A Rose in Wigan–Part 2

Between mines and mills and factories, there are more steam engines per person in Wigan than in London, Pittsburgh, Essen or anywhere else. It happens to fit nicely that the palm oil we import from Africa lubricates those engines. The world runs on coal, and Wigan leads it. As long as we have coal we will continue to do so.’

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just finished reading Rose, a novel by the American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith set in Wigan in the 1870’s. It tells the story of one Jonathan Blair, an American mining engineer who, on returning from Africa in disgrace is employed, reluctantly, to visit the town to investigate the disappearance of a curate who was engaged to his patron’s daughter.

The author had certainly done his research and weaves details about working class life in Wigan 19th-century into his story. He visited the town and met with local historian and some former pit brow women. Here’s a cutting from the local paper

Pit Brow lasses meeting Martin Cruz Smith

In an interview in 1996 he reveals that he was a fan of George Orwell and had read The Road to Wigan Pier. and I’m sure that it’s no coincidence that his hero is called Blair, the real name of Orwell was Eric Blair.

Wigan, a working class town built on coal and cotton, wasn’t a pretty place during Victorian times and I’m sure his description of Wallgate is accurate

The thought occurred to Blair that if Hell had a flourishing main street it would look like this.

I found it fascinating to read the names of places I knew in the book. His hero stayed in the Minorca Hotel on the corner of Wallgate and King Street. It’s still there, but has gone through several name changes over the years – it’s now called the Berkeley and at one time was known as Blair’s. Here’s how it looked in about 1900

Minorca Hotel.

The Minorca Hotel on Wallgate (from Wigan World website)

Various pubs are mentioned, there were a large number in Wigan, including the one nearest to where I live, the Balcares (now renamed the Crawford Arms) on Scholes – the name of both a thoroughfare and a district of the town just west of the town centre. In fact much of the novel is set in Scholes, which at the time was populated by miners and other workers packed in back to backs and houses built off dark, narrow courtyards.

Scholes, Wigan, 1890’s (from Wigan World website)

The slums were cleared in the 1960’s and I lived there for a few years in a Council flat. And now I’m only a few minutes walk away from the district. So it was rather odd to be reading about the same streets and Scholes bridge, which I still cross regularly, in a novel by an International renowned author.

His descriptions of working in the mines are excellent, and really bring the experience of going down a mine to life

The cage started slowly, down through the round, brick-lined upper mouth of the shaft, past round garlands of Yorkshire iron, good as steel, into a cross-hatched well of stone and timber and then simply down. Down into an unlit abyss. Down at twenty, thirty, forty miles per hour. Down faster than any men anywhere else on earth could travel. So fast that breath flew from the lungs and pressed against the ears. So fast that nothing could be seen at the open end of the cage except a blur that could whip away an inattentive hand or leg. Down seemingly for ever.

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892

Mains Colliery, Bamfurlong 14th Dec 1892 (from Wigan World website)

Blair crawled out into a narrow tunnel, the length of which was populated by shadowy figures wearing only trousers and clogs, some only clogs, covered by a film of dust and glitter, swinging short, double-pointed picks. The men had the pinched waists of whippets and the banded, muscular shoulders of horses, but shining in the upcast light of their lamps what they most resembled was machinery, automatons tirelessly hacking at the pillars of coal that supported the black roof above them. Coal split with a sound nearly like chimes. Where the coal seam dipped, men worked on knees wrapped in rags. Other men loaded tubs or pushed them, leaning into them with their backs. A fog of condensation and coal dust rose from them.

Miner hewing coal.

Miner hewing coal (from Wigan World website)

Given my line of work, I was particularly interested to read his descriptions of the dangers posed by firedamp and the way that miners could “read” the danger using their Davy Lamps

From the German Dampf. Meaning vapour. Explosive gas.’ ‘Oh,’ said Leveret. ‘Methane. It likes to hide in cracks and along the roof. The point of a safety lamp is that the gauze dissipates enough of the heat so that you won’t set the gas off. Still, the best way to find it is with a flame.’ Battie lifted the lamp by a rough column of rock and studied the light wavering behind the screen of the gauze. ‘See how it’s a little longer, a little bluer? That’s methane that’s burning.’

