DAVIS, Richard Hart (1766-1842), of Mortimer House, Clifton, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. 8 June 1766, 3rd s. of Henry Davis of Bristol by 2nd w. Marianna, da. and h. of Major Robert Hart of Grantham, Lincs. m. 27 Nov. 1789, Sarah, da. of William Whittingham of Earlsmead, nr. Bristol, 2s. 2da. suc. fa. 1802.
Davis, a Bristol merchant trading to the West Indies, was a partner from 1794 in Harford’s bank in that city. He joined the Society of Merchant Venturers in 1803. His commercial speculations were ‘very fortunate’: in 1810 he was reported to have made £200,000 by ‘getting possession of all the Spanish wool in the kingdom’. By 1813 he was at his zenith: Farington was told that
Hart Davis had not 20 or 25 years ago a thousand pounds in the world, and is now supposed to be worth from 3 to, £500,000. He is an exception to the general character of Bristol merchants as he lives at a large expense, has a house at Bristol and another near it; one in Grosvenor Square, London, and another in its vicinity. His collection of pictures it is supposed, cost him £100,000.1
A long purse was needed at Colchester, where Davis was returned after his first contest in 1807, a supporter of government. He found nothing to say during his first Parliament. The Whigs were rightly ‘doubtful’ of him in 1810, when he voted steadily with ministers on the Scheldt inquiry, against the release of the radical Gale Jones, 16 Apr., and against sinecure and parliamentary reform, 17, 21 May. He was on their side on the Regency question too, 1 Jan. 1811. He again voted against sinecure regulation, 4 May 1812, and against a more efficient administration, 21 May. On 22 June he was in the minority against Catholic relief, which he invariably opposed subsequently.
Since 18 Feb. 1812 Davis had been prospective candidate on the ministerial interest at Bristol in anticipation of Charles Bragge Bathurst’s vacating his seat.2 On 23 June a new writ was issued for Colchester, where his son Hart stepped into his shoes unopposed. He himself faced an unexpected contest with the Bristol radicals, during which his house was damaged, but he walked over. Fifteen days after his election Parliament was dissolved. He enjoyed the friendship of the prime minister Lord Liverpool, who had written to him on 24 June:
I know no person who has as strong claims to represent the city of Bristol as yourself, and on every consideration, public and private, you may rely upon my best wishes for your success.
On 2 July Liverpool wrote again:
if it could have been possible to have calculated with any degree of certainty upon a general election in the next three or four months, I would have endeavoured to have saved you the expense of a contest in which you are now engaged, but the determinations on such a subject could not have been anticipated in the existing state of the country.3
As it was, Davis faced another contest at the ensuing general election, spending £10,000 that year at Bristol; but he headed the poll and procured the return of the most moderate of his opponents, Protheroe, keeping out the committed Whig, Romilly, and the radical Hunt. His son’s re-election at Colchester was also secured with government support, though he failed, in a third venture, to secure the return of his protégé Herbert Evans for Cardigan Boroughs, where he had hoped to make electoral capital out of his purchase of the contributory manor of Lampeter. He had assured Evans that the premier would give him Cardiganshire patronage: ‘Lord Liverpool and I are on excellent terms and I can get anything done that I ask for’.4
As Member for Bristol, Davis found his tongue in the House, though his son spoke before he did. He claimed to be in unison with his constituents in opposing Catholic relief, 26 Feb. 1813. On 13 May he spoke at length in support of the outports in their campaign against the East India Company trading monopoly and a limitation of the Company’s China charter. He was then a member of the select committee on India. He approved the revision of the obsolete apprentice laws for which his constituents had petitioned, 13 May 1814. Also under constituency pressure, he voted steadily against the revision of the Corn Laws, defending the Bristol petition, 19 May 1814 and being named to the committee to review such petitions; but he explained, 2 Mar. 1815, that ‘he spoke rather the sentiments of his constituents than his own; and this, perhaps, was the only question on which he would consent to sacrifice his opinion to the sentiments of others’. The day before he had rebuked Whitbread in debate for what he took to be an aspersion on his brother-in-law General Whittingham, to whom Whitbread accorded the dubious honour of restoring King Ferdinand to the throne of Spain. In the lobby of the House after the division Davis returned to the charge and would not be satisfied with Whitbread’s assurance that he bore no personal animosity against Whittingham. A duel was in sight when Charles Williams Wynn procured the intervention of the Speaker, who sent for the two Members and obliged them to promise that the matter would go no further. They agreed, but Davis was ‘very sulky’ and ‘said he did it with the greatest reluctance’. There was a feeling that he was ‘quite in the wrong’.5
