George Orwell and Sheffield - March 1936

"Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World..."

It could be argued that  George Orwell was probably one of the most widely known and influential writers of the twentieth century. There are many sources on the internet and in book form that examine his life and writings in great detail but to date there is no comprehensive account of the time he spent in Sheffield in 1936 researching his book "The Road to Wigan Pier"

However to put Orwell's time in Sheffield into a wider context it may be helpful to understand just what George was doing here. In January 1936 George had just finished writing his novel "Keep The Aspidistra Flying" when his publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned him to write a book about the conditions facing the unemployed in the industrial north of England. Any reluctance that Orwell had about accepting the commission vanished when he was offered an advance of 500 for the book. At the time this was the equivalent of two years earnings for George  - the sum was paid out in installments over two years. It gave him for the first time in his life as a writer, a degree of financial stability.  It should also be noted that the idea for the book was not Orwell's but Gollancz's. 

The actual time that Orwell spent in the North of England was two months between 31st January and 30th March 1936. In "George Orwell - A Bibliography", Gillian Fenwick notes that George Orwell spent three days in Sheffield 2nd - 4th March 1936. 

Whilst in Sheffield he lodged at the house of Gilbert and Kate Searle in Wallace Road, Neepsend, Sheffield. Mrs Searle who was 29 at the time of his stay at the house was herself a committed socialist and secretary to the women's section of the Lansdowne Labour Party. She said of Orwell in an article in the Sheffield Telegraph dated February 2 1990

"He was a very jolly fellow, very intelligent - he'd been educated at Eton. He used to go out with my husband to lots of socialist meetings in town. He wanted to see how both sides lived... He used to say to us I cannot understand you people, you are so strong willed and you know about life yet you don't stand up to the upper classes... I think he had good intentions in trying to write about the working classes but as I said to him you have to live with us for more than a week to find out what it's all about.."

Bernard Crick in his book "George Orwell - A Life" recounts that he was shown around Sheffield by a partially crippled unemployed communist activist called William Brown. Brown had occasionally written for "The Adelphi" and it was through Brown that Orwell lodged with the Searle's in Wallace Road. He was charged six shillings a week for his board but such was the pace of his time in Sheffield - he visited many meetings, factories and houses - he left the Searle's after just three days and went to stay with his sister and brother in law in Leeds. Apart from the famous quote about Sheffield at the top of the page, Orwell also stated that 

".. I was taken to a public hall to listen to a lecture by a clergyman, and it was by a long way the silliest and worst-delivered lecture I have ever heard or ever expect to hear. I found it physically impossible to sit it out, indeed my feet carried me out, seemingly of their own accord, before it was half-way through. Yet the hall was thronged with unemployed men; they would have sat through far worse drivel for the sake of a warm place to shelter in."

In the books I have consulted there is no mention of the location and more importantly the clergyman who inflicted the drivel on Orwell. However I see to recall from an article I read many years ago that the location was in fact the Victoria Hall in Norfolk Street Sheffield which was, and still is, the focus of Methodism in Sheffield.

George did stay at the Serle's house again later on in his travels but I have been unable to ascertain the exact dates of the second stay. After he left second time, the Searle's never saw Orwell again but they did occasionally receive the odd letter. 

The full transcript of the Diary's entry about his time in Sheffield is in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This (Penguin Books)   and this is what he had to say

3 March 

This house: two up two down, living room about 14 ft by 12 ft, parlour rather smaller.  Sink and copper in living room, no gas fire, outside w.c.  Rent with rates about 8s. 6d. 2 cellars as well.  Husband is out of work (P.A.C.34 34.drawing the dole from the Public Assistance Committee of the local authority - was previously store-keeper at a factory which closed down and discharged its whole staff), wife works as a char at 6d. an hour.  One kid aged 5.

B: age 45 but looks less.  Has malformed right hand, also one foot.  This was inherited and he fears it is transmissible, so will not marry.  Owing to this has never had much in the way of regular work.  Was with a circus for some years as groom, clown and 'Wild West' rider - he could apparently handle the bridle with his damaged hand.  Now lives alone and for some reason gets no dole, only something from the parish and help from his brother.  Has a single room with only an open fireplace - no oven - to cook on.  Is terribly embittered and declares that feeling of actual hatred for the bourgeoisie, even personal hatred of individuals, is necessary to any genuine Socialist.  Is nevertheless a good fellow and very anxious to help.  Mixed up with his political feelings is the usual local patriotism of the Yorkshireman and much of his conversation consists of comparison between London and Sheffield to the detriment of the former.  Sheffield is held to lead London in everything, e.g. on the one hand the new housing schemes in Sheffield are immensely superior, and on the other hand the Sheffield slums are more squalid than anything London can show.  I notice that apart from the usual hatred between the Northerner and the Southerner, there is also hatred between the Yorkshireman and the Lancashireman, and also internecine hatred between the various Yorkshire towns.  No one up here seems to have heard of any place in the south of England except London.  If you come from the south you are assumed to be a cockney however often you deny it.  At the same time as the Northerner despises the Southerner he has an uneasy feeling that the latter knows more of the arts of life and is very anxious to impress him.

