In 1936, Harry Leslie Smith was 13 years old and living near Barnsley when George Orwell spent a fortnight in the town researching his classic book The Road to Wigan Pier.
They didn’t meet – a pity, as Harry, who died yesterday aged 95, could have given Orwell plenty of material for his stark study of the effect of the Depression on the Northern working class.
“The places you lived in were nothing more than doss houses which housed as many as 30 or 35 people,” wrote Harry.
“Most evenings my sister and I would go to bed with growling stomachs because we hadn’t had any supper.” When he was five and his sister (Marion) was three, his mother sent them out to forage for coal.
“We would climb up the slag heaps and dig through to find some tiny scraps to give us a fire that night.”
Marion died of tuberculosis seven years later – in a workhouse infirmary because their parents couldn’t afford doctors’ bills. She was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Harry recalled all this for the Wigan Pier Project, an account of a modern-day journey through Britain following in Orwell’s footsteps, comparing then and now.
Researchers explored places he had visited on his two-month winter trip, including Barnsley, Leeds and Sheffield (which he memorably described as “a frightful place... one of the most appalling places I have ever seen”).
What they found could have been the raw material for another book. Instead it has inspired a recently launched interactive website (www.wiganpierproject.com).
Journalists Ros Wynne-Jones and Todmorden-based Claire Donnelly joined photographer Andy Stenning and set off on their own journey in January 2017, firm in the belief, says Ros, that “people’s voices ought to be heard”. They discovered that, in many respects, little has changed for the poor since Orwell’s day.
They visited homeless shelters, foodbanks and community centres and interviewed, as the website says, “people barely surviving on zero and low hours, in slum housing, families struggling to clothe their children and eat, workers showering before work in homeless shelters after sleeping on the streets.”
They interviewed around 150 people and their findings were first published in the Daily Mirror before going online. With its dignified portraits of interviewees, it’s a searing but compassionate reflection of the state of Britain today.
Among the people they met was Jean Searle, whose late husband Gil gave up his bed when Orwell stayed for a week with his parents in their two-up, two-down house overlooking a Sheffield gasworks. “They always talked about being part of history,” says Jean.
The Searles – Gilbert and Kate – recalled the writer’s stay when I met them in a key Orwell year – 1984. “He was a tall man, six-foot-three, and we only had a child’s bed,” said Kate.
“So we put an armchair across the foot of the bed to give him a bit more space. He said: ‘It’ll do fine. I’ve slept on worse.’”
They remembered the “shabbily dressed” Orwell typing at their kitchen table. They had no clue, however, that in his diary of the visit, he wrote: “I was quite sorry to leave the Searles. I have seldom met people with more natural decency.”
They knew nothing about that tribute until 1981, when their other son Michael bought them a hefty 800 page anthology of Orwell’s essays and journalism.
They kept the book on display in their front room. The edges of the dozen pages about them were darkened by constant re-reading.
The Wigan Pier Project researchers revisited the site of the Searles’ long-demolished home. The area is now occupied by a community of 30 people living in vans and caravans.
They also went to the city’s Victoria Hall, where Orwell was taken to hear a clergyman give a lecture which “consisted of incredibly silly and disconnected ramblings”.
He reported that most of the audience were “unemployed men who will put up with almost anything in order to have a warm place where they can sit for a few hours”.
Since then, Sheffield has become the UK’s first City of Sanctuary and the Victoria Hall hosts sessions run by a centre providing help (including haircuts) for asylum seekers and refugees.
“People came to Sheffield through the Kindertransport in 1939 to escape Hitler,” says Sarah Eldridge, the centre’s coordinator. “The help we’re providing here is carrying on the tradition.”
Orwell wrote about Sheffield’s “little mesters”, self-employed cutlery workers.
The website features one of the last of them, Stan Shaw, a penknife maker still working at the age of 91, in a workshop at the city’s Kelham Island Museum.
The knives made by this “living, breathing exhibit”, as he’s described, can sell for £1,800 and he has made a platinum pocket knife for the Queen. He was awarded a British Empire Medal in the 2017 New Year’s Honours.
Leeds made a better impression on Orwell than Sheffield, partly perhaps because he was staying with his sister and brother-in-law in Headingley.
Eighty years on, the project researchers visited St George’s Crypt, a homeless project, and talked to Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves.
“Of course Leeds has changed beyond compare since Orwell’s day, but housing is still the main thing people come to the surgery with,” she says.
“People are still desperately seeking decent, affordable houses and are battling with low pay and cuts to support.”
At the very end of his Wigan Pier journey, Orwell moved on to Barnsley. “I have never seen such a dishevelled person in my life,” miner George Tennant recalled in 1984.
“He was footsore – he looked as though he had walked all the way to Barnsley. He had no suitcase. His only possessions were the clothes he stood up in. He was very frail and did not eat much.”
Orwell stayed with another miner, Albert Gray, and the house still exists – rented out by Albert’s grandson Dave to a zero-hours-contract factory worker from Bucharest and his family. “It’s an interesting snapshot of how things have changed,” says project researcher Claire Donnelly.
While in Barnsley, Orwell heard the fascist Oswald Mosley speak at a public meeting. “He was booed at the start but loudly clapped at the end,” he wrote.
“M. is a very good speaker. His speech was the usual clap-trap... the (mainly) working-class audience was easily bamboozled.” It was the appeal of demagogues, then as now.
The project is ongoing.
“The highlight has been meeting people who have said that they didn’t think anyone would be interested in what they had to say, or said that no-one had ever asked them their opinion,” says Claire.
Now they have.