In early 1936 the publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned George Orwell to conduct an investigation into the plight of the unemployed in England’s industrial North, a project that led to the book The Road to Wigan Pier. Unemployment and hardship in Lancashire and Yorkshire were, on the face of it, not subjects that Orwell could have been expected to know that much about. True, he had written vividly about tramps and tramping, “spikes”, charity wards and common lodging houses, but he had little experience of England outside London and the home counties and few friends or acquaintances who were working class or came from a non-privileged background. His own sentimental education had been forged in the sleek landscapes of the Thames valley or, later, genteel Southwold on the Suffolk coast – the England inhabited by those he was to term “the lower-upper-middle-class”, the people who kept the country running and who, though they owned no land, still felt they were “landowners in the sight of God”.
If he did not have much relevant experience, what Orwell could offer his publisher were energy and passion, and a small but growing reputation as a young man with something to say. He also needed the money. Years later he told a friend that he would never have undertaken the trip north had it not been for the size of the advance Gollancz offered: £500, a rather large sum at the time for a writer still in his early thirties. As a man with not much taste for the high life, he reckoned he could survive for two years on that, and afford to get married.
On January 31st he set out by train for Coventry, staying the night there in a bed and breakfast establishment: “very lousy, 3/6 ... Smell as in common lodging houses. Half-witted servant girl with huge body, tiny head and rolls of fat at back of neck curiously recalling ham-fat.” From Coventry, on through Birmingham and the Black Country, he was mostly to walk, the better to see his surroundings (“Wolverhampton seems frightful place. Everywhere vistas of mean little houses ...”) On February 5th he arrived at the home of his contact in Manchester, the trade unionist Frank Meade. He was now more or less at his destination and immediately began to observe his surroundings, and arrive at conclusions:
The M.[eade]s have been very decent to me. Both are working-class people, speak with Lancashire accents and have worn the clogs in their childhood, but the atmosphere in a place like this is entirely middle-class ... I am struck again by the fact that as soon as a working man gets an official post in the Trade Union or goes into Labour politics, he becomes middle-class whether he will or no i.e. by fighting against the bourgeoisie he becomes a bourgeois.
From Manchester, he was sent on to Wigan, where he met the socialist electrician Joe Kennan (“a very short, stout, powerful man with an extraordinarily gentle, hospitable manner”) and the unemployed miner Paddy Grady (“intelligent and well-informed”). Kennan found him lodgings in the town but he was soon forced to move again as his landlady became ill and had to go to hospital. His new digs, over a tripe shop, was not an improvement: “Social atmosphere much as [at previous lodgings] but appreciably dirtier and very smelly.” By February 21st he had had enough:
The squalor of this house is beginning to get on my nerves ... The most revolting feature is Mrs F. being always in bed on the kitchen sofa [she was an invalid]. She has a terrible habit of tearing off strips of newspaper, wiping her mouth with them and then throwing them onto the floor. Unemptied chamber pot under the table at breakfast this morning ... I hear horrible stories, too, about the cellars where the tripe is kept and which are said to swarm with black beetles. Apparently they only get in fresh supplies of tripe at long intervals. Mrs F. dates events by this. “Let me see, then, I’ve had in three lots of froze (frozen tripe) since then,” etc. I judge they get in a consignment of “froze” about once in a fortnight.
Orwell was not, however, in Lancashire (and later Yorkshire) just to comment on the accents, manners and physical appearance of the working class, the strange things they ate and the smell of their houses. He also took notes on pay and conditions in the mines; on the various kinds of working class houses and the rents that were charged for them; on the different grades of social assistance payment and how people who had become unemployed or who were injured at work might manage (or not) on such a diminished income; on diet (and why poor people don’t want the “dull wholesome food” others might think good for them); and on the lives of women, their intensive domestic labour and pride in their homes – when they had half-decent ones.
After twelve days in Wigan he went down a mine (the first of three such visits). Writing about the experience later, he has one clear point he wishes to make about the coal industry and its workers: that it, and they – in the England of the time – are the bedrock of all other industrial activity, of all capitalist profit and hence the main source of the “dividends” on which many of the wealthier members of society depend for their civilised lives and which they could not live without: “In the metabolism of the Western world the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil. He is a sort of grimy caryatid on whose shoulders everything that is not grimy is supported.”