Davies Gilbert, Esq. was born at St. Erth, March 6, 1767 the son of Edward Giddy, curate of St. Erth church, and his wife Catherine Davies. He was educated at Penzance and Pembroke College, Oxford (M. A., 1789). In 1808, he married Mary-Ann Gilbert, the daughter and heiress of Thomas Gilbert, Esq. of East Bourne. In 1817, Giddy took the name of his wife (and the couple was thereby able to inherit the large Sussex estate of her uncle). He was High Sheriff of Cornwall, 1792-3. He served as a Member of Parliament (M.P.) for Helston in Cornwall from 1804 to 1806 and for Bodmin, 1806-32. From 1827-30 he was president of the Royal Society of Science. He was also the President of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall from its foundation in 1814 until his death. In 1832 he was awarded the honorary degree of D.C.L from Oxford.
Among his many literary efforts were:
Gilbert's title to fame rests not so much on his historical and literary achievements but on the way in which he placed his scientific knowledge, time and money at the service of men like Sir Humphry Davy and others. He died Dec. 24, 1839, survived by his wife, three daughters, and a son. Their daughter Catherine married John Samuel Enys and was the mother of the notable New Zealand naturalist, John Davies Enys (1837 – 1912). His wife, Mary Ann Gilbert, died Apr. 26, 1845.
Richard R. Terry gives the following biographical details:
“Davies Gilbert’s name was originally Giddy; he assumed his wife’s name of Gilbert in 1817. He was born in 1767; died 1839. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, he was educated at Penzance and Pembroke College, Oxford; M.A., 1789; D.C.L., 1832; High Sheriff of Cornwall, 1792-3; M.P., Helston, 1804; Bodmin, 1806-1832; promoted the cause of science and art in parliament; acquired large property in Sussex by marriage, 1808; published Plain Statement of the Bullion question, 1811; F.S.A., 1820; early encouraged Sir Humphry Davey; Treasurer of Royal Society, 1820; President, 1827-30; selected Brunel’s design for Clifton Bridge, 1830; published Parochial History of Cornwall, 1838; edited two Cornish mystery plays, and in 1822 published the work under consideration here; -- Some Ancient Christmas Carols || with the || tunes to which they were formerly sung || in the || West of England || Collected by || Davies Gilbert, F.R.S., F.A.S., etc. || London || Printed by John Nichols & Son || 25 Parliament Street || 1822.
“Gilbert was clearly a man of wide culture, and when we come to examine the defects in his musical editorship we would do well to remember that he lived in an age when the pursuit of music was considered ‘no occupation for an English Gentlemen.’ That being so, it is surprising how well he succeeded.”
His 1822 publication of "Some Ancient Christmas Carols," together with the second edition in 1823, marks his place of importance to the history of Christmas carols. These 20 carols, however modest their number, are the first collections published in the age of Victorian England, and were followed in coming the decades by other important collections, notably by William Sandys, Edward F. Rimbault, William Henry Husk, Bramley and Stainer, William Bullen and others (see a partial list under "Table of Contents" on the Hymns and Carols page plus the references noted in the Bibliography).
In his Preface, Gilbert noted that carols were sung in private homes on Christmas Eve and in the churches on Christmas Day throughout the West of England up to the end of the 18th century. He continued:
The Editor is desirous of preserving them in their actual forms, however distorted by false grammar or by obscurities, as specimens of times now passed away, and of religious feelings superseded by others of a different cast. He is anxious also to preserve them on account of the delight they afforded him in his childhood; when the festivities of Christmas Eve were anticipated by many days of preparation, and prolonged through several weeks by repetitions and remembrances.
According to the advertisement by his publisher Nichols and Sons, the 1822 publication of "Some Ancient Christmas Carols" was greeted with approval. Nichols purportedly quoted the British Museum in one advertisement:
Mr. Gilbert has taken advantage of old Time, and made safe, for some centuries at least, a record of our ancient Christmas Carols; and for this good deed has secured the gratitude of Antiquaries yet unborn. These Carols are genuine national curiosities.
The publication of these carols came in a shadow of repression in England. Christmas had been struck a terribly blow in the 17th century. The Pilgrims, under the leadership of Cromwell, abolished the public celebration of the holiday in 1644. Churches were forbidden to be opened on December 25 unless it happened to fall on a Sunday. With the Restoration of the Monarchy came the restoration of both the holy day and the holiday of Christmas, but much subdued. The Industrial Revolution likewise served to hamper the celebration.
But in the first half of the 19th century, men like Davies Gilbert, William Sandys, Washington Irving, and Charles Dickens re-invented the holiday. England was no longer an agrarian society; the 12 days of Christmas could hardly be celebrated as it was before. A new celebration was in order, one that emphasized the family, and sometimes celebrated only on the single day of Christmas itself. The carols of Davies and Sandys, and the stories of Irving and Dickens, helped to reinvigorate the ancient celebration.
Until recently, the major source of information concerning the contents of the 1822 and 1823 volumes was Richard R. Terry, Gilbert and Sandys' Christmas Carols (London: Burns, Oates & Washbourne, Ltd., 1931). According to some remarks in the Preface, this was intended as Part 1 of a larger collection, but Sir Terry did not elaborate. He did publish a number of other books and collections, including A Medieval Carol Book (1933). Fortunately, we now have access to a reprint of the 1822 volume as an Elibron Classics (Adamant Media Corporation, Boston, 2007).
Terry gives the following as the contents of the 1822 and 1823 collections:
1822 (All with music):
1. The Lord At First Did Adam Make (With music)
2. When God At First Created Man (With music)
3. A Virgin Most Pure (With music)
4. When Righteous Joseph Wedded Was (With music)
5. Hark, Hark! What News The Angels Bring (With music)
(From William Sandys in 12 verses; Gilbert gave five verses)
6. Whilst Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night (With music)
7. God's Dear Son Without Beginning (With music)
8. Let All That Are To Mirth Inclined (With music)
1823 (All without music, except as noted)
20. Christians, Awake! Salute The Happy Morn (With music)
Terry then gives music for the following songs from Gilbert. He wrote: “The remaining contents of the book cannot be classed as carols; they were possibly popular at Christmas merrymaking. I give the tunes of them in their order.”
Prior to the listing, Terry writes: “Here follows (in facsimile) the remainder of the music in Gilbert (i.e., in his 1823 edition,) the items being in the order in which they appear in their in his pages.”
Two Ancient Ballads:
The 1822 volume was reprinted as an Elibron Classics by Adamant Media, Boston, 2002 (http://www.elibron.com/english/ ; ISBN: 1421262363). There may have been a 1972 republication of the 1823 volume by Norwood Editions.
The obituary of Mary-Ann Gilbert from "The Gentleman's Magazine," Vol. 23, June, 1845, p. 676.
It states: "April 26. At Eastbourne, aged 69, Mary-Ann, widow of Davies Gilbert, esq., M.P., F.R.S, and for some time President of that society. She was the only daughter and heiress of Thomas Gilbert, esq. of East Bourne, was married in 1808 and her name was taken by her husband in 1817 in lieu of his paternal name of Giddy, (see our vol. xiii. p. 209). Mr. Davies Gilbert died Dec. 24, 1839. The deceased lady, actuated by an earnest desire to improve the condition of the labouring classes, has for several years devoted her energies to agricultural affairs; and was a zealous supporter of the allotment system, which she carried into practical operation to a large extent on her estate in this parish and the neighbourhood."