John Davies Bryan: Entrepreneur in Egypt (1886–1888)

John Davies Bryan: Entrepreneur in Egypt (1886–1888)

John Davies Bryan

John Davies Bryan (1857–1888) was born in 1857 in the village of Llanarmon in North Wales to Edward Bryan (1823–86), a lead miner, and his wife Elinor (1827–78). He was the eldest of four sons, and remained close to his brothers Robert (1859–1920), Edward (1860–1929) and Joseph (1864–1935) throughout his life.

Bryan left Mostyn for Liverpool to work in a busy store on Bold Street. City life does not appear to have agreed with him and it was during this time that his health began to deteriorate, prompting him to return to his native Wales.

Settling in Caernarfon, where he worked for a time as an assistant to the drapers Pierce & Williams, Bryan later opened his own shop, Bryan Brother’s Drapers at 12 Bridge Street. The business thrived, and Bryan spent many years in the store working alongside his brother Edward, before his health took a turn for the worse.

In 1886, when in particularly frail health, Bryan was encouraged by his cousin Samuel Evans (1859–1935) (private secretary to Sir Edgar Vincent (1857–1941) to join him that winter on a trip to Egypt. In October of that year, they set sail for the land of the Nile.

During his time in Egypt, Bryan wrote letters home to his family in Caernarfon, which were later published in 1887 in the local Welsh-language newspaper Y Genedl Gymreig (The Welsh Nation). In 1908, they were republished as a small pocket book entitled O’r Aifft (From Egypt). These letters were in large part humorous tales of his experiences of the country and of his impressions of its inhabitants.

Although motivated to travel to Egypt for the sake of his health, Bryan was evidently elated to be sojourning in a country which he describes as unrivalled in terms of its antiquity and wonder: ‘Egypt! The Worldly things that are of interest to us are suggested to us in this word. Egypt; is on various considerations, the strangest country, in the afterglow of the sun. Where is there a river like the River of Egypt? –Buildings like the buildings of Egypt? – Where is the antiquity they hold compared for a moment with the antiquity of Egypt?’

Due to his ill-health, Bryan spent the entirety of his trip in northern Egypt and although enamoured of its antiquity, he appears to have been more interested in its modern culture, principally enjoying people-watching and especially intrigued by the various modes of dress he saw and he is unsparing in his criticism of the simple nature of some of the local attire, which he observed to consist of nothing more than old sugar-sacks and hats resembling halved coconuts.

Bryan’s letters are laden with comedic renderings of his encounters with the new sights and scenes Egypt had to offer. He describes one local man as looking ‘a bit like a man who had to pick out what to wear when his house was on fire, and having being chucked some of his wife’s clothes – he put on the first things he could find before he escaped’

His account is very much tongue-in-cheek, and often appears suspiciously embellished and is evidently written by a man in high spirits despite his ill-health.John’s tales of talking donkeys and his light-hearted descriptions of Egypt’s modern inhabitants, no doubt would have kept the readers of The Welsh Nation eagerly anticipating the next installment of his Egyptian escapades.

The Davies Bryan Company

The old Cairo premises.

Premises in Rue Cherif Pasha, Alexandria.

John Davies Bryan

Edward Davies Bryan

Joseph Davies Bryan

Postcard depicting the Davies Bryan Store in Cairo (opened in 1910), once known as the ‘pride of Emad Al Din St’ and which in the 1930s became the Cairo branch of the YMCA. © Darabanth
Aukcióscház - Darabanth Auction House.

Davies Bryan & Co.'s premises, Cairo.

Although filled with amusing and at times fantastical tales, what is however perhaps most interesting about John Davies Bryan’s account is the biographical note written by his brother Robert which explains that John’s first trip to Egypt would inspire him in a new business venture. He left Egypt with plans to return to open a store in Cairo, one which would provide travellers with everything they could possibly need.

Returning to Egypt in 1887, Bryan opened a shop in the Continental Hotel in Cairo, trading under the name Davies Bryan. This small haberdashery sold an array of much-needed imported goods, including men’s and ladies’ hats, travel gear, draperies, hosiery and shoes; all under a ‘fixed price’ policy,ensuring a fair price for all.

