DAVIS, Richard Hart (1766-1842), of Mortimer House, Clifton, Glos. and 38 Conduit Street, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

1807 - 23 June 1812
15 July 1812 - 1831

Family and Education

b. 8 June 1766, 3rd s. of Henry Davis (d. 1802) of Bristol and 2nd w. Marianna, da. and h. of Maj. Robert Hart of Grantham, Lincs. m. 24 Nov. 1789,1 Sarah, da. of William Whittingham of Earlsmead, nr. Bristol, 2s. 2da. d. 21 Feb. 1842.

Offices Held

Biography

Davis, who came from ‘an old West India family ... connected with Bristol for many years’, inherited a one-eighth share of his father’s estate in 1802.2 He was financially crippled in 1819 when his investment in a government stock conversion scheme, which he had suggested to ministers the previous year, went disastrously wrong after the unexpected decision to resume cash payments. He later claimed that ‘my whole fortune, consisting ... of about £400,000, was swept away’ by the resulting fall in stock prices, and he was obliged to retire from banking and mercantile firms in Bristol and relinquish his electoral interest in the Cardigan boroughs. He received some compensation from the prime minister, Lord Liverpool, who found a post for his eldest son in Mauritius and later at the excise board, but an attempt in February 1820 to persuade the marquess of Bath to return Davis for Weobley proved unsuccessful.3 At the dissolution later that month he initially declined to offer again for Bristol but was persuaded to do so by generous offers of financial assistance. He was returned in second place and promised to help ‘preserve inviolate our religion ... laws and ... liberties, as confirmed by our unrivalled constitution’.4

He continued to give fairly active support to Liverpool’s ministry and occasionally participated in debates. He welcomed the Western Union canal bill as ‘a work of great public benefit’, 15 May 1820. Later that year he refused to present a Bristol address to Queen Caroline and was reportedly confident of the government’s ability to exclude her name from the liturgy.5 He divided against Catholic claims, 28 Feb., presented numerous hostile petitions from Bristol, and supported the amendment to the relief bill to prevent Catholics from sitting in Parliament, 26 Mar. 1821.6 He voted against Maberly’s resolution on the state of the revenue, 6 Mar., and repeal of the additional malt duty, 3 Apr., but favoured an inquiry into the currency, 9 Apr. He presented a Bristol petition for revision of the criminal code, 4 May, and one from Bristol bankers against the forgery punishment mitigation bill, 4 June, when he said he would oppose the measure unless a distinction was made between bills of exchange and bankers’ cheques, as the latter were more easily forged and the death penalty should still apply.7 He voted against omitting the arrears from the duke of Clarence’s grant, 18 June. He remarked that the Bristol reform petition had ‘but few signatures from Bristol’, 20 June 1821.8 He divided against more extensive tax reductions, 11, 21 Feb., and repeal of the salt duty, 28 June 1822. He presented a Liverpool petition for free trade between the West Indian colonies and the United States, 1 Apr., a Bristol tanners’ petition for repeal of the leather tax, 30 Apr., which he supported next day provided it did not harm government finances, and Bristol tobacco trade petitions for repeal or reduction of the duty, 10, 14 May.9 He supported the small notes bill as ‘the currency was not abundant’, 2 July. He presented anti-Catholic petitions from Bristol and Bedminster, 22, 24 Apr., and voted against removing Catholic peers’ disabilities, 30 Apr. 1822.10 That August he wrote to Liverpool offering to use his influence to help facilitate Canning’s readmission to the cabinet, presumably by working through his close friend Sir William Knighton, George IV’s private secretary. He believed that ‘the government must have two such men as Canning and Peel in the ... Commons’, as Peel lacked the experience to manage on his own.11

