Watched In Wigan 1936

How the secret state kept watch on Orwell in Wigan

It is easy to forget that while George Orwell was in the North of England in early 1936 researching the plight of the poor (published in the following year as The Road to Wigan Pier) he was being followed all the time closely by the secret state.

Orwell’s Special Branch file (MEPO 38/69), covering material from 1936 to 1942 and running to around 24 pages, and his MI5 file (KV 2/2699), spanning 1936 to 1951 and containing 38 pages, were released in 2005 and 2007 respectively. And they reveal that from the moment Orwell began his career as a radical journalist in Paris in the late 1920s, Big Brother was following him.

On 24 February 1936, the Chief Constable of Wigan, Thomas Pey, reported Orwell’s involvement with the communists while he was researching The Road to Wigan Pier, passing on a letter from John Duffy, DC 79, to a certain “Det Insp. Cockram” (catalogue reference MEPO/38/39). Orwell is described as “about 36 yrs, 6ft, slim build, long pale face”. Duffy continues:

I beg to report that this man has been staying in Wigan from Monday, the 10th instant at an apartment house in a working class district in this borough. I understand that a member of the local Communist Party was instrumental in finding Blair accommodation. Blair attended a Communist meeting in this town addressed by Wal Hannington on the 10th instant. It would appear from his mode of living that he is an author, or has some connection with literary work as he devotes most of his time in writing. He has also collected an amount of local data e.g. number of churches, public houses, population etc and is in receipt of an unusual amount of correspondence … In addition to correspondence from England, he is also in receipt of letters from France and I saw a newspaper which appeared to be the French counterpart of the “Daily Worker”. In view of the association which this man has formed with the local Communist Party during his visit to Wigan, I respectfully suggest further enquiries be made with a view to establishing his identity.

Significantly, a report for British intelligence, dated 11 March 1936 (coded 301/NWC/683), as Orwell was completing his researches in the North, commented:

Shortly after resigning from the Indian Police, Blair went to France, and for some time eked out a precarious living as a free lance [sic] journalist. Whilst in Paris, he took an interest in the activities of the French Communist Party, and spent a good deal of time studying “L’Humanité”. Information is not available to show whether he was an active supporter of the revolutionary movement in France, but it is known that whilst there, he offered his service to the “Workers’ Life”, the forerunner of the “Daily Worker”, as Paris correspondent.

Special Branch’s same report shows the high degree of surveillance directed at Orwell, his every career and life move being recorded. For instance, it records the publication in 1934 of Burmese Days by “Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 14 Henrietta Street, W.C., a firm which specialises in Left Wing literature”. His time as a “down and out”, his becoming a “master at a preparatory school known as ‘The Hawthorns’, Church Road, Hayes, Middlesex” and then at Fray’s College, Harefield Road, Uxbridge, Middlesex until the end of 1933, and his time as a patient at Uxbridge and District Cottage Hospital are all noted.

Later in the report, Special Branch notes that Blair worked at Booklovers’ Corner in Hampstead owned by Francis Gregory Westrope who “is known to hold socialist views, considers himself an ‘intellectual’” and is suspected of “handling correspondence of a revolutionary character”. A Metropolitan Police report of 25 August 1936 (301/NWC/683) suggests that they considered charging Westrope for contravening the registration of Business Names Act 1916 – but in the end decided against.

Later in 1936, Orwell handed over the manuscript of The Road to Wigan Pier to his publisher Victor Gollancz, who was also being closely followed by British intelligence. Intriguingly, a copy of a review of the book by Ethel Mannin (author and friend of Orwell), in the New Leader of 12 March 1937, is included in Orwell’s Metropolitan Police file, dated 30 March 1937 (301/NWC/683). She wrote:

There is a great deal in this book which the informed Socialist will find irritating and even infuriating, silly, and a tilting at windmills. But it is worth-while for its first part and because, if only they can be persuaded to read it, it will do a great many people who see no case for Socialism so much good.

The Metropolitan Police report comments:

It is of interest to note that according to Ethel Mannin’s review, Blair is now fighting in Spain with the P.O.U.M in Bob Edwards’ contingent. Edwards left this country on 10-1-37 in charge of a party of I.L.P. recruits who were proceeding to Spain to fight for the Government forces.

