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  Davies Gilbert (1767–1839), by Thomas Phillips, 1833 Davies Gilbert (1767–1839), by Thomas Phillips, 1833
Gilbert [formerly Giddy], Davies (1767–1839), scientific administrator and applied mathematician, was born on 6 March 1767 at St Erth, Cornwall, as Davies Giddy, the son of Edward Giddy (1734–1814), curate, and Catherine (1728–1803), daughter and heir of John Davies of Tredrea, St Erth. He was educated at Penzance grammar school, from about 1775 to 1779, at home by his father, and at Benjamin Donne's mathematical academy in Bristol before matriculating at Pembroke College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner on 12 April 1785, whence he proceeded MA in 1789. At Oxford, Giddy assiduously studied mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences, forming a close friendship with Thomas Beddoes, reader in chemistry. Giddy advised Beddoes on the latter's Pneumatic Medical Institution in Bristol in which a young Cornish chemist whom Giddy had encouraged, Humphry Davy, was employed for a time. Beddoes and Giddy shared sympathy with the first blush of revolution in France but their political paths subsequently diverged.

After Oxford, Giddy began a decade of county service in maintenance of public order, preparations to repel invasion, and control of food supplies. He served as high sheriff of Cornwall in 1792–3 and was appointed deputy lieutenant in 1795. At this time, as president of the Penzance Agricultural Society, he contributed a paper on the use of sea salt as manure to Arthur Young's Annals of Agriculture. His agricultural interests were sustained through his election to the board of agriculture in 1809 and in the extensive improvements which he later made on his Sussex estates. His mathematical skills were deployed in calculating the efficiency of Jonathan Hornblower's compound steam engine, in advising on the design of his rotary engine, and subsequently on that of Richard Trevithick's high-pressure steam engine. In this he was allied with those Cornish interests, including those of his parliamentary patron, Sir Francis Basset, who sought to break the stranglehold of James Watt and Matthew Boulton on the Cornish steam engine business. However, Giddy acknowledged the great debt owed to Watt's innovations.

Serving as member of parliament first for Helston (1804–6) and then for Bodmin (1806–32) Giddy refused office under successive ministries but chaired numerous parliamentary committees, drafting and shepherding many items of legislation. Finance, commodity prices, public works, weights and measures, the Nautical Almanac, the board of longitude, and the establishment of an astronomical observatory at the Cape of Good Hope were among the issues with which he dealt. While Cornish concerns and scientific matters were paramount, he also entered debate on major political questions, including agricultural protection and currency reform, publishing A Plain Statement of the Bullion Question in 1811. During the Corn Bill riots of March 1815 his London house at 6 Holles Street was attacked by the mob. Giddy had become a firm opponent of measures to extend the franchise, voting against them consistently. However, in the debates on the 1832 Reform Bill, which ended his own parliamentary career, he conceded the need for, and advocated, its passage while still voting against the bill as a final gesture of support for a long held political credo. Gilbert collaborated with William Sandys on a collection of Cornish ballad carols, part of the oral tradition which he saw in danger of disappearing. Their Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1822) set the agenda for the rediscovery of this ancient form.

Gilbert married, on 18 April 1808 at Northiam, Sussex, Mary Ann (1776–1845), daughter of Thomas Gilbert of Eastbourne and heir to substantial estates in Sussex. These estates passed to Giddy on the death of his wife's uncle in 1814 with a condition that the name of Gilbert be perpetuated. By royal sign manual Davies Giddy became Davies Gilbert on 10 December 1817 and the family names of his children were changed on 7 January 1818. Gilbert also inherited property in Cornwall on the death of his father. The marriage was Gilbert's resolution of intolerable problems created by the infatuation with him of Anna Beddoes, the wife of his best friend. She had declared her love for Gilbert some years earlier but he loved her as a sister. The fact that Gilbert became guardian to the Beddoes's children on her husband's death further complicated matters. But he willingly executed that trust, especially in the case of , whom he regarded as a son. Of the eight children from Gilbert's marriage, four predeceased him. The first child, Mary, was born on 14 February 1809 without a dura mater and lived a vegetative existence until her death on her seventeenth birthday. Their first son, Charles Davies, died in 1813 aged three, and their fifth child, a boy, died hours after birth the following year. Another daughter, Mary Susanna (b. 1816), died in 1834.

