Of all the ‘self-made’ men who made the mid-nineteenth century House of Commons distinct from earlier periods, few can have begun life in such humble circumstances as John Lloyd Davies, MP for Cardigan Boroughs from 1855-7.
The son of a publican, Davies was born on the premises of the Old Black Lion in Aberystwyth in November 1801, but lost his father when aged about five. Accounts differ as to how he came to be educated. One account said his mother was ‘determined to give him the best possible education’, but another statement, made in the course of a legal dispute over Davies’s legacy in 1879, claimed that until he met his future wife he was illiterate and earned his living as an hotel servant, and that it was she who ‘had him educated’. In any case, Davies was subsequently articled to a solicitor, and by the age of 24 had succeeded to a lucrative practice in Newcastle Emlyn. In June 1825 he married his benefactress, Anne, the only surviving child of the late John Lloyd, a one-time mayor of Carmarthen. The widow of an army officer, she had grown wealthy through inheriting substantial estates at Blaendyffryn and Alltyrodyn from her late husband and from a cousin.
As a proprietor with a life interest in these estates, Davies rose quickly within the local squirearchy. He was appointed to the county bench, made a deputy lieutenant and was an active trustee of the Carmarthenshire turnpike trusts. At the 1837 general election he proposed one of the candidates for Carmarthenshire. Recognised as a ‘very active and talented’ magistrate, he subsequently confronted the Rebecca rioters in the Llandysul district, and in June 1843 helped to repel an attack on Carmarthen workhouse. In 1845 he was appointed high sheriff of Cardiganshire.
Having declined several invitations to stand for Parliament, Davies agreed to offer for a vacancy at Cardigan in February 1855. Being ‘neither Whig nor Tory’, but claiming to be an independent Conservative, he won favour by addressing the electors in his native tongue, ‘much to the delight’ of those unacquainted with English. As a zealous Anglican, he opposed the Maynooth grant. He objected to an extension of the county franchise, but at the same time, he backed Irish land reform and supported the secret ballot. Above all, he was a trenchant critic of the government’s conduct of the war against Russia, accusing ministers of sending ‘54,000 of their countrymen … to starve in the Crimea’.
Davies came into Parliament at a time when the expansion of the provincial press had stimulated a wider public interest in the proceedings of the Commons. He not only attended the House regularly – proving as likely to vote with Lord Palmerston’s ministry as not – but also made frequent, brief interventions in debate on a variety of different topics and took part in the growing practice of questioning ministers. However, despite enhancing his reputation as a popular representative by campaigning to exempt Dissenters from the payment of church rates, and promoting the establishment of a harbour of refuge at Cardigan, he was promptly brought to earth after the dissolution in March 1857. Having issued what his critics described as ‘the most boastful and egotistical’ of election addresses, he found himself opposed by a member of the borough’s most influential family and promptly retired.
His days as an MP over, Davies still remained active in public life, becoming a trustee for a scheme to establish a joint stock ‘Bank of Wales’, and was heavily involved as company chairman in promoting the construction of a railway line between Carmarthen and Cardigan, which was regarded as his greatest achievement.
His wife had died shortly before he entered Parliament, but Davies married another heiress in March 1857, the daughter of a Gloucestershire landowner. His second wife died in February 1860 and Davies passed away three weeks later. Despite leaving a legacy of £10,000 to his two infant sons, along with the Alltyrodyn estates which were not legally his to give, much of his goods and livestock had to be sold off to meet the demands of his creditors, reflecting the provisional nature of the social and political standing of this low-born but capable MP.