1818 - 1850: son of a hillside farmer, he worked in his father's saw pit, hence the early nickname of "top sawyer".
1855 - 1867: a railway contractor in mid and west Wales, where he came to prominence because of his daring ventures; railways would never leave him in his illustrious career!
1874 - 1885: Liberal MP for the Cardigan Boroughs
1885 - 1886: Liberal MP for Cardiganshire then defeated when he opposed Prime Minister Gladstone's policy over the issue of Irish Home Rule.
NOTE: these miscellaneous notes and illustrations rely heavily on Herbert Williams, Davies The Ocean: Railway King and Coal Tycoon (University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1991), available from »
Came south with a selected workforce from Montgomeryshire, to the newly emerging Rhondda Valleys and the Ogmore Vale, opened up collieries and railway lines and made Barry the greatest coal exporting port in South Wales, eclipsing even the Butes' Docks at Cardiff: largest in Great Britain and therefore Barry was the largest in the world by the last quarter of the 19th century!
Inspired throughout his lifetime by his Calvinistic Methodism, this was imparted to his family and his workers as a model for a human lifestyle. (My mother's side of the family came south with Davies and via the Rhondda, then Pontypridd, gravitated to Merthyr Tydfil where my grandfather was a lay preacher at Capel Pennsylvannia, Pontmorlais Methodist chapel on High Street, in the 1920s and 1930s).
The Davies family made generous donations to the newly established University College of Wales at Aberystwyth. Davies' grandson, also named David, to become the first Baron Llandinam in 1932 and was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire 1906 - 1929, founded the first academic chair in international politics at Aberystwyth and The Temple of Peace at Cardiff, to foster and promote an understanding of international peace and harmony.
His two granddaughters were: Gwendoline (1882 - 1951) and Margaret (1884 - 1963)
They established the King Edward VII Welsh National Memorial Association to assist the riddance of TB; they are best known for their Bequest to the Welsh nation in the form of their magnificent art collection of modern European paintings, notably several priceless Monets, now held for the public at the National Museum of Wales at Cardiff.
Born to a poor hillside farm, Draintewion ("the place of the thick brambles"), a typical Welsh longhouse at Llandinam, to a family of Cardiganshire origins (or were they like him Montgomery people?), he was the eldest of ten children raised here. The family's staunch Calvinistic Methodist sustained them.
Davies' father was a sawyer as well as a farmer, felling trees on commission and David was soon working alongside him, soon able to handle the long saw and doing a man's job by the age of fifteen.
He gained the local reputation of being one of the hardest workers for miles around, barely stopping for meals. He also possessed the extraordinary ability of being able to gauge the amount of timber in a tree at a glance. The saw pit would be central to his thinking in his youth. The family moved from Draintewion downhill to Neuaddfach, a larger holding. Davies could work hard, could handle money but was always thrifty and shared with his parents an aversion to alcohol which was a waste of that hard earned money. In 1846 Davies took a major part in building a fine single arch bridge spanning the Severn at Llandinam, his first major contract, the spring board for what was to come in engineering and construction.
Alas, the same year his father died, of tuberculosis. His brother Edward died eight weeks later, perhaps TB being a contributory cause of death. These two similar causes of death would be significant and poignant for the family in subsequent years.
Davies continued to gain several bridge construction contracts; one at Llanfair Caereinion introduced him to his wife to be, Margaret Jones. He was now by the beginning of the 1850s employing his own men and making money. He met one Thomas Savin, an Oswestry draper. But it was railways that these two were to deal in. The big venture would be the Llanidloes & Newtown Railway, opened in August 1859. Davies was the sternest of task masters and he abhorred not just idleness but also waste. There were some six hundred navvies employed on the line which at one point came within sight of his very birthplace above Llandinam. His son Edward, his only child, was born in June 1852.
