John Langdon-Davies

John Eric Langdon-Davies MBE (18 March 1897 – 5 December 1971) was a British author and journalist. He was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and the Soviet-Finnish War. As a result of his experiences in Spain, he founded the Foster Parents' Scheme for refugee children in Spain, which is now a huge international organisation called Plan.[1] He was awarded the MBE for services to the Home Guard.

John Langdon-Davies in 1940.

Author of books on military, scientific, historical and Spanish (including Catalan) subjects, Langdon-Davies has been described as "an accomplished war correspondent" and "a brilliant populariser of science and technology".[1]

Early lifeEdit

Langdon-Davies was born in Eshowe, Zululand (now in South Africa) in 1897. He was the son of the teacher Guy Langdon-Davies (died 1900), who described himself as "a Huxleyan, a Voltairean and a Tolstoyan pacifist."[2] Langdon-Davies came to England at the age of six and attended Yardley Park Prep school and Tonbridge School (he disliked the latter intensely).[2] His first published work was an article entitled "The Hermit Crab", which appeared on the young people's page of The Lady in 1910.

In 1917, he published The Dream Splendid, a book of poetry inspired by the beauty of nature. According to one critic, it showed "all the young poet's faults";[3] to another, "Mr Langdon-Davies's verse owes nothing to the transient excitements of the hour",[4] referring to the fact that it was not influenced by war fever. The Times Literary Supplement said it was "the outcome of a brooding imagination intensely affected by open-air influences....and expressing itself with a real sense of style".[5]

When called up in 1917 he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to wear uniform.[1] This resulted in a short term in prison before being given a medical discharge. He intended to continue his academic career at St John's College, Oxford, but one of his three scholarships was removed consequent upon his military record. Another, tenable only by a single man, was removed when he married Constance Scott, a history graduate from Somerville College, in 1918. The resulting financial situation forced him to abandon his university career, which ended with a diploma in anthropology and history.


In 1919 Langdon-Davies wrote Militarism in Education, published by Headley Brothers, a study of the effect of the militarist and nationalist content of various educational systems. He stressed the importance of environment and early influences in the education of the young, compared with heredity. During this period he was moving between London, Oxford, Berkshire, Southampton, and Ireland, where he came to know leading figures in the political world.

He also made his first visit to Catalonia, after which, in 1921, he and Connie, with their two small sons, settled for more than two years in the Pyrenean village of Ripoll, where he met groups of left-wing intellectuals and nationalists. Here, reading a lot of poetry and much influenced by Arthur Waley's translations of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, he wrote a small book of verse, Man on Mountain, which was printed in Ripoll and published by Birrell and Garnett in 1922. Since the w is more widely used in English than in Catalan, the local printer was obliged to send to Barcelona for extra supplies. The new w, however, turned out to be marginally larger than the originals/so a slight discrepancy appears on most pages, making the book a collectors' item. He returned to London and spent another period travelling extensively, this time between England, the United States and Catalonia. The Daily News sent him to Barcelona in 1923 to report on the coup d'état by Miguel Primo de Rivera, which he evaluated as comparable to the Irish question.[1]

In 1924 he began a series of lecture tours in the US, speaking to women's associations and universities on history, literature and his own work. He also spent a year living in New York between 1925 and 1926, during which time he wrote The New Age of Faith, a book of scientific popularisation, published by the Viking Press, N.Y. 1925, second ed. January 1926.[6] In it, he heartily attacked the pseudoscientists whose books were so popular in the US, particularly advocates of racial superiority, such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, whom Langdon-Davies described as "Race Fiends".[6] That provoked a number of counterattacks, pointing out that Langdon-Davies himself was not a professional scientist. Most of the 60 or more published reviewers were in agreement with John Bakeless, who wrote that "rarely has popular science been written with such spicy impertinence, such gay insouciance, or with so much intelligence and such scrupulous regard for facts...".[7]

He then moved to Sant Feliu de Guíxols, on the Catalan coast, where he stayed from 1926 to 1928 and wrote Dancing Catalans, a study of the significance of the 'Catalan national dance', the sardana. Twenty years later the Catalan writer Josep Pla said that it was the best book ever published on the sardana: "With the exception of the poetry of Joan Maragall, there is nothing in our language comparable with this essay".[8] A Short History of Women, published in New York, had also appeared in 1927. In it Langdon-Davies traced the development of the idea of Woman from the primitive taboo, the Christian fear, worship of fertility, etc., which was now to be reshaped by the new knowledge. Virginia Woolf commented on some of the author's ideas in A Room of One's Own. In 1929 he settled in Devonshire (England), but three years later (1932) he moved back to the US. Langdon-Davies' Man and his Universe (1930) was a history of humanity's scientific views, covering the period from Ancient Greece to Einstein.[9] He returned to England again in 1935 and lived at Clapham Common. During this time, Langdon-Davies developed strong left-wing views; although not a member of the Communist Party, he was sympathetic to its activities. His book A Short History of the Future argued an alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union was necessary as a bulwark against fascist aggression.[1]

