David Davies, Llandinam (1818-1890)
Let me introduce you to one of the most overlooked men in Welsh history. You’ve probably been somewhere he helped create. Not sure? Have you been to Aberystwyth or Barry? Caught a train through Newtown or Tenby? Seen the remains of Maendy, Parc or Ynysybwl pits? Looked at the paintings in Cardiff Museum? David Davies, and the wealth he created, played a part in all of these.
Actually, you may even have seen him. His statues stand overlooking Barry Docks and a bridge in Llandinam, mid-Wales. He is reputed to be the first Welsh businessman to be a millionaire and is the ultimate rags to riches story. David Davies is known for many different things and because of that, in typical Welsh style, he has some nicknames.
Born at Draintewion, Llandinam in 1818, the eldest of 10 children, his was a poor childhood. He attended the village school in the gallery of the local church until the age of 11 before he went to work for his father as a sawyer. They would fell trees and cut them over pits, with a large, two-man saw.
For the next 20 years, he worked hard and moved to bigger houses and farms. One was prone to flooding from the River Severn, so he made a series of ditches to protect the land. This caught the attention of the man overseeing the building of the first iron bridge in the area, and he got Davies to build the embankment. This gave him the opportunity to tender for the construction of a mart in Oswestry where, famously, he worked out the price in five minutes!
This was the age of railway enthusiasm, and in 1855, little known Davies won the contract to build his first railway line. At 37 years old, he embarked on a frantic 15 years of railway building, in which he laid 145 miles of track along the Llanidloes to Newtown line, the Vale of Clwyd line, the Oswestry to Newtown line and the Tenby line, as well as starting the Machynlleth to Aberystwyth line. During that time he also accomplished an engineering feat with the world’s deepest rock cutting at Talerddig. His fame spread, and he visited Sardinia and Russia to advise on railways. He also attended the opening of the Suez Canal.
Not only was he hard-working, but David Davies would get involved with his men, especially when it came to wrestling and hunting. He was as strong as any of them, and even though he may have paid less at times, he treated them well and the men preferred to work for him. In fact, he could leave a wheelbarrow of money, run off hunting, and no one would steal a penny but we are far from the end of his career!
David Davies MP
Railways were always dependent upon Parliament, so Davies saw the need to enter the political arena. He stood for Cardiganshire, and on his second attempt, was elected as the Liberal candidate for three terms. He was his own man and wouldn’t follow the whips, but in the end, fell out with Gladstone over Irish home rule. This meant that, after 12 years, he lost his seat, by only nine votes!
‘Davies the Ocean’
At this time, he had turned his attention to the latest money-making craze: coal. In 1864, he travelled to the upper Rhonda Valley and, with others, used all his resources to find coal. At Maendy, the men dug for 15 months with no sign of success. It nearly ruined him, but after they pledged to work for one more week without pay, they finally struck coal! This led to a plethora of mines opening in the area, and his company (Ocean Collieries) went from having a few hundred workers to more than 5000 over the following months.
David Davies looked after his men – he built 1,300 houses for them; the first to have ventilation fans and electric lighting in the Rhondda – but his relationship with them started to change. He could no longer work alongside them, and he couldn’t just leave a wheelbarrow full of money as he once could. In fact, there were strikes, and a controversy grew over ‘sliding scale’ wages. Some saw him as a peacemaker with ‘the best scale out’, but others were not so sure.
He then began his biggest achievement. The Bute family had a monopoly on the docks in Cardiff and tightly controlled them, which meant that Davies’ coal sat on the tracks overnight with his men doing nothing. So, David Davies built his own railway and in 1884, he started to build Barry Docks at a cost of £2 million. It was completed in 1889 and quickly became more productive than Cardiff. By 1890, he was producing nearly 2 million tons of coal and was the largest exporter in the South Wales coalfield.
The man of faith
David Davies died that year. The Cambrian News reported, ‘He was remarkable for the way he rang true and clung to his own people, to his own place, to his religious and political faith and to his own ideals, until death found him, after an active life, close to where life found him 71 years before.’ He lived in Llandinam for his entire life, refusing to leave. He gave three reasons why: it was close to the chapel, it was filled with memories of his childhood and there was the train station, from where he could get anywhere.
He deliberately put them in that order, explaining that his life was built on faith first, family second, and work third; his faith drove everything. As Herbert Williams said, ‘An acknowledgement of the depth of David Davies’ religious faith is essential to our understanding of him.’
Davies’ faith took root when he was young, with one writer saying that, ‘Scriptural texts came to David Davies with his mother’s milk.’ Indeed, he gave the first money he ever made to a missionary fund. As a family man, he ensured there was family worship every morning and evening, and as a church member and deacon, he always tried to be home for Sunday; he loved to be in chapel. Daniel Rowland writes that, ‘Frequently while listening intently to the words of the gospel, tears would come to his eyes and run down his cheek.’
He also wanted his workers to get to church, and sometimes that meant building a place of worship, as he did when laying the Tenby line. In the summer, students would come and preach. People were converted, the most famous being John Pugh, who went on to form the Forward Movement, of which David Davies and his descendants were huge supporters.
There are many reasons why Davies has fallen out of favour and been forgotten, but it seems to me that we need to remember him as a man who, as his gravestone testifies, lived out Ecclesiastes 9:10: ‘Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’