He presented Bristol petitions to repeal the window tax, 20 Feb., the assessed taxes, 25 Feb., and the duty on coastwise coal, 21 May, and to equalize the sugar duties, 22 May 1823.12 He divided against inquiries into the parliamentary franchise, 20 Feb., and delays in chancery, 5 June. He presented numerous anti-Catholic petitions from Bristol and elsewhere, 17 Apr., and voted against inquiry into the prosecution of the Dublin Orange rioters, 22 Apr. 1823.13 He presented a Bristol petition to repeal the ‘most impolitic tax’ on tobacco, which encouraged smuggling and was ‘injurious to the revenue’, 24 Feb. 1824. He presented three Bristol petitions to repeal the window tax, 8, 10 Mar.14 He presented petitions from Bristol merchants for a drawback on imported wool, 25 Mar., 12 Apr.,15 and voted against repealing the prohibition on the export of long wool, 21 May, warning that this would benefit German manufacturers. He presented a Bristol petition for inquiry into the trial of the Methodist missionary John Smith in Demerara, 27 May,16 but voted not to condemn this, 11 June. He presented a Bristol petition for the gradual abolition of slavery, 3 June 1824.17 He presented Bristol petitions to repeal the window tax, 7 Feb., which he thought ‘extremely desirable’, 25 Feb., and others to repeal all assessed taxes, 22 Feb., and the house and window taxes, 3, 15 Mar. 1825.18 He regretted that the government had no plan to cut the tobacco duty, 28 Feb., and argued that ‘the revenue would be doubled in England’ if it was reduced to 2s., 10 Mar. He presented petitions from Bristol’s chamber of commerce and corn importers for revision of the corn laws, 28 Apr.19 He presented numerous anti-Catholic petitions that session and voted to suppress the Catholic Association, 25 Feb., and against Catholic claims, 1 Mar., 10 May, when he declared that Catholics would not be satisfied until they had achieved equality and promised to ‘resist their encroachments to the utmost’.20 He divided against the Irish franchise bill, 26 Apr. He successfully moved the second reading of the Hampshire and Berkshire canal bill, 22 Apr., and supported the Severn railway bill, 28 Apr.21 He presented a petition against the Bristol town dues bill, 9 May, but guided its passage through the Commons, 10, 13 June.22 He supported the grant to McAdam, who had done good work on roads in the West of England, 13 May. He voted for the Cumberland annuity bill, 2, 10 June 1825. He presented Bristol petitions for a reduced duty on tobacco, 23 Feb., repeal of the house and window taxes, 24 Feb., revision of the usury laws, 12 Apr., and protection of West Indian property, 4 May 1826.23 He divided against reducing the salary of the president of the board of trade, 10 Apr. 1826. In May, Liverpool informed Davis that he was unable to appoint him as chairman of the board of stamps.24 Davis later claimed that he had notified the premier of his intention to retire from Parliament and from business, ‘which latterly had not proved successful’, and was offered the position of auditor of the excise. However, owing to the absence of a suitable candidate he was persuaded to stand again for Bristol at the general election in return for his younger son receiving the auditorship. His expenses were covered by a local subscription and he was returned at the head of the poll, without being required to attend. In a published address, he hoped that due allowance would be made ‘if, through impaired health, the vigour and promptitude of my services should in any degree relax’.25

