Founder of Ammanford's

Introduction to George Davison and the White House
2 Biography of George Davison


George Davison, benefactor of the White House, in a suitably pensive pose (1918)

Not that many people know it, but the home of the president of the United States isn't the only White House in existence. In the 'History' section of this website is an entry for the western world's other White House, the former Ammanford vicarage bought in 1913 by an eccentric English millionaire for use as a study centre for the town's miners. The White House closed in 1922, at least as an educational centre, but in that brief ten years it educated and sent out into the world many people who would become Ammanford's political leaders for decades to come. Most went into the recently formed Labour Party and became town or county councillors, aldermen, Members of Parliament and even, in the person of the White House's one-time secretary Jim Griffiths, the first Secretary of State for Wales. In 1973 James Griffiths himself remembered the years of the White House:

"In our West Wales anthracite valleys the activity of two Central Labour College students, D. R. Owen and Jack Griffiths, was to lead to the establishment at Ammanford of an institution which, in its time, won some notoriety and, more important, came to exercise considerable influence on the industrial and political life of the area. Among the supporters which the Labour College in London had attracted was George Davison. Davison had been in the civil service in his early years. Through his hobby, photography, he had become associated with the establishment of the firm of Kodak in Britain. This had brought him considerable wealth and some of this he gave freely to the Labour college and to movements which the students formed after their return home. One evening he came to the economics class at Ammanford, of which D. R. Owen was the tutor and I was the secretary. The class was held in the dingy anteroom of the local Ivorites Hall. Whether it was because of the dinginess of the surroundings or the brightness of the students, or perhaps both, Davison told us he would provide us with a better meeting-place. The old vicarage in the High Street was on the market, and he acquired it and transformed it into 'the White House', so called because the old house was given a coat of white paint like his home on the Thames.
.....Davison had come under the influence of what he used to describe as the 'philosophic anarchists', and when the White House was refurnished he provided the nucleus of a library, stocked with the works of Peter Kropotkin and Gustave Hervy. We formed an organization to which we gave the name the 'Workers' Forum', and for some years the old vicarage became the centre of socialist activity in the valley. There would be classes on most evenings, and Sunday evenings after chapel hours there would be lectures on a wide variety of topics.
.....During the war years of 1914–1918 it became the home of those who were opposed to the war and there were times when the authorities eyed it with suspicion. From its classes and gatherings emerged a team of young men and women who became leaders in the industrial and political life of the valleys in the post-war years and their influence lasted beyond the time of the closing of the White House.

[Source: James Griffiths and His Times (ed. J Beverley Smith), pub. W T Maddock, Ferndale, 1981, pages 20-21.]

By the time of the White House's demise as a study and discussion centre two political parties had grown to sufficient size and influence to provide alternative, better organised and longer lasting homes for people's political aspirations. These were the Labour Party and the Communist Party into which most of the men who attended the White House were swiftly absorbed. The Labour Party had only been formed in 1900, with a branch opening in Ammanford in 1908, and the first twenty years were a struggle to become established in the political landscape. The year the White House closed, 1922, marked another watershed in Ammanford's political history, too. This was the year the Labour Party came of age to snatch the Llanelly Constituency, which included Ammanford, from its long-term holders the Liberals. Labour then held it continuously until 2001 when it was captured by the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru. In this, it has to be said, Plaid Cymru were generously helped by a significant boundary reorganisation which added a large chunk of rural Carmarthenshire while removing the Labour stronghold of industrial Llanelly from the electoral equation.

Other students of the White House, however, found their way into another political party which was much less deferential to the nation's political establishment than Labour. The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was formed in 1920 in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution with express orders from its parent body, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), to prepare the British working class for their very own revolution. These men from the White House would be leaders in the valley's trade union movement in the years to come, most notably in the South Wales Miners' Federation. There wouldn't be a strike or dispute that members of the local Communist Party weren't involved in for the next generation. Several members of the White House study group would even rush to Spain to join the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, two of them dying in action in the Battle of Brunete of July 1937.

