Back to Wigan Pier?

In June 2009, walking the Leeds-Liverpool canal, I arrived at the Orwell pub at Wigan Pier to find the place shuttered and empty – it  had closed in January that year.  A converted three-storey grain warehouse, The Orwell was seen as a key feature of the Wigan Pier redevelopment when it opened as a national tourist attraction in 1985. But the venue struggled with the credit crunch, the decline in the pub trade and, particularly, the closure of the other major Wigan Pier attraction, the museum of Victorian life.

It was seventy-five years ago this month, notes David Sharrock in today’s Observer, that George Orwell set out from London on a mission instigated by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, to investigate the ‘distressed areas’ of northern England.  He ended up in lodgings in Wigan: an old Etonian gaining an education in poverty, squalid housing, unemployment and general misery.

Cover of the original Left Book Club edition

The impressions he recorded in The Road To Wigan Pier may seem at times those of a traveller ‘venturing among savages’, but Orwell’s book was an important contribution to awareness of the extent of the North-South divide at the end of the 1930s and fuelled a revulsion against glaring inequality that led ultimately to the Labour landslide in the 1945 general election and the establishment of the welfare state.

‘Today the book seems curiously relevant to our own distressed times’, writes Sharrock. ‘An Old Etonian prime minister, in a cabinet stuffed with public school boys, has embarked upon the most radical reduction of public spending in generations, making cuts that have prompted robust criticism of their pace and scale. North and south are pulling apart once more … We are witnessing the longest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, according to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, and its effects fall heavier on the north.’

Two years after publication of The Road To Wigan Pier, Picture Post sent the pioneer of photojournalism, Kurt Hutton, to Wigan to document what he saw. The Observer has a gallery of his famous photos, three of which are featured below.

The diary kept by Orwell during his stay in Wigan can be read in full here.  I have selected these extracts:

11 February 1936

Wigan in the centre does not seem as bad as it has been represented – distinctly less depressing than Manchester. Wigan Pier said to have been demolished. Clogs commonly worn here and general in the smaller places outside such as Hindley. Shawl over head commonly worn by older women, but girls evidently only do it under pressure of dire poverty. Nearly everyone one sees very badly dressed and youths on the corners markedly less smart and rowdy than in London, but no very obvious signs of poverty except the number of empty shops. One in three of registered workers said to be unemployed.

Last night to Co-Op hall with various people from the N. U. W. M. to hear Wal Hannington speak. A poor speaker, using all the padding and clichés of the Socialist orator, and with the wrong kind of cockney accent (once again, though a Communist entirely a bourgeois), but he got the people well worked up. Was surprised by the amount of Communist feeling here. Loud cheers when Hannington announced that if England and U.S.S.R went to war U.S.S.R would win. Audience very rough and all obviously unemployed (about 1 in 10 of them women) but very attentive. After the address a collection taken for expenses – hire of hall and H.’s train-fare from London. £1-6-0 raised, not bad from about 200 unemployed people.

You can always tell a miner by the blue tattooing of coal dust on the bridge of his nose. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined with it like Roquefort cheese.

(Wal Hannington was a founding member of the Communist Party and its offshoot, the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement), from its formation in 1921 to its end in 1939.  In 1937, his book The Problem of the Distressed Areas was published by Victor Gollancz, also in the Left Book Club series).

12 February 1936

Terribly cold. Long walk along the canal (one-time site of Wigan Pier) towards some slag-heaps in the distance. Frightful landscape of slag-heaps and belching chimneys. Some of the slag-heaps almost like mountains – one just like Stromboli. Bitter wind. They had had to send a steamer to break the ice in front of the coal barges on the canal. The bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks. All the “flashes” (stagnant pools made by the subsidence of disused pits) covered with ice the colour of raw umber. Beards of ice on the lock gates. A few rats running slowly through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.

