The Road to Wigan Pier: Wikis


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The Road to Wigan Pier  
Road to wigan pier.jpg
First public edition left, and first Left Book Club edition right
Author George Orwell
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre(s) Autobiography
Publisher Victor Gollancz (London)
Publication date 8 March 1937 for the general public
(Left Book Club edition in February 1937)
Media type Print (Hardback)

The Road to Wigan Pier was written by George Orwell and published in 1937. The first half of this work documents his sociological investigations of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the industrial north of England before World War II. The second half is a long essay of his upbringing, and the development of his political conscience, which includes a denunciation of some aspects of British socialist attitudes and behaviour.



Victor Gollancz suggested at the end of 1935 that Orwell spend a short time investigating social conditions in economically depressed northern England. In the period from 31 January to 30 March 1936, Orwell lived in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield researching the book.[1] The conventional view, based on a recollection by George Gorer, is that this was a specific commission with a £500 advance — two years' income for him at the time. However Taylor argues that Orwell's subsequent circumstances showed no indication of such largesse, Gollancz was not a person to part with such a sum on speculation, and Gollancz took little proprietorial interest in progress.[2] Gollancz published the work under the Left Book Club which gave Orwell a far higher circulation than his previous works. However Gollancz feared the second half would offend Left Book Club readers and inserted a mollifying preface to the book while Orwell was in Spain.


The book is divided into two sections.

Part One

George Orwell set out to report on working class life in the bleak industrial heartlands of the West Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Orwell spent a considerable time living among the people and as such his descriptions are detailed and vivid.

Chapter One describes the life of the Brooker Family, a more wealthy example of the northern working class. They have a shop and cheap lodging house in their home. Orwell describes the old people who live in the home and their living conditions.

Chapter Two describes the life of miners and conditions down a coal mine. Orwell describes how he went down a coal mine to observe proceedings and he explains how the coal is distributed. The working conditions are very poor. This is the part of the book most often quoted.

Chapter Three describes the social situation of the average miner. Hygienic and financial conditions are discussed. Orwell explains why most miners do not actually earn as much as they are sometimes believed to.

Chapter Four describes the housing situation in the industrial north. There is a housing shortage in the region and therefore people are more likely to accept substandard housing. The housing conditions are very poor.

Chapter Five explores unemployment and Orwell explains that the unemployment statistics of the time are misleading.

Chapter Six deals with the food of the average miner and how, although they generally have enough money to buy food, most families prefer to buy something tasty to enrich their dull lives. This leads to malnutrition and physical degeneration in many families.

Chapter Seven describes the ugliness of the industrial towns in the north of England.

Part Two

In contrast to the straightforward documentary of the first part of the book, in part two Orwell discusses the relevance of socialism to improving living conditions. This section proved controversial.

Orwell sets out his initial premises very simply

  1. Are the appalling conditions described in part 1 tolerable? (No)
  2. Is socialism "wholeheartedly applied as a world system" capable of improving those conditions? (Yes)
  3. Why then are we not all socialists?

The rest of the book consists of Orwell’s attempt to answer this difficult question. He points out that most people who argue against socialism do not do so because of straightforward selfish motives, or because they do not believe that the system would work, but for more complex emotional reasons, which (according to Orwell) most socialists misunderstand. He identifies 5 main problems.

  1. Class prejudice. This is real and it is visceral. Middle class socialists do themselves no favours by pretending it does not exist and — by glorifying the manual worker — they tend to alienate that large section of the population which is economically working class but culturally middle class.
  2. Machine worship. Orwell finds most socialists guilty of this. Orwell himself is suspicious of technological progress for its own sake and thinks it inevitably leads to softness and decadence. He points out that most fictional technically advanced socialist utopias are deadly dull. H.G. Wells in particular is criticised on these grounds.
  3. Crankiness. Amongst many other types of people Orwell specifies people who have beards or wear sandals, vegetarians, and nudists as contributing to socialism's negative reputation among many more conventional people.
  4. Turgid language. Those who pepper their sentences with “notwithstandings” and “heretofores” and become over excited when discussing dialectical materialism are unlikely to gain much popular support.
  5. Failure to concentrate on the basics. Socialism should be about common decency and fair shares for all rather than political orthodoxy or philosophical consistency.

