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Davison, Alexander (DNB00)

DAVISON, ALEXANDER (1750–1829), government contractor, of St. James's Square, London, and Swarland Park, Acklington, Northumberland, the prize-agent and confidential friend of Admiral Lord Nelson, was born in 1750, and amassed a large fortune as a government contractor. In partnership with his brother George he was engaged as a merchant and shipowner in the Canada trade during the American war of independence. He became known to Nelson at Quebec in 1782, when the latter was captain of the Albemarle frigate, and Davison is said to have saved him in summary fashion from an imprudent marriage (Clarke and McArthur, pp. 51–2; Southey, Life of Nelson, p. 42). Davison was made a member of the legislative council of Quebec (then composed of crown nominees) in 1784, on the recommendation of Mr. (afterwards Sir Evan) Nepean, one of the under secretaries of state. His brother George was already a member of the council (Add. MS. 21705, fol. 157, 191–2). The brothers appear to have had the monopoly of the Canadian ‘posts,’ as, in a letter to General Haldimand, dated London, 28 Dec. 1790, Alexander Davison refers to certain parties in 1786 having used the knowledge of the firm owing money to enforce a pretended claim on his share in the ‘king's posts’ granted to George and Alexander Davison and a Mr. Baby (ib. 21737, fol. 349). Alexander was connected with the commissariat of the Duke of York's army in Flanders at the beginning of the French revolutionary war. In 1795 he purchased Swarland Park from the widow of Mr. D. R. Grieve, and afterwards much improved the house and grounds. After the battle of the Nile, Nelson appointed him agent for the sale of the prizes. Davison caused medals to be struck, which, with the king's sanction, were presented to every officer and man present in the engagement, an act of patriotic munificence which cost him over 2,000l. His correspondence with Nelson shows the confidence reposed in him by the latter, and conveys the impression that it was deserved (see Nelson Letters and Despatches, passim). After Nelson's death Davison erected a tall monument in Swarland Park, still standing, beside the road from Morpeth to Alnwick, ‘not as a record of his public services (which is the duty of his country), but in commemoration of private friendship’ (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vol. iv.) Ten years previously General Oliver De Lancey [q. v.], then barrackmaster-general, had appointed Davison, who had already large transactions with the army as a clothing contractor, his agent for purchasing barrack supplies, as furniture, blankets, coals and candles, &c. Before that time, when the barracks in Great Britain were few, most of these supplies were purchased locally by the barrackmasters, on commission. Davison became general buyer for the department, with a commission of 2½ per cent. on all purchases, and during the first years of the nineteenth century, when the number of troops retained at home in anticipation of invasion was very great, his annual transactions were large. General Oliver De Lancey eventually retired, the accounts of the department being in some confusion and years in arrear. In the ‘All the Talents’ administration of 1806–7 Davison served as treasurer of the ordnance. In 1807 the parliamentary committee of inquiry into military expenditure, consisting of General Hildebrand Oakes, Colonel Drinkwater, Messrs. Cox, Bosanquet, and others, investigated the barrack department accounts. It was discovered that since 1798 Davison, who had factories at Millbank and elsewhere in London, and gave at his town house in St. James's Square sumptuous entertainments to the Prince of Wales and the fashionable world, habitually charged buyer's commission on goods supplied by himself as a merchant (Ann. Reg. 1807, p. 100 et seq.; Parl. Papers, Accts. and Papers, 1806–7, ii. 201–13). This led to a government prosecution. The case was tried in the court of king's bench, before Lord Ellenborough and a special jury, on 7 Dec. 1808. The charge preferred against Davison was ‘that, having been employed by government as an agent on commission and receiving 2½ per cent. as the price of his skill and knowledge, which he was bound to exert to protect the government from being imposed upon, he had, by means of false vouchers and receipts, received as an agent for government a commission on the amount of goods, which he himself had supplied as a merchant from his own warehouse.’ The defence was that the arrangement was made with General De Lancey's knowledge, to insure supplies and protect the government against market combinations, which was admitted by General De Lancey, who, however, denied knowledge of a commission being charged and of the falsification of vouchers. Lord Moira, Mr. Huskisson, various flag officers of distinction, and others testified in the highest terms to Davison's probity and public spirit. He was found guilty (Ann. Reg. 1808, pp. 133–5), and having paid into the exchequer all the commissions received by him, amounting to 8,883l. 13s. 1d., was ordered further to be imprisoned in Newgate for twenty-one calendar months (King's Bench, Trin. Term, 48 Geo. III, Crown Roll, 192). Twenty years afterwards Davison died at Brighton, on 7 Dec. 1829, in the eightieth year of his age.

Previous to the trial Davison brought out a pamphlet entitled ‘A Reply to the Committee of Military Enquiry respecting Barrack Supplies’ (London, 1807). ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Paintings by British Artists, executed for A. Davison, Esq., of subjects selected from the History of England, as arranged in his house in St. James's Square,’ was privately printed by Bulmer & Co. in 1806, 49 pp. 4to, and is mentioned in Martin's ‘Cat. of Privately Printed Books,’ p. 172, with a note that the collection, including works by Copley, Northcote, and other academicians, was afterwards sold by Stanley. Davison's portrait will be found in Evans's ‘Engraved Portraits,’ No. 2975.

In February 1786 Davison married Harriet, daughter of John Gosling, banker, Fleet Street, and by her had six children, of whom the eldest, Major-general Hugh Percy Davison (d. 1849), at one time of the old 18th hussars, and Lieutenant-colonel Sir William Davison, K.H. (d. 1872), successively of the Northumberland militia, 2nd or Queen's, and unattached, a colonel ‘hors rang’ in the Hanoverian army, and many years aide-de-camp and equerry to the late Duke of Cambridge, were twins (Dod, Knightage; Times, 9 May 1872).

[Brit. Mus. Add. MSS. 21705 fol. 191–2, 21733 fol. 41, 21737 fol. 349; Egerton MSS. 2240 and 2241 fol. 1; Clarke and McArthur's Life of Nelson; Southey's Life of Nelson; Harris Nicolas's Nelson Letters and Despatches, text and footnotes, passim; McKenzie's Hist. of Northumberland; Reps. Comm. Military Enquiry in Parl. Papers, Accts. and Papers, 1806–1807, ii.; Pamphlet by A. Davison above referred to; Ann. Reg. 1807, 1808; Records Court of King's Bench, 48 Geo. III, in Public Record Office; Times, December 1829; Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, Supplements, September–October 1886.]

H. M. C.