Gilbert was a significant figure in the scientific community of his day, though he published little of major importance. In the Quarterly Journal of Science (1821) and the Philosophical Transactions (1826, 1831) he published his mathematical investigations into the catenarian curve and suspension bridge design. Thomas Telford's plans for the Menai suspension bridge, and the strength of the bridge itself, were improved thanks to Gilbert's theoretical calculations of the relationship between the maximum tension in the main chains and the depth of curvature of the suspension. His methods remained in use for a century. Gilbert also published on other mathematical topics and on the efficiency of steam engines, producing some thirteen scientific papers in all.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1791, Gilbert became a member of the Linnean Society in the following year. He was also a supporter of the Royal Institution, recommending Humphry Davy to its employ and maintaining close contact with Davy's work there. In 1814 he was a founder and first president of the Geological Society of Cornwall. His tireless parliamentary efforts on behalf of science and his service to the Royal Society persuaded its long serving president, Sir Joseph Banks, to appoint Gilbert as one of the vice-presidents of the society in 1819 and to nominate him as his successor in 1820. Forces of reform rumbled in the Royal Society too, and in Banks's view Gilbert seemed the man to resist them. But Gilbert's diffidence and the greater scientific claims of his protégé, Sir Humphry Davy, saw Davy elected president in 1820 with Gilbert serving as treasurer. Not until 1827, after Davy's resignation because of illness and after an unsuccessful attempt to interest Robert Peel in the presidency, did Gilbert take the chair. His presidency was dogged by infighting over reform and attacks upon the administration of the society, not least by Charles Babbage in his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830). Finally the duke of Sussex (a son of George III) was elected president in 1830, an election which Gilbert had engineered amid cries of ‘borough-mongering’ from the reformers. As president, Gilbert had also been charged in the will of Francis Henry Egerton, eighth earl of Bridgewater, with the nomination of the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises and his choices became another source of controversy.

In his declining years Gilbert was involved in the affairs of the newly founded British Association for the Advancement of Science. Just before the 1833 meeting at Cambridge the university gave him an honorary doctorate of laws. He was considered as a possible president for the Bristol meeting in 1836; the leaders of the association thought him still potentially useful in lobbying government. He had received an honorary DCL from Oxford in 1832.

Gilbert's importance to the development of science in the early nineteenth century lay in his faith that science provided the best means to tackle practical problems and in his facility as a parliamentary promoter of scientific ventures. Elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1820, he also pursued antiquarian, literary, and historical research. He edited and published a number of works in the Cornish language. His four-volume The Parochial History of Cornwall (1838) was not well received.

By temperament Gilbert pursued the dutiful and usually the middle course. In political maturity he positioned himself between the forces of radicalism and reaction and he bore personal tragedies with stoicism. Gilbert states in a letter in 1830 to Charles Babbage that ‘My most earnest endeavour through the whole of my life has been to please and gratify everyone—a fruitless endeavour as I have found in numerous circumstances’ (Gilbert to Babbage, 8 July 1830, BL, Add. MS 37185, fol. 254). This echoes the judgements of his contemporaries who found him indecisive and irresolute as president of the Royal Society. Gilbert's repeated refusal of political office and his predilection for behind-the-scenes administrative work were much in character. A portrait by John Opie depicts Gilbert, who was tall, fair, and blue eyed, as a strikingly handsome young man. He died at Eastbourne on 24 December 1839 and was buried on 29 December in Eastbourne church. He was survived by his wife, three daughters, Catherine (b. 1813), Anne (b. 1817), and Hester Elizabeth (b. 1818), and a son, John Davies Gilbert FRS (1811–1854).

David Philip Miller


A. C. Todd, Beyond the blaze: a biography of Davies Gilbert (1967) · M. B. Hall, All scientists now: the Royal Society in the nineteenth century (1984) · D. P. Miller, ‘The cultural politics of scientific organization: the Royal Society, 1800–35’, PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1981 · DNB · A. C. Todd, ‘Davies Gilbert — patron of engineers (1767–1839) and Jonathan Hornblower (1753–1815)’, Transactions [Newcomen Society], 32 (1959–60), 1–13 · T. W. Horsfield, The history, antiquities, and topography of the county of Sussex, 2 vols. (1835) · Catalogue of scientific papers, Royal Society, 1–6 (1867–72) · GM, 2nd ser., 13 (1840), 208–11 · pedigree, Cornwall RO, Gilbert papers, CRO/DG/116 · W. H. Brock, ‘The selection of the authors of the Bridgewater treatises’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 21 (1966), 162–79 · R. McGrady, Traces of ancient mystery: the ballad carols of Davies Gilbert and William Sandys (1993)


Cornwall RO, corresp. and papers · Royal Institution of Cornwall, Truro, corresp. |  BL, letters to Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 37182–37185, 37205 · BL, letters to H. Boase, Add. MS 29281 · BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40347, 40394, 40397, 40411 · Cornwall RO, letters to John Hawkins · NL NZ, letters to Gideon Algernon Mantell · Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, corresp. with Richard Trevithick · RS, letters to Sir John Herschel; letters to Sir John Lubbock · W. Sussex RO, Hawkins MSS · Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges


S. Cousins, mezzotint, 1828 (after H. Howard), BM, NPG; repro. in Horsfield, History, antiquities · T. Phillips, oils, 1833, RS [see illus.] · R. Westmacott jun., marble bust, exh. RA 1833, Pembroke College, Oxford · W. Brockedon, pencil drawing, 1838, NPG · Graf, lithograph (after E. F. H.), NPG · J. Opie, portrait, repro. in Todd, Beyond the blaze · F. J. Skill, J. Gilbert ,and E. Walker, group portrait, pencil and wash (Men of science living in 1807–08), NPG · R. Westmacott, marble bust, RS