The George Orwell Challenge – The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

The Road to Wigan PierThe origins of The Road to Wigan Pier are not entirely clear, but it seems that in January 1936 Orwell’s publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned him to research and write about the unemployment, poverty and housing conditions in the north of England. On 31 January that year, Orwell’s diary shows that he travelled up from Coventry, slowly either walking or taking buses up to Manchester, then staying in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield; returning to London on 30 March. His experiences, the people he meets on the way, the owners of the houses in which he stayed, and his time spent down the mines all contributed to the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier, a powerful, poignant, detailed examination of the life of working class people both in and out of work in those towns. It remains an extraordinarily vivid account of distressed, exhausted, hopeless lives and cannot fail to have an impact on anyone who reads it.

George OrwellBy contrast, Orwell devotes the second part of the book to an attempt to come to terms with his own feelings about injustice and oppression, why socialism must be the answer to society’s problems, but also why it is unlikely ever to be achieved in Britain. Playing devil’s advocate, he explores the “spiritual recoil” felt by those who, by all accounts, ought to support socialism but don’t, placing much of the blame on socialists themselves.

Victor GollanczWhilst being impressed and absorbed by what Orwell had written in part one of the book, Gollancz was alarmed at the content of the second part, feeling it would alienate, and indeed infuriate, the Left Book Club readers, the very people whom Gollancz hoped would buy the book. With Orwell refusing to allow Gollancz to publish part one without part two, Gollancz decided to publish, but with a foreword written by himself, trying to placate the readers’ reactions he feared. Praising the first part of the book was easy; Gollancz writes “for myself, it is a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression.” I’ll come on to what he has to say about the second part of the book later.

Clough Williams-EllisThe original edition also included 32 illustrations, primarily photographs of Welsh coal miners, and the slums in the East End of London. Orwell did not take the photographs and did not select them for publication; it is likely, though not certain, that they were chosen by Orwell’s friend, the architect of Portmeirion in North Wales, Clough Williams-Ellis. But the source of the photographs is unknown. Today, the illustrations form a helpful, if alarming, accompaniment to Orwell’s text. Whilst the pictures of the rundown, inadequate housing are truly awful, those featuring people are the most memorable. There’s a rather pitiful picture of ten or more men searching in slag-heaps for little pieces of coal; another with a family crammed into one tiny bedroom; and a third where a miner is taking his bath, assisted by his wife. All the photos are fascinating in many ways, but what is impressive is the admirable sense of indomitable spirit that won’t stop these people from living their lives as best they can.

Part One is broken down into seven distinct chapters. Chapter One concentrates on his time spent living in a cheap lodging house, talking about the other residents and the owners of the property. In Chapter Two he explores the life and work of those down coal mines, the working conditions and their day to day existence. In Chapter Three, he looks at the wider issues of miners – their health, their wages, and so on. Chapter Four is concerned with the housing situation in the north, chapter Five deals with unemployment, and chapter Six with food and malnutrition. The first part ends with Chapter Seven, comparing aspects of the north and the south and concluding that the north is full of ugliness.

George Orwell typingFlowing, authoritative and immensely readable, Part One is Orwell at his documentary best. Without any hint of an introduction or warming his readers up for the details ahead, the first page dives straight in with a sensuous description of waking up in a lodging house, the assault on the ears made by “the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street”, observing the “heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was so thick that it was like fur”, the discomfort of “one of those old-fashioned horsehair armchairs which you slide off when you try to sit on them.” Within minutes of starting to read, you can see, hear, feel all those things that greet Orwell when he wakes up every morning.

Down and out in Paris and LondonOf course, it reminds one of Down and Out in Paris and London, and emphasises so much of the human side of poverty and the miserable existence the people led. As in that book, Orwell pulls out so many fascinating observations that stick in the mind of the reader, even if they are mere asides to the main body of his descriptions. I was fascinated by the bathing etiquette of the miners; eating their meal before taking a bath, washing methodically the top half of their bodies in the same sequence, then their wife will wash their back with a flannel. Lack of easy access to baths for many miners leads Orwell to conclude that “probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Orwell mentions the prevalence of superstition amongst miners given the inherent dangers in the work. “Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct.” As a result, a miner working in the morning is likely to get his own breakfast, whereas working later in the day or in the evening, his wife would wait up to give him a meal. “In the old days,” says Orwell, “a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.”