And there were other “damps” too

When firedamp explodes it turns to afterdamp. Carbon monoxide. The strongest man in the world could be running through here at top speed, but two breaths of that and he’ll drop to the floor. Unless you drag him out, he’ll die. In fact, I’ve seen rescue attempts where one, two, three men will drop trying to pull one man out.

The Davy Lamp (By Scan made by Kogo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In designing his lamp, Humphry Davy was largely motivated by a desire to save lives (although the search for glory was a factor too, it has to be said) and he refused to take out a patent, even though strongly encouraged to do so. He wanted his lamp to be freely available. Sadly, although the lamp was intended to save lives it has been said that it actually caused the death of more men because the mine owners used the lamp as an excuse to send their workers into more dangerous workings.

The novel was well written, and not just the details about Wigan and life as a miner. It was a gripping story, if a little far fetched. The ending certainly was. But a good read nevertheless.

Canonbury Square

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After our visit to the Estorick Collection, we took a little time to look around Canonbury Square. Following the typical Georgian pattern of terraces of houses surrounding a central railed garden (where access would originally have been restricted to residents), it’s actually a rectangle which is divided in two by Canonbury Road.

We sat and relaxed for a while in the central garden. It’s very well kept and planted up with some exotic plants. Looking at the picture above you could be fooled into thinking we were in warmer climes than London.



The houses surrounding the square are very typically Georgian. Relatively plain and simple, well proportioned, doors with “fan light” windows, the largest windows on the first floor where the “piano nobile” (the main floor where guests would have been entertained) was located, and the size of the windows decreasing rising up the building. Most of the houses were terraced in uniform blocks,


although there was more variation in size and style on the north east side of the square.


There were some particularly attractive balconies on the first floor windows


and interesting glazing on the fanlights and ground floor windows


on some of the houses.

And the square has had some famous residents in the past, including Evelyn Waugh, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, Barbara Castle and:

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Orwell wrote his two most famous novels, Animal Farm and 1984 while he was living here. Today it’s a very desirable area with houses (many converted into flats) that fetch very high prices, but, according to one of Orwell’s biographers it was quite different when he lived there in….

a bleak tenement in a down-at-heel area…The flat was in a row of rather uncomfortable eighteenth-century houses.

Orwell in Wigan

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(Picture source: Wikipedia)

Today, 21st January, was the day that George Orwell died in 1950 after a three-year battle against tuberculosis. Penguin Books, who publish his writings, have designated the day “Orwell Day” in his honour (as a way of publicising his books, hopefully to sell a few more!)

Orwell is best known for his books “Animal farm” and “1984”, both of which I read at school and which are both critiques of totalitarianism, particularly Soviet Russia. And, as a consequence, Orwell is widely thought of as an anti-communist. But that is something of a distortion of his life and views. He was a socialist, and I don’t think that ever changed. But he unlike most left wing intellectuals during the 1940’s and 1950’s he wasn’t taken in by Soviet propaganda and, was able to see how they had betrayed the socialist cause. His position was informed by his experience in Spain serving with the POUM militia and during the Barcelona “May Days”, when the Spanish Communists fought and supressed the POUM and anarchist revolutionaries who had a strong presence in the city. His experiences are chronicled in his book “Homage to Catalonia”, a favourite of mine since I first read it in my late teens.

Orwell lived in Hampstead for a while and I wrote about this after we’d stayed there recently and came across a couple of plaques celebrating his time there. (We stayed in Hampstead again during our most recent trip to London just over a week ago, and had our breakfast in the cafe which used to be the bookshop where he once worked). But Orwell also has a connection with Wigan.  He visited the town in the 1930’s during his tour of the depressed northern industrial towns that resulted in his book “The Road to Wigan Pier”, published by the Left Book Club in 1937.

The Road to Wigan Pier

At the time Wigan was the centre of the Lancashire coal field and the main industries, coal mining, cotton spinning and weaving and steel and iron manufacturing, were all severely depressed. Living conditions for working people were generally very poor and with extremely high unemployment it was difficult for many Wiganers to put food on the table.

