Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gilbert, Davies

GILBERT (formerly GIDDY), DAVIES (1767–1839), president of the Royal Society, was born in the parish of St. Erth, Cornwall, on 6 March 1767. His father, the Rev. Edward Giddy, sometime curate of St. Erth, died 6 March 1814 having married in 1765 Catherine, daughter and heiress of John Davies of Tredrea, St. Erth; she died in 1803. Davies Giddy, the only child, was educated at the Penzance grammar school and at a boarding-school at Bristol. He matriculated from Pembroke College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner, 12 April 1785, and was created M.A. in 1789 and D.C.L. in 1832. His tastes were literary, and at an early age he cultivated the company of men of letters. He joined the Linnean Society, and was one of the promoters of the Geological Society of Cornwall, founded in 1814. He was president of the latter society, and never omitted to pay an annual visit to Cornwall to preside at its anniversary meetings. While at Oxford he contracted an intimacy with Thomas Beddoes, M.D. [q. v.], who in 1793 dedicated to him his ‘Observations on the Nature of Demonstrative Evidence.’ During 1792–3 Giddy served the office of high sheriff for his native county. One of the most noted events in his life is the part he performed in encouraging the early talents of Sir Humphry Davy [q. v.] Among others whom he helped to advance in life were the Rev. Malachi Hitchins [q. v.] and the Rev. John Hellins [q. v.] He made calculations to assist Richard Trevithick and the two Hornblowers in their endeavours to improve the steam-engine, and calculated for Thomas Telford the length of the chains required for the Menai Bridge. On 26 May 1804 he was elected to parliament for the borough of Helston in Cornwall, and at the next election, 1 Nov. 1806, was returned for Bodmin, which town he represented until 3 Dec. 1832. He was one of the most assiduous members who ever sat in the House of Commons, and perhaps unequalled for his service on committees. He helped to pass the act repealing the duty on salt, with a view to assisting the pilchard fishery of Cornwall. He devoted to public business nearly the whole of his time, and was remarkable for the short period which he spent in sleep. He took a prominent part in parliamentary investigations connected with the arts and sciences. On 18 April 1808 he married Mary Ann, only daughter and heiress of Thomas Gilbert of Eastbourne. By this marriage he acquired very extensive estates in the neighbourhood of that town, which, added to the landed property in Cornwall he afterwards inherited from his father, placed him in very affluent circumstances. On the levels of Pevensey, a portion of his Sussex estates, he planned and accomplished extensive improvements. He took the name and arms of Gilbert in lieu of those of Giddy, pursuant to royal sign-manual 10 Dec. 1817, and the family names of his children were also changed by another sign-manual on 7 Jan. following. In 1811, when the high price of gold produced an effect on the currency, he printed an argumentative tract entitled ‘A Plain Statement of the Bullion Question,’ to which replies were written by Samuel Banfill and A. W. Rutherford. During the Corn Bill riots, March 1815, his residence, 6 Holles Street, London, was attacked by the mob (European Mag. March 1815, p. 273). In 1819 he suggested with success the establishment of the observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. On the death of Sir Joseph Banks in 1820, when Sir Humphry Davy was elected president of the Royal Society, his friend Gilbert accepted the office of treasurer. Ill-health obliging Davy to quit England in 1827, the treasurer took the chair at the meetings of that session, and when a continuance of illness obliged the president to resign, Gilbert was elected president 30 Nov. 1827. The want of a hospitable town residence and of a commanding decision of deportment, the cabals of some discontented members, and the understood desire of the Duke of Sussex to obtain the chair, induced Gilbert to resign the presidency 30 Nov. 1830. During his tenure of office, under the provisions of the Earl of Bridgewater's will he nominated the eight writers of the ‘Bridgewater Treatises’ [see Egerton, Francis Henry]. All his appointments did not give satisfaction, and it was a question whether the earl's money had been distributed in strict accordance with his desires (Correspondence regarding the Appointment of the Writers of the Bridgewater Treatises between D. Gilbert and others, Penryn, 1877, 8vo. Privately printed by his nephew, John D. Enys). Gilbert selected Brunel's design for the Clifton suspension bridge (1830). Gilbert was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1820, and he promoted antiquarian and historical research with much liberality. On his recommendation Thomas Bond's ‘History of East and West Looe’ was printed in 1823 [see Bond, Thomas]. In 1827 he edited ‘A Collection of Christmas Carols,’ and in 1826 and 1827 ‘Mount Calvary’ and ‘The Creation of the World,’ two mystery plays in the ancient Cornish language. His most extensive work, however, was ‘The Parochial History of Cornwall, founded on the manuscript histories of Mr. Hals and Mr. Tonkin,’ 1838, 4 vols. To this work, which is arranged in the alphabetical order of the parishes, the author added much topographical and biographical matter, while Dr. Henry Samuel Boase [q. v.] contributed the geology of each parish. The author was in failing health when these volumes were brought out, and a great deal of the work had to be done by persons who were ignorant of Cornish names. The book has consequently never had much repute as a county history. He also contributed to the ‘Archæologia,’ the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ the ‘Journal of the Royal Institution,’ and other scientific periodicals. A detailed account of these papers, as well as of his other writings, will be found in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis.’ In 1825 he established a private press in his house at Eastbourne, where his eldest daughter, Catherine, afterwards the wife of John Samuel Enys of Enys, Cornwall, acted as the compositor. Nothing of much length was printed, but upwards of two hundred short pieces on slips, fly-sheets, &c., were struck off. For an account of many of these see Boase's ‘Collectanea Cornubiensia,’ pp. 276–7. He died at Eastbourne 24 Dec. 1839, and was buried on 29 Dec. in the chapel appropriated to the interments of the Gilridges and Gilberts north of the chancel of Eastbourne Church. A tablet bearing a long biographical inscription is in the church of his birthplace, St. Erth, Cornwall. His portrait in oils, by Thomas Phillips, R.A., is preserved in the rooms of the Royal Society, London. His wife, who died at Eastbourne 26 April 1845, took an interest in agriculture, and wrote ‘On the Construction of Tanks’ in the ‘Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society’ (1840), i. 499, and ‘On Self-supporting Agricultural Schools’ in the ‘Journal of the Statistical Society’ (1842), v. 289. His only son, John Davies Gilbert, F.R.S., born at Eastbourne 5 Dec. 1811, died at Prideaux Place, near Padstow, Cornwall, 16 April 1854. Three daughters also survived Gilbert.

[Drew's Imperial Mag. (1828), x. 585–93, with portrait; Jerdan's National Portrait Gallery (1831), ii. 1–8, with portrait; Weld's Hist. of the Royal Society (1848), ii. 419–28, 456–60, Walker's Memoirs of Distinguished Men (1864), pp. 53–5; Lower's Worthies of Sussex (1865), pp. 212–15; Gent. Mag. (February 1840), pp. 208–11; Boase and Courtney's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis (1874), pp. 173–5, 1194–5; Meteyard's Group of Englishmen (1871), pp. 82–4, 92, 225, 230, 316; information from the family.]

G. C. B.