Had a very long and exhausting day (I am now continuing this March 4th) being shown every quarter of Sheffield on foot and by tram.  I have now traversed almost the whole city.  It seems to me, by daylight, one of the most appalling places I have ever seen.  In whichever direction you look you see the same landscape of monstrous chimneys pouring forth smoke which is sometimes black and sometimes of a rosy tint said to be due to sulphur.  You can smell the sulphur in the air all the while.  All buildings are blackened within a year or two of being put up.  Halting at one place I counted the factory chimneys I could see and there were 33.  But is was very misty as well as smoky - there would have been many more visible on a clear day.  I doubt whether there are any architecturally decent buildings in the town.  The town is very hilly (said to be built on seven hills, like Rome) and everywhere streets of mean little houses blackened by smoke run up at sharp angles, paved with cobbles which are purposely set unevenly to give horses etc, a grip.  At night the hilliness creates fine effects because you look across from one hillside to the other and see the lamps twinkling like stars.  Huge jets of flame shoot periodically out of the roofs of the foundries (many working night shifts at present) and show a splendid rosy colour through the smoke and steam.  When you get a glimpse inside you see enormous fiery serpents of red-hot and white-hot (really lemon coloured) iron being rolled out into rails.  In the central slummy part of the town are the small workshops of the 'little bosses', i.e. smaller employers who are making chiefly cutlery.  I don't think I ever in my life saw so many broken windows.  Some of these workshops have hardly a pane of glass in their windows and you would not believe they were inhabitable if you did not see the employees, mostly girls, at work inside.

The town is being torn down and rebuilt at an immense speed.  Everywhere among the slums are gaps with squalid mounds of bricks where condemned houses have been demolished and on all the outskirts of the town new estates of Corporation houses are going up.  These are much inferior, at any rate in appearance, to those at Liverpool.  They are in terribly bleak situations, too.  One estate just behind where I am living now, at the very summit of a hill, on horrible sticky clay soil and swept by icy winds.  Notice that the people going into these new houses from the slums will always be paying higher rents; and also will have to spend much more on fuel to keep themselves warm.  Also, in many cases, will be further from their work and therefore spend more on conveyances.

In the evening was taken to a Methodist Church where some kind of men's association (they call it a Brotherhood) meet once a week to listen to a lecture and have discussions.  Next week a Communist is speaking, to the evident dismay of the clergyman who made the announcements.  This week a clergyman who spoke on 'Clean and Dirty Water'.  His lecture consisted of incredibly silly and disconnected ramblings about Shaw's Adventures of a Black Girl etc.  Most of the audience did not understand a word of it and in fact hardly listened, and the talk and the questions afterwards were so unbearable that B and I slipped out with his friend Binns to see the latter's back to back house, on which I took notes.  B says that most of the members of this Brotherhood are unemployed men who will put up with almost anything in order to have a warm place where they can sit for a few hours.

Accent in Sheffield not so broad as in Lancashire.  A very few people, mostly miners I think, wear clogs.

 5 March

 At 21 Estcourt Avenue, Headingley, Leeds.35 (35 The home of Orwell's elder sister, Marjorie, and her husband Humphrey Dakin) I left Sheffield at 10.30 this morning, and in spite of its being such a frightful place and of the relief of getting back into a comfortable house, I was quite sorry to leave the Searles.  I have seldom met people with more natural decency.  They were as kind to me as anyone could possibly be, and I hope and trust they liked me.  Of course I got their whole life-history from them by degrees.  Searle is 33 and was an only child.  When a youth he joined the Army and was in the Ordnance Corps (or whatever it is called) with the army of occupation in Palestine and Egypt.  He has vivid memories of Egypt and wishes he was back there.  Since then he has only had short-lived jobs, e.g. as store-keeper and check-weighman at various works, also as railway (outside) porter.  Mrs S comes from a somewhat more prosperous family, as her father till only a few weeks ago36  (36 He died very suddenly and his wife has now no resources except the old age pension [Author's footnote) was in a good job at 5 a week and also made something on the side by making fishing rods.  But it was a very large family (11) and she went into service.  She married S when he was on the dole, against the opposition of her family.  At first they could not get a house, and lived in a single room, in which two children were born and one died.  They told me they had only one bed for the family and had to 'lay out' the dead baby in the perambulator.  Finally, after frightful difficulty (one reason for this is that private landlords are not too keen on letting to people on the dole and there is a certain amount of bribery of agents) they got this house, of which the rent is about 8s. 6d.  Mrs S earns about 9s. a week from her charing.  Exactly what deduction is made for this from S's dole I don't know, but their total income is 32s. 6d.  In spite of which I had great difficulty in getting them to accept enough for my keep while there - they wanted to charge only 6s. for full board and lodging from Monday night to Thursday morning.  They keep the house very clean and decent, have a bit of garden, though they can't do much with it, as it has factory chimneys on one side and the gas works on the other, besides being poor soil, and they are very fond of one another.  I was surprised by Mrs S's grasp of the economic situation and also of abstract ideas - quite unlike most working-class women in this, though she is I think not far from illiterate.  She does not seem resentful against the people who employ her - indeed she says they are kind to her - but sees quite clearly the essential facts about domestic service.  She told me how the other day as she waited at the lunch table she calculated the price of the food on the table (for 5 persons for one meal) and it came to 6s. 3d. - as much as the P.A.C. allows her child for a fortnight.