Orwell envies them their toughness, their iron-like appearance, and almost romanticises their strength: “it is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” Commentators have queried this apparent emphasis on the homo-erotic; it’s an interesting observation considering that elsewhere in this book and in others, Orwell is quick to condemn anyone he suspects of being “a nancy boy”.

Orwell returns to this theme later, when he considers what he describes as “the physical degeneracy of modern England”. In part two of the book he will examine at length the consequences of having hard manual work performed by machines; here he notes that the average man in England today is likely to have “puny limbs, sickly faces” and that “a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else.” “Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats.”

Scavenging for coalThere’s a lot of information about miners’ pay, with estimates that the average miner earned around £115 a year in 1934, despite the newspapers and the like overstating it at more like £150 a year. Even so, this is a poor wage; £115 in 1934 is the equivalent of less than £6000 today. Even if a miner can earn enough to pay rent for a house, Orwell states that there are some cumbersome restrictions on Corporation Housing. Every garden must have the same kind of hedge. You cannot keep poultry or pigeons – and Orwell points out that “Yorkshire miners are fond of keeping homer pigeons; they keep them in the back yard and take them out and race them on Sundays.”

Miner bathingOther observations he makes include the prevalence of “home-made bicycles” – that’s something you would never see today; “bicycles made of rusty parts picked off refuse tips, without saddles, without chains and almost always without tyres”. Clearly a sign of poverty, these bikes are ridden by the men who try to scrape a living or heat their home by scavenging for pieces of coal from the slag heaps at the mines. Orwell is frequently quick to be judgmental of people, and he describes this as “immense and systematic thieving of coal by the unemployed. I call it thieving because technically it is that, though it does no harm to anybody.” The men sling bags across these home-made bikes, “containing perhaps half a hundredweight of coal, fruit of half a day’s searching.” Orwell tells us that “in Wigan the competition among unemployed people for the waste coal has become so fierce that it had led to an extraordinary custom called ‘scrambling for the coal’, which is well worth seeing. Indeed I rather wonder that it has never been filmed.” There is something slightly distasteful about Orwell watching this desperate attempt by families to mitigate against their poverty as a kind of spectator sport.

OvercrowdingIt’s also interesting to compare Orwell’s time with today, in connection with the places that he visited during his two months in the industrial north. He says the ugliest place he visited was Sheffield; in fact he says it “could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.” There’s no doubt that, aesthetically, the city had suffered from the destruction caused by industry and its detritus. But this is a million miles away from the Sheffield that I have known, on-and-off, over the last forty years; today, the modernisation of the city centre has made it one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Similarly Wigan; although I don’t know Wigan personally, it’s fascinating to discover that the Wigan Local History and Heritage Society despair at Orwell’s book. I quote from their website: “The book has done untold damage to the town since its publication in 1937 and that harm will continue because of books’ longevity. He claimed to like the people of Wigan, God knows what he would have written if he hadn’t. The book will hang like an albatross round Wigan’s neck for decades if not centuries to come.”

Let’s take a moment to consider some of the references in the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier. First of all – what is that pier? Wigan is inland, so how could it even have a pier? Its origins go back a long way. The first section of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was completed in 1777, and one of the early buildings remaining from that time is the Grade II Listed terminal warehouse at the end of the canal (Number One Wigan Pier). A pier head was built in 1822 and it was served by a 3.5 mile road that linked it to a number of collieries. So in fact Wigan Pier was a vital component of the distribution of coal from the town to Liverpool, Leeds and beyond. It had something of an ironic reputation, as it associated the traditional idea of a pier (seaside, holidays, relaxation) with the coal mining industry, and was cited in popular songs and jokes over many decades. By the time Orwell reached Wigan he was disappointed to discover that Wigan Pier had been demolished in 1929. Since then, of course, the canal is now only used for recreational purposes, and “Wigan Pier” has gone through many reincarnations, including being a museum and heritage centre, a night club, and the home of the Wigan Pier Theatre Company. Currently closed, there are plans afoot to build housing and other leisure facilities at the site.

