schooling with the famous bluestocking Hannah More.[6] He went up to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1786, whence he graduated with a MA on 29 June 1789.[2]

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 at Oxford when Beddoes 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.[7]

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 early engineering pioneers such as Jonathan Hornblower, Richard Trevithick and Thomas Telford.[8] He also had an interest in 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.[9] When asked why he carried off a Cornish Cross and re-erected it in Eastbourne by the Rev. Canon Hockin, of Phillack, Davies replied, It was 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.[10][11]

He edited for publication a Cornish Language poem about the Passion: Passyon agan Arluth, as Mount Calvary (1826).[12] He was elected to the Society of Antiquaries in 1820.[2] Gilbert was the President of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall from its foundation in 1814 until his death.[13] He was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1832.[14]

Davies Gilbert was opposed to mass education during his time in parliament. When the Parochial Schools Bill of 1807 was debated in the Commons, Tory MP Davies Gilbert warned the House that:

"However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching them the virtue of subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as is evident in the manufacturing counties; it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors; and, in a few years, the result would be that the legislature would find it necessary to direct the strong arm of power towards them and to furnish the executive magistrates with more vigorous powers than are now in force. Besides, if this Bill were to pass into law, it would go to burthen the country with a most enormous and incalculable expense, and to load the industrious orders with still heavier imposts. (Hansard, House of Commons, Vol. 9, Col. 798, 13 June 1807, quoted in Chitty 2007:15–16)"[15]

He died in Eastbourne in Sussex on Christmas Eve 1839.[16]

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.[17] This enabled the couple to inherit the extensive property in Sussex of her uncle, Thomas Gilbert, who had no male heir.[2][18]

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[19] but does not seem to have published any scientific work. Their eldest daughter, Catherine, married John Samuel Enys (b. 1796) on 17 April 1834.[20][21] She was the mother of the notable New Zealand naturalist, John Enys (11 October 1837 – 7 November 1912).[22] Their second daughter, Annie, married Rev. Henry Owen, rector of Heveningham, Suffolk on 4 December 1851.[23] The other daughters were Mary Susannah and Hester Elizabeth.[18]


Books and publications written or edited by Davies Gilbert include:[24]

In 1831, Gilbert gave evidence to a Parliamentary select committee on steam carriages, which is included in the committee's report, published in 1834.[26]

See also


  1. ^ George Clement Boase (1890). "Gilbert, Davies". In Dictionary of National Biography. 21. London. pp. 323-324.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Obituary: Davies Gilbert, Esq. V.P.R.S". The Gentleman's Magazine. F. Jefferies. XIII (1): 208–211. January 1840. Retrieved 2 April 2008.
  3. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2016.
  4. ^ Cornwall On-line Parish Clerks
  5. ^ The West Briton, 3 January 1840 "Death of Davies Gilbert Esq." – quotation:"His preliminary education was conducted at home; and at a very early age he contracted an intimacy, which continued until death, with the Rev. Malachy Hitchens, vicar of St. Hilary, a gentleman of high and well-deserved celebrity as a mathematician and astronomer, and as editor of the Nautical almanack."
  6. ^ A C Todd Beyond the Blaze
  7. ^ Stansfield, Dorothy A.; Stansfield, Ronald G. (1986). "Dr Thomas Beddoes and James Watt: preparatory work 1794–96 for the Bristol Pneumatic Institute". Medical History. 30 (3): 276–302. doi:10.1017/s0025727300045713. PMC 1139651. PMID 3523076.
  8. ^ "Cornish characters and strange events". Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  9. ^ Website of Eastbourne Pagan Circle accessed 28 October 2006 Archived 7 October 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ A Parochial History of Cornwall : This book provides the first written evidence of the use of Saint Piran's Flag.
  11. ^ hymns and Carols for Christmas website
  12. ^ Kent, Alan M. (2000). The literature of Cornwall: Continuity, Identity, Difference 1000–2000. Redcliffe Press. pp. 42, 66.
  13. ^ Todd, A. C. (1964). "The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall". In K. F. G. Hosking & G. J. Shrimpton (ed.). Present Views of Some Aspects of the Geology of Cornwall and Devon. Penzance: Royal Geological Society of Cornwall. p. 1.
  14. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter G" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 August 2014.
  15. ^ Hansard 13 June 1807
  16. ^ Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0-902-198-84-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 January 2013. Retrieved 6 July 2016.
  17. ^ Change of name: ODNB states 1817. Venn Alumni Cantabrigienses[permanent dead link] says 1816:12:10
  18. ^ a b Burke's A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain ...1838, Volume 4, page 323: Gilbert of Tredrea and East-bourn article(via Google Books)
  19. ^ "List of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1660–2006". Royal Society Library & Information Services. Archived from the original on 10 February 2007. Retrieved 6 October 2006. . He was described as "a Gentleman much attached to Science being desirous of admission into the Royal Society".
  20. ^ Burke's A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Commoners of Great Britain ...1838| volume=4, page 373: Enys article. (via (Google Books)
  21. ^ For more information on Catherine Enys, see The Enys Family Archive online.
  22. ^ Dictionary of New Zealand Biography article, accessed 7 November 2006
  23. ^ Gentleman's Magazine July–December 1851, Page 648: Marriages(via Google Books)
  24. ^ Sources: British Library Integrated Catalogue and Cornwall County Library Catalogue
  25. ^ This collection and the second edition (1823) includes the first publication of the well-known carols: A Virgin Most Pure and The First Nowell That The Angel Did Say.
  26. ^ Report from the Select Committee on Steam Carriages, Parliament of the United Kingdom, 1834, pp. 144–149, Wikidata Q107302733
Parliament of the United Kingdom Preceded byJames HarrisJohn Penn Member of Parliament for Helston 1804–1806 With: James Harris 1804–1805Archibald Primrose 1805–1806 Succeeded bySir John ShelleyArchibald Primrose Preceded byJosias du Pre PorcherJames Topping Member of Parliament for Bodmin 1806–1832 With: William Wingfield, 1806–1807Sir William Oglander, 1807–1812Charles Bathurst, 1812–1818Thomas Bradyll, 1818–1820John Wilson Croker, 1820–1826Horace Seymour, 1826–1832 Succeeded byWilliam PeterSamuel Thomas Spry Professional and academic associations Preceded byHumphry Davy 24th President of the Royal Society 1827–1830 Succeeded byPrince Augustus Frederick, Duke of Sussex