Political Biographies of the Mayors of Portsmouth (1836-1900)

MAYORALTY:- November 9th 1867-1868. 1872-1873. 1874-1875
FIRST ELECTED TO COUNCIL:- November 2nd 1863.
WARD:- All Saints
RESIDENCE:- Cosham House, Cosham.
DECEASED:- 1898 aged 66.
BURIED:- Marylebone, London.

Three times mayor Robert E. Davies was described as a well known and distinguished businessman. (1) Indeed, trading from Nos 140-148 and 131-137 Commercial Road he established the late Landport Drapery Bazaar, and from Nos 2 to 12 Arundel Street he also owned the Carpet & Furnishings' Emporium. Successful in business he was a natural for mayor.
At age 35 Davies, by comparison, was a young man when elected being nominated at a time when the council was looking for new blood. He was proposed by [...] Alderman Wells who described Davies as a man of talent and a talented businessmen. He was seconded by Alderman Sheppard and despite his lack of experience, and not being an alderman, he was elected unanimously.
April 11th 1868 witnessed the great Volunteer Review and sham fight on Portsdown Hill. The event was judged a great success and the mayor received a great deal of the credit for this (as did Joseph Whitcombe 1881-82). On June 22nd there was a civic reception for the troops returning from the Magdala Campaign (Ethiopia). By now Portsmouth had eleven miles of main drainage with 56 miles of branches. But the gravity fed system left much to be desired. So in terms of civic development perhaps the most significant event of this mayoralty was the installation of a steam pumping engine at Eastney. On a sadder note 1,500 men were made redundant from the Dockyard.
This time Cllr Henry Ford rose to say that the characteristics required of a mayor should include the ability to preside over meetings with dignity. He should discharge his duty with courtesy and kindness and urbanity. It was known that R.E. Davies. was just such a man claimed Ford. The motion was put and carried unanimously.
May 19th 1873 witnessed the opening of the Portsmouth Tramways. In June 1873 the Shah of Persia visited Portsmouth to review the fleet at Spithead. The centre of attention was the new turret ship HMS Devastation. However, the town saw little of the Shah himself who returned to London by train without attending the civic reception. At the close of the year the Municipal Banquet was held on Monday 10th November 1873 (4). There were the usual congratulatory toasts during the course of which the incoming mayor Cllr Galt noted of Davies and quoting Shakespeare said:- "The evil that men do lives after them. The good is often interred with their bones." The following June (1874) Davies was elected Alderman.
Alderman H. Ford noted that currently the duties of the mayor had become far too onerous, he being expected to attend some 400 meetings a year. An almost impossible task which few were capable of, or willing, to take on. But, said Ford, he knew one man who would, and that is why he proposed Alderman Davies for a third term. He added that in his case they had a known quantity rather than electing an unknown entity. Cllr Murrell (All Saints) stood to propose that the time had now come to exonerate the mayor from attending all committee meetings, but nothing was resolved. The motion for Davies was put and carried unanimously.
Nationally a new Public Health Act was passed. Under this massive Act the local authority now, also acting as the Urban Sanitary Authority, had its responsibilities - and the duties of the mayor - increased enormously. Davies also had trouble controlling his council. Following a rancorous meeting in February 1875 the exasperated Davies closed the proceedings by saying, "I may as well tell you this has been a very difficult and troublesome afternoon. I tell you honestly I have not the ability to control this council when it takes a violent and personal turn. I tell you I will not sit in this chair another afternoon when I feel I am incapable of carrying forward the business in hand. You may be warned in future I shall rise and walk from my seat." (6).
At the end of his term the customary vote of thanks was moved. Davies, not surprisingly, declined the offer of a fourth term but continued to play a part in public affairs. Perhaps his attention to public duties, thereby possibly neglecting his own business life, led to his eventual fall. Sadly in 1882 Davies' public career came to an abrupt end when he resigned from the council on 16th August. The resignation was accepted with regret.
On the 25th August 1882 the Hants Post disclosed the reason for this when it informed its readers it had been known for some time that Davies's business empire had been tottering on the brink of financial disaster. On Friday 18th August the local firm of solicitors, Besant, Porter & Wells, petitioned for liquidation. The liabilities amounted to nearly 100,000. - the biggest collapse by a Portsmouth firm since the South Hants Bank in 1865. On the 13th September 1882 Davies was declared bankrupt in the Hant's County Court under the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. However, the business soon found new proprietors. On the 27th October the Hant's Post carried a notice to the effect that Messrs Rush & Handley had purchased the entire bankrupt stock from the Trustees and intended to trade on a ready cash (no credit, no discount) basis. No further reports concerning Davies' final days have been found.
Norman Gordon
ROBERT EDMUND DAVIES. Born Newport I.O.W. 1832. Married Elizabeth by whom he had four daughters.
1. Hants Post Friday 25th August 1882 page 5 col, d. 2. Portsmouth Times 16th November 1867.
3. Portsmouth Times 13th November 1872.
4. Portsmouth Times 12th November 1873.
5. Portsmouth Times 10th November 1874.
6. Portsmouth Times 9th February 1875.