The Road to Wigan Pier

by George Orwell

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For most countries the Great Depression began following the New York stock market crash of 1929. In Great Britain, the Depression merely worsened an already depressed economy that had been hard hit by the consequences of World War I. Between mid-1922 and 1929, the British economy had lurched from one crisis to another, with almost one-fifth of the adult male working force being on welfare (the dole) by 1929. Following the American stock market crash, the situation worsened, especially in northern England, the heart of British heavy industrial strength, where unemployment soon reached the one-third mark. Faced with an economic catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude, British politicians were unable to adopt measures which might have dealt humanely with the misery. Many intellectuals of the period, having lost faith in the political parties of the day, turned to socialism or to Marxism for cures to their country’s economic maladies.

One group, the Left Book Club, provided its forty thousand subscribers with a monthly book whose aim was “to help in the terribly urgent struggle for World Peace & a better social & economic order & against Fascism, by giving . . . such knowledge as will immensely increase their efficiency.” Coeditors Victor Gollancz, Harold Laski, and John Strachey commissioned authors to write works suitable to this task. One of the authors selected was George Orwell, then considered to be a developing voice for socialism. What the editors envisioned was a work in the tradition of Friedrich Engels’ Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England (1845; The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844, 1887) or Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1891-1903). What the editors received was not quite what they had anticipated.

Orwell was asked in January of 1936 to make a study of the unemployed in depressed areas of northern England. Over the following two months, he visited Coventry, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Wigan, Sheffield, and Leeds, among others. Living with the people about whom he was to write, Orwell kept an extensive diary of observations. Upon his return, he transformed these observations into an intimate and illuminating account of the poverty, squalor, and hunger that he had witnessed. Yet his work transcended simple reportage. J.R. Hammond described it as “a social document of enduring worth . . . which is now acknowledged as a classic of the genre and as one of the seminal works of the inter-war years.”

In part 1 of The Road to Wigan Pier, the literary genius which served Orwell well in later works such as Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is amply demonstrated. In seven essays, Orwell describes his reactions to working-class life in northern England. Through Orwell, the reader can live and feel the pain, the suffering, and the hopelessness that the working class was enduring. Victor Gollancz wrote in his introduction to the work, “For myself, it is a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression.” What Gollancz and his colleagues did not enjoy was Orwell’s part 2, which is of a length equal to that of part 1. The six essays of this section are a passionate appeal for a less theoretical and a more human form of socialism than that espoused by many intellectual socialists.

To the credit of the Left Book Club, the book was published, although Gollancz did include a foreword which noted that he would like to argue with “over a hundred minor passages” in part 2. Since its initial publication, the book,...

(This entire section contains 631 words.)

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in full or abridged form, has rarely been out of print. Despite its unevenness, the book is recognized as one of the most significant social documents of the Depression era in Great Britain. Its call for a humane solution to human misery is one that affects every generation.


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Atkins, John. George Orwell: A Literary and Biographical Study, 1971 (revised edition).

Crick, Bernard. George Orwell: A Life, 1980.

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Hoggart, Richard. “George Orwell and The Road to Wigan Pier,” in Critical Quarterly. VII (1965), pp. 72-85.

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Critical Essays