In presenting these arguments Orwell takes on the role of devil's advocate. He states very plainly that he himself is in favour of socialism but feels it necessary to point out reasons why many people, who would benefit from socialism, and should logically support it, are in practice likely to be strong opponents. It is perhaps unfortunate that Orwell’s language in these passages is so lively and amusing that people tend to remember these parts of the book and forget its overall message.

Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, was so concerned that these passages would be misinterpreted, and that the (mostly middle class) members of the Left Book Club would be offended, that he added a foreword in which he raises some caveats about Orwell's claims in Part Two. He suggests, for instance, that Orwell may exaggerate the visceral contempt that the English middle classes hold for the working class, adding, however, that, "I may be a bad judge of the question, for I am a Jew, and passed the years of my early boyhood in a fairly close Jewish community; and, among Jews of this type, class distinctions do not exist." Other concerns Gollancz raises are that Orwell should so instinctively dismiss movements such as pacifism or feminism as incompatible with or counter-productive to the Socialist cause, and that Orwell relies too much upon a poorly defined, emotional concept of Socialism. Gollancz's claim that Orwell "does not once define what he means by Socialism" in The Road to Wigan Pier is indeed difficult to refute. The foreword does not appear in some modern editions of the book, though it was included, for instance, in Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's first American edition in the 1950s.

At a later date Gollancz published part one on its own, against Orwell's wishes, and he refused to publish Homage to Catalonia at all.


"[A] middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the 'lower classes'."

"The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight."

"[T]he food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity."

"Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle. That is the goal towards which we are already moving, though, of course, we have no intention of getting there; just as a man who drinks a bottle of whiskey a day does not actually intend to get cirrhosis of the liver."

"One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England."

"We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture 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."

"If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"

"We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working classes where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches."

Book title

The name of the book comes from a music hall routine by a British comedian. Although a pier is a structure built out into the water from the shore, in Britain the term has the connotation of a seaside holiday. Wigan was a small grimy mill town on a canal accessed by boats via an offloading structure, although it primarily used land transport. Hence the music hall joke of a mill town with its own seaside resort, and Orwell's choice of title implied his belief that socialism could improve life to an unprecedented degree even in a mill town.

Geographically, Wigan Pier is the name given today to the area around the canal at the bottom of the Wigan flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The original "pier" at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, probably a wooden jetty, where wagons of coal from a nearby colliery were unloaded into waiting barges on the canal. The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929, with the iron from the tippler being sold as scrap.[3]

Reviews and criticism

The book was reviewed on 14 March 1937 by Edward Shanks, for The Sunday Times, and by Hugh Massingham, for the The Observer.[4]

Harry Pollitt reviewed the book for the 17 March 1937 issue of Daily Worker.[5]


George Orwell, a Life by Bernard Crick - Penguin 1980

  1. ^ Bernard Crick, ‘Blair, Eric Arthur [George Orwell] (1903–1950)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)
  2. ^ D. J. Taylor Orwell: The Life Chatto & Windus 2003
  3. ^ "Wigan Pier". Pennine Waterways.  
  4. ^ The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Vol. 1 - 96
  5. ^ The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Vol 1 p.297 (Penguin)

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) by George Orwell is a sociological look at living conditions in the industrial north of England before World War II.

