The Road to Wigan Pier

George Orwell

Penguin 1962 [1937]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
In the 1930s George Orwell set out to learn about the English working class, spending time living among the poor in mining towns in northern England. The Road to Wigan Pier is an account of his experiences, along with more general ruminations on class and the challenge facing socialism.

Part one attempts to give a feel for everyday life. There are some superb descriptive passages in this — of a cheap lodging house and its inhabitants, of what it's like to work down a mine, and of the unemployed scrabbling for waste coal, to list just a few.

"We walked up to the top of the slag-heap. The men were shovelling the dirt out of the trucks, while down below their wives and children were kneeling, swiftly scrabbling with their hands in the damp dirt and picking out lumps of coal the size of an egg or smaller. You would see a woman pounce on a tiny fragment of stuff, wipe it on her apron, scrutinize it to make sure it was coal, and pop it jealously into her sack. [...] Down at the bottom of the 'broo' the people who had failed to get on to either train were gleaning the tiny chips of coal that came rolling down from above — fragments no bigger than a hazel-nut, these, but the people were glad enough to get them."
Insightful interpretations accompany the descriptions, though in places Orwell ventures less successfully towards social history, with analysis of household budgets, statistics, housing, and so forth. Some of what he writes is still topical — an explanation of the low quality diet of the poor, for example.

Drawing on the experiences described in part one, and those as a tramp described in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell goes on in part two to offer some broader observations on the English class system and on the challenges facing socialism. He touches on his own background as an Eton-educated snob and his life-changing experience as an agent of imperialism in Burma, before moving on to general observations, on topics such as the use of "cleanliness" to reinforce class barriers and the common mismatch between social and economic status.

Orwell also offers practical "marketing tips" for those trying to sell socialism.

"Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win."
Some of this seems odd or misguided now — snide remarks about sandal-wearing vegetarians, for example, and some racial stereotyping — and Orwell's predictions are in places just plain wrong. Though much less engaging than the first-hand descriptions in part one, however, this does offer a fascinating perspective on the politics of the time.

October 2003

External links:
- buy from or
Related reviews:
- books by George Orwell
- books about Britain + British history
- books about politics
- more sociology
%T The Road to Wigan Pier
%A Orwell, George
%I Penguin
%D 1962 [1937]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0141185295
%P 204pp