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Davy, William (d.1780) (DNB00)

DAVY, WILLIAM (d. 1780), lawyer, is said to have been originally a druggist or grocer at Exeter, and, having failed in business and made acquaintance with the king's bench prison, to have turned his attention to law. He entered the Middle Temple in 1741. He went the western circuit. His first cases of importance occurred in January 1753, when he defended a forger, who was found guilty, confessed, and was executed at Tyburn, and in the same year was engaged in the famous case of Elizabeth Canning [q. v.] Davy defended Squires, and afterwards conducted the prosecution of Canning. Davy was advanced to the rank of serjeant-at-law on 11 Feb. 1754. He defended in 1755 four ruffians who were indicted for compassing the commission of a highway robbery upon one of themselves by two other ruffians, whom they subsequently prosecuted to conviction in order to obtain the customary reward. Davy remarked before opening his defence that had he not been appointed by the court, he ‘could not have been prevailed upon to have been counsel for such a set of rogues.’ The indictment having been laid under statute 4 & 5 Ph. & Mary, c. 4 s., the jury were unable to say whether the prisoners were guilty of ‘commanding, hiring, or counselling’ the crime within that act, and returned a special verdict. The question was argued at Serjeants' Hall before all the judges, Davy being for the defence, which was successful. The prisoners were subsequently found guilty under an indictment drawn in another form, and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment and the pillory. One of them was stoned to death in the pillory, and another barely escaped with his life. In 1758 Davy was retained by the Duke of Marlborough in a case under what was known as the Black Act (9 Geo. I, c. 72, s. 1), since repealed. This act made it felony punishable with death to send an anonymous or pseudonymous letter demanding ‘money, venison, or other valuable thing.’ An attempt had been made to extort money from the Duke of Marlborough by threat of assassination. The case seems to have been tolerably clear, but the defendant brought a number of witnesses to his character, and the jury acquitted him. In 1762 Davy was appointed king's serjeant. He was engaged in 1771–2 in the celebrated case of the negro Sommersett to oppose the claims of the slave-owner. In the trial before Lord Mansfield, Davy replied to Dunning in a speech which seems slight when compared with the elaborate argument of Hargrave, who had previously argued upon the same side. It concluded with these words: ‘It has been asserted, and is now repeated by me, this air is too pure for a slave to breathe in. I trust I shall not quit this court without certain conviction of that assertion.’ Lord Mansfield decided the case on the simple ground that slavery ‘is so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law,’ and ordered the discharge of the negro. Davy was engaged on behalf of General Mostyn in the case of Fabrigas v. Mostyn, an authority on the extent to which English law is in force in a dependency acquired by conquest or treaty. The jury found for the plaintiff, damages 3,000l. and costs. An application for a new trial was dismissed. Subsequently the question was twice re-argued on a writ of error before Lord Mansfield, but the judgment was sustained. About the same time Davy defended Major-general Gansell, on his trial for resisting by force of arms an attempt to arrest him for debt in his own house. There was a conflict of evidence as to whether the sheriff's officers had or had not broken into the house. If they had done so, Gansell's action was justifiable, on the maxim established in Semayne's case, that an Englishman's house is his castle. The jury found for Gansell. Davy was among the counsel for the Duchess of Kingston [see Chudleigh, Mary] on her trial for bigamy in 1776, but took little or no part in the proceedings. He also appeared for the defendant Smith in the Hindon bribery case tried the same year. He died after a few days' illness at Hammersmith on 13 Dec. 1780. Davy's reputation for knowledge did not stand high, but he was an acknowledged master of the art of cross-examination. He was also something of a humorist, and one or two of his anecdotes are preserved. Lord Mansfield is said once to have interrupted him in his argument with: ‘If this be law I must burn all my books, I see,’ which elicited from Davy the retort, ‘Your lordship had better read them first.’ A gentleman whom he had offended made his way into Davy's bedroom before he was out of bed and demanded satisfaction. Davy remonstrated, ‘Surely you would not fall upon me unarmed, naked, and in bed.’ On the other disclaiming any such intention, Davy replied, ‘In that case I will pledge you my honour not to get up until you are out of the neighbourhood.’ On another occasion, Lord Mansfield, having suggested the expediency of transacting judicial business on Good Friday, abandoned the idea on Davy reminding him that no judge had done so since Pontius Pilate. Having once received a very large brief indorsed with a very small fee, and being asked by his client if he had read it, he pointed to the indorsement, observing, ‘So far as that I have read, and for the life of me I can read no farther.’ Being reproached with disgracing the profession by taking silver, he replied, ‘I took silver because I could not get gold, but I took every farthing the fellow had in the world, and hope you don't call that disgracing the profession.’

[Woolrych's Serjeants-at-Law; Howell's State Trials, xix. 262–680, 694–734, 815–46, xx. 1–83, 355, 1240; Ann. Reg. (1773), p. 191; Gent. Mag. (1780), p. 591.]

J. M. R.