  • I have noticed that people who let lodgings nearly always hate their lodgers. They want their money but they look on them as intruders and have a curiously watchful, jealous attitude which at bottom is a determination not to let the lodger make himself too much at home.
    • Ch. 1
  • Columbus sailed the Atlantic, the first steam engines tottered into motion, the British squares stood firm under the French guns at Waterloo, the one-eyed scoundrels of the nineteenth century praised God and filled their pockets; and this is where it all led to - to labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles.
    • Ch. 1
  • I am not a manual labourer and please God I shall never be one, but there are some kinds of manual work that I could do if I had to. At a pinch I could be a tolerable road-sweeper or an inefficient gardener or even a tenth-rate farm hand. But by no conceivable amount of effort or training could I become a coal-miner; the work would kill me in a few weeks.
    • Ch. 2
  • It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an 'intellectual' and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior.
    • Ch. 2
  • This business of petty inconvenience and indignity, of being kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people's convenience, is inherent in working-class life. A thousand influences constantly press a working man down into a passive role. He does not act, he is acted upon. He feels himself the slave of mysterious authority and has a firm conviction that 'they' will never allow him to do this, that, and the other.
    • Ch. 3
  • In almost any revolt the leaders would tend to be people who could pronounce their aitches.
    • Ch. 3
  • In such places as these a woman is only a poor drudge muddling among an infinity of jobs. She may keep up her spirits, but she cannot keep up her standards of cleanliness and tidiness. There is always something to be done, and no conveniences and almost literally not room to turn round. No sooner have you washed one child's face than another is dirty; before you have washed the crocks from one meal the next is due to be cooked.
    • Ch. 4
  • Alas! Wigan Pier had been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.
    • Ch. 4
  • London is a sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it, and it is so vast that life there is solitary and anonymous. Until you break the law nobody will take any notice of you, and you can go to pieces as you could not possibly do in a place where you had neighbours who knew you.
    • Ch. 5
  • It it curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognised. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but not to cooks or bacon-curers or market-gardeners.
    • Ch. 6
  • Tea, the Englishman's opium.
    • Ch. 6
  • The English palate, especially the working-class palate, now rejects good food almost automatically.
    • Ch. 6
  • There exists in England a curious cult of Northernness, sort of Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only in the North that life is 'real' life, that the industrial work done in the North is the only 'real' work, that the North is inhabited by 'real' people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites.
    • Ch. 7
  • The Southerner goes north, at any rate for the first time, with the vague inferiority-complex of a civilized man venturing among savages.
    • Ch. 7
  • This nonsense about the superior energy of the English (actually the laziest people in Europe) has been current for at least a hundred years.
    • Ch. 7
  • There is at least a tinge of truth in that picture of Southern England as one enormous Brighton inhabited by lounge-lizards.
    • Ch. 7
  • In a Lancashire cotton-town you could probably go for months on end without once hearing an “educated” accent, whereas there can hardly be a town in the South of England where you could throw a brick without hitting the niece of a bishop.
    • Ch. 7
  • Our age has not been altogether a bad one to live in.
    • Ch. 7
  • This is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist. All his opinions change into their opposites at the first brush of reality.
    • Ch. 10
  • The modern English literary world, at any rate the high-brow section of it, is a sort of poisonous jungle where only weeds can flourish.
    • Ch. 10
  • We spend our lives in abusing England but grow very angry when we hear a foreigner saying exactly the same things.
    • Ch. 10
  • Perhaps this class-breaking business isn't so simple as it looked! On the contrary, it is a wild ride into the darkness, and it may be that at the end of it the smile will be on the face of the tiger. With loving though slightly patronizing smiles we set out to greet our proletarian brothers, and behold! our proletarian brothers - in so far as we understand them - are not asking for our greetings, they are asking us to commit suicide. When the bourgeois sees it in that form he takes to flight.
    • Ch. 10
  • The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.
    • Ch. 11
  • As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.
    • Ch. 11
  • In addition to this there is the horrible - the really disquieting - prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
    • Ch. 11
  • To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about. To the more revolutionary type, the type who is a hunger-marcher and is blacklisted by employers, the word is a sort of rallying-cry against the forces of oppression, a vague threat of future violence.
    • Ch. 11
  • The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. The present state of affairs offends them not because it causes misery, still less because it makes freedom impossible, but because it is untidy; what they desire, basically, is to reduce the world to something resembling a chess-board.
    • Ch. 11
  • The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.
    • Ch. 11
  • The high-water mark, so to speak, of Socialist literature is W. H. Auden, a sort of gutless Kipling, and the even feebler poets who are associated with him.
    • Ch. 11
  • It is usual to speak of the Fascist objective as the 'beehive state', which does grave injustice to bees. A world of rabbits ruled by stoats would be nearer the mark.
    • Ch. 12
  • Sometimes when I listen to these people talking, and still more when I read their books, I get the impression that, to them, the whole Socialist movement is no more than a kind of exciting heresy-hunt - a leaping to and fro of frenzied witch-doctors to the beat of tom-toms and the tune of 'Fee fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a right-wing deviationist!'
    • Ch. 13
  • And then perhaps this misery of class-prejudice will fade away, and we of the sinking middle class…may sink without further struggles into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.
    • Ch. 13

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