John Davy is perhaps the only composer from our area to have had his music played at the Last Night of the Proms. Davy was an incredibly talented musician who found fame and fortune in London but came to a tragic end.

John Davy Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum

Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, Jerusalem – all familiar favourites of the Last Night of the Proms which returns tomorrow evening.  The proms began in 1895 and six years later, in 1901 the Last Night featured works of many great composers including Sullivan, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Rossini, Wagner and… John Davy – born at Creedy Bridge. Davy’s story is both fascinating and ultimately as tragic as any in the music business. 

Upton Hellions Church where Davy was baptised on Christmas Day 1763.

The story begins in Upton Hellions where Davy was baptised in the parish church on Christmas Day 1763, the illegitimate son of Sarah Davy. His uncle, the village blacksmith, played the cello in the church band and helped fuel John’s early interest in music. So did the company of soldiers stationed in Crediton. Davy was fascinated by the music of the fife, and he was soon able to play any simple tune after hearing it only once or twice. He made more of these simple flute-like instruments from reeds gathered on the banks of the Creedy and sold these to his friends.  A year later he had created a more ambitious instrument from tuned horseshoes and could accurately imitate the chimes from Crediton Parish Church “with great exactness”. 

Rev. James Carrington

The rector of Upton Hellions, James Carrington took an interest in the boy, and taught him harpsicord and violin. When he was twelve, he introduced him to Rev. Richard Eastcott of Exeter who taught him the piano and arranged an apprenticeship as organist at the Cathedral. He made rapid progress in his study of composition and became a capable performer on violin, viola, cello and the organ and often deputised for the Cathedral organist. The cathedral organ is formidably complicated as you can see.

On completing his apprenticeship, he continued work in Exeter as organist and teacher, but he had developed a passion for the stage, no doubt from his visits to the New Theatre in Southernhay, where he performed as an actor on at least one occasion. Later this passion led him to London in around 1800. In the capital, he rapidly established his credentials as a violinist in the orchestra of Covent Garden Theatre, and as a teacher.  His talent as a writer of songs and dance music soon brought him more lucrative work, and for nearly a quarter of a century he was regularly engaged by the principal theatres to supply music for light operas and pantomime – both immensely popular at the time. 

The Bay of Biscay was the hit song in Spanish Dollars! or, The Priest of the Parish, an operatic sketch, performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent-Garden with words by Andrew Cherry.

His music brought him celebrity and fortune but was ultimately his downfall. He turned to the bottle, was unable to work and died neglected and penniless in a “wretched” lodging in May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane, on 22 Feb. 1824. He was buried in St. Martin's churchyard, at the expense of two London tradesmen, one of whom, was Mr. Thomas of Crediton. Sadly, it appears his grave is gone but he was not quite forgotten. 

May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane, where Davy ended his days in poverty.

Davy had died in 1824, the first flat disc was not available until 1892 yet this recording was made in the US in 1906, 82 years after Davy’s death. 

Victor 78rpm disc from 1906 - Click on the disc for a link to hear this disc

And let’s not forget the Proms. Spanish Dollars featured in six Proms between 1895 and 1910 including a performance on the Last Night in 1901. So, if you listen or watch the Last Night tomorrow evening, spare a thought for the boy from Upton Hellions who is still remembered.

Here's a modern recording of The Bay of Biscay - part of the renewed interest in sea shanties. Does this herald a revival?

Posted 
Sep 10, 2021
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