“Where there is a will there is a way,” – a sentiment that a onetime Reverend of Lustleigh firmly believed in and demonstrated admirably. William Davy was born on the 4th of March 1743 in Tavistock and throughout his childhood he demonstrated great skills in mechanics and engineering. He received his formal education at the free grammar school in Exeter and later went to Baliol College in Oxford. On leaving there in 1766 he opted for the priesthood and soon obtained his orders. It has been said that Davy was renown for his knowledge of the bible, so much so that during his examinations for his orders he actually corrected one of the highest dignitaries on some theological point. Following his ordination he was appointed to the curacy of Moretonhampstead, later moving as curate to Drewsteignton and then Lustleigh. His long sermons were legendary and many were on the topics of virtue and vice. It appears at Drewsteignton the ‘vice’ sermons didn’t go down too well and was possibly a case of ‘too many home truths‘. Eventually the congregation complained to the Bishop but Davy showed some manuscripts of the sermons to him and all was well.
One of his legacies to Lustleigh was the construction of the school in 1825. A plaque on the wall read; “Built by subscription and endowed with Lowton Meadow in Moreton for supporting a school for ever by the Rev. William Davy curate of this parish.” As will be seen later it was his writing and publishing skills for which he has gained his fame. As an small example of his achievements he wrote and published a leaflet regarding his school endowment of Lowton Meadow, it was called; ‘Apology for giving Lowton Meadow to the Parish of Lustleigh.” Here one can see that he had lifetime penchant for long titles but believe me you’ve not seen anything yet. William Davy also strongly believed in using his extensive vocabulary to its limit, here is an extract from the above leaflet; “Whereas from my long service in that church I have a strong regard and hearty desire for its present and future welfare, and being from repeated proofs too unhappily convinced of the uneconomical and profligate disposition of my immediate successors, and being willing in my lifetime to do the greatest and most lasting good with the little property I have in fee, I do hereby with the consent of my son (who by good conduct and kind providence is sufficiently provided for) offer to give to the officiating minister and churchwardens of the parish of Lustleigh all that one close or meadow called Mortice or Lowton Meadow in Moreton Hampsted to have and to hold the same with the rents and profits thereof from and after the 25th of March 1824 in trust for ever for the support and maintenance of a school for poor children in the parish town for that purpose.”, Torr, p.
Of all his many achievements it is a theological work of 26 volumes which contained the ideologies of both modern and ancient writers and eminent people that he is remembered for. Again the title of these works demonstrates his zealousness for words; “The Annals of Literature, fertile in curiosities and calamities, have preserved few anecdotes more remarkable than that of our own times, which we are about to record. This is a tale which excites respect for the amazing perseverance of the patient labourer, as well as compassion for its misdirection.” This has to be one of, if not the longest publication title ever. Initially he got his first 6 volumes published by subscription but having written further volumes found that nobody would subscribe to them. The cost of getting them professionally printed and published was around £2,000 which was way out of his means. So in 1795 he drew on his engineering skills and built himself a printing press made from all worn out and cast off metal types purchased from a country printing office. It took him 5 months to print 40 copies of the first 328 pages of volume number 1. he then distributed 26 of these to various universities, bishops and the Royal Society in the hope that sufficient interest would be aroused for him to carry on with his work. Sadly this was not forthcoming and so undeterred he carried on and twelve years later in 1807 he had completed the 26 volumes. There was an average of 500 pages in each volume which made a grand total of around 13,000 pages. Some authors give Davy the sole credit for the onerous task of printing his works but locally it was said that his servant, Mary Hole, was the unsung hero.
‘A life’s work is never finished’ and this was the case with William Davy for having accomplished his main goal he got restless in 1816 published an index to his 26 volumes. This was called; “Intended as a help to a future edition, with additions upon revisal.” In 1823 he found the need to write even more and so printed 14 copies of another volume which again contained over 540 pages. This time however the task of printing was given to someone else. Local opinion to Davy’s work was summed up by Cecil Torr: “Being in the form of sermons, it was useless as a book of reference; and, being in substance an encyclopaedia, it did not make good sermons.”
On the 25th of September the British Library will be publishing a book called ‘Comic, Curious & Quirky: News Stories From Centuries Past’ written by Rona Levin. In this book the story of William Davy is retold and how in 1813 his was given the dubious accolade of being the creator of “one of the greatest calamities” in the annals of literature.
Torr, C. 1970. Small Talk at Wreyland. Bath: Adams & Dart – Pages 31 – 35.