Davies Gilbert (1767 - 1839)


From its founding in 1660, the Royal Society has had an illustrious set of Presidents. Sir Christopher Wren held the post in 1680-82 , and Sir Isaac Newton from 1703 – 1727. One man had the unique distinction being both the President of the Royal Society and the head of the Pevensey Corporation.

Davies Gilbert started life in Cornwall as Davies Giddy. He was a skilled mathematician who assisted many early industrialists; he was instrumental in promoting the career of Humphrey Davy. Giddy became High Sheriff of Cornwall in 1792, and was a MP for Cornish constituencies from 1802 to 1832. His remarkable blend of scientific knowledge and organisational ability meant that he was a valuable addition to the public life of the time.

In 1808 he married Mary Anne Gilbert of Eastbourne. Her uncle, Thomas Gilbert, died with no heir, and his estates were passed on to his niece and her husband – on condition that the family name was preserved. Hence Davies Giddy became Davies Gilbert. The Gilberts owned large estates around Eastbourne and the happy couple moved into Gildredge Manor – the building which later housed Eastbourne's Towner Art Gallery. Gilbert also contributed a large Cornish stone cross to a churchyard in Eastbourne. It was transported from Truro “'it was in order to show the poor, ignorant folk that there was something bigger in the world than a flint!' While in Eastbourne, there was talk of his becoming a Sussex MP, but he remained the MP for Bodmin.

Gilbert was interested in science and was keen to apply science to public life. He wanted a national census and wished to extend London's Zoological Gardens. It was not surprising that in 1830 he became President of the Royal Society. In many ways he was a progressive, but he had a conservative view of politics. His parliamentary seats were provided (uncontested) by a Cornish aristocrat, a circumstance of which he wholeheartedly approved.

But the 1830s were not a good time to be a conservative. Reform was in the air. Even Gilbert's Presidency of the Society was being undermined – especially by Charles Babbage, the inventor of the mechanical computer. It was argued that Gilbert ran the Society in a socially elitist fashion. Gilbert's own estates near Eastbourne had been attacked by rick-burners. And, of course, the days of the parliamentary rotten boroughs were nearly over. Gilbert was not the the kind if man to stand in an open election, so his parliamentary career was nearing its end. Gilbert responded to this turmoil by proposing a modest amount of reform. He voted to abolish 'spring-guns', lethal booby-traps designed to kill or maim trespassers. He proposed that freeholders should have the vote (but only if they had inherited adequate amounts of money: and he certainly did not want to see leaseholders voting.) It was against this background that Gilbert became, in 1830, the Bailiff of the Pevensey Corporation.

If there was an institution needing reform, it was the Corporation. This instrument of local government began life in the middle ages as a way of ensuring that the King of England had a navy. Along with the other Cinque Ports, Pevensey pledged naval service to the King, in return for a remarkable amount of self-government. By 1830 this arrangement had fallen in disrepair: for one thing, Pevensey was no longer a port and could not provide a ship. However, the old privileges remained. The Corporation was run by a small group of local property-owners: these men were the “Jurats” or magistrates of the town, a self-perpetuating group. They collected a local tax to provide relief for poor people, but the poor did not receive anything. The Jurats  elected a mayor known as the Bailiff to head the Corporation.

Gilbert was at that time well regarded in Sussex and was persuaded to become the Bailiff of Pevensey. We are not sure what triggered this promotion, but in recent years there may have been financial irregularities associated with some of the Corporation's building works. Gilbert became Bailiff in 1830, and within a year there was a new financial order in place. In future, the Corporation would have a “receiver” - a treasurer – who would keep all of the Corporation's money in a special bank account. “Any Balance now in the hands of any Bailiff be forthwith paid to the said Receiver.” In future the Receiver would hold all funds, which could only be spent with the agreement of the Corporation “only such expenses as are usual and sanctioned by sncient usage and customes of the Corporation.”

This means, presumably, that the previous Bailiff's had not only been keeping the money in their own hands, but had spent it entirely as they saw fit. With these reform in place, the Pevensey Corporation managed to survive for another half century.

 Most of this is forgotten now, but in some small ways Gilbert's influence lives on. He popularized the Cornwall's unofficial anthem, The Song of the Western Men (“Trelawney”). Gilbert imagined that this was an ancient Cornish song, as did Charles Dickens. In fact most of the piece had been composed a few years earlier, in 1825, by a Cornish clergyman. But this was an age when people sought romantic links with a distant past. Davies published this in Eastbourne and used his contacts in London – including Sir Walter Scott – to promote the song. In 1823 he published a work called Some Ancient Christmas Carols. These were the Cornish songs which were sung instead of the psalms at Christmas services. One of these carols was The First Noel, which had only existed in manuscript form. Other anthologists copied this and soon the song became a national favourite.

Image:  Painting by Henry Howard RA (31 January 1769 – 5 October 1847); Engraved by John Thompson (25 May 1785–20 February 1866, Wikipedia
The Minutes of the Pevensey Corporation, quoted here, are held by ESRO at The Keep

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