Take the figures for Wigan, which is typical enough of the industrial and mining districts. The number of insured workers is round about 36,000 (26,000 men and 10,000 women). Of these, the number unemployed at the beginning of 1936 was about 10,000. But this was in winter when the mines are working full time; in summer it would probably be 12,000. Multiply by three, as above, and you get 30,000 or 36,000. The total population of Wigan is a little under 87,000; so that at any moment more than one person in three out of the whole population — not merely the registered workers — is either drawing or living on the dole. Those ten or twelve thousand unemployed contain a steady core of from four to five thousand miners who have been continuously unemployed for the past seven years.

And writing about the environment in and around the town

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits.

Orwell had an agenda and he sought ought the worst conditions, deliberately staying in a guest house that wasn’t typical of the homes of ordinary Wiganers and painted a grim picture of the town that many local people felt, and indeed still feel, was unfair. But there is no denying that it was “grim up north” during the 1930’s as these pictures of Wigan taken during the period show.

(Famous picture of an unemployed worker in Wigan in the 1930’s)

“Wigan pier”  was a music hall joke, invented by George Formby Senior (the father of the more famous Georg Formby junior) who came from the town. Wigan is 20 miles from the sea, but it has a canal and the “pier” was one of the small jetties used to load coal onto barges. Local people embraced the legend and today an area on the canal, just outside the town centre is known as Wigan Pier.


Orwell is remembered in Wigan by a plaque located at the site of the lodging house where he stayed,

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which is now a patch of waste land.

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There’s also a pub named after him on he banks of the canal in the area still known today as “Wigan Pier”.

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Things have changed since the 1930’s. The traditional industries are long gone. And although there is no denying that living conditions have improved dramatically, unemployment is high and the town, like much of the north of England, have been badly hit by economic recession and government cutbacks. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now?


Here’s an article by David Sharrock from the Observer last year – The road to Wigan Pier, 75 years on

A recent book by Stephen Armstrong – The Road to Pier Revisited – does what it says on the tin. Here’s a video where the author discusses his book at the RSA

George Orwell in Hampstead

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The author Eric Blair (no relation to Tony), better known as George Orwell, lived in Hampstead for a number of years before the Second World War. During this period he wrote his novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which tells the story of Gordon Comstock, who works in a bookshop. It was a semi-autobiographical piece, based on Orwell’s own experiences when he was living in digs and working in, surprise surprise, a bookshop on the corner of South End Street and Pond Street, in Hampstead, close to the Heath.

Today the building houses a branch of the French style bakery and café chain, Le Pain Quotidien. There’s a plaque on the wall commemorating Orwell’s time there. It used to include a relief of his face, but it’s no longer there – either damaged by wear and tear or, possibly, vandalised.

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We had breakfast in the café on both days while we were staying in Hampstead, and very good it was too – not exactly Down and Out in Paris and London! I liked the way they served the coffee in bowls – very Française.

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On the morning of our last day, we decided to go for a walk on Hampstead Heath and headed up Parliament Hill. As we neared the heath we noticed a house on the left with a plaque (there are plenty in Hampstead given the number of well known people who have lived there in the past).

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Here’s a close up

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So Orwell had lived here too. It’s a long while since I read the Aspidistra  but one of the things I particularly remember is how Gordon Comstock lived in digs  where the landlady had the plant of the title in the entrance hall.

Gordon had a sort of secret feud with the
aspidistra.  Many a time he had furtively attempted to kill it–
starving it of water, grinding hot cigarette-ends against its stem,
even mixing salt with its earth.  But the beastly things are
practically immortal.  In almost any circumstances they can
preserve a wilting, diseased existence.

I wonder whether Orwell based his character’s digs, in the fictional Willowbed Road, on this house? In the book he writes

Willowbed Road, NW, was not definitely slummy, only dingy anddepressing.

Well, I wouldn’t describe the modern day Parliament Hill, or any part of Hampstead, like that. Today it’s far from “dingy and depressing” – it’s a very desirable, and expensive, place to live.

And a short distance from Orwell’s former home we came to the Heath. Not far from there, after climbing to the top of Parliament Hill, this is view we had.

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