Davis defended the Arigna Mining Company, of which he was a director, as one ‘formed upon public principles’, 5 Dec. 1826. He presented a Bristol chamber of commerce petition against the corn laws, 12 Dec. 1826.26 He presented several anti-Catholic petitions, 5 Mar. 1827, and voted against relief next day, when he argued that Catholics should enjoy ‘as much toleration as was consistent with the civil liberties of the country’ and doubted that concessions would pacify Ireland.27 He presented Bristol petitions against the navigation laws and for opening the East India trade, 12, 21 Mar.28 He read from a private letter to ‘rescue the character’ of the commander-in-chief at Barrackpoor, Sir Edward Paget†, 22 Mar., and became involved in a personal altercation with Thomas Davies of Worcester. He voted against the disfranchisement of Penryn, 28 May 1827. That summer, he was reportedly confident that Canning’s ministry would not long survive.29 In November he advised Herries, chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Goderich’s ministry, that holders of government stock with whom he was ‘in almost daily communication’ feared that the projected finance committee might recommend ‘measures of a very novel character’, and that they ‘put all their trust in you’.30 In January 1828, after the formation of Wellington’s ministry, he told the home secretary Peel that he was ‘called by the general voice of the country’ to be prime minister.31 He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., presented numerous anti-Catholic petitions and voted against relief, 12 May. He advised Wellington in June that his government was stronger for the departure of the Huskissonites and that there was nothing to fear from a general election.32 He paired against reducing the salary of the lieutenant-general of the ordnance, 4 July, and voted for the customs bill, 14 July. That day he described the superannuation allowances bill as an ‘income tax’ on public servants, which would discourage men of talent from taking such employment. On 17 July 1828 he condemned Hume’s ‘gross and unfounded attack’ on the character of Sir John Nicholl*, judge of the prerogative court, to whom he reported next day that Hume had been ‘obliged to eat his words’ and in a division ‘would not have had more than one, or at the most two, to support him’.33 In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, listed Davis as being ‘opposed to the principle’ of Catholic emancipation. He presented hostile petitions from various Bristol parishes, 6, 9, 13, 16 Feb., and one from the city and its vicinity with 38,000 signatures, which gave him ‘proud satisfaction’, 26 Feb. He divided against emancipation, 6 Mar., when he said he would support the measure if he thought it would restore peace to Ireland, but feared it would only encourage further agitation. He admitted that the proposed new Irish county franchise was ‘a great recommendation’ and promised to give ‘due consideration’ to any alterations designed to give greater security to the established church. He continued to vote against emancipation, 18, 27, 30 Mar., when he affirmed that he considered it his ‘duty’ to oppose the bill. However, he had privately assured Wellington that he would not form an opposition to the measure and that he believed in ministers’ good intentions.34 He was a majority teller against adjournment on the East Retford bribery bill, 5 May, and presented a Bristol bankers and merchants’ petition against renewing the East India Company’s charter, 12 May 1829. On the address, 8 Feb. 1830, he disputed claims of ‘universal’ distress and attributed the difficulties facing agriculturists to a combination of bad weather and the withdrawal of small notes by country banks, which had deprived farmers of a source of credit. He supported the London West India interest’s petition complaining of distress, 23 Feb., and pointed to the ‘unjust operation’ of the slave registration system, which prevented their removal from one island to another. He presented a similar petition from Bristol, 1 Mar., and urged the need to reduce the sugar duty and repeal that on rum. He thanked the government for its measures to assist the West Indian planters and ‘confidently trusted that a more satisfactory relief will be given ... in the ensuing session’, 30 June. He was named to the select committee on the East India Company, 9 Feb., and presented petitions against renewing its charter from the Bristol chamber of commerce, 12 Mar., and the merchant venturers, 27 Apr. He thought an extra tax on imported wool would be ‘highly injudicious’, 1 Mar., and presented Bristol petitions for lower tobacco duties, 15 Mar., and against the coastwise coal duty, 21 June. He divided against the transfer of East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May. He presented petitions for and against the Avon and Gloucestershire railway bill, 12 Mar., but moved its rejection, accusing the Kennet and Avon Canal Company of violating an agreement with the Bristol and Gloucestershire Railway Company; he was a majority teller. He presented a Bristol petition to abolish the death penalty for forgery, 5 Apr. 1830, but while acknowledging the ‘various shades and degrees in this crime’ he feared that complete abolition would leave businessmen ‘very inadequately protected’; he was content to leave the matter in Peel’s hands. At the general election that summer he was again returned at the head of the poll for Bristol, without expense, after promising to support the ‘same great principles of policy which have acquired for this country ... an unrivalled pre-eminence’.35