The secret state’s surveillance of Orwell continued until he died early in 1950. But by that time, he may well have joined the spooks – following on from his friendship with David Astor, later editor of the Observer, who had extremely close ties to intelligence.

Richard Lance Keeble,

Chair of The Orwell Society

The Road To Wigan Pier, at ALRA, Wigan, March 11th 2017

As part of its weekend in Wigan to commemorate the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, the Orwell Society and the public were treated on Saturday evening to an excellent and illuminating adaption by students at ALRA North of chapter one of the book: George Orwell’s life after he took lodgings in “the tripe shop”.

ALRA 1The approach of the students to the work was simple, yet highly original and totally effective; with four elements to the production:

visual images of the condition of Wigan housing in the 1930s,

the exact narrative of the book,

the very effective use of movement and voice from the actors focussing on the characters in the Darlington Street tripe shop, and the streets around,

and a use of props to add a little humour, as Orwell actually did.

The original text was used for the production, rather than an adapted script, so the audience were able to feel the full force of Orwell’s objective and emphatic language which was complemented by the images and movement.ALRA 2

We were able to get a full picture of the condition of Wigan’s housing and work in the 1930s.

The cast’s approach to the play was impressive in terms of well-polished professionalism, very appropriate application of voice, and even facial expression. “Very well acted” is the term I would use.

ALRA 3Some things stood out in this production:

the continuous activity of the household (which meant continuous labour for the women);

brilliant use of props which changed their function in an instant (in the discovery of the full chamber pot, for example);

and, contrarily, in the absence of props. The scene which closes the play – Orwell’s view from a train of a woman clearing a drainpipe – which featured Orwell on a train, the woman, but no pipe – was a brilliant use of “less is more” and a fine but horrifying point on which to end.

This was a real treat for Orwell aficionados, and anyone just generally interested in Wigan’s social history. We hope that this work can be developed further and that we will see it again.

Thank you, ALRA, and Jane Vicary who oversaw this project.

David Craik, the Orwell Society

The Cast

ALRA 4The cast, with Quentin Kopp left; Richard Blair seated centre; Jane Vickery seated on RB’s left

George Orwell:

Jamie-Ash Townsend


Zoey Barnes

Victoria Burrows

Beth Nolan

Alexi Papadopoulos

Patrick Price

Daisy Roberts

Sophie Ward

Supported and directed by Jane Vicary (Head of Voice) and Michael White (Head of Movement)

Tech and Front of House: Kimberley Night, Jamie Trotter and Sorcha McCaffrey


Nineteen Eighty Four in Pittsburgh – “A trip worth making”

In the autumn of 2016 I was informed that Prime Stage Theatre in Pittsburgh were staging a production of Nineteen Eighty Four and would I, via the Orwell Society, be willing to come over and be present at the opening night. After some consideration I agreed that if they paid for my accommodation and a donation to the society, I would be willing to finance my travel. This was all agreed and on Thursday 2nd March 2017 I flew over to Pittsburgh, where I was made very welcome and met some of the executives on Friday morning and had an private tour with a guide of the Heinz History Centre (Pittsburgh being the headquarters of the company), This was followed by a most agreeable dinner and tour of the (Helen) Frick Gallery in the evening, with its magnificent art collection, part of the Henry Frick collection of New York. I was entertained by Mr and Mrs Nicolson, the curator of the gallery, Prof. Russell, English Professor, specialising in Orwell studies, Jonathon Seaton, Director of the Pittsburgh Opera and Robert Charlesworth, who is a director of Britburg, an organisation dedicated to Pittsburgh-British connections. So ended the first day.

