Ann Kronbergs shares her knowledge of the life of George Orwell while he was still Eric Blair. The Blair children had spent their childhood with their mother in Henley on the Thames, now Ann Kronbergs explains how the East Anglian sea-side town of Southwold became so significant to the Blair family.
George Orwell in Southwold: Part 1
The small commemorative plaque on the front of Montague House, High Street, Southwold is due for renewal by the Orwell Society in 2018. The current inscription begs more questions than it answers: the pseudonym George Orwell stands out clearly whilst the wind has eroded the name Eric Blair. Beneath the writer’s dates is the cryptic phrase “resided in this house”, so the passer-by remains in the dark about the writer’s exact association with this house, with the town and its inhabitants and about how, when and why he chose to publish under a different name.
The plaque on Montague House, now weather-worn.
Montague House was purchased for a few hundred pounds by Richard and Ida Blair (Eric’s parents; she being Ida Limouzin before her marriage) in 1932 using a legacy from Ida’s Limouzin family. The couple had already lived for over ten years in the town and were established pillars of the community; Richard as a member of the Golf Club and exclusive “Blyth” club to which tradesmen were not admitted. Ida was a keen bridge player and co-proprietor, with the Blairs’ daughter Avril, of the Copper Kettle Tea Room on Queen Street. In 1921 the couple had chosen to retire to Southwold from Henley-on-Thames, renting first a Victorian villa at No 48 Stradbroke Road, and then in 1925, No 3 Queen Street.
Southwold at that time was a magnet for retired Anglo-Indian civil servants such as Richard Blair, who had been responsible for monitoring the production and distribution of opium across India. However downright demoralising aspects of this job must have been, Richard’s faith in British Imperialism remained unshaken. This can be inferred by the fact that he was instrumental in ensuring that, after Eton, Eric should follow a similar career path to his own. Very conveniently there was a crammer, Craighurst, on North Parade, a short step from Stradbroke Road, where Richard dispatched his son from January to June 1922 to study for the entrance exams for the Indian Imperial Police.
Montague House, Southwold. The plaque can seen to the right of the door.
When not studying, Eric fraternised in the town with Dennis Collings, son of the local doctor, other students from the crammer, and with the girl-next-door in Stradbroke Road, Eleanor Jaques. Local people remembered the awkwardness of the tall young man when he first joined his parents in Southwold in 1921 at the end of his final term at Eton. Eyewitnesses Joan Mullock and Nancy Fox remembered that Eric wore clothes he had grown out of; they thought his parents put up “a jolly good show”, but that they could not afford to frequently re-clothe their son. On the other hand, Jack Denny, the local tailor with a business on Market Square, has a record in his ledger for fitting Eric with a new suit and riding gear in 1922 in readiness for the Imperial Police. Driven on more by parental expectations than his own ambitions as a writer at this stage, nonetheless Eric made an active choice for a posting in Burma rather than India, for the reason that relatives of his mother lived in Moulmein. He set sail for Rangoon in October.
After