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David Davies: Wales' first millionaire

Phil Carradice

The story of David Davies, the man who can justifiably claim to be Wales' first millionaire, is a classic.There is no other way to describe it; his life is a real tale of "rags to riches."

Born in 1818 at Llandinam in Montgomeryshire, he was the eldest of nine children and yet rose from being a humble sawyer to a position of power and prestige at the very top of Welsh society.

When he died in 1890 his personal estate was valued at over £400,000. And yet, for the first 30 years of his life he could barely read or write.

Upon leaving school at the age of 11, David Davies began to work on the farm and in the sawpits of his father, also called David Davies.

The young man's nickname, "Top Sawyer," dates from this time - he was proud to record and tell the story of how he had always had the good sense to work at the top of the sawpit and thus avoid being covered by shavings and sawdust.

For several years Davies worked as a sawyer, farmer and local contractor but then, after the early death of his father from TB, he was given the opportunity to create the foundations and the approaches to a new bridge across the Severn at Llandinam. The County Surveyor, one Thomas Penson, was so impressed with the work that he began to put other projects Davies' way. He was on the road to success.

Commenting on the death of his father and brother at this time, Herbert Williams, Davies' biographer, wrote:

"The cause of death of David Davies, farmer is given as 'Decline,' and the next column, reserved for the signature, description and residence of the informant, bears the words 'The Mark X of David Davies, Present at the Death.' Eight weeks later he made his mark a second time as witness to the death of his brother Edward. Five years were to pass before he carefully wrote his name on his marriage certificate."

David Davies had clearly taught himself to read in the years between the death of his brother and his marriage to Margaret Jones of Llanfair Caereinion. And from then on it was all upwards for the young entrepreneur.

As well as roads and bridges, he built several railways across mid Wales, his most notable achievement being the crossing of the mighty Tregaron Bog to finish the line between Lampeter and Aberystwyth. Building railways soon became second nature to Davies, and he even headed to the south west to construct the Pembroke to Tenby line.

By the 1850s he might have become an important and wealthy man but Davies never lost touch with his roots. In his book Davies The Ocean, Herbert Williams wrote:

"He was still the old Davy, ready to roll up his sleeves and turn to with the lads. One morning he saw them struggling to roll heavy stones into trucks in a quarry and with a cry of 'Sweet boys, up with them!' helped them shoulder the stones into place. His effort was all the more impressive in that he was on his way to London on business and wearing a dark suit which was so covered in dust that he had to go home to change before making the journey."

In 1864 David Davies bought land in the Upper Rhondda Valley and sank the Parc and Maerdy coal pits. Further mines followed, including the Garw and the Lady Windsor. So successful was the enterprise that in 1887 the Ocean Coal Company Ltd was established, and became one of the most enterprising coal companies in Wales.

As the Taff Vale Railway Company and Cardiff Docks were unable to cope with the traffic from Ocean Collieries, Davies promptly built himself a new dock at Barry - not without considerable opposition from Parliament and the powerful lobby of Lord Bute, who owned the land around Cardiff Docks.

David Davies was a Liberal MP for many years, representing the town and then the county of Cardiganshire. But as an opponent of Irish Home Rule, he quarrelled with Gladstone and lost the 1886 election by a margin of just nine votes. It was devastating blow and Davies died just four years later.

He had made an incredible journey, from humble labourer to the richest man in Wales. David Davies symbolises the energetic, hard working and imaginative Victorian entrepreneur, a self made man who knew exactly where he was going and, more importantly, precisely how he was going to get there.

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