RBlair QandA

Saturday dawned sunny and cold and at 09.30 I was picked up by Wayne Brinda, who has organised my visit and is also the Treasurer of the Prime Stage, who took me to a children’s radio programme, where three very switched on 14 year girls asked me questions about Orwell, I also spoke a little about my life with him. This lasted for about forty five minutes and went out all over the States. Following the interview I was then driven to an out of town mall to take part in a discussion with members of the public at Barnes and Noble, a very large book shop. When I arrived there were about forty people waiting, so at about 11.45 I gave them an introduction to the origins of Nineteen Eighty Four and my life on Jura. This was followed by a Q and A session, lasting about an hour, after which I did a book signing session for the next ninety minutes, not just one book per person, but two or three. I was surprised at the number of first editions I saw, plus several copies of the “Facsimiles”.

BlairStage-jpgPhotograph from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At 06.30 in the evening I was taken to the theatre to meet the cast prior to the first night and more book signings. The performance was excellent, quite conventional, but with an extremely funny sequence at the beginning of the second half, between Winston and Julia, before the startling climax of their capture. To those in the audience, who were not familiar to the story and there were some, this came as a powerful shock. At the end I was called out in front of the audience, who were by this time giving a standing ovation, to present one of the Barnhill slates. I decided to  make the presentation to the theatre as a whole, so it would include everybody. I also took the opportunity to explain the significance of the award, which seemed to go down with immense appreciation. There then followed another long session of book signing until the theatre closed. It was at this point that Wayne Brinda and his wife Connie, who is the secretary, informed me that the board had approved a donation of $1000 plus 40% of all book sales of not only Nineteen Eighty Four but also Animal Farm and The Road To Wigan Pier made during the run of the play to the Orwell Society. They are an amateur theatre company, who rent the premises from the city council, so they are not flush with money. It is a theatre of about 320 seats and I am reliably informed that most seats are booked for the duration until it finishes on the 12th March.

The next day was the matinee performance and before the start I was invited in to the dressing room to meet the cast again, where I recited that rather raunchy poem, “Romance” This went down with rather well. They appreciated the humour. There followed an “afternoon tea” to meet the son of Orwell! More speeches and  book signing before the afternoon performance. At the end I was again invited out to the front and to take a bow with the cast, followed by a proclamation by a city councillor that this was to be known as “Orwell Day”, to which I presented another slate to the City of Pittsburgh, more explanations, photos and then a talk to the audience about my life with Orwell, followed by another Q and A. and book signing.

So ended a very full two days and by all accounts Prime Stage Theatre Co got their monies-worth. Their enthusiasm knew no bounds, so I took it that they were satisfied with my visit. The day ended with another excellent dinner at one of Pittsburgh’s finest Italian restaurants, where I presented Wayne and Connie Brinda with the last of the slates I had taken out and in return I was given an etched profile of the city in aluminium, plus a cheque for $1000. The money from the book sales will follow on later. I returned home on the morning of the 6th March relaxed in the knowledge that it had been a trip worth making..


Richard Blair: 9th March 2017


The Road To Wigan Pier published March 8th 1937


March 10th – 12th Orwell Society commemorations, with friends, in Wigan. Full itinerary.

George Orwell was on the Aragon front in Spain, while his wife Eileen ran the Independent Labour Party office in Barcelona. In Britain Victor Gollancz published The Road To Wigan Pier under his own imprint as a hardback, and as a Left Book Club edition  in soft-cover linen.

Wikipedia illustration

Wikipedia on The Road To Wigan Pier

Follow the Orwell Society’s activities on Facebook, from March 7th.


Orwell Takes Coffee in Huesca – A Wonderful Exhibition

Richard Blair reports on his recent visit to Spain where he and Quentin Kopp joined in the opening of <<Orwell toma café en Huesca>> (Orwell Takes Coffee In Huesca).

Over the weekend of Friday 17th to Sunday the 19th of Feb. Quentin Kopp and I went to Huesca in Aragon at the invitation of the President of Aragon, Javier Lamban, Miguel Gracia, the President of Huesca and Luis Serrate, the Mayor of Huesca, as guests to take part in the opening of a wonderful exhibition entitled “Orwell Takes Coffee in Huesca”, organised and put together by Victor Pardo Lancina, a journalist and historian, who has been involved since the early part of the 2000 with the promotion of George Orwell and his understanding of events in Aragon during the Spanish Civil War. Victor devised and set up a wonderful museum in the little town of Robres, not far from Huesca and also created the Ruta de Orwell in the mountains of Alcubierre, where the trenches that Orwell and Georges Kopp fought in have been restored.

