On this Day 17th November 1791

Davies Giddy FRS: St Erth boy makes good

Davies Giddy (from a portrait in the collection of Penlee House and Gallery in Penzance)On 17th November 1791 Davies Giddy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In the list of fellows he is shown as Davies Gilbert, the name he adopted in 1816 to allow he and his wife, Mary Ann Gilbert, to inherit a substantial property from her uncle (for more on this and the birth of Davies Giddy see OTD 6 March 1767).

Giddy's election citation reads:

Davies Giddy MA of Tredrea in the County of Cornwall a gentleman devoted to mathematical and philosophical pursuits being desirous of the honour of election into the Royal Society, We whose names are underwritten, do from our personal knowledge recommend him as worthy of that honour and likely to become a usefull and valuable Member.

Thos Hornsby; G Shuckburgh; Nevil Maskelyne; George Atwood; James L Macie; George Shaw; George Staunton; J E Smith; Hen Fly; Rd Penneck

Davies Giddy's citation and list of sponsors on his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1791 (image courtesy of the Royal Society)

Davies Giddy's citation and list of sponsors on his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1791
(image courtesy of the Royal Society)

Who are these sponsors?

  • Thomas Hornsby had been an FRS since 1763 and was an astronomer who had been very engaged with observing the Transit of Venus;
  • Nevil Maskelyne was the 5th Astronomer Royal, elected FRS in 1758 and astronomer on the Royal Society's expedition to observe the transit of Venus in 1761;
  • George Shuckburgh was also an astronomer who was elected FRS in 1774;
  • George Attwood was a mathematician elected FRS in 1776. Like Shuckburgh he has a lunar crater named after him;
  • James Macie was a chemist and mineralogist elected FRS in 1787. That he signed as James L. Macie is interesting since by then he had changed his name to Smithson, by which name he is best known as the founding donor to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.;
  • George Shaw was a zoologist elected FRS in 1789;
  • Sir George Staunton was a botanist and diplomat in the employment of the East India Company, he was elected FRS in 1787;
  • James Edward Smith was a botanist and owner of the entire Linnean collection which he had acquired from Carl Linnaeus when Sir Joseph Banks declined to purchase. He was elected FRS in 1785;
  • Henry Fly was Rector of Trinity in the Minories in London whose FRS citation reads that he was well versed in various branches of useful and ornamental learning;
  • Richard Penneck was from Gwinnear and was Superintendant of the Reading Room of the British Museum. He was elected FRS in 1768.

Quite a lot of influence and learning there. Networks and patronage were very important and Giddy's go back into his childhood. He had been educated by Malachy Hitchins before leaving Cornwall to join the mathematical academy of Benjamin Donne in Bristol. Hitchins was the rector of St Hilary but more importantly he was also a colleague of Nevil Maskelyne, working with him on the Nautical Almanac as a 'computer'. (For more on Hitchins see OTS 10 March 1801). Early in his career Hitchins had worked with Benjamin Donne on the creation of a map of Devon, published in 1765, and subsequently was introduced to Maskelyne by Thomas Hornsby.

Giddy was clearly a valued Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1827 he was elected President which post he held for three years. As a mathematician his opinion and knowledge was also sought by the engineers of his day including Hornblower, Trevithick, Telford and Brunel.

St Erth, birthplace of Davies Giddy, is a small obscure place at the far west end of Cornwall yet in same year, 1791, two men associated with St Erth were elected Fellows of the Royal Society. The other was John Hawkins who, like Giddy, would go on to play a significant role in the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall.


More information the people mentioned in this article can be found in the archives of the Royal Society which are available on the internet at: https://royalsociety.org/ Biographies of most of them can be found on Wikipedia.

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Penwith Local History Group
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Growing Up in West Cornwall. A Publication by the Penwith Local History Group

"Growing Up in West Cornwall"

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