With the help of his brother Edward, Davies Bryan & Co soon earned itself a sterling reputation and proved to be such a success that John also enlisted the help of his youngest brother Joseph, to help run the busy Cairo store.

Two years later, John sold the Caernarfon store and made preparations to open a new branch of the Davies Bryan Company. in Alexandria. Located at 9 Sherif Pasha Street, the Alexandrian store opened for business in 1888 and was christened ‘Dewi Sant’ (‘St David’), after the patron saint of Wales.

Following the success of the new store in Alexandria, the Davies Bryan brothers enlisted the help of Robert Williams (1848–1918), a Welsh architect from Merthyr Tydfil who had been working in Egypt as a consultant to the Egyptian government to design a new store. This was to be built in Cairo, in the Sharia Emad Al Din district.

The new St David’s of Cairo opened for business in 1910. Situated in a prime location fronting three of the busiest streets in the district (al-Maghrabi, Mohammed Farid and al-Manakh) and measuring some 1,900 sq m, it would prove to be the largest store of its kind in Egypt.

Built from polished red granite from Aberdeen, and Doulting freestone from Somerset, the building’s façades were embellished with ornate stucco motifs and with shields engraved with the initials ‘D’ and ‘B’ to immortalize the family name. The building’s decorations also included important Welsh cultural emblems such as those symbolizing the Welsh National Gorsedd of Bards, or‘Eisteddfod’, an important cultural festival in Wales. A larger shield located above the street of Mohammed Farid, is engraved with the inscription: ‘Y Gwir yn Erbyn yByd’ (‘Truth against the World’), the principle tenet of this ancient Bardic gathering.

The brothers appear to have taken the opportunity to ensure that the new store would serve both to celebrate and memorialize the Welsh nation in Egypt.The Davies Bryan store in Cairo became a monument for the Welsh presence in Egypt and an important place of pilgrimage for all Welsh travellers who ventured to the land of the Nile.

J. D. Bryan did not unfortunately live to see the expansion of the family business,with further branches opening in both Port Saïd and Khartoum. In1888, he succumbed to typhoid fever, passing away on 13 November that year. He was buried the next day in the British Cemetery in Cairo. John’s brothers continued to run the family business until the time of their own passing. John’s youngest brother Robert died in Cairo in 1920, and Edward, who had helped to set up and build the business, passed away in Alexandria in 1929, leaving a substantial sum to help establish the Cairo branch of the YMCA, which chose to locate its premises in the upper floors of the Davies Bryan building.

Following Edward’s death, Fred Purslow (1894–1972), who had worked as chief-accountant for the brothers, bought a share in the company, ensuring that the Davies Bryan family name survived well into the 1950s. Fred continued to run the store, going above and beyond to welcome his Welsh compatriots,even inviting them to visit his family home in Coedpoeth when they returned to Wales.

Circa 1957, the building was sold to two prosperous Syrian brothers, the Chourbaguis,whose name can now be seen painted over the original inscriptions above the store’s entrance. In 1961, the building was taken over by a state-owned insurance company and in 2008 it was purchased by the real-estate investment firm Al-Ismailia; the building still awaits restoration.

What was once the largest and one of the most successful stores in Cairo is now divided into a series of smaller shops and businesses, including Stephenson’s Pharmacy which has preserved some of the original décor and serves as an historic emblem of the store’s past. It stands as a monument to what was once the stronghold of a Welsh presence in Egypt but without the publication of Bryan’s letters, we would know little about the history of this remarkable building or of the men who made the DaviesBryan Company a success.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Davies Bryan store in Cairo remained a site of pilgrimage for Welsh travellers, a place where they could speak the old language and where they were guaranteed a warm welcome from fellow countrymen.One such traveller to seek the sanctuary of the Davies Bryan stores upon hisarrival in Egypt is the Welsh-language poet ThomasGwynn Jones (1871–1949).

Davies Bryan Bldg, Emad El Din St, Cairo, 1930s

Credits: Tess T. Baber, Cardiff University, July 2017. O Cymru i Wlad y Nîl: Teithwyr Cymreig yn yr Aifft [From Wales to the Land of the Nile: Welsh Travellers in Egypt].