Davis was listed among the ‘friends’ of Wellington’s ministry, gave his ‘cordial assent’ to the king’s speech, 3 Nov., and voted with government in the crucial civil list division, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented numerous Bristol parish petitions for repeal of the house and window taxes in November and December. He presented a Bristol petition against the immediate abolition of slavery, 20 Dec. 1830, and argued that ‘religious education’ was required to prepare the slaves for freedom; in the meantime the question of compensation, ‘the great stumbling block to sudden emancipation’, must be dealt with. He made similar points when presenting an anti-slavery petition from Bristol Independents, 4 Feb. 1831. He supported reduction of the sugar duty as a measure of relief to the West Indian planters, 21 Feb., observing that it was because of the colonies that Britain was ‘the greatest maritime power in the world’. He was reappointed to the East India select committee, 4 Feb. He presented Bristol petitions to repeal the duty on seaborne coal, 4 Feb., and against altering the duties on foreign and colonial timber, 21 Feb. He supported the tobacco growth prohibition (Ireland) bill, 25 Mar. He said he would oppose the select vestries bill unless Bristol was exempted from it, 21 Feb., and presented several parish petitions to this effect, 7, 25 Mar. He was ‘highly honoured’ to present the Bristol petition in support of the laws of England, 26 Feb., which had been signed by the ‘overwhelming majority of the rank, wealth and intelligence’ of the city, and promised his ‘strenuous opposition’ to any measure of parliamentary reform that ‘may at all endanger the present frame of government’. He condemned the Grey ministry’s ‘dangerous and revolutionary’ bill, which swept away the ‘chartered rights of ages’, 3 Mar., and warned that if it was passed ‘the three great estates of King, Lords and Commons would be melted down’ and ‘democracy would ... reign triumphant’. He denied that a Bristol reform petition represented the views of the majority, when ‘thousands’ of his constituents faced disfranchisement, 10 Mar. He divided against the second reading, 22 Mar., and expressed his ‘unqualified disapprobation’ of the bill, 29 Mar., although he was ‘not opposed to every kind of practical improvement in ... the representation’. He voted for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr., and insisted that he had no fear of facing his constituents, 21 Apr. 1831, when he was a majority teller for adjourning the debate on bribery at the Liverpool election. Next day he wrote to Wellington that ‘I am still ready to fight, but the atmosphere does not appear to be as clear as formerly ... This country will not enjoy an hour of safety until the Whigs are hurled from their seats’.36 At the ensuing dissolution he accepted an invitation to offer for Bristol on the usual terms, but when advised that his cause was hopeless he ‘made a conscientious sacrifice on the altar of public duty’ and withdrew before the election.37

Davis was urged to stand again for Bristol in the summer of 1832 but finally announced his retirement from public life.38 In February 1835 he sent a long memorial to Peel, as premier, stating his case for financial assistance, in which he recounted the circumstances behind his losses and Liverpool’s desire to compensate him, and claimed that his total expenditure on elections had ‘fallen very little short of £70,000’; Peel saw ‘little prospect’ of being able to help.39 According to an obituarist, his ‘punctuality as a correspondent, the promptitude of his exertions and the kindness and urbanity of his manners, rendered him one of the most useful and popular Members’.40 He died in February 1842 and left the proceeds from the sale of farms in Devon and Somerset to his eldest son Hart Davis (1790-1854).41

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Terry Jenkins

Notes

  • 1. IGI (Glos.).
  • 2. C. Cave, Hist. Banking in Bristol, 94-95. His father’s will was sworn under £20,000 (PROB 11/1374/353; IR26/63/68).
  • 3. Add. 38283, ff. 104, 127; 40415, ff. 226-31; Cave, 94-95.
  • 4. Bristol Jnl. 26 Feb., 4, 11 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Add. 31232, f. 264; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 27 Dec. 1820.
  • 6. The Times, 17, 24, 27 Mar., 3 Apr. 1821.
  • 7. Ibid. 5 May, 5 June 1821.
  • 8. Ibid. 21 June 1821.
  • 9. Ibid. 2 Apr., 1, 2, 11, 15 May 1822.
  • 10. Ibid. 23, 25 Apr. 1822.
  • 11. Add. 38291, f. 53; George IV Letters, iii. 1085, 1165.
  • 12. The Times, 21, 26 Feb., 22, 23 May 1823.
  • 13. Ibid. 18 Apr. 1823.
  • 14. Ibid. 9, 11 Mar. 1824.
  • 15. Ibid. 26 Mar., 13 Apr. 1824.
  • 16. Ibid. 28 May 1824.