In 1857 Davies took on the lease of that railway line as a business venture. A temporary shortage of funds halting completion, Davies with Savin turned to the Vale of Clwyd Railway, opened in 1858 and linking North Wales with Chester. Lavish celebrations greeted the completion at Llanidloes. At Llandinam some 600 workmen sat down at long tables under a marquee on benches made of railway sleepers to a feast of beef and huge pies. Church bells pealed, cannons blasted. Davies and Savin were presented with silverware as a gesture of thanks.
By 1860 Davies was fast becoming a self made man, reasonably well off at his comfortable home at Gwernerin; at the 1861 census he was described as a "Farmer 300 acres and Railway contractor employing 700 men." In this same year his third railway line, the Oswestry & Newtown was completed, linking the English borders to the west Wales coast. By the mid 1860s Savin was bankrupt (Davies had severed his connections some years earlier) and Davies came close to such a fate, only trusting in his firm belief in the Bible and his personal way of life to save him from a similar fate, such was the fraught nature of railway speculation and construction. One item taxed him to the fullest extent on the contruction of the line to Machynlleth from Newtown: Talerddig. This feat of engineering, at 35 metres (some 115 feet) depth was at the time the world's deepest rock cutting, completed in 1861 and almost entirely cut using pick and shovel by hand labour. Gun powder was used for blasting but clearing the debris was still labour intensive. Some 200 handpicked men, the cream of Davies' work force, many of them Llandinam lads, were the navvies. They would follow Davies from job to job; some of them ended up in his coal mines in South Wales.
Davies' split with Savin negated his connections with the Llanidloes & Newtown and the Oswestry & Newtown Railways, yet he honoured his contracts in bringing these feats of construction completed to time.
Davies now had time to travel and abroad he went partly to see the construction of railway lines across Europe: Italy, Russia were visited. He also turned his attention to the Pembroke & Tenby line and also, now a wealthy man, established a new home at Broneirion » mansion at Llandinam built in 1864, only a few hundred yards away from his previous much more humble dwellings. At forty five years of age Davies was in the prime of his life: successful, well thought of about his area of Montgomery and mid Wales, an established land owner for whom, perhaps, a gentleman farmer's life of settling down and quietude beckoned. An invitation to participate in the then early exploitation of the Rhondda Valleys changed that prospect and provided a new chapter in Davies' life.
Davies was enticed south away from Montgomeryshire to the newly settled Rhondda Valleys; and the enticement was coal in the as yet still rural unexploited upper Rhondda valley. Taking up a lease in 1864 in the upper Rhondda Fawr, Davies and a group of partners had spent some £38,000 by 1866 on sinking two shafts, however, to no avail. Folk lore has it that he informed his men that he could not afford to go further, the men called a meeting and decided to give one more week of work for free. This was at the beginning of March 1866. Before that week was out the two feet nine seam had been struck at the Maendy (Maindy) Colliery at Ton Pentre; and the rest has made for coal mining history!
A colliery at Parc (Cwm Parc) was being driven at about the same time now with several hundreds of Davies’ men coming into the Rhondda to assist in these new ventures. From this early date Davies had an inordinate care for his men in terms of provision of new and sound housing for them, basic health care in as much as the times and medical knowledge allowed and more than sympathy at any death of his men. Straight way a housing construction programme was underway and eventually the Ocean Coal Company provided for some 1,300 houses. Davies, by December 1866, had also started construction at Ystrad, still then a mining village, of a Calvinistic Methodist Chapel for his workforce.
Davies called his newly-found product "Ocean Merthyr" coal as a deliberate marketing ploy and eventually the whole enterprise became the Ocean Coal Company Ltd, incorporated in 1887 with Davies controlling the main portion of the capital. His control was from a distance, parliamentary duties confining him to Westminster or at home at Broneirion in Montgomeryshire. Profits were ascending spectacularly in these boom years of South Wales smokeless steam coal, into the equivalent of millionaires returns. The brokered deal of a sliding scale made for relative harmony among the South Wales collieries as wages kept pace with the buoyant selling price of coal, ever in demand.