The White House provided the nucleus of the local Communist Party, soon to become the largest in Wales outside the Rhondda-Merthyr-Aberdare triangle:

The town of Ammanford had been one of the most important foci of the Communist Party in the South Wales coalfield ever since the foundation of the party. Associated with its activities was the growth of Marxist education in the vicinity. In 1913 Labour College students such as D. R. Owen of Garnant and Jack Griffiths of Cwmtwrch had persuaded George Davison, a wealthy American anarchist, to buy the 'White House' outside Ammanford as a discussion centre for miners. Out of this grew an unusual local Marxist tradition and it was out of this nucleus of students that the Communist Party was founded. The Communist Party was significantly involved in two major events which broke the calm of the town in the inter-war period. The Anthracite Strike of 1925 which had its origins in the Ammanford No. I Colliery was characterised by unprecedented and violent rioting in and around the town. A decade later similar (although much less violent and dramatic) scenes were re-enacted during the transport dispute of local bus drivers. In this atmosphere, in which Communists played leading roles, many joined the Communist Party. The Ammanford Workingmen's Social Club, founded as a direct result of the 1935 dispute, soon became known as the 'Kremlin'. Its 'Blue Room', where only discussion of politics was allowed, displayed busts of Lenin and Keir Hardie. Two of its founder-members, the Communists Jack Williams and Sammy Morris, both of whom were involved in the 1925 and 1935 disturbances, were killed fighting with the International Brigades at Brunete in the Spanish Civil War. (Source: 'Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War', Hywel Francis, 1984, pages 204-205)

The White House members outside the building, probably during the First World War.

The White House may have had no influence outside the Amman Valley (though within the valley its influence was significant) but George Davison's millions also helped found the Central Labour College in London in 1909. This college, a breakaway from Ruskin College, Oxford, enabled thousands of miners forced to work underground from the age of 12 to obtain educational qualifications in adulthood (one student was Aneurin Bevan). It was George Davison's mansion of Wern Fawr in North Wales which became Coleg Harlech, a centre providing adult students with university entry qualifications, and which still performs that role today. As if this wasn't enough, Davison was a pioneer of late nineteenth century photography as a member of the Royal Photographic Society and other influential bodies.

So who was this eccentric millionaire whose decision to donate a large house in High Street, Ammanford, had such an impact on the town's political life? He was certainly not approved of by the establishment of his day, that's for sure, who wasted no opportunity to demonise him. Perhaps the last word on his reputation should be left to Colin Osman, his biographer in the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB), who summarises his life and impact thus:

One of the most influential photographers before the First World War, Davison is often remembered for the wrong reasons. The journalist and independent MP Horatio Bottomley attacked him as a Bolshevik corrupter of youth, yet nothing was further from the truth: he was an anarchist who abhorred the use of violence and a communist before the word was associated inevitably with Marxism.

1 Introduction to George Davison and the White House
2 Biography of George Davison


The massive Dictionary of National Biography (DNB) is the authoritative repository of the nation's great and good (including its not so great or good), from Roman times to the present. First appearing in the late nineteenth century the latest edition was published in 2004, though anyone wishing to display it on their bookshelves will first need to get hold of £7,500 and then shelves strong enough to hold its sixty encyclopedia-sized volumes. Its 50,000 double-column pages contain entries for 55,000 people, one of which is George Davison. A more detailed history of the White House can be found in the 'History' section of this website but for the moment we'll content ourselves with a brief biography of its founder.