Spanish Civil WarEdit

Langdon-Davies welcomed the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic, describing it as a "good-tempered revolution" that marked "a real break with the past" and which would deliver freedom to Catalonia.[1] In May 1936, he went to Spain to report on the May Day celebrations in Madrid for the News Chronicle, who sent him out again in August that same year to cover the Civil War. On this second trip he travelled by motorbike with his 16-year-old son Robin,[10] whom he left with the "Revolutionary Committee" in Puigcerdà for safe keeping. The following year he wrote Behind the Spanish Barricades, a noted book of war journalism. Behind the Spanish Barricades was a critical and popular success, and "even received favourable mention in the House of Lords".[1][11] Behind the Spanish Barricades was re-published in 2007 by Reportage Press.[12] Part of the profits from the book went to Plan International, formerly Foster Parents' Plan, the child sponsorship charity which Langdon-Davis founded.

Langdon-Davies expressed admiration for Anarchism in Spain. He described anarchists in 1938 as "superb, loveable human beings" but felt they could not arrange an effective defence against the Nationalists.[1] On the other hand, Langdon-Davies disapproved of the activities of the Catalan party POUM, which he felt were undermining the Republican war effort, and that was reflected in his coverage.[13]

In a debate against Fenner Brockway, Langdon-Davies supported the motion "that the suppression of the POUM was vital to the anti-fascist cause in Spain".[1] His coverage of the Barcelona May action was strongly criticised by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia.[14]

Popular FrontEdit

In Britain during 1939 there was a strong Popular Front movement inside both the Labour Party and the Liberal Party for the two parties to come together to support one candidate at constituency level. A general election was expected to take place later in the year. In some instances where it was difficult for Labour to support a Liberal candidate or Liberal to support a Labour candidate, the two parties would agree to support an Independent progressive candidate. Even though Langdon-Davies had stood as Labour candidate for Epsom in 1923, he had not been involved with the party since. In Rye, Labour had not selected a candidate and the Liberal candidate had stepped down in February. The two parties formed a joint committee who approached Langdon-Davies who agreed to be their candidate. He was adopted as prospective candidate by this committee in July 1939[15] and spent the next five weeks campaigning in the constituency. When war broke out, the election was postponed and he never contested the division.

Later careerEdit

Langdon-Davies was dismayed by the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which caused him to repudiate the Soviet Union as having become the betrayer of socialism.[1] During World War II, he worked as a military instructor for the Home Guard. After the war Langdon-Davies was in the anti-Stalinist left, and stated the Soviet government had "declared against the liberty of the mind of man".[16] Langdon-Davies' Russia Puts the Clock Back was an indictment of Soviet science under Stalin's rule, particularly Lysenkoism.[17] Gatherings from Catalonia was a travel book describing the history of the province.[18] His biography of Carlos II, Carlos: The King who would Not Die was praised by the journal Hispania, which stated, "The events of this history are recounted with a fine evocative power supported by impressive research".[19]

In the early 1960s he created the "Jackdaw" series of history learning aids for school children, published by Jonathan Cape. The series was commended by the British Journal of Educational Studies.[20]


Plan International, the children's charity Langdon-Davies co-founded, now works in 50 of the world's poorest countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. In March 2014 his book The Invasion in the Snow, about the Russo-Finnish war of 1939, was translated into Finnish to mark the 75th anniversary.[21] Proceeds from the book helped support Plan International.



  • The Dream Splendid (1917)
  • Militarism in Education (1919)
  • Man on Mountain (1922)
  • The New Age of Faith (1925)
  • A Short History of Women (1927)
  • The Future of Nakedness (1928)
  • Dancing Catalans (1929)
  • Man and his Universe (1930)
  • Science and Common Sense (1931)
  • Inside the atom (1933)
  • Radio. The Story of the Capture and Use of Radio Waves (1935)
  • Then a Soldier (1934)
  • A Short History of the Future (1936)
  • Behind the Spanish Barricades (1936)
  • The Spanish Church and Politics (1937)
  • The Case for the Government (1938)
  • Air Raid (1938)
  • Parachutes over Britain (1940)
  • Fifth Column (1940)
  • Finland. The First Total War (1940)
  • Nerves versus Nazis (1940)
  • Invasion in the Snow (1941)
  • The Home Guard Training Manual. (1940)
  • Home Guard Warfare (1941)
  • The Home Guard Fieldcraft Manual (1942)
  • A Trifling Reminiscence from less troubled Times (1941)
  • How to Stalk. A Practical Manual for Home Guards (1941)
  • American Close-Up (1943)
  • Life Blood (1945)
  • British Achievement in the Art of Healing (1946)
  • Conquer Fear (1948)
  • Russia Puts the Clock Back (Introduction by Henry Hallett Dale) (1949)
  • NPL: Jubilee Book of the National Physical Laboratory (1951)
  • Westminster Hospital (1952)
  • Gatherings from Catalonia (1953)
  • Sex, Sin and Sanctity (1954)
  • The Ethics of Atomic Research (1954)
  • The Unknown, Is It Nearer? (With E.J. Dingwall) (1956)
  • Seeds of Life (1957)
  • Man, The Known and the Unknown (1960)
  • The Cato Street Conspiracy (as John Stanhope) (1962)
  • Carlos, the Bewitched (as John Nada) (1962) (US title: Carlos: The King who would Not Die)
  • The Facts of Sex (1969)
  • Spain (1971)


