Orwell’s publisher, the socialist Victor Gollancz, brought out four books of his from 1933 tot 1936 – with all sorts of results. After three consecutive novels, Gollancz gave Orwell an advance that allowed him to do research for a second ‘documentary’. He travelled north to gather material on the Lancashire mining and factory areas and communities. Orwell began his journey in January 1936. His main operating base was the mining town of Wigan; and the book he was to write on this journey and the things he saw there would become The Road to Wigan Pier.
This was the ‘tripe shop’, famous and infamous because of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell lodged with a miner who also rented out rooms ánd who had a shop where among other things he sold tripe. Orwell’s impression of the man and especially of the way he handled this northern local delicatessen has become a classic in the genre. It’s a gripping scene with which Orwell effectively drags his readers into his book.
Miners’ living area
This was how the miners’ living area looked on the inside. Their living conditions sometimes were appalling. The alleyway between two backyards was called ‘entry’. Often the toilets were situated there which caused the locals to walk around their house to go to the loo.
Down the mine
The cover on the former entrance to Bryn Hall Colliery. This was the mine, actually near Ashton-in-Makerfield and not in Wigan, where Orwell went down in February 1931. It was an important part of his investigations. After the closures of the mines, their slag-heaps were flattened and covered with earth. Later this was transformed into a green recreation area and a woodland. The mine shafts were filled with water and locked with concrete covers.
Wigan Pier in those days
The name ‘Wigan Pier’ was invented by a local comedian, George Formby sr. He combined the wooden jetty where coal was loaded into barges (pictured) with the image of a classic English seaside town. This became so popular in Wigan that the installation in the end really took on the name 'Wigan Pier'. Orwell used this ironic nickname for the title of his book on the northern mining areas.
Beside Wigan Orwell visited Liverpool, Leeds, Barsnley and Sheffield during his three months journey. He thought the last town, the heart of Britain’s steel production, the worst of all. ‘Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World,' he wrote, due to ‘the unparalleled beastliness of its slums’. He described one part of the vast industrial landscape just outside the city centre in detail. This bleak place as it is now, in an area called Attercliffe, is shown on the aerial picture next to this. The arrow indicates the place where Orwell must have stood while looking around, located after careful research in Kelly's Directories and comparison with Orwell's description in his Wigan Pier diary (the piece is also included in Het spoor van Orwell).
The Road to Wigan Pier
Orwell’s account of his visit to the ‘black north’ has been called ‘the mother of all literary journalist’s reportages’. It’s still a fascinating, sometimes even gripping impression of life on, above and underground. Next to that, Orwell’s book contains a second part in which he went the theorizing way. This is serious stuff but by no means dull. Here Orwell fires a well documented plead for socialist reforms. His northern journey had made him choose for socialism, but in the same run he heavily criticised the socialist movement’s old fashioned approach, dullness and its image ‘of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers’.
Wigan Pier now
Only very few locations from Orwell’s life and work refer to him with more than a simple plaque. One of them is the location of the former Wigan Pier. In the Eighties and Nineties of the twentieth century it was restored and visitor facilities were added. They vary from an ‘experience’ museum to boat trips and a souvenir shop, all within the context of the former local (mining) economy – not the context of George Orwell. This was crowned with a large pub, The Orwell, disgustingly decorated on the inside. The visitor complex and the museum received a lot of visitors, but didn’t manage to survive. They're now closed due to money problems – except for the pub.