There are many references in the first part of the book to the Means Test. Today, whilst we understand the concept of means-testing in general, I for one was not aware that there was something simply called The Means Test during the 1930s. Introduced in 1931 and withdrawn in 1941, in simple terms, if the income of a household in which an unemployed claimant lived was considered “adequate” – whatever “adequate” is (or was) – then the dole was stopped. Orwell points out the deficiencies of this system and how it unfairly discriminated against old-age pensioners, frequently driving them out of their homes. This Means Test was very strictly enforced, frequently ad absurdam. Here are two of Orwell’s instances of the ridiculousness of the enforcement:

“One man I knew, for instance, was seen feeding his neighbour’s chickens while the neighbour was away. It was reported to the authorities that he ‘had a job feeding chickens’ and he had great difficulty refuting this. The favourite joke in Wigan was about a man who was refused relief on the ground that he ‘had a job carting firewood’. He had been seen, it was said, carting firewood at night. He had to explain that he was not carting firewood but doing a moonlight flit. The ‘firewood’ was his furniture.”

Orwell is frequently guilty of talking jargon and quoting acronyms that may have been fully understood at the time but that, 90 or so years later, are unlikely to be recognised. He talks of the PAC; this was the Public Assistance Committee. At roughly the same time as the Means Test, the responsibility for poor relief was passed on from central government to local councils, and the local PAC would have been the people in charge of administering this onerous task. Similarly, the NUWM, whom Orwell praises for doing “the best work for the unemployed”, was the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, an organisation set up in 1921 by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which fought the Means Test and organised protest marches. It suspended activity at the outbreak of the Second World War, and never resumed its work, finally being dissolved in 1946.

John OrrThere are a number of people to whom Orwell refers, but who are not household names today. In his chapter about nutrition, Orwell discusses the various opinions as to the number of undernourished people in Britain, stating “Sir John Orr puts it at twenty millions.” Born in 1880, Orr was at first a teacher, then a leading nutritionist, who became the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949. Major C H Douglas, to whom Orwell refers in connection with the inability of some collieries being able to sell all the coal of which they are capable of producing, was an engineer and a pioneer of social credit economic reform, born in Manchester in 1879. And the Italian Primo Carnera, whom Orwell mentions in connection with the pretensions of short Englishmen to physical prowess, was Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1933 and 1934.

Primo CarneraIt’s always a delight to immerse oneself in Orwell’s glorious use of language, and there are plenty of opportunities for his inimitable style to shine through. He has a wonderful attention to detail, revealed in the first few pages where he describes the kitchen table where everyone in the Brooker household ate. “I never saw this table completely uncovered, but I saw its various wrappings at different times. At the bottom there was a layer of old newspapers stained by Worcester Sauce; above that a sheet of sticky white oil-cloth; above that a green serge cloth; above that a coarse linen cloth, never changed and seldom taken off. Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.” I love the idea that he almost struck up a relationship with individual crumbs.

In the same way that Orwell (and more importantly Gollancz) escaped libel in Burmese Days because of Orwell’s chatty recollections of real life people that he met, he continues to relate to us individual incidents during his time in the northern towns that would almost certainly be recognised by anyone there at the time or who also knew those people. He goes into great detail about the other people who live with the Brookers – I’m fairly sure he invented that surname but not 100% certain – and he doesn’t hold back from the criticisms and the judgments. Of Mrs Brooker’s habits, he gives us a good insight into just how revolting she was: “She had a habit of constantly wiping her mouth on one of her blankets. Towards the end of my stay she took to tearing off strips of newspaper for this purpose, and in the morning the floor was littered with crumpled-up balls of slimy paper which lay there for hours.” Perhaps my favourite description in the entire book is of Mr Brooker, where Orwell says “he was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud.”

But he has a very important point to make about the Brookers. “It is no use saying people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us.” You sense that this will become the starting point for his writing in the second part of the book.

He’s a real master of the simile; his description of the coal mining procedure includes “the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice”. He refers to the blue lining that can appear on miner’s skin due to the all-pervasive coal dust: “some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheeses from this cause”. Of the houses in Wigan that have slipped and slid due to mining work underneath, he says “sometimes the front wall bellies outward till it looks as though the house were seven months gone in pregnancy.” And I love how he can turn on a well-used phrase and smash it to smithereens: “row upon row of little red houses, all much liker than two peas (where did that expression come from? Peas have great individuality)”. By constantly playing games with the language like that, he keeps his descriptions and ideas fresh and lively, even when describing some of the darkest and dreariest aspects of life.

