Thomas Davies (1712?1785)



  • Printer / Publisher
  • Bookseller
  • Publisher
  • Author
  • Actor

Biographical details

Thomas Davies, printer and bookseller; in Dukes Court, opposite St. Martin's in the Fields; in Round Court, Strand; at No. 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden. Appointed bookseller to the Royal Academy in 1769.

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

DAVIES, THOMAS (1712?–1785), book-seller, was born about 1712, and was educated at the university of Edinburgh (1728 and 1729), acquiring, according to Johnson, ‘learning enough to give credit to a clergyman.’ He preferred the stage, however, and in 1736 appeared in Lillo's ‘Fatal Curiosity’ at the Haymarket, then under Fielding's management. He then tried bookselling, but failed and returned to the stage. On 24 Jan. 1746 he ‘attempted’ the part of Pierre in ‘Venice Preserved,’ which was performed for his benefit at Covent Garden. He next became a strolling actor, and soon afterwards married the daughter of an actor at York, named Yarrow. His wife was both beautiful and virtuous. He performed at Edinburgh, where he was accused of unfairly monopolising popular parts, and afterwards at Dublin. In 1753 he was engaged with his wife at Drury Lane, and they were received with some favour when occasionally taking the parts of more conspicuous performers incapacitated by illness. In 1761 appeared Churchill's ‘Rosciad,’ four lines of which give Davies's character as an actor:

With him came mighty Davies. On my life,
That Davies hath a very pretty wife!
Statesman all over—in plots famous grown,
He mouths a sentence as curs mouth a bone.

The last line, according to Johnson, drove Davies from the stage. A letter signed ‘T. Davis,’ deprecating an anticipated attack by Churchill, which appeared in the papers in September 1761, is said by Nichols to have been written by another ‘comedian of inferior talents.’ Davies apparently left the stage in 1762, when he again set up as a bookseller at 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden. He professed to find the two occupations incompatible, though Garrick (10 Aug. 1763) twits him about the ‘Rosciad’ story, and says that he was always ‘confused and unhappy’ when Churchill was in the audience. Here in 1763 he had the honour of introducing Boswell (who had been introduced to him by Derrick) to Johnson. Davies republished the works of several old authors, including William Browne (1772), Sir John Davies (1773), Eachard (1774), George Lillo (1775), and Massinger, with some account of his life and writings prefixed (1779). In 1773 he audaciously published ‘Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces,’ in two volumes, and advertised them as ‘by the author of the Rambler.’ Johnson's writings, which he had appropriated without authority, formed the bulk of this collection. When Mrs. Thrale spoke of this piratical proceeding to Johnson, he said that he would ‘storm and bluster a little;’ but he was disarmed by Davies's good-nature and professions of penitence. ‘I believe,’ he said, ‘the dog loves me dearly,’ and added that ‘Thrale and I must do something for Tom Davies.’ In 1778 Davies became a bankrupt, when Johnson exerted his influence on Davies's behalf, collected money to buy back his furniture, and induced Sheridan to give him a benefit at Drury Lane. Davies then appeared for the last time as Fainall in Congreve's ‘Way of the World.’ In the next year Davies dedicated his ‘Massinger’ to Johnson. Johnson afterwards encouraged Davies to write the life of Garrick, supplied the first sentence, and gave help for Garrick's early years. The book appeared in 1780, passed through four editions, and brought money and reputation to the author. Encouraged by this success, he published in 1785 ‘Dramatic Miscellanies, consisting of critical observations on several plays of Shakespeare, with a review of his principal characters and those of various eminent writers, as represented by Mr. Garrick and other celebrated comedians. With anecdotes of Dramatic Poets, Actors, &c.,’ 3 vols., 1785. A second edition appeared the same year. Davies is a pleasant and vivacious writer and preserves many interesting anecdotes.

He was socially agreeable and a popular member of a booksellers' club which met at the Devil Tavern, Temple Bar, and afterwards at the Grecian Coffee-house (Nichols, Anecd. v. 325), where he used to read specimens of his ‘Life of Garrick’ and where Johnson's ‘Lives of the Poets’ was suggested. Davies died on 5 May 1785, and was buried in St. Paul's, Covent Garden. His widow died on 9 Feb. 1801. Davies is frequently mentioned in Boswell. He seems to have been rather tolerated than petted by some of Johnson's friends, Beauclerk remarking on one occasion that he could not conceive a more humiliating position than to be patted on the back by Tom Davies (Boswell, v. 287). Johnson punished him for an indiscretion by observing, as a superlative expression of contempt, that Swift's ‘Conduct of the Allies’ might have been written by Tom Davies. But Johnson was uniformly kind in serious matters, and two letters written in his last illness show his gratitude for attentions received from Davies and his wife. Some letters to Granger, published by Malcolm, show that in his time the publisher of a biographical dictionary sometimes disagreed with the author, but they are in the main friendly.

[Nichols's Anecdotes, vi. 421–43, ix. 665, and elsewhere; Garrick's Correspondence, i. 162–5; Boswell's Johnson; Piozzi's Anecdotes, pp. 55–6; J. P. Malcolm's Letters between Granger and … Literary Men, pp. 47–69.]

L. S.

A Dictionary of the Printers and Booksellers who were at work in England, Scotland and Ireland from 1726 to 1775, by Henry Plomer et al. (1932)

DAVIES (THOMAS), bookseller and publisher in London, 8 Russell Street, Covent Garden, 1760(?)–1785(?). The friend of Dr. Johnson. Frequently referred to in Boswell's Life, and there described as a man of good understanding and talents. Davies was educated at Edinburgh University and was for several years an actor. He set up as a bookseller in 1762, and it was in his shop that Boswell was introduced to Johnson: "At last on Monday, the 16th of May (1763) when I was sitting in Mr. Davies' back parlour, after having drunk tea with him and Mrs. Davies, Johnson unexpectedly came into the shop: and Mr. Davies having perceived him through the glass door in the room in which we were sitting, advancing towards us, he announced his awful approach to me, somewhat in the manner of an actor in the part of Horatio, when he addresses Hamlet on the appearance of his father's ghost, 'Look, my lord, it comes'." In 1768 Davies issued a Catalogue containing some 8,000 titles [B.M. 128. i. 16 (3)]. Added at the end was a list of his publications or rather of the works in which, at that time, he was a part shareholder. It included such works as Burnet's History, both in folio and octavo; Celebrated Authors, 2 vols.; Clarissa, 8 vols.; the works of Congreve, Dryden, Gay, Jonson, Otway, Shakespeare, and Waller. He also republished many notable Elizabethan and Jacobean writings, and between 1769 and 1785 he was in correspondence with the Rev. James Grainger, whose Biographical Dictionary he published. [Letters between the Rev. James Grainger M.A. and the literary men of his time. Edited by J. P. Malcolm, 1805, 8vo, pp. 22 et seq.] Davies was also an author, and Boswell's opinion of his writings was that they had "no inconsiderable share of merit". In 1780 he wrote a Life of Garrick. Johnson's opinion of his friend was expressed thus: "Sir, Davies has learning enough to give credit to a clergyman." The date of his death is unknown.