On 1 Apr. 1815 Davis moved the address of thanks for the peace treaty with the United States, stressing the hopes of the business community that a treaty of commerce would follow. On 3 July he and his son joined the opposition to the Duke of Cumberland’s marriage grant, but the next day he spoke briefly in favour of the vote of thanks to the Duke of York for his military services. He presented a Bristol petition in favour of reform of the insolvency laws, which he supported, 9 Feb. 1816; but he revealed that he did not concur with his constituents’ petition against the continuation of the property tax, 26 Feb. In December 1814 he had informed Lord Liverpool that there was general hostility to its continuation in Bristol, but had accepted Liverpool’s assurance that, if the war with the United States was concluded, it would cease on 5 Apr. 1816.6 Yet on 18 Mar. he supported the continuation of it, as an expedient to clear the arrears of war debts and as less onerous to the poor than indirect taxes. Opponents of the property tax the more readily forgave him, because he made an egregious slip of the tongue in referring to ‘his Majesty’s ministers’ as ‘his Majesty’s minions’. He approved the abandonment of the wartime malt tax, 20 Mar., and inquired, prompted from Bristol, whether the leather tax too would be repealed, 28 Mar. He admitted the parlous state of Ireland, 4 Apr.; but presented a planters’ petition against the slave registry bill, 22 May 1816, and disparaged a Bristol petition in favour of parliamentary reform, 29 Jan. 1817. The depression of the Newfoundland trade was a subject he recommended to the House’s consideration, 17 June. He supported the suspension of habeas corpus, 27 June 1817, and its consequences. That year he was a member of the Pitt Club. On 6 Apr. 1818 he rose to explain why he had decided to vote against the repeal of the leather tax, after formerly voting for it: the trade had recovered, was in fewer hands and could better bear the tax. He was accused by another Member of having ‘a perfect knowledge of his own interest’. The charge was perhaps more apt when Davis deprecated a committee on the wool trade, 14 Apr. 1818. He admitted that wool was in short supply and that ‘he had obtained during the present year ... 30% more for his wool than he had been accustomed to receive’. He did not rally to ministers, as they hoped, on the ducal marriage grant next day.
Davis’s seat was not considered in danger at Bristol in 1818, but he prided himself on securing the return of Protheroe rather than a committed opponent of the government. ‘If every other part of the country did its duty as well as the city of Bristol’, he informed Lord Liverpool, 24 June, ‘your lordship would have no reason to complain of the composition of the new Parliament’. He boasted, too, of his exertions in the elections for Gloucester, Somersetshire and Devonshire.7 That year government adopted a proposal of his for the funding of Exchequer bills at advantageous terms in which he invested heavily, on the assumption that payment in specie was not imminent. On 19 Dec. 1818, scarcely disinterestedly, he warned Lord Liverpool of the ‘nearly universal’ opposition of the Bristol commercial interest to a hasty resumption of cash payments by the Bank.8 He said the same thing in debate, 22 Jan., 9 Feb. 1819, having defended a contrived Bristol petition to that effect, 13 Feb., and having been renamed for the third session to the finance committee, 8 Feb. He likewise supported his constituents’ petition against the insolvent debtors bill. On the paring down of the Windsor establishment bill wished for by opposition, 22 Feb., he pointed to the grant to Prince Leopold of £50,000 p.a. as more justifiably open to reduction and was accorded ‘loud cheers’ when he declared that
he was not ashamed of avowing himself a Tory, or rather he gloried in the title, but not as frequently explained in that House. The only difference he knew of between a good Old Whig and Tory was, that the Whig apprehended the more immediate danger to the constitution from the undue influence of the crown, whereas, the Tory conceived that it was likely to arise from the encroaching and overbearing licence of the people. He was, however, convinced that both would be found fighting under the same banner, whenever a real attack was made upon the constitution.
He was in favour of equalizing the coal duties, 4 Mar. He vehemently opposed the duty on imported wool as ruinous to trade and economic welfare, 18 June 1819.
Davis’s failure in his funding speculations led in May 1819 to the winding up of his interests in Ball, Davis, Charles and Richard Vaughan & Co. and the Bristol Brass and Copper Company, and his retirement from Harford’s bank.9 In 1820 he feared the expense of a Bristol election and Lord Liverpool tried to induce Lord Bath to return him for Weobley, 22 Feb.:
He has been a very sturdy friend to government for many years, and has expended between forty and fifty thousand pounds in elections ... He is an excellent attendant, a good Protestant, and has those fair claims upon government which arise from an active and zealous support for a long period of time.10
Yet he remained Member for Bristol until 1831. He died at his Hampstead retreat, Fenton House, 21 Feb. 1842.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Authors: Lawrence Taylor / R. G. Thorne
- 1. C. H. Cave, Hist. Banking in Bristol, 94; Farington, vi. 78; vii. 142.
- 2. Bristol city archives, ‘Election Procs. 1806-12’.
- 3. Add. 38328, ff. 14, 22.
- 4. Bristol Times, 2 Aug. 1862; NLW, Highmead mss, Davis to Evans, 20, 26 June 1812.
- 5. Parl. Deb. xxix. 1165; Colchester, ii. 529; The Times, 3 Mar. 1815; Sheridan Letters ed. Price, iii. 217.
- 6. Add. 38260, ff. 331, 356, 362.
- 7. Add. 38458, f. 261.
- 8. J. Williams, ‘Bristol in the General Elections of 1818 and 1820’, Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. lxxxvii (1968), 193; Add. 38274, f. 333.
- 9. Cave, 95; Teignmouth, Reminiscences, ii. 226.
- 10. Add. 38283, f. 104.