by Alessandra Ressa
There’s is a steep, narrow street in Trieste connecting Via Commerciale to the busy neighborhood of Roiano called via Sarah Davis.
Named after British citizen Sarah Davis by the city’s municipality, today the street represents a rather modest recognition for one of the most generous benefactors that ever lived in our city.
Gratitude, of course, is one of those ephemeral things that often lasts as long as the benefits received, and thus not many people know today the story of the young and unselfish, albeit extremely wealthy woman who devoted her life to the poor and to the improvement of work conditions of Trieste’s female street sellers (venderigole).
Her crusade eventually culminated with the construction of Trieste’s impressive Mercato Coperto in via Carducci, a place where women could sell their deeds sheltered from the city’s icy winters and winds. It is unfortunately that same colorful indoor market that is now risking permanent closure, or worse, conversion into yet another big chain supermarket. In Roiano, majestic villa Davis still stands today. It is a youth community center named Ricreatorio G. Brunner.
Sarah Davis was the daughter of British businessman John Davis. In 1817 his wife, who was also called Sarah, and he were spending their honeymoon in romantic Venice when they decided to add Trieste to their list of places to see. They had heard of the city from other Brits who had started successful businesses there.
Young Mrs. Davis fell in love with the city’s lively atmosphere and international character, and asked her husband to consider moving there. He did not need much thought. A sharp man and emerging entrepreneur, John Davis immediately saw in Trieste’s thriving port the commercial opportunity to prosper. In 1819, with two business associates, Mac Bean and brother-in-law Mathew Fletcher, he launched his company Fletcher, Davis&Co, later to become John Davis&Co.
Like other Britons in Trieste, his business mainly consisted in collecting and exporting to the U.K. rags and other fabric scraps to be used in British paper factories. In just a few years he made a fortune and became one of the most influential expats in Trieste.
Soon after his five children were born, Anne, John Goulding, Sarah, Thomas and Mary Elizabeth (none of whom ever got married), John Davis bought a beautiful property at the top of a hill in Roiano, overlooking the sea and the busy port, surrounded by a forest of chestnut trees.
Pedestrian access to the mansion was through a staircase climbing up from the main square, while horses and carriages could use the back entrance in via Solitro. Today you can still climb the same stairs to reach the Ricreatorio.
The successful businessman’s assets did not end there, as he soon became a board member of the main insurance companies in town, Generali and the Austrian Lloyds. With the accumulated fortune he financed the construction of the Anglican church in via San Michele, where for the decades to come a large part of the foreign community of Trieste gathered to pray. Today it is mostly used for cultural events.
When he died in 1856 he left a fortune. In 1893, his two surviving children, Eliza and Sarah, donated a large amount of money to the Anglican church and financed the construction of the British Seamen’s Home, a place of containment for the merry and exuberant British crews who docked daily in Trieste’s port.
In 1901, Sarah Davis was the only survivor of her family. While living in her house in Roiano, she devoted herself to charity and to helping the poor. In her will, mainly left to the local administration, she arranged for her large fortune to be used for a youth community center and, most of all, for an indoor market that could shelter Trieste’s Ponterosso street sellers. Her wording was clear: “it was to be a place to ‘protect’ the women” whose poverty and terrible working conditions had greatly touched her.
As she wished, her beautiful mansion became the community center for young people G. Brunner and an indoor market was built to shelter the venderigole. The last conditions set in her will, however, regarded the ongoing care and management of the Davis family grave in St. Anna’s cemetery.
But, in the late 1960s, despite the large sums left by the Davis legacy for that purpose, Trieste’s municipality began complaining that it did not have enough funds. Since 1973, the task has been taken over by administration of the Anglican cemetery.
Surprisingly, when Sarah Davis died in 1904, no news were given by the local newspapers. Nobody knew she had been one of the most generous benefactors in town until long after her death.