He’s perhaps at his cheekiest when he takes the opportunity to rebut the words of a nameless critic. “I am told,” he says, “that it is bad form for a writer to quote his own reviews, but I want here to contradict a reviewer in the Manchester Guardian who says apropos of one of my books: ‘Set down in Wigan or Whitechapel Mr Orwell would still exercise an unerring power of closing his vision to all that is good in order to proceed with his wholehearted vilification of humanity.’ Wrong. Mr Orwell was ‘set down’ in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity.” You can’t pin Orwell down and make him conform to any structure he chooses to ignore.

Before having a look at the more difficult Part Two of The Road to Wigan Pier, let’s go back to Gollancz’s urgently written placatory foreword. Having praised part one to the heavens, he describes the second part as “highly provocative”, picking up one particular theme which Orwell emphasises. Gollancz states “I have in mind in particular a lengthy passage in which Mr Orwell embroiders the theme that, in the opinion of the middle class in general, the working class smells! I believe myself that Mr Orwell is exaggerating violently…” Gollancz sets himself against Orwell’s suggestion that socialists are cranks; specifically concerning that word, he continues that “it appears to mean anyone holding opinions not held by the majority – for instance, any feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control”.

This particular bugbear of Orwell’s perplexes Gollancz: “there is no more ‘commonsensical’ work than that which is being done at the present time by the birth control clinics up and down the country – and common sense, as I understand I, is the antithesis of crankiness.” He recognises that Orwell’s writing shows a “conflict of two compulsions” throughout part two of the book, and concludes that “Mr Orwell does not once define what he means by Socialism; nor does he explain how the oppressors oppress, nor even what he understands by the words ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’.”

Orwell himself was in Spain at the time of publication, fighting in the Spanish Civil War and gathering material that would come to fruition, first with his essay Spilling the Spanish Beans, and later and more significantly with his book Homage to Catalonia. He had no idea that Gollancz had published The Road to Wigan Pier with this foreword; on 9th May 1937, Orwell wrote to Gollancz thanking him politely for the foreword, saying that he could have answered some of Gollancz’s criticisms if only he had known about them.

However, one thing is true, especially to today’s reader; this is a much harder and rather less rewarding read than the first part of the book. Whilst there is no doubt that his sense of injustice and his hatred of oppression can be found in almost every paragraph, his polemic against so much of British society at the time reduces his writing spark. You rarely get those flashes of observational brilliance; instead he gets tied up with being judgmental and critical. He says he plays devil’s advocate in an attempt to understand why people think Socialism is not the answer, when Orwell clearly believes that it is. What is the source of the spiritual recoil that kills its progress before it has even started?

It seems to me that Orwell has four main problems that he needs to get his head around. The question of class; of “machine worship”; socialists themselves; and the alienating language they use. Class is perhaps the hardest to grapple with, because the English class system was, is and always will be an intractable mess. Orwell always found it hard to identify himself in the class system, being brought up lower-middle-class but gaining a scholarship to Eton; working in the Indian police force, yet spending so much time down and out and writing about it. He feels to me like the character in Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp’s brilliant song Common People – he wants to know what it feels like to be one of the common people, to have no money and nothing to do, but at the same time knowing that he could pick up the telephone “when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all”.

All middle class people have dormant prejudice, says Orwell, “but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it.” That alone makes it virtually impossible for the class system to end. And of course, there is his outrageously bold statement, that upset Gollancz so much, that “lower classes smell”. Orwell thinks there is no getting over this problem – one, because it is a feeling so ingrained in the minds of the middle classes, and two, because he believes it to be true. “Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean.” There’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s up to the individual reader to sort the wheat from the chaff. But with such a firmly held view, there’s no room for negotiation.

On the question of “machine worship” – in other words, the blind tendency towards mechanisation of all craft-type trades and labour, in order to make life easier for ourselves, or to reduce labour costs – Orwell contemplates whether there still is a place in the world for physical strength, when it is no longer needed. It is, to be fair, a fascinating examination of the whole idea of “progress” which today we all readily accept as if there were no alternative.

Orwell’s problem with socialists themselves is a very personal attack; reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s insistence that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would admit him, it’s a half-comedic, half-deadly serious examination of those people who call themselves socialists and therefore put everyone else off from being like them. As he says, “as with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” But his list of qualities that make a typical Socialist is totally ridiculous. In addition to the feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control, quoted by Gollancz, he includes “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack”.