On Friday morning I had an interview with Huesca TV, before Quentin and I walked up to the museum in warm spring sunshine with Victor, his interpreter Elena Torralba and another Elena, Elena Gomez Zazurca, who was to be my interpreter for the address I was asked to give at the opening of the exhibition. On arrival, we were introduced to the local dignitaries and just had time to have a quick look at some of the exhibits and photos before the formal proceedings took place at midday.

_DSC5316Richard Blair speaks at the opening of the Orwell takes Coffee in Huesca Exhibition

After my address, I presented Barnhill Slates to the two presidents and the mayor, before we went inside the Museum for a tour conducted by Victor. Later on, in the evening, Quentin and I returned to take part in much longer tour given by Victor to an invited audience, during which Quentin


Richard Blair (Foreground), Quentin Kopp at his left shoulder

and I were able to explain some of the details arising from the photos and captions. When the museum closed at 21.00 we all retired to a local bar, where we relaxed with some of Victors friends and the feeling was that the day had gone extremely well. What I found most humbling was how many people came up to me to express their gratitude to my father for helping to create understanding about what happened during the time of the war. Thus, ended the first day with a trip to Monflorite scheduled for Saturday.

The day dawned fresh and sunny and after breakfast we made a visit to the Bookshop that sells a lot of Orwell’s books, this was followed by a very pleasant tour of the town and a continuation of a discussion that had started the day before about a proposal to have a statue of Orwell commissioned for the town and which would be entitled “Orwell Takes Coffee in Huesca” We had a lengthy debate as to how the statue should be displayed. I felt that he should be seen as photographed by Vernon Richards (I have since modified my stance at the suggestion of my wife, that he should be seen as he might have been dressed when he was in the trenches).

We then, that is Victor, Quent, Marc Wildemeersch (the author of George Orwell’s Commander in Spain), who had joined us the night before, our two Elenas and myself, drove out to La Granga, the farm that Orwell was billeted on and where the rats “as big as cats” inhabited the church. We were warmly welcomed by Pedro, the owner and in the course of a rather brief visit, were invited to have lunch when we come back in May with the Society. An invitation we were delighted to accept. We now had an appointment with the Mayor of Monflorite, the village where Orwell was treated for a septic hand and not far from La Granga. Most of the village turned out to see both the Mayor and myself unveil a plaque to Orwell, but not before I was cordially invited to the Mayor’s parlour to sign the visitors book. I have to say that the Mayor, a most attractive young lady and I were not alone during the signing! After the appropriate speeches

_DSC5533Richard Blair (Left), holding flag of Aragon

were made we all retired for drinks and tapas and I was presented with the Aragon flag that had covered the plaque.

This pretty much ended the formal proceedings and the rest of the day and evening was given over to more food and drink and another informal tour of the exhibition plus the art gallery at the museum. The evening followed on with a tour of the casino in the town square, where it is hoped to put up the Orwell statue, or rather the figure of Orwell sitting down at a table with his coffee. Finally, six of us then went and had a typically late Spanish supper, where Quentin gave Victor a Barnhill Slate as a token our grateful thanks for all the wonderful work he has put into this enterprise. This was a weekend that we will remember for a very long time.

As a foot note, on the way home Quentin and I were interviewed by the Deputy Editor of El Pais, when we arrived at Atocha station in Madrid. The article has since appeared on the web site.

Richard Blair

February 2017

The Exhibition <<Orwell toma café en Huesca>> (Orwell Takes Coffee In Huesca) continues to the 25th June in the Museo de Huesca. Use the Ruta de Orwell to explore the restored trenches and dugouts beyond the town at any time.