Davison, George (1855-1930), photographer, political activist, and patron of the arts, was born in Kirkley, Suffolk, on 19 September 1855, the fourth child of William Davison (1816-1889), a shipwright and carpenter originally from Sunderland. His mother, Eliza, née Miller (1825-c.1900), supplemented the family income by taking in boarders, and his sisters Annie and Lizzie helped their mother as they expanded this business to the house next door. George, early recognized as the most promising child, did well at elementary school in Lowestoft before going on to the church foundation secondary school, St John's, Lowestoft. He continued his studies at evening classes and had passed the second-division civil service examination for boy clerk before he was twenty.
....In 1874 Davison moved to work at the Exchequer and Audit Office in Somerset House, and lodged in north London. He met Susannah Louisa Potter (b. 1858?), the daughter of James Potter, a manufacturer, probably at an Islington church function, and they married in Finsbury Chapel in the City of London on 2 June 1883. They set up home at 10 Battersea Rise, near Clapham Junction, with his sister Annie and brother William occupying the ground floor. A son, Ronald, was born in 1884 and a daughter, Ruby, in 1889.
....Davison seems to have taken up photography in 1885; in the same year was started the prestigious Camera Club, of which he shortly became assistant honorary secretary. Evidently his work was well regarded, for the club voted him a testimonial in November 1887. He was a member of the Photographic Society of Great Britain (PSGB), later – from 1886 – the Royal Photographic Society. He was soon elected to its executive council and became deeply involved in the artistic debates about photography then current. In 1887 he attacked the notion of photographic composition by rules, and over the next couple of years espoused the cause of naturalism, as proposed by his then friend Philip Henry Emerson and opposed by Henry Peach Robinson. Relations deteriorated when Emerson, irked at the increasing praise for Davison's work, rubbished his pictures in a review of November 1889; Davison's cause was thereupon taken up by Robinson. In November 1890 Davison read a paper to the Society of Arts entitled 'Impressionism in photography'; Emerson, who had by this time repudiated his earlier naturalistic views, replied in vitriolic and personally offensive terms, calling Davison a 'clerkly personage' who should be 'cut' by any gentleman. In the meantime Davison's picture An Old Farmstead (1888), taken with a pinhole camera to produce a 'soft focus', had won a prize at the PSGB exhibition of 1890. Retitled The Onion Field, it became his most famous photograph, and was fairly typical of his impressionist style.
....More controversy followed, and with further-reaching results. Davison was invited to show examples of his work at the PSGB exhibition of 1891, but they were removed on a technicality after six days by the organization's secretary. Davison, Robinson, and ten other members resigned to form a 'bohemian club' that later became the renowned photographers' collective the Linked Ring. This was run along democratic lines with no president and a rotating chairman; as honorary secretary, Davison was the Ring's sole official. In February 1894 he resigned for business reasons and was presented with another testimonial.
....The turning point in Davison's professional life came in 1889 when George Eastman – impressed with his organizational abilities and, very probably, with the dignity with which he emerged from his spat with Emerson – appointed him a director of the British branch of the Emerson Photographic Materials Company. In 1897 he became a full-time assistant manager, in 1899 he was appointed deputy managing director, then the following year took over as managing director. The initial salary of £1,000 was modest, but Davison took full advantage of share options, becoming the second largest shareholder in Kodak (as the company became) after Eastman himself. By the time Eastman asked him to resign in 1912, Davison was a millionaire, and he used his wealth to promote his leftist political ideals as well as to enhance his personal comfort. He had by then given up photography; examples of his work are preserved at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York state, and at the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television in Bradford (including the collection of the Royal Photographic Society).