He tells a story of travelling in a bus in Letchworth “when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got onto it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple […] The man next to me […] glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, “Socialists”.” It’s an extraordinarily judgmental, cruel and unreasonable description; consider the pejorative use of the words and phrases dreadful, chubby, obscenely, pistachio-coloured, huge bottoms and even hatless; all hyper-critical, and all on pure surmise. However, it’s an incredibly vivid piece of writing and not one you forget in a hurry. There’s no good reason to equate these people’s appearances with socialism; it’s probably an early example of media manipulation that’s designed to make us think badly about such people. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he elsewhere uses the term “bare-arse savage” and claims that “Orientals can be very provoking.”

As for the language typically used by socialists, I can completely accept that constantly referring to people as comrades would get very tedious. Orwell tells an excellent anecdote about the Marxist attitude towards literature. Following some articles in a literary column that frequently invoked Shakespeare, “an incensed reader wrote to say, ‘Dear Comrade, we don’t want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare. Can’t you give us something a bit more proletarian?’ etc etc. The editor’s reply was simple. ‘If you will turn to the index of Marx’s Capital,’ he wrote, ‘you will find that Shakespeare is mentioned several times.’ And please notice this was enough to silence the objector. Once Shakespeare had received the benediction of Marx, he became respectable. That is the mentality that drives ordinary sensible people away from the Socialist movement.”

Robert SmillieLet’s look at a few more of those references that Orwell mentions in the second part of the book, mainly people in the public eye at the time whose names are now forgotten. He refers to a time “when a miner was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there.” Robert Smillie was the leader of the miners, a militant socialist who lived from 1857 to 1940. He can be considered like an early 20th century version of Arthur Scargill. Beachcomber, whose articles Orwell refers to in the Daily Express, was a nom-de-plume used by more than one journalist, but primarily was J B Morton, who wrote under that name from 1924 to 1975. John Beevers (1911 – 1975) wrote the book World Without Faith, and was critical of the machine-worship that so upset Orwell. The other interesting reference that was new to me concerned the Duke of York’s Summer Camps – which were precisely as they sound, an initiative by the future King George VI to unite children from all backgrounds working together to build their characters. An early version of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I suppose.

Orwell is remarkably prescient in some of the things he writes about, and some of the changes to the world that he predicts. He talks of the vast numbers of people who are employed, but are not on a living wage. That’s the same today. He describes the methods employed by some people to stay warm cheaply (by not being at home), like going to the pictures for twopence and staying there all afternoon. With the rise in fuel prices, people face the same problem today. There are the problems of budgeting for a household when your income is so small. There are even discussions about the idea of “levelling up” – I thought that was a purely 21st century concept; and predictions about the horrors of war to come.

Orwell’s conclusion to the book includes this observation: “In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policeman instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.” You can still see it coming – if it isn’t already here.

There’s a lot more that could be discussed about this book, but I have already written way too many words! Spilling the Spanish BeansI’d absolutely recommend it, although primarily for the first part, with its vivid documentary approach to poverty and housing. The second part is largely stodgy and a tough read – but don’t let me stop you from reading it!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge will be his essay that appeared in the New English Weekly in two parts in 1937 – Spilling the Spanish Beans. I’ll look forward to reading it and writing about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, thanks for reading my thoughts about Wigan Pier!

2 thoughts on “The George Orwell Challenge – The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)

  1. I can’t think Orwell’s description of miners is homo-erotic; no-one in 1930s Britain went to the gym to work out, so you either had skinny, half-starved people; rich, fat people; or miners whose bodies must have been different to anyone else except other manual workers and so deserved description.

    I’m also sceptical about a factor of 50 to calculate the value of money. In the book there’s a description of houses in Wigan and Barnsley to rent at 5 shillings or 6 shillings a week; with a factor of 50 that would be £12.50 and £15 a week respectively in 2023, and if you can rent anywhere for £15 a week in 2023 you’re very lucky.

    So maybe the miners earnt more than the equivalent of £6000 a year. Or even if they didn’t, with wages at £2 a week, they were only spending 12.5%-15% of their wages on rent, which puts them better off than most renters today.

    • Thanks for the comment! You make a good point about the physical appearance of the miners; I tend to agree that it’s not homo-erotic, or at least not intended to be. As far as the financial sums are concerned, I simply consulted one of these online calculations that give you the value of a sum from the part in today’s terms. You certainly couldn’t rent for £15 a week today, but that probably says more about how the cost of renting has increased way out of line with general inflation.

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