March 10th-12th – Remembering The Road To Wigan Pier

A Weekend to Commemorate

the Publication of

George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier

in March 1937, Eighty Years Ago

Day & Time


Event Information

Friday 10th March

7.30 PM

Sunshine House Annex, Wellington St,

Wigan WN1 3SA

A joint event with Wigan Diggers’ Festival, Sunshine House Community Hub and The Orwell Society

  • 7.30 – introductions

  • 7.45 – Professor John Newsinger’ s talk ‘From Wigan Pier to Nineteen Eighty-Four’ plus Q&A

  • 8.45ish – raffle and buffet

  • 9.15ish – “Chonkinfeckle” Wigan duo, ukulele and anecdotes, supported by Louise Fazackerly with a few poems

  • 10.30 til close, a bit of music.

Saturday 11th March

9.30 AM Until Midday followed by light lunch

Sunshine House Annex, Wellington St,

Wigan WN1 3SA

  • 9.30 Barbara Nettleton will give an informal talk about the role and work of Sunshine House for Orwell Society Members, but all are welcome to join this event.

  • 10.00 Formal Opening and Welcome to Wigan by Councillor Ron Conway, Mayor of Wigan.

  • Response on behalf of The Orwell Society by George Orwell’s son and Patron of The Orwell Society, Richard Blair.

Events this morning will be compered by Alan Gregory.

You will see the results of the work done by enthusiastic local people of all ages working with Wigan Poet Louise Fazackerly since Autumn 2016 when they attended workshops with Authors from English PEN.

  • SupercalifragilisticexpialiWriters from St Patrick’s RC Primary School will read poems they have written inspired by The Road to Wigan Pier (RTWP).

  • The Sunshine Writers group, who meet at Sunshine House, will perform dramatic pieces, which they have written interspersed with Memories of their personal experiences, which they recalled while in the Workshop and afterwards working with Louise.

  • A short interval

  • The Future Writers, who are pupils from senior schools in Wigan, will perform a Dystopian drama, which they have written inspired by RTWP. The idea was created by them after working with Louise.

  • Alan Gregory, your compere and his group Pianos, Pies and Pirouettes, will lead us in singing 3 songs, which he has written, which have been created from key passages in RTWP.

  • Stephen Armstrong – Author of Road to Wigan Pier Re-visited

  • Quentin Kopp on behalf of The Orwell Society and Donna Hall, Chief Executive of Wigan Council on behalf of Wigan.

Sandwich lunch at the venue.

Saturday 11th March

1PM to 3PM

Museum of Wigan Life, Library Street, Wigan, WN1 1NU

From the web site

The Museum of Wigan Life is housed in Wigan’s first public library and first public building with electric lighting. Alfred Waterhouse designed the building, which opened in 1878 and also designed the Natural History Museum in London and Manchester Town Hall

The event will be held where in 1936 George Orwell researched his book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in the Reference Library (now Family History and Local Studies) upstairs. Members of The Orwell Society will give talks on research they have conducted for this weekend.

  • Introduction to the Event by Les Hurst of The Orwell Society. ‘George Orwell’s Long Walk to Wigan Pier’:

A talk on how and why Orwell came to write the book, and how it came to be published and the derivation of the book’s title.

  • “Seeing What Orwell Chose to See in Wigan”. Dr David Craik has conducted research in the same material, which Orwell used when it was located in this room. He will talk and present original photos and material from that time.

  • Tim Foster – photos and presentation of Wigan Now.

  • ‘Poverty of Aspiration? No one aspires to Poverty’: Les Hurst will give a talk on conditions in post 1929 England

Questions are welcome after each speaker’s talk.

6PM to 7PM

The Mill at the Pier, ALRA North’s theatre

Trencherfield Mill Wigan, Greater Manchester

WN3 4B

  • Introduction to the Work of Sunshine House by Barbara Nettleton.

  • Plays have been created by current students supported by Lecturers and former Students of ALRA. The plays have been written by the students and inspired by RTWP

Sunday 12th March

10am – 11am

The Old Courts,

Gerrard Winstanley House, Crawford Street, Wigan, WN1 1NA

  • This morning’s event will include film of Wigan from 1936 and a tour of The Old Courts building

The Orwell Society

The Wigan Diggers’ Festival

The Orwell Society on Facebook

The Orwell Society would like to thank Wigan Borough council and its leaders and staff; the Museum of Wigan Life; Sunshine House and its staff and members; Stephen Armstrong; Louise Fazackerley; ALRA, staff and students, the Wigan Diggers; and everyone else who has helped during the two years we have been planning this 80th anniversary commemoration.