13 February 1936

Housing conditions in Wigan terrible. Mrs H. tells me that at her brother’s house (he is only 25, so I think he must be her half brother, but he has already a child of 8), 11 people, 5 of them adults, belonging to 3 different families, live in 4 rooms, “2 up 2 down.”

All the miners I meet have either had serious accidents themselves or have friends or relatives who have. Mrs Hornby’s cousin had his back broken by a fall of rock – “And he lingered seven year afore he died and it were a-punishing of him all the while” – and her brother in law fell 1200 feet down the shaft of a new pit. Apparently he bounced from side to side, so was presumably dead before he got to the bottom. Mrs H. adds: “They wouldn’t never have collected t’pieces only he were wearing a new suit of oilskins.”

15 February 1936

Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.

This moment was translated into the memorable passage in chapter 1 of  The Road To Wigan Pier:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

David Sharrock comments that this was ‘a rare moment, in a book about human sympathy, of connection between the man raised to be an officer of the empire and the proletariat that, however much he wished to embrace, repelled him still’.

18 February 1936

In the early morning the mill girls clumping down the cobbled street, all in clogs, make a curiously formidable sound, like an army hurrying into battle. I suppose this is the typical sound of Lancashire. And the typical imprint in the mud outline of a clog-iron, like one half of a cow’s hoof. Clogs are very cheap. They cost about 5/- a pair and need not wear out for years because all they need is new irons costing a few pence.

20 February 1936

This afternoon with Paddy Grady to see the unemployed miners robbing the “dirt-train,” or, as they call it, “scrambling for the coal.” A most astonishing sight. We went by the usual frightful routes along the colliery railway line to fir-tree sidings, on our way meeting various men and women with sacks of stolen coal which they had slung over bicycles. [...]

When we got there we found not less than 100 men, a few boys, waiting, each with a sack and coal hammer strapped under his coat tails. Presently the train hove in sight, coming round the bend at about 20 mph. 50 or 70 men rushed for it, seized hold of the bumpers etc. and hoisted themselves onto the trucks. It appears that each truck is regarded as the property of the men who have succeeded in getting onto it while it is moving. The engine ran the trucks up onto the dirt-heap, uncoupled them and came back for the remaining trucks. There was the same wild rush and the second train was boarded in the same manner, only a few men failing to get on to it. As soon as the trucks had been uncoupled the men on top began shovelling the stuff out to their women and other supporters below, who rapidly sorted out the dirt and put all the coal (a considerable amount but all small, in lumps about the size of eggs) into their sacks. Further down the “broo” were the people who had failed to get onto either train and were collecting the tiny fragments of coal that came sliding down from above. [...]

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One thought on “Back to Wigan Pier?

  1. Enjoyed the post. Not sure how my virtual trail happened upon your site, but I’m happy my meandering brought me by.

    My mother was a child in Wigan at the time in which these photos were taken. The youngest of seven, her mother died when she was an infant. My Grandfather had been a miner who transitioned to the gas works. My mother was dealt a childhood in such a seemingly bleak landscape at such an ominous time, but you could not have discerned that from the stories she told. The Wigan that she painted for us, her children, was a place wealthy in family, faith, and pride. For my mother, her brother Tim, and their best friend Jimmy, the abandoned pit fields were a place of wonder and adventure, the canals and gates were magical portals, and the River Douglas really ran with the scarlet hue of the blood of an ancient warrior. The war, the depression, and the absence of a mother did bring hardship, but it also cast the shared good in sharp joyful relief. A tin of jam was a vary rare treat, but oh the sweetness of that jam when it was brought home. The cakes that the more affluent Jimmy would sometimes lower by string from his parent’s side window were a secret kept between only the three. Her father and older siblings would not have permitted her to accept such a “handout,” but to a child, it was sugar manna. These and so many other stories were told and retold to us during our Southern Californian childhood. I’ve been fortunate to have visited Wigan many times as adult, and the family still living in the area. I’ve always felt at home there. Wigan can be like that. Thanks again. TS

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