South West Wales

White House roof made in Wales, claims Pontardawe historian

The White House
Image caption The White House was expanded in the 1880s

From the 1917 and 1941 declarations of war, to the introduction and repeal of prohibition, and Watergate, the White House has seen it all.

What is less well known is the president of the United States' home witnessed many events from beneath a roof manufactured in Wales.

William Gilbertson and Company, of Pontardawe, Swansea Valley, made the terne-plate roof for the West Wing.

Pontardawe historian Prof Peter Jackson made the discovery.

The White House, in Washington DC, was originally roofed in slate but by the 1880s the building had become dangerously overcrowded.

So when expansion work began on what would eventually become the West Wing, the contract for a new metal roof was secured by Gilbertson's.


Prof Jackson, emeritus professor of business studies at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, said Gilbertson's terne-plate would have been an obvious choice at the time.

"Founded in 1862, in little more than 20 years GOM, or Gilbertson's Old Method, became a world-famous byword for quality in plated metal," he said.

Terne-plates were iron sheets which had been coated in a mixture of tin and lead to protect against rust and Gilbertson's were renowned for their durability.

Until recently, their use on the White House had remained little more than a Pontardawe legend.

Image copyright Martyn Williams
Image caption A picture of William Gilbertson and Company from the 1920s
Image copyright AP
Image caption President Nixon, right, famously made the Watergate phone calls from the White House

"Like everyone who grew up in Pontardawe, I'd heard the White House stories but I'd never been able to prove them," Prof Jackson said.

"Back when Gilbertson's closed in the 1960s, a friend of mine saved the company papers from going in a skip and brought them to me.

"But my career got in the way, and it wasn't until I retired decades later that I got around to sorting through them, and would you believe it? There was the proof."


Prof Jackson's hunt then took him to the congressional archives in Washington where he unearthed the 1886 order for 135 boxes of Gilbertson's Old Method terne-plate, at the princely sum of $6.77 each.

What Prof Jackson's research has not yet been able to reveal is exactly how long the Gilbertson's roof remained in place as there are no detailed records on when, or if, it was ever replaced.

It is likely that much of it was removed during major refurbishments of the 1920s and late 1940s, however other Gilbertson roofs have been known to have lasted for over 100 years.

May be, just may be, President Barack Obama will be going to bed under at least part of a Welsh roof tonight.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Does President Obama go to sleep under a Welsh roof?

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