The Lion and the Unicorn: An Anniversary Commemoration

George Orwell’s war-time call to change, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialsm and the English Genius, was published on February 19th, 1941. On this February 19th, Dr Philip Bounds, author of Orwell and Marxism and an Orwell Society member, takes a look at Orwell’s book, paying particular attention to its first part, ‘England Your England’.

George Orwell’s response to the outbreak of the Second World War was a highly unusual one. Unlike many other people on the socialist left ˗ and in spite of the vigorous anti-war sentiments expressed in his writings of the late 1930s ˗ Orwell believed that Britain had no choice but to take up arms against Hitler’s Germany and its fascist allies. On the other hand, he rejected the idea that the war could only be won if patriotic Britons rallied around the existing government. Having seen the depths to which market forces had reduced the country during the slump, Orwell firmly believed that Britain would have to abolish capitalism and embrace socialism if the challenge of fascism was to be met. His message to his fellow countrymen was as startling as it was quixotic: War and revolution are two sides of the same coin. Without a socialist government to guide the country at its hour of supreme crisis, Britain may not have the strength it needs to consign Hitler and his armies to the dustbin of history.

LU 1
Orwell continued to think along these lines until at least the end of 1941. His most memorable account of his revolutionary war strategy can be found in The Lion and the Unicorn, a brief but deeply inspired book written in the Autumn of 1940 as German bombs rained down on London. Published by Secker & Warburg in February 1941 as part of the Searchlight series of books which Orwell co-edited with Tosco Fyvel, it aimed to persuade its readers that “We cannot win the war without introducing Socialism, nor establish Socialism without winning the war”.*1 But it also did something else. Drawing on all Orwell’s skills as an analyst of popular culture, it sought to relate its proposals for political action to an ambitious and highly suggestive interpretation of the English character.

Orwell’s goal in writing about the nature of Englishness was clear. Knowing that socialism had often been dismissed by its opponents as an alien creed, Orwell set out to show that there was actually a perfect fit between the politics of the left and the English people’s most enduring characteristics. His concern was not so much with the historical evolution of the English character as with the average Englishman’s bedrock habits and assumptions. According to Orwell, whose descriptive flights of fancy in the section entitled “England Your England” are as lyrical as anything he ever wrote, the English people were marked out by their gentleness, their hunger for privacy and their support for the underdog. These characteristics made them instinctively suspicious of the powerful and imbued them with a deep concern for the well-being of ordinary people. Although their freewheeling concern for freedom and justice had once made them sympathetic to liberalism, it was now increasingly clear (or so Orwell argued) that their deepest instincts could only be fully satisfied if they shifted radically to the left: “By revolution we become more ourselves, not less”.*2

Searchlight Books Cover
No reader can today feel entirely comfortable with Orwell’s musings about Englishness. Recent scholarship has shown us that national cultures are far more artificial, fragmented and historically changeable than Orwell seemed to believe. Nevertheless, The Lion and the Unicorn represents a high watermark in the British left’s efforts to invent a form of radical patriotism. Intent on challenging the association between patriotism and the political right, it serves as a salutary reminder that radical movements must always root themselves in the immemorial instincts of the people they claim to represent. It also serves as a useful entry point to the wider political culture of the 1930s and 1940s. Although many commentators have argued that Orwell’s fascination with Englishness set him apart from his radical contemporaries, The Lion and the Unicorn was one of many works in which the inter-war left tried to annex the English national character to the socialist cause. Especially influential in Orwellian circles were the abundant writings on the so-called “English radical tradition” produced by members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). This body of work, exemplified by a series of seminal books and articles by the likes of Jack Lindsay, Edgell Rickword and A.L. Morton, had its roots in the politics of anti-fascism. Taking their lead from a famous speech by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov’s at the 1935 Congress of the Communist International, British Marxists believed that Hitler, Mussolini and their ilk had won the support of ordinary people by posing as the modern inheritors of their respective national traditions. Their response was to argue that English national traditions had far more in common with the politics of the socialist left than with those of the fascist right, not least because the real history of England had been marked a by a titanic succession of popular struggles for social justice and democracy. The spirit of this attempt to reclaim Englishness for the left was summed up in Lindsay’s ringing declaration that “Communism is English”.*3 Although Orwell was often bitterly critical of the communist interpretation of Englishness, The Lion and the Unicorn addressed similar themes and subtly reworked some of its central arguments.

