Watched In Wigan 1936

How the secret state kept watch on Orwell in Wigan

It is easy to forget that while George Orwell was in the North of England in early 1936 researching the plight of the poor (published in the following year as The Road to Wigan Pier) he was being followed all the time closely by the secret state.

Orwell’s Special Branch file (MEPO 38/69), covering material from 1936 to 1942 and running to around 24 pages, and his MI5 file (KV 2/2699), spanning 1936 to 1951 and containing 38 pages, were released in 2005 and 2007 respectively. And they reveal that from the moment Orwell began his career as a radical journalist in Paris in the late 1920s, Big Brother was following him.

On 24 February 1936, the Chief Constable of Wigan, Thomas Pey, reported Orwell’s involvement with the communists while he was researching The Road to Wigan Pier, passing on a letter from John Duffy, DC 79, to a certain “Det Insp. Cockram” (catalogue reference MEPO/38/39). Orwell is described as “about 36 yrs, 6ft, slim build, long pale face”. Duffy continues:

I beg to report that this man has been staying in Wigan from Monday, the 10th instant at an apartment house in a working class district in this borough. I understand that a member of the local Communist Party was instrumental in finding Blair accommodation. Blair attended a Communist meeting in this town addressed by Wal Hannington on the 10th instant. It would appear from his mode of living that he is an author, or has some connection with literary work as he devotes most of his time in writing. He has also collected an amount of local data e.g. number of churches, public houses, population etc and is in receipt of an unusual amount of correspondence … In addition to correspondence from England, he is also in receipt of letters from France and I saw a newspaper which appeared to be the French counterpart of the “Daily Worker”. In view of the association which this man has formed with the local Communist Party during his visit to Wigan, I respectfully suggest further enquiries be made with a view to establishing his identity.

Significantly, a report for British intelligence, dated 11 March 1936 (coded 301/NWC/683), as Orwell was completing his researches in the North, commented:

Shortly after resigning from the Indian Police, Blair went to France, and for some time eked out a precarious living as a free lance [sic] journalist. Whilst in Paris, he took an interest in the activities of the French Communist Party, and spent a good deal of time studying “L’Humanité”. Information is not available to show whether he was an active supporter of the revolutionary movement in France, but it is known that whilst there, he offered his service to the “Workers’ Life”, the forerunner of the “Daily Worker”, as Paris correspondent.

Special Branch’s same report shows the high degree of surveillance directed at Orwell, his every career and life move being recorded. For instance, it records the publication in 1934 of Burmese Days by “Victor Gollancz, Ltd, 14 Henrietta Street, W.C., a firm which specialises in Left Wing literature”. His time as a “down and out”, his becoming a “master at a preparatory school known as ‘The Hawthorns’, Church Road, Hayes, Middlesex” and then at Fray’s College, Harefield Road, Uxbridge, Middlesex until the end of 1933, and his time as a patient at Uxbridge and District Cottage Hospital are all noted.

Later in the report, Special Branch notes that Blair worked at Booklovers’ Corner in Hampstead owned by Francis Gregory Westrope who “is known to hold socialist views, considers himself an ‘intellectual’” and is suspected of “handling correspondence of a revolutionary character”. A Metropolitan Police report of 25 August 1936 (301/NWC/683) suggests that they considered charging Westrope for contravening the registration of Business Names Act 1916 – but in the end decided against.

Later in 1936, Orwell handed over the manuscript of The Road to Wigan Pier to his publisher Victor Gollancz, who was also being closely followed by British intelligence. Intriguingly, a copy of a review of the book by Ethel Mannin (author and friend of Orwell), in the New Leader of 12 March 1937, is included in Orwell’s Metropolitan Police file, dated 30 March 1937 (301/NWC/683). She wrote:

There is a great deal in this book which the informed Socialist will find irritating and even infuriating, silly, and a tilting at windmills. But it is worth-while for its first part and because, if only they can be persuaded to read it, it will do a great many people who see no case for Socialism so much good.

The Metropolitan Police report comments:

It is of interest to note that according to Ethel Mannin’s review, Blair is now fighting in Spain with the P.O.U.M in Bob Edwards’ contingent. Edwards left this country on 10-1-37 in charge of a party of I.L.P. recruits who were proceeding to Spain to fight for the Government forces.

The secret state’s surveillance of Orwell continued until he died early in 1950. But by that time, he may well have joined the spooks – following on from his friendship with David Astor, later editor of the Observer, who had extremely close ties to intelligence.

Richard Lance Keeble,

Chair of The Orwell Society

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