David Davies Llandinam (1818-90)

David Davies Llandinam is regarded as Wales’ first tycoon. The epitaph on his grave in the churchyard at Llandinam, near Llanidloes reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might”. His is the remarkable rags-to-riches story of a Montgomeryshire man who rose to become one of the Industrial Revolution’s leading entrepreneurs.
He was the son of a tenant farmer in Llandinam, the eldest of David and Elizabeth Davies’ nine children, who lived for most of their early lives in a two-up, two-down cottage in the village. He attended the village school, held in the gallery of the local church, but left at the age of 11 to work for his father. For the next twenty years the young David worked as a farm hand and at sawing timber.
In 1844 he managed to buy his own 150 acre farm called Neuadd Fach, and added a second farm to his little empire two years later, when he was only 27. In 1850 he moved to a farm in the Severn Valley. Gwernierin Farm was set in an area prone to flooding, and with his usual focus and determination, he set about constructing ditches and banks and drainage systems to prevent flooding on his land. Davies’ work so impressed Thomas Penson, the County Surveyor of Montgomeryshire, that he was asked to work on the construction of the first iron bridge in Montgomeryshire, over the River Severn in Llandinam. The bridge is still there today.
Next, Davies used his new-found civil engineering skills and applied them to the new boom industry of the period – railways. He pioneered the railways in Wales. In the space of 15 years, he was responsible for laying some 145 miles of track between North and mid-Wales.
Politics came next, when in 1865 he stood in the parliamentary elections as the Liberal candidate in Cardiganshire. While he didn’t win, he vowed to return again to the hustings.
About the same time, Davies became interested in the coal industry. He quickly recognised opportunities in the upper Rhondda Valley and joined a small group of investors who bought a lease on land near Treorchy.
His workers dug for 15 months without a sign of coal. With funds running low, Davies called a halt to the work, but his miners sensed that they were close to hitting a seam and pledged to work one more week without wages. During that week, they struck one of the world’s finest coal seams - they had finally struck ‘black gold’.
This was the birth of the Ocean Coal Company. It became one of the largest mining operations in Britain, and the mine become the first deep-pit mine in the Rhondda Valley. During the next few months, the workforce rose dramatically from a few hundred to more than 5,000 men.
In order to secure a stable route to trade his coal in overseas markets, Davies built Barry Docks – a project which cost some £2million. It became regarded as one of the best industrial ports of its time.
Davies’ reputation grew and spread world wide, earning him consulting work on mining operations as far afield as Brazil and Russia. He was even invited to the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt.
Following each of his journeys and adventures, he returned home to Llandinam, where he lived with his wife Margaret and his son Edward, born in 1852. He built for his family a grand house called Broneiron to which they moved in 1864. In 1884, when Edward reached maturity, Davies bought Plas Dinam as a home for him.
Davies was a deeply religious and community-minded man. He was a strict teetotaler. His investment in the facilities of Llandinam included a new school building and a new chapel for the village. He also opened his home up every year and held a party for local children, as well as picking up the tab for the annual Sunday School trip.
Further afield, his financial support enabled the establishment of the University of Wales Aberystwyth, for which he pledged £20 for every £100 raised. The University was established in 1872.
His second attempt to enter politics was successful, and in 1874 he was elected MP for Cardiganshire. He was twice re-elected unopposed to the seat in 1880 and in 1885.
David Davies died in 1890 at the age of 72. The people of Llandinam erected a statue of him holding the plans for Barry Docks. This still stands in the middle of the village today.
He was the originator of an impressive Davies dynasty. His grand-daughters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies during their lives collected one of the world’s finest art collections, now part of the National Museum of Wales’ collection. His grandson and namesake David was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire between 1906 and 1929, and in 1932 was made Baron Davies of Llandinam. He was an enlightened and high profile peace campaigner who also funded the setting up of the world’s first Department of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.