  • "The truth about Madrid", News Chronicle (1936)
  • "Struggle for Anti-Fascist Unity in Spain", Labour Monthly, (October 1937)
  • "Bombs over Barcelona", The Listener nº 496 (1938)


Titles include:

  • The Battle of Trafalgar
  • The Plague and Fire of London
  • Magna Carta
  • The Gunpowder Plot
  • The Slave Trade and its Abolition
  • Columbus and the Discovery of America


  • Berga, M. John Langdon-Davies (1897–1971). Una biografia anglo-catalana, Barcelona. Editorial Pòrtic 1991 ISBN 84-7306-418-6
  • Plan. The history of Plan
  • Arxiu Municipal de Sant Feliu de Guíxols. Fons John Langdon-Davies. (The writer's personal archives including correspondence, book reviews, press cuttings, etc. and kept at the Town Hall in Sant Feliu de Guíxols (Baix Empordà, Catalonia)


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "My Country Right or Left:John Langdon-Davies and Catalonia" in Tom Buchanan, The Impact of the Spanish Civil War on Britain: War, Loss And Memory, pp. 141–157. Sussex Academic Press, 2007 ISBN 1-84519-127-7.
  2. ^ a b Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Twentieth Century Authors, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, (Third Edition). New York, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1950, (p.p. 726-7)
  3. ^ Petre Mais, Tonbridge Free Press, 26 October 1917
  4. ^ Anon., Oxford Magazine, "A new poet", 1917
  5. ^ TLS, 11 October 1917
  6. ^ a b "The Religion of Science" by Ralph Demos. The New Age of Faith, by John Langdon-Davies. In The Saturday Review, 23 January 1926, p. 509
  7. ^ New York Herald Tribune, 15 November 1925
  8. ^ Destino
  9. ^ "The Week's Reading", by Frances Lamont Robbins, (Review of Man and his Universe) In The Outlook, 16 July 1930,
  10. ^ Langdon-Davies, Jane. "Obiturary". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 October 2015.
  11. ^ Paul Preston: We Saw Spain Die: Foreign Correspondents in the Spanish Civil War. Constable, 2008 ISBN 1845298519, (p.12-13).
  12. ^ Reportage Press – Behind the Spanish Barricades – John Langdon-Davies
  13. ^ Burnett Bolloten, The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution, p. 445. University of North Carolina Press, 1991. ISBN 0-8078-1906-9.
  14. ^ David Caute, Politics and the Novel During the Cold War, p. 43. Transaction Publishers, 2009. ISBN 1-4128-1161-9. Caute notes, however, that "much of Langdon-Davies' report seems to survive Orwell's critique".
  15. ^ Bexhill-on-Sea Observer, 22 July 1939
  16. ^ John Langdon-Davies, "The Russian Attack on Reason", The Fortnightly, May 1949.
  17. ^ A. J. Cummings,"The Strange Case of J.D. Bernal", The Age, 2 September 1949 (p.2).
  18. ^ Michael Eaude, Catalonia:A Cultural History Oxford University Press, 2008 ISBN 0-19-532797-7 (p.39).
  19. ^ "Carlos, the King Who Would Not Die by John Langdon-Davies". Review by "I. P. R." Hispania, Vol. 47, No. 2 (May 1964), pp. 427–428.
  20. ^ "Each "Jackdaw" is fresh, exciting, comprehensive in its selection of facsimile maps and documents and portraits and pictures, exact and up-to-date in its scholarship, resourceful in the questions and the readings suggested". "Jackdaws by John Langdon-Davies", (Review), British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 1965), p. 234.
  21. ^ Hällsten, Annika: Brittisk pacifist i finska vinterkriget. Hufvudstadsbladet, 9 March 2014, pp. 28–29. (In Swedish.)

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