....In 1906 Davison commissioned George Walton, a Linked Ring connection who had designed the PSGB exhibition of 1897, as well as Kodak exhibitions and shop interiors, to draw the plans for a mansion, Wern Fawr, to be built at Harlech, north Wales. In 1907-8 Walton designed for Davison a luxurious houseboat called the Log cabin, which was used for excursions for Linked Ring members, as well as the White House at Shiplake, near Henley-on-Thames. This Davison made over to his wife, along with an ample income, when they parted in 1913; his anarchist-socialist views and boundless hospitality were never appreciated by his family.
....Davison retreated to Wern Fawr, taking with him as housekeeper Florence Annie Austin-Jones, known as Joan (1897?-1955), who had been the secretary of the Liverpool-based Linked Ring member and Kodak representative Malcolm Arbuthnot. They were later married. Wern Fawr became an extraordinary centre for the arts; it had a much-admired music room, and Davison's hospitality to many of the leading English musicians of the period was unstinting. Visitors included the composer Sir Granville Bantock and his students from Birmingham, the composer and conductor Sir Eugene Goossens, and the pianist Cyril Smith. Davison owned an array of player pianos and aeolian organs, which were played by the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, another Linked Ring member, and by the composer and pianist Josef Holbrooke. To the surprise and consternation of the locals he also played host to the Margaret Morris dancers, who floated over the sand dunes in filmy costumes.
....Davison aided several socialist projects, including the study centre at the White House, Ammanford, south Wales; the Central Labour College in London, a breakaway from Ruskin College, Oxford; and the famed Chopwell Communist Club in co. Durham (which was Labour rather than Marxist). He allegedly handed out leaflets at the meetings of George Ballard's Workers' Freedom Group, and at one such assembly met the great revolutionary Peter Kropotkin. In 1912 he funded the launch of a magazine, The Anarchist, in premises near the Glasgow offices of Kodak. It failed, closing in the following year, and thereafter Davison kept his philanthropic activities under direct control.
....At Wern Fawr Davison played host to various political groups; the Whiteway Commune from near Stroud came for holidays and there were summer schools for the Freedom group and visitors from Fabian schools nearby. A story is related that, at one such gathering, the concert pianist Harriet Cohen played 'Chopsticks' with George Bernard Shaw. Davison also arranged free holidays in Harlech for deprived children from the vicinity of his latterly acquired London home, at 32 Holland Park.
....Davison's own health – and that of his young daughter Doreen (b. 1921) – led him to relocate his family to a new house, Château des Enfants, near Antibes, France. Wern Fawr was sold in 1924 and became Coleg Harlech, a local education centre. In Antibes, Davison continued to welcome his musical friends and children for holidays; four were officially adopted. His house in Holland Park was also sold, but he continued to visit Britain. In 1930 he was taken ill at Exeter and, provoking the outrage of the Evening News, to which wealthy left-wingers were anathema, hired a train to take him to London, where he was reconciled with his son. Thence he proceeded on a special coach on the Blue Train to Antibes, where he died at Château des Enfants on 26 December 1930. Following the cremation at Marseilles, his ashes were interred at Antibes.
....One of the most influential photographers before the First World War, Davison is often remembered for the wrong reasons. The journalist and independent MP Horatio Bottomley attacked him as a Bolshevik corrupter of youth, yet nothing was further from the truth: he was an anarchist who abhorred the use of violence and a communist before the word was associated inevitably with Marxism.

Colin Osman

M. Weaver, ed., British photography in the nineteenth century (1989) · M. Harker, The Linked Ring (1979) · R. Davison, 'The family record', priv. coll. [David Davison] · papers and corresp., priv. coll. [Colin Osman] · J. Griffiths, 'Recollections of George Davison', c.1970, Coleg Harlech Archives · A. L. Coburn, Autobiography, ed. H. Gernsheim and A. Gernsheim (1966) · British Journal of Photography, 2 (9 Jan 1931) · J. Quail, The slow burning fuse: lost history of British anarchists (1978) · G. Barrett, The first person (1963) · C. Rosen, The Goossens: a musical century (1993) · K. Moon, George Walton, designer and architect (1993) · b. cert. · m. cert. [Susannah Potter] · d. cert.

F. Daniels, portraits, NPG · F. Hollyer, portrait · A. Langdon Coburn, portrait, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, Royal Photographic Society collection.

1 Introduction to George Davison and the White House

Date this page last updated: October 1, 2010