The Wigan Pier Diaries: 15.3.36
A bit stormy in parts
Last night with Wilde and others to the general meeting of the South Yorkshire Branch of the Working Men’s Club & Institute Union, held at one of the clubs in Barnsley. About 200 people there, all busily tucking into beer and sandwiches, though it was only 4.30 p.m. – they had got an extension for the day. The club was a big building, really an enlarged pub with one big hall which could be used for concerts etc., and in which the meeting was held. It was a bit stormy in parts, but Wilde and the chairman had them pretty well in hand and were complete masters of all the usual platform phraseology and procedure. I notice from the balance sheet that W.’s salary is £260 per annum. Before this I had never realised the number and importance of these working men’s clubs, especially in the North and especially in Yorkshire. These at this meeting consisted of pairs of delegates sent by all the clubs in South Yorkshire. There would have been I should say 150 delegates, representing therefore 75 clubs and probably about 10,000 members. That is in South Yorkshire alone. After the meeting I was taken to have tea in the committee room with about 30 of what were, I gathered, some of the more important delegates. We had cold ham, bread and butter, cakes and whisky which everyone poured into their tea. After that with W. and the others went down to the Radical and Liberal Club in the middle of the town, where I have been before. There was a sort of smoking concert going on, as these clubs, like the pubs, all engaged singers etc. for the weekends. There was quite a good knockabout comedian whose jokes were of the usual twins-mother-in-law-kippers type, and pretty steady boozing. Wilde’s accent becomes much broader when he is in these surroundings. It appears that these clubs were first started as a kind of charitable concern in the mid-nineteenth century, and were, of course, Temperance. But they escaped by becoming financially self-supporting and have developed, as I say, into sort of glorified co-operative pubs. Grey, who belongs to the Radical and Liberal Club, tells me his subscription is 1/6d a quarter and all drinks are 1d or 2d a pint cheaper than at the pubs. Youths under 21 are not admitted and (I think) women cannot be members but can go there with their husbands. Most of the clubs are avowedly non-political, and in this and in the fact that the members are mostly of the more prosperous working-class type – comparatively few unemployed – one can foresee the germs of a danger that they will be politically mobilised for anti-socialist purposes.
Talking with a man who was previously a miner but now works as a labourer for the Corporation. He was telling me about the housing conditions in Barnsley in his childhood. He grew up in a back to back house in which there were 11 people (two bedrooms, I suppose) and you not only had to walk 200 yards to get to the lavatory, but shared it with, in all, 36 people.
Have arranged to go down the Grimethorpe pit next Saturday. This is a very up-to-date pit and possesses certain machinery that does not exist anywhere else in England. Also to do down a “day hole” pit on Thursday afternoon. The man I spoke to told me it was a mile to the coal face, so if the “travelling” is bad I shan’t go the whole way – I only want to see what a “day hole” is like and am not going to incapacitate myself like last time.
When G. comes back from the pit he washes before having his food. I don’t know whether this is usual, but I have often seen miners sitting down to eat with Christy Minstrel faces – completely black expect very red lips which become clean by eating. When G. arrives he is as black as ink, especially his scalp – for this reason miners usually wear their hair short. He pours out a large basin of hot water, strips to the waist and washes himself very methodically, first his hands, then his upper arms, then his forearms, then his chest and shoulders, then his face and head. Then he dries himself and his wife washes his back. His navel is still a nest of coal-dust. I suppose from the waist down he must normally be quite black. There are public baths and the miners go to them but as a rule not more than once a week – one cannot be surprised at this, as a miner has not much time between working and sleeping. Miners’ houses with bathrooms, other than the new Corporation ones, are practically unknown. Only a few colliery companies have baths at the pit-heads.
I notice that G. does not eat very much. At present, working on the afternoon shift, he has the same breakfast as I have (an egg and bacon, bread – no butter – and tea) and has a light lunch, such as bread and cheese, about half past twelve. He says he cannot do his work if he has eaten too much. All he takes with him to the pit is some bread and dripping and cold tea. This is the usual thing. The men do not want much in the stifling air down there, and besides, they are not allowed any time off for eating. He gets home between 10 and 11 p.m., and it is then that he has his only heavy meal of the day.
George Orwell travelled to the north of England in January 1936 to report on living conditions in the wake of the Great Depression. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 while Orwell was in Spain.
In addition to a great deal of research, the book was based on Orwell’s diaries, which begin in Coventry and end in March 1936, near Barnsley. Orwell Daily is serialising that diary in real-time, eighty-seven years to the day since it was written.