Jack Lindsay England My England
Some people might blanch at the idea that Orwell was influenced by communist texts, but his debt to the CPGB’s intellectuals is not as surprising as it may seem. The communists were among the only people in inter-war Britain seeking to analyse culture from a socialist perspective. As one of the few other writers whose understanding of culture was shaped by socialist ideas, Orwell naturally paid close attention to what they said. Many of his non-fiction writings either restate, develop or refute the communist position. It is just another example of Orwell’s admirably broad-minded capacity to learn from his enemies.

LU 1


  1.  George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1941]), p. 100.

  2.  Ibid., p. 123.

  3.  See Jack Lindsay, England My England: A Pageant of the English People (London: Fore Publications, n.d. [1939]), p. 64.

Orwell Takes Coffee In Huesca 2017

<<Orwell toma café en Huesca>>

Commemorating the 80th anniversary of George Orwell’s arrival on the Aragon Front, the exhibition runs in Huesca from 17th February to the 25th June in the Museo de Huesca.

Present at the opening were Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, and Quentin Kopp, son of Orwell’s commander Georges Kopp, as well as leading figures from Spain and the regional government.

The event is curated by Victor Pardo.

Announcement by the government of Aragon.

The Orwell Society provided detailed coverage of the opening via links to newspaper and media reports on the 17th and 18th February, via its Facebook page.


Gerrard Winstanley, Diggers, Orwell and Reynolds


Gerrard Winstanley, born in Wigan and for a time a successful mercer before the upsets of the 1640s, was a leader of, and polemicist for, the Diggers, a small offshoot of the better-known and more powerful Levellers; the Levellers were themselves part of – though they were ultimately suppressed – the Puritan and Parliamentary opposition during the English Civil War and consequent Commonwealth (1649-1660).

In September 1944 George Orwell reviewed Selections from the Works of Gerrard Winstanley, edited by Leonard Hamilton with an Introduction by Christopher Hill. The Cresset Press had published a large octavo volume of 198 pages in a mainly khaki dustwrapper. Despite being produced in complete conformity to the war economy standards, its printers, the Chapel River Press, had made a volume of such quality that copies have survived in remarkably pristine condition today, seventy-odd years later.


We understand that the copy reviewed by Orwell was passed onto Michael Foot, who in turn passed it to its current owner, in another example of production quality being proved in its continued existence.

Orwell begins his review with a modern reference: ‘Every successful revolution has its June purge’, though he does not specify which June he is referring to, as this appears to be a popular month for revolutionaries to be suppressed: the Girondins in France in June 1793, the Nazis in June 1934, and the Stalinist opposition in June 1937. After more discussion Orwell expands on the suppression: ‘… the Diggers were swiftly crushed. The parvenu gentry who had won the civil war were willing enough to divide the lands of the Royalists among themselves but they had no intention of setting up an egalitarian society.’ Orwell points out that the troops sent against the Diggers tended to be sympathetic, as the Levellers were most active in the army, but Winstanley and his colleagues were driven off, and he ‘vanishes from history about 1660’.

Orwell in his review – it appeared in The Observer – does not quote other works, but his friend Reginald Reynolds was a Quaker and a historical pamphlet collector, who was familiar with the literature of the Civil War. Together Orwell and Reynolds would publish British Pamphleteers, an anthology of historic literature including Winstanley and other radicals.

Many reading Orwell’s review, though, would be familiar with the background to the revolutionary figures of the English Civil War through a number of books published in the previous decade. In 1940 the Left Book Club offered its members David W Petegorsky’s Left-Wing Democracy in the English Civil War.