B was very good and took my request to 'show me over Sheffield' even too seriously, so that from morning to night I was being rushed from place to place, largely on foot, to see public buildings, slums, housing estates etc.  But he is a tiresome person to be with, being definitely disgruntled and too conscious of his Communist convictions.  In Rotherham we had to have lunch at a slightly expensive restaurant because there didn't seem to be any others except pubs (B is T.T.), and when in there he was sweating and groaning about the 'bourgeois atmosphere' and saying he could not eat this kind of food.  As he declares that it is necessary to literally hate the bourgeoisie, I wondered what he thought of me, because he told me at the very start I was a bourgeois and remarked on my 'public school twang'.  However, I think he was disposed to treat me as a sort of honorary proletarian, partly because I had no objection to washing in the sink etc. but more because I seemed interested in Sheffield.  He was very generous and though I had told him at the start that I was going to pay for his meals etc. while we were together, he would always go out of his way to spare me expense.  It seems that he lives on 10s. a week - I had this from Searle: exactly where B's 10s. comes from I don't know - and the rent of his room is 6s.  Of course it would not be possible to subsist on the remainder, allowing for fuel.  You could only keep alive on 4s. a week37 if you spent nothing on fuel and nothing on tobacco or clothes.  I gather B gets meals from time to time from the Ss and other friends, also from his brother who is in comparatively good employ.  His room is decent and even cultured-looking, as it has bits of 'antique' furniture which he has made himself, and some crude but not disagreeable pictures, mostly of circuses, which he has painted.  Much of his bitterness obviously comes from sexual starvation.  His deformity handicaps him with women, his fear of transmitting it has stopped him from marrying (he says he would only marry a woman past the childbearing age), and his inability to earn money makes it more impossible still.  However, at one of the Adelphi summer schools he picked up with some school-mistress (aged 43) who I gather is his mistress when opportunities permit and who is willing to marry him, only her parents oppose it.  The Searles say he has improved greatly since taking up with this woman - before that he used to have fits occasionally.  We had an argument one evening in the Searles' house because I helped Mrs S with the washing-up.  Both of the men disapproved of this, of course.  Mrs S seemed doubtful.  She said that in the North working-class men never offered any courtesies to women (women are allowed to do all the house-work unaided, even when the man is unemployed, and it is always the man who sits in the comfortable chair), and she took this state of things for granted, but did not see why it should not be changed.  She said that she thought the women now-a-days, especially the younger women, would like it if men opened doors for them etc.  The position now-a-days is anomalous.  The man is practically always out of work, whereas the woman occasionally is working.  Yet the woman continues to do all the house-work and the man not a hand's-turn, except carpentering and gardening.  Yet I think it is instinctively felt by both sexes that the man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was out of work, he became a 'Mary Ann'.


37 LIVING on 4s. A WEEK: MAN'S DESCRIPTION OF HOW HE DOES IT.  Following the disclosures in the News of the World of parent who have to bring up big families on tiny incomes, a correspondent draws our attention to the case of a man who spends less than 4s. a week on food. 

His week's supply and its cost is as follows:-

                                                            s.  d

3 Wholemeal loaves                          1   0

lb. Margarine                                     2

lb. Dripping                                        3

1lb. Cheese                                           7

1lb. Onions                                            1

1lb. Carrots                                           1

1lb Broken biscuits                               4

2lb. Dates                                               5

1 Tin evaporated milk                            5

10 Oranges                                              5


     Total cost                                       3   11

One particular picture of Sheffield stays by me.  A frightful piece of waste ground (somehow, up here a piece of waste ground attains a squalor that would be impossible even in London), trampled quite bare of grass and littered with newspaper, old saucepans etc.  To the right an isolated row of gaunt four room houses, dark red, blackened by smoke.  To the left an interminable vista of factory chimneys, chimney behind chimney, fading away into a dim blackish haze.  Behind me a railway embankment made from the slag of furnaces.  In front, across the piece of waste ground, a cubical building of dingy red and yellow brick, with the sign, 'John Grocock, Haulage Contractor'.

Other memories of Sheffield: stone walls blackened by smoke, a shallow river yellow with chemicals, serrated flames, like circular saws, coming out from the cowls of the foundry chimneys, thump and scream of steam hammers (the iron seems to scream under the blow), smell of sulphur, yellow clay, backsides of women wagging laboriously from side to side as they shove their perambulators up the hills....

The section on Sheffield appears in Chapter 7 of "The Road To Wigan Pier" 


George Orwell

George Orwell - A Bibliography - Gillian Fenwick

George Orwell - A Life - Bernard Crick

Sheffield Telegraph February 2 1990

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier Diary - Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Volume 1: An Age Like This (Penguin Books)

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