In 1976, the New York Daily News reported a story of an unusual find in the Barclay Bank’s vaults. Scrope Davies’s leather trunk was identified, and as Davies being a close associate of both Byron and Shelley, the news was pronounced swoon worthy. The trunk’s contents were deposited on loan to the Department of Manuscripts at the British Library, and the papers were bound into twenty-three volumes, two of which consisted entirely of letters and bills from bankers and moneylenders and two of records of bets. Of course, the trunk also held an original manuscript of Canto 3 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and two previously unknown sonnets (“Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” and “Mont Blanc”) by Shelley, the find was termed a major success.
Thus was Scrope Davies, a man in the know in the Byron tempestuous circle. Davies was an inveterate gambler and a prodigal spender. According to tales of the time, he lost between £16,000 and £17,000 in one calendar year. He was known to drink heavily and to womanize freely.
Scrope Berdmore Davies was born in the later part of 1782 in Horsley, Gloucestershire, the second son in a family of six sons and four daughters to the Reverend Richard Davies, vicar of Horsley, and his wife Margaretta. He was warden of Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1790 to 1810 and elected to a king’s scholarship at Eton College.
Scope entered Eton at age eleven, where he performed his duty in Montem as college salt bearer. He entered King’s College, Cambridge in July 1802. He became a close associate of John Cam Hobhouse and Charles Kinner Matthews, and through them, of Lord Byron, when Byron returned to Trinity College in 1807. Byron and Davies rapidly became intimate friends. When debts prevented Byron return to Cambridge in 1808, the two set out for London, where Davies often acted on Byron’s behalf. (Byron was underage at the time.)
It being a case of ‘neither barrel better herring,’ the two were soon fast friends; and when his lordship finally left for the Continent it was to Davies he wrote most often. To him Lord Byron confided much about his life during his European sojourn, including his interesting account of his time in Venice and consequently much on the madness of Jonathan Strange. These letters Gilbert Norrell sought to obtain by magical means; and though a drunkard, gambler and profligate Davies so strongly resented Norrell’s attempts upon his private correspondence that he actually threatened him with prosecution.
His anger was aroused by the following incident. According to an affidavit Davies swore out at his lawyer’s, he was quietly in his rooms alone when he observed letters sent to him by his lordship behaving as if they might blow away. Immediately taking them in his hand, he was astonished to see that not only the paper on which they were written was behaving skittishly, but the very ink on the page seemed possessed of a life of its own! Reasoning that such odd behaviour must be the consequence of magic Davies quickly placed them inside a Bible he had by him, and so preserved them from further interference.
The disappearance of Gilbert Norrell into the Pillar of Darkness shortly thereafter naturally ended any attempt by Davies to obtain legal redress. The letters themselves are unfortunately no longer extant.
Gaming hells became Davies’ favorite haunts. In his “Detached Thoughts,” Bryon wrote, “One night Scrope Davies at a Gaming house – (before I was of age) being tipsy as he mostly was at the Midnight hour – & having lost monies – was in vain intreated by his friends one degree less intoxicated than himself to go hom. – In despair – he was left to himself and to the demons of the dice-box. – Next day…he was found in a sound sleep – a Chamber-pot stood by the bed-side – brim-full of – Bank Notes! – all won – …and to the amount of some thousand pounds. (Byron’s Letters and Journals, 9.38-9)
Oddly enough, despite his tendency to play deep, Davies showed a different side by keeping accurate accountings of his winnings and losings. The aforementioned trunk contained notebooks, bills, and receipts, deposited there before Davies’ hasty departure to the Continent in 1820. When Byron went abroad in 1809, it was Davies who guaranteed the loan of £5000, which financed the poet’s grand tour. Byron reportedly discharged the debt in 1814.
Not as showy in his dress as Brummell, Davies shared Byron’s interest in pugilism. He was said to be an excellent shot and the wittiest of his companions. In the few duels Davies fought, Byron served as the man’s second. He received some of Byron’s “leftovers.” Davies took up affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Oxford, and Lady Frances Wedderburn Webster after the women ended their affairs with Byron.
Davies split his time between his requirements at King’s College and the racing circuit. While in London, he resided in Limmer’s Hotel in Conduit Street from 1808 to 1811; later he kept rooms on Jermyn Street, on 3 Little Ryder Street (off St. James’s Street), and in 1816 at 11 Great Ryder Street. He held club memberships at Watiers, Brooks’s, the Union Club, and the Cocoa Tree.
Aware of Byron’s feelings for his half-sister Augusta Leigh, Davies remained a strong supporter of Byron’s during the poet’s very public separation from his wife and visited Byron during the summer at Geneva. Davies returned from that visit with several of Byron’s manuscript poems for John Murray. By January 1820, Davies financial troubles had arrived full force upon his doorstep. He went into exile upon the Continent.
In An Elegant Madness, Venetia Murray writes, “Scrope Davies, apparently ‘bore with perfect resignation the loss of the wealth he had once possessed; and though his annual income was very limited, he made no complaint of poverty.’” In his escape to France, Davies “daily sat himself down on a bench in the garden of the Tuileries, where he received those whose acquaintance he desired.”
Davies wrote his condolences to Augusta Leigh upon Byron’s death in 1824 from an address in Ostend. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, we learn, “In 1849 the writer Thomas Grattan who had met him several times in the intervening years encountered Davies in Boulogne ‘looking so old, so bent, but so spruce, so neatly-dressed, so gentlemanlike in air, so lively and fresh in conversation … still flourish[ing] according to his fashion … but no longer a diner-out’ (Burnett, 213).
“Byron recalled that:
One of the cleverest men I ever knew in Conversation was Scrope Beardmore [sic] Davies … When [Beau] Brummell was obliged to retire to France—he knew no French & having obtained a Grammar for the purpose of Study—our friend Scrope Davies was asked what progress Brummell had made in French—to which he responded—‘that B[rummell] had been stopped like Buonaparte in Russia by the Elements.’ (Byron’s Letters and Journals, 9.21–2)
“At the end of May 1852 Edward Hawtrey, headmaster of Eton, wrote to Francis Hodgson, whom he succeeded as provost later that year:
I am sure you will be sorry to hear that our old friend, Scrope Davies, was found dead in his bed at Paris a few days since. He was a most agreeable and kind-hearted person … He seemed quite broken down when I had a glimpse of him a few months since at Eton. I hardly knew him again, and should not have done so had he not mentioned his name. (Burnett, 216)
Davies had died in the night of 23–24 May in his lodgings in the rue Duras, Paris; he was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre in a plot provided by one John Lyon. The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that:
“For some time his constitution had evinced marks of decay. On the day previous to his dissolution he complained of cold, and retired early to his bed. He was found on the following morning lifeless upon the ground; it was evident that he had got up in the night, and had been seized by something approaching to apoplexy. (Burnett, 216–17)
Although Byron ‘wish[ed] that he would marry & beget some Scrooples—it is a pity that the dynasty should not be prolonged—I do not know anyone who will leave such “a gap in Nature”’ (Byron’s Letters and Journals, 5.168), Davies, mindful, perhaps, of the statutes of King’s College, under which marriage would have entailed forfeiture of his fellowship and the dividends this brought him, never married.”