LWDECW_fThe title sounds general, but the sub-title makes its subject explicit: ‘A Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley’. The copy shown belonged to a student who was familiarising themself with economics and history. Notes on the endpapers refer to ‘Economic theory of revolution’, ‘natural law gave no justification of private property’, ‘”to know the secrets of nature is to know the works of God”‘, and ‘morality social [sic] determined & human nature a product of social conditions’ (this last, of course, Marx’s concept of base and superstructure). Christopher Hill’s Introduction to the Selections refers to Petegorsky’s book.

A work on the wider area, with a chapter on Winstanley, had been published in H J Stenning’s English translation: Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution by Edward Bernstein. ‘Cromwell and Communism’ appears to be an addition to the title by either Stenning or his publishers, George Allan and Unwin in 1930, as Petegorsky in an appendix refers to the book in its 1895 German original as Sozialismus und Demokratie in der grossen Englischen Revolution, while its English title appears in his bibliography. It was reprinted in 1980 by Spokesman Books.

CAC_EB_fAccording to Orwell, ‘Winstanley’s thought links up with Anarchism rather than Socialism because he thinks in terms of a purely agricultural community living at a low level of comfort’.  Orwell goes onto to examine Winstanley’s complaint against the ‘Normans’, whom he blamed for the historic loss of common rights, on which Orwell would expand in his Introduction to British Pamphleteers. In his review, meanwhile, Orwell returned to the theme of his first sentence: ‘But alas! he (Winstanley) could see only too clearly that the victors of the civil war were themselves developing “Norman” characteristics.’ With hindsight we can now read a suggestion of Winstanley in Orwell’s own story of agricultural betrayal, Animal Farm.

Orwell’s review was criticized later in the month by Reg Groves for failing to emphasise Winstanley’s visionary side, but Groves retracted his complaint after hearing that this aspect had been cut by the newspaper subeditors on space grounds from the article submitted by Orwell. Groves – who was a member of the Balham Group, the original British Trotskyists – had received a sideways acknowledgement from Orwell in an earlier discussion of the Civil War.

In the conclusion to his 1940 review of The English Revolution: 1640, a collection of essays edited by Christopher Hill, Orwell wrote ‘The most interesting essay of the three, by Miss Margaret James, is on the materialistic interpretations of society which were already current in the mid-seventeenth century … It is a pity that Miss James fails to make a comparison between the seventeenth-century situation and the one we are now in. A parallel undoubtedly exists, although from the official Marxist [Orwell means CPGB] point of view the latter-day equivalents of the Diggers and Levellers happen to be unmentionable.’ One can infer from this pointed remark that Orwell and Groves had made the Digger comparison before.

BP_Contents 2

A poor quality reproduction of the contents page of British Pamphleteers, calling Winstanley ‘Gerard’.

Outside his collaboration with Reginal Reynolds, Orwell’s last comment on the Diggers seems to have come in ‘The Intellectual Revolt’, his 1946 essay series in the Manchester Evening News. Each essay was a thematic review. In the second, ‘What Is Socialism’ (an essay much less well-known than ‘What Is Fascism?’, because this series did not appear in the 1968 Collected Essays Journalism and Letters), Orwell concludes by considering Winstanley’s Selections, uses the words primitve Communism crushed by Cromwell, and then says ‘The “earthly paradise” has never been realised, but as an idea it never seems to perish in spite of the ease with which it can be debunked by practical politicians of all colours’. He ends ‘… it could be  claimed that the Utopians, at present a scattered minority, are the true upholders of Socialist tradition’.

by L J Hurst

Last updated February 12 2017



  • Orwell’s reviews of Winstanley and the Commonwealth can be found most easily in Orwell and Politics edited by Peter Davison (Penguin Books). It is Professor Davison’s detailed note that clarifies Reg Groves’ complaint and Orwell’s response about editorial abridgement.
  • Interest in Gerrard Winstanley, and inspiration for activities in line with his thought, is maintained by the Wigan Diggers. They now hold an annual festival in commemoration and celebration.
  • Quaker tradition has it that Winstanley joined their number – something mentioned by Bernstein, but Petegorsky has some quotations from the Restoration period suggesting that Winstanley was then regarded as a turncoat, who may have become a successful enclosed farmer.