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Davy, William (1743-1826) (DNB00)


DAVY, WILLIAM (1743–1826), divine, born at Dawn House, in the parish of Tavistock, Devonshire, on 4 March 1743, was educated at the Exeter free grammar school and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated B.A. 28 May 1766 (Catalogue of Oxford Graduates, ed. 1851, p. 178). On leaving the university he was ordained on the curacy of Moreton-Hampstead, Devonshire, then he became curate of Drewsteignton, and afterwards was appointed curate of Lustleigh, with a yearly stipend of 40l. In 1786 he published a ‘System of Divinity, in a course of sermons, on the Being, Nature, and Attributes of God; on some of the most important Articles of the Christian Religion; and on the Virtues and Vices of Mankind,’ 6 vols. Exeter, 1785–6, 12mo. He was encouraged to bring out this work by a long list of subscribers, but as many of them neglected to pay their subscriptions, the actual receipts were far less than the expenses, and the author found himself engaged to the printer for the payment of more than 100l. Undaunted by difficulties, however, he determined to extend the work to twenty-six volumes, and being unable to risk a second loss he resolved to print the book himself. Being a clever mechanician he made a press of a peculiar construction, unlike ordinary printing-presses; then he bought some old types at a cheap rate; and in five months, by his own manual labour, produced forty copies of a specimen volume, consisting of 328 pages, besides prefatory matter. He circulated twenty-six of these specimen volumes by sending them to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Royal Society, the editors of several reviews, and to other persons who he thought might appreciate his labours and assist him in the publication of the whole work. He was bitterly disappointed. The ‘British Critic,’ indeed, gave a very favourable notice of the book, but this praise produced no other encouragement. Few of the persons to whom he presented the specimen volume even acknowledged its receipt. Davy sought in vain the patronage of three successive bishops of Exeter—Ross, Buller, and Courtenay—and of Archbishop Moore and Bishop Porteus, but these prelates sent no pecuniary aid and declined to accept a dedication from him. Bishop Buller would not look at the specimen volume. In spite of these discouragements Davy, having fourteen copies remaining, recommenced his labours and taught a female domestic to compose the types, and patiently proceeded, with her assistance, to print fourteen copies of the other twenty-five volumes, each containing about five hundred pages, which herculean task he completed in 1807. Copies of this extremely curious ‘System of Divinity’ (26 vols. Lustleigh, 1795–1807, 8vo) are preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Cambridge University Library, the London Institution, and the Cathedral Library, Exeter. The copy in the British Museum, which is regarded as one of the most interesting typographical curiosities in the national collection, was presented by Sir Robert Harry Inglis, M.P., one of the trustees, who has prefixed to the first volume a long letter addressed to Panizzi, giving an account of the author and of the singular circumstances connected with the production of the book. He expresses his opinion that it is ‘the most remarkable work of English labour; perhaps, indeed, I might say unparalleled in any age or country, as an effort of the combined skill, industry, and perseverance of one man, undaunted by age, poverty, and forty years of neglect.’ In the latter part of his life Davy resided at Willmead, a small farm belonging to his son, but he continued to hold the curacy of Lustleigh.

Besides his great work, he printed in the same way a volume of extracts from it under the title of ‘Divinity, or Discourses on the Being of God, the Divinity of Christ, the Personality and Divinity of the Holy Ghost, and on the Sacred Trinity.’ Having made considerable additions to these discourses, a neat edition of them was published in 1825 at Exeter in 2 vols. 8vo. Dr. Pelham, bishop of Exeter, now tardily recognised the author's merits, and in December 1825 presented Davy, then in his eighty-third year, to the vicarage of Winkleigh, Devonshire. He held the benefice only about five months, and, dying on 13 June 1826, was buried in the chancel of Winkleigh church.

A second edition of his ‘Divinity, or Discourses on the Being of God,’ in 3 vols. 8vo, appeared at Exeter in 1827, with a life of the author by his son, the Rev. Charles Davy, and a portrait engraved by R. Cooper, from a painting by William Sharland.

Davy's skill as a mechanician has been already referred to. After the sinking of the Royal George in Portsmouth harbour he proceeded thither with the plan of a diving-bell to recover the property sunk in her; but although the plan was afterwards acted upon with considerable success, Davy received no kind of remuneration.

[Life by C. Davy; Davidson's Bibl. Devon. p. 151, App. p. 30; Cat. of Printed Books in Brit. Mus.; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn), p. 603; Gent. Mag. xcv. pt. ii. pp. 441, 617, xcvi. pt. ii. p. 88.]

T. C.