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News > Of Interest > The Sum Of Two Lives

The Sum Of Two Lives

The paths of Sir Samuel Kelly (OC 101) and Robert Furley Davis, the Classics Master at Campbell College, never crossed.
28 Jul 2021
Written by Walter Murphy
Of Interest
Sir Samuel and Lady Kelly in 1936
Sir Samuel and Lady Kelly in 1936


The paths of Sir Samuel Kelly (OC 101) and Robert Furley Davis, the Classics Master at Campbell College, never crossed. Their lives, nevertheless, exhibited a number of common factors.

They both graced the corridors of Campbell College. Kelly, who lived at 94 Castlereagh Street (his birthplace) was one of the original pupils at Campbell in September 1894, although he departed after only five months on the very day he reached his sixteenth birthday (31 January 1895). After a brief apprenticeship (possibly at the Belfast Ropeworks) he joined his father’s successful coal business which he ran with his mother from the age of 25. John Kelly Ltd grew to become the most enterprising coal importer in Ireland, boasting the largest fleet of colliers in the United Kingdom. He was the most generous benefactor, and probably the salvation, of the Methodist Church in Ireland.

Davis also placed great store in his Christian faith as a member of St Mark’s Church of Ireland on the Holywood Road. Born the son of a Nottingham lace warehouseman on 22 January 1866, he arrived at Campbell from Leamington College in September 1902 to be the Senior Classics Master. Being married, Davis was obliged to live outside the school, and his first address was 4 Kincora Avenue from where he moved in February 1920 to 31 Wandsworth Road.

Both men stemmed from commercial backgrounds and both of them challenged the socialist ideology. At the time of the seminal National Insurance Act of 1911 Davis composed a poem (entitled The School Insurance Bill) which mocked its aspirations as undermining personal responsibility. In October 1930 Kelly publicly derided the aspirations of MacDonald’s Labour Government, having earlier in May 1925, as retiring President of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, commented that ‘there are large numbers to whom the dole is a premium upon idleness and it seems as if the time has arrived when a more economic system of administering relief was required’.

Both men opposed the threat of Home Rule. Despite being an Englishman, who might have argued that it was not his problem, in September 1912 Davis stood in line with 100 others at Campbell College to sign the Solemn League & Covenant. Rather surprisingly, Kelly did not append his signature, but he was a member (along with Campbell Governor, Fred Crawford) of the secret arms committee of the Ulster Unionist Council and provided his collier, Balmarino, to cause a diversion in April 1914 when Crawford was landing thousands of rifles at Larne for the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Both Kelly and Davis were highly regarded in their professional capacity. Kelly claimed that he employed 10,000 men throughout Ireland and, unlike many employers, maintained a very good relationship with the trades’ unions, even earning credit from one of the most aggressive and uncompromising union leaders of the period, Jim Larkin. When Kelly died suddenly from heart problems on 9 February 1937 at the age of only 58 the respect in which he was held by his workforce was reflected in the fact that his coffin was borne from his home at Ballymenoch (in Holywood) by eight employees: two labourers, two coal fillers, two engineering fitters and two lorry drivers.

Roby Davis (as he was known) garnered equal respect and praise in his career. In 1944 one anonymous former pupil claimed that Davis was ‘debonair, humorous, rich in personality and entertainments, who would go to any pains to do the slightest service for a boy in need’; and his most celebrated pupil, E R Dodds, later Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford, asserted the recognition of his older students of ‘how much genuine kindness lay behind his deliberately dry manner’. Harry Cronne, who arrived at Campbell College from Portaferry in 1917 and later became a Professor of Medieval History, believed that the Classics scholar ‘exercised a much-needed civilising influence in the school’ and compared his teaching to ‘soft rain after a prolonged drought’.

Davis was well-respected despite his short stature; Dodds recalled that he was ‘a tiny man who wielded the quiet authority of a true scholar’. There was equal praise from another professor, James Ernest Davey, an ecclesiastical scholar at Assembly College and Moderator of the General Assembly, and also from Clarke MacDermott, a future Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

Following Kelly’s death on 9 February 1937, Roby Davis died only five days later at Wandsworth Road. Both men left exceptionally short wills. That of Samuel Kelly, typed on 18 November 1909, in two short sentences left everything to his wife. Davis’s will, penned on a single sheet of foolscap just over a year earlier on 26 October 1908, made exactly the same provision.

There was, however, one considerable difference between them. Between the Wars teaching was a very badly-paid profession and, after a lifetime’s dedication to teaching, Davis left £246 2s 7d. The estate of Sir Samuel Kelly, after a period of complicated assessment, was ultimately valued at £732,000.

I leave any philosophical musings on this to others.

Keith Haines

Hon OC

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