Davies continued to be busy in the 1860s: adding collieries in the upper Rhondda. In contrast, relatively unsuccessful in politics, he tilted at parliamentary representation in his native Cardigan constituency; he continued building railways, this time into west Wales, contrary to the financial ruination of many investments of the mid 1860s as a return on initial investment of capital. The Pembroke & Tenby Railway was completed by Davies in partnership with Ezra Roberts (who was also a partner in coal in the Rhondda), providing a link with Whitland in 1866. This was the making of Tenby as a significant and popular seaside resort on the Pembrokeshire coast.
He threw himself whole heartedly into the Cardiganshire county election campaign of 1865 but failed by 361 votes to secure the seat as a Liberal away from another Liberal. It did not help Davies' cause that he had fallen out with the great local Liberal of his day and from Tregaron, Henry Richard, known to Welsh history as "The Apostle of peace" and who in 1868 toppled the sitting Industrial Liberal, H.A. Bruce at Aberdare and represented the two member constituency of Merthyr Tydfil/ Aberdare until his death in 1888. Davies continued overseeing railway ventures, in 1867 completing the Pencader - Aberystwyth line, thus linking Carmarthenshire with Cardiganshire and the making of Aberystwyth town. The year 1866, it should be noted, was one of financial ruin of many involved in railway speculative ventures, with the London-based financial crash of the Overend and Gurney Bank at that time. Davies, however, ploughed on regardless and largely untouched.
In parallel with affairs in mid Wales, Davies was making money out of his Rhondda-based exploits, rapidly becoming one of the most powerful coal owners in South Wales. It was his fervent belief in an overriding Calvinistic Methodist personal creed that dictated all his actions. His was the role of a sort of peace maker in the bitter dispute of 1871 which had strangled coal production in the Cynon Valley with the import of English black leg workers to the coalfield. Davies was joined by his son Edward in the management of the three Ocean collieries- Maindy, Park and Dare, employing some 1,192 men and boys at the beginning of the 1870s and the largest combine in that area. He was also busy at this time, though not as a prominent mover, in helping (modestly with a £100 contribution) establishing the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, opened in 1872. He became a board director of the Cambrian Railways in 1867 where he served for twelve years. A few years later he indulged in his last railway venture completing in 1871 a local line of just over six miles just over the hill from his mansion at Broneirion, providing a railway linkage for local lead mines. He had not forgotten politics and in 1874 was finally successful in being returned unopposed for Cardigan District, which Boroughs he represented until 1885. In these years at Parliament he spoke out for the need for education but a church free sort, untied from the vested interests of the Established Anglican Church. Again he was returned unopposed in 1880 but he was gaining a reputation for being a rather idiosyncratic Liberal, certainly not mainstream and resolute in not towing the Gladstonian party line, for example on the vexatious question of Irish Home Rule.
Davies was adding more collieries to his Ocean combine. Frustration turning to outright anger roused Davies to contemplate another, alternate outlet for his Rhondda coal rather than Cardiff, Bute-controlled and although he first looked at Newport, Barry, then a humble fishing village would become under Davies the hub of his enterprise in South Wales. The Barry Dock and Railways Bill slowly made its way through Parliament 1883-84, finally sanctioned at the end of that year. Davies was returned but non unopposed this time for Cardiganshire in 1885 but was ousted the following year by a mere nine votes! Come the year 1889 and Davies’ grandiose scheme for Barry had come to fruition. By 1901 its coal exports in tonnage exceeded those of Cardiff (7.8 m set against 7.2 m). South Wales’ coalfield production had increased 50%, 1864-1873: from 10.9 m to 16m. Despite the disruptions of 1871 and 1874-75 strikes, Rhondda coal was in increasing demand. By this latter date Davies’ Ocean collieries had earned a gross profit of some half a million pounds. By 1913 on the eve of war South Wales alone supplied over one fifth of the entire coal production from British mines. Output had grown from 16 m tons in the early 1870s to 30 m in 1890 and 56.8 m in 1913.
In the winter of 1889-90 Davies was taken seriously ill at Broneirion and died 20th July 1890. The Barry Dock News said of him as a man that he had, "worked his way up from the saw-pit to the Senate House, and had never forgotten his people or deserted the place of his birth."
BARRY was one of the "shock" towns of late 19th century South Wales; the RHONDDA VALLEYS in their unprecented development as the premier coal bearing valleys of South Wales was equally "American" in its growth. Davies had a large hand in the history of both of these very different places.
BARRY: the Urban District of several combined parishes including Barry, Cadoxton, Merthyr Dyfan and part of Sully had 484 inhabitants at the census of 1881; 13,278 in 1891 and 27,030 by 1901. The simple cause was Davies' plans to enhance the place with his docks as a way of by-passing Butes' hegemony at Cardiff and exporting his coal from the upper Rhondda on his own terms. An enabling act in 1884 for docks and railway inaugurated the change; docks were completed in 1889 and extended in 1898. By 1922 when the GWR took over, Barry consisted of two docks, three dry docks and 105 kilometers of railway lines.
Barry Docks had several advantages: it was not at the mouth of a river and therefore needing constant scouring of an estuary for silt, it was independent of the Butes and especially important, the railway and the docks were at one in ownership not acting as rivals as at Cardiff. By 1901 Barry surpassed Cardiff as the world's greatest coal exporting port; in 1913, its most successful year, it exported 11.41m tons of coal. Such was its monopoly of coal, it rendered Barry vulnerable to the vagaries of the coal export trade, especially after The Great War. Barry was an industrial working class town, of railway workers and dockers in the main. It was susceptible to the surge in leftish views at the very end of the 19th century - political Labour, trade unionism and here the very first WEA branch in Wales met in 1907, inspired by Elizabeth Phillips, a formidable and unique educationalist who was determined to bring education to the fore and for consumption by both men and women.
THE RHONDDA VALLEYS were until the later 19th century an untouched rural, idyllic hinterland with no signs of industry or of crowded inhabitation. The whole area of this ancient parish or Ystradyfodwg numbered less than a thousand. This was largely the area into which Davies invested his time and expertise in the mid 1860s.
"In Ystradyfodwg it is wild and mountainsous. Nature seems to reign in stern and unbroken silence amidst her own eternal rocks." - Thomas Roscoe in 1836
"The Upper Rhondda Fawr is the gem of South Wales and hardly surpassed through the Alpine North." - Charles F Cliffe in 1847
By 1900 some 120,000 had converged into these two valleys, the Rhondda Fawr and Fach, attracted by the propects of a relatively good living to be gained from coal mining: speculators, land owners, colliery engineers and proprietors and farm labourers who became colliers almost overnight, travelled here especially once railways could get them to South Wales from all other parts of Wales and beyond after 1870. A scattering of Italian families came, introducing refreshments shops which became known as "Bracchis" after the most celebrated of the Italian cafe owners, Julio Brachhi.
This rapid development inevitably brought massive environmental and social problems to the Rhondda. The narrow valley floors and steep hillsides were crammed with the characteristic features of coalfield settlements: long rows of terraced housing, chapels and churches, pubs, civic buildings, a network of railway lines and roads; and the collieries - some seventy by 1910. Here soon developed an archetypal image of Wales and Welshness, reinforced in highly acclaimed novels and on film, in politics, through suffering deprivation and poverty, punctuated by colliery disasters, in choral music and sports; and among political and planning debate ever since to the present day. The Rhondda was the raison d'etre for the burgeoning ports and cities of coastal Wales: notably Cardiff but also Penarth and Barry. It made for the town of Pontypridd. It is part of evey one's Wales today!