Lewis Davies: Philanthropist and librarian whose generosity benefited many Welsh writers


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The Independent Online

Lewis Davies was the younger brother of the writer Rhys Davies (1901-78). Like him, he was born at Blaenclydach, a mining village near Tonypandy in the Rhondda valley. Their father kept a small grocer's shop, known rather grandly as Royal Stores, and their mother was an uncertificated schoolteacher. Lewis, born in 1913, was the youngest of their six children.

The Davieses were set apart from a community wholly dependent on the coal industry by their status as shopkeepers. The father voted Liberal, played golf and had social aspirations which were linked with the Anglican Church, rather than the chapel which commanded the allegiance of the majority. Confirmed by the Bishop of Llandaf at the age of 17, the young man was an acolyte for the Anglican priesthood but changed his mind on realising he was gay. The mother, rather like DH Lawrence's, was intent on securing for her children an education that would be the surest way of avoiding the pits. Two of her daughters became schoolteachers and one a hospital matron.

Lewis Davies could remember little of his more famous brother as a child. Rhys Davies, appalled by the endemic grime of industrial Rhondda and the narrowness of its social life, but also aware that his homosexuality had no place in the Valley's macho culture, left home at the age of 17 for a job in a Cardiff warehouse and, determined to become a writer, went to London shortly afterwards. By the time Lewis was a teenager Rhys, the author of several novels and collections of short stories, had a literary reputation comparable with that of HE Bates and AE Coppard.

It was not until the late 1930s, when they both lived in London, that the two brothers saw more of each other. Lewis was not admitted to the homosexual circles of Fitzrovia in which his brother moved, for Davies was notoriously secretive in all his liaisons and social contacts. His biographer, David Callard, less than 20 years after his death, could find few associates who knew anything about his personal life, and Lewis could fill in only a few sketchy details.

The surviving correspondence between the brothers is confined, in the main, to advice from the older man on mundane matters such as finding a flat, confounding the demands of the income tax authorities and avoiding homosexuals whom he considered untrustworthy. The autobiographical novel, Tomorrow to Fresh Woods (1940), in which the principal characters are based on the Davieses, has no place for the Benjamin of the family.

Given this distance between them, it was all the more remarkable that, in 1990, Lewis set up a trust fund, with an initial endowment of £100,000, to keep his brother's name before the literary-minded public. When I first met him, he told me immediately that one of the reasons why he wished to offer me this sum was that, with intimations of mortality, he detested the idea of any part of his assets being taken, after his death, by "that awful woman in Downing Street". He spoke with great animus as if Margaret Thatcher were personally involved in meddling in his affairs.

He also explained that the money, which had come down to him after his brother's death, derived partly from the estate of the writer Anna Kavan, with whom Davies had had a strictly asexual relationship, and partly from that of Louise Taylor, an American who had been the adopted daughter and heiress of Alice B Toklas, the companion of Gertrude Stein. Davies, the most parsimonious of men, had come into this money towards the end of his life when he no longer had any use for it. Would I accept it as a first instalment of a much larger sum that would become available in due course?

I set up the Rhys Davies Trust, a registered charity devoted to the promotion of Welsh writing in English, and have served as its Secretary ever since. Among the projects we have funded are the publication of three volumes of Rhys Davies's Collected Stories and a symposium of critical essays, an annual lecture delivered in his name at the University of Glamorgan and a short story competition organised by the Welsh Academy, the national association of writers in Wales. We have also put up plaques in memory of Welsh writers, beginning with one on the house that was once Royal Stores, and given prizes for creative writing at the comprehensive school in Tonypandy.

Lewis Davies was quietly pleased by what the Trust did with his money and, a cheerful, dapper man until well into his eighties, would turn up at events it sponsored, although he never interfered in its work except to express the hope that its awards would often go to young Welsh writers. He was aware that his brother, on first going to London as an impecunious writer, could have done with the financial support that the Trust was now able to provide, and he took great satisfaction from it.

He bore a physical resemblance to his brother, though was always quick to point out that he had not really known him. There is no mention of Lewis in Davies's autobiography, Print of a Hare's Foot; it is, however, so unreliable an account of his life that Lewis would only smile wryly whenever it came up.

He had no literary pretensions. After reading History at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, he trained as a librarian and, in 1937, found his first job, as an assistant librarian with The Daily Mirror. At the outbreak of war, he tried to register as a conscientious objector but his statement was refused by the tribunal; it was only with the help of a Dr Otto May, recommended by his brother for his sympathy for homosexuals, that he avoided conscription: he was rejected on medical grounds.

In 1947 he left his job at the Mirror because night shifts meant he had to miss many of the concerts and talks broadcast by the Third Programme, to which he was an avid listener. He joined Odham's Press, where in 1952 he was appointed Chief Librarian, remaining with the company after it became IPC and up to his retirement in 1978.

His last years were beset with physical infirmity and he was confined to a care home. He sold what remained of the writer's archive to the National Library of Wales and bequeathed his own estate to the Rhys Davies Trust, which will now benefit substantially. For such extraordinary generosity and for his genial personality, the last living link we had with his distinguished brother, Lewis Davies will long be remembered.

Arthur Lewis Davies, librarian and philanthropist: born Blaenclydach, Glamorgan 26 January 1913; assistant librarian, The Daily Mirror 1937-47; Chief Librarian, Odham's Press 1947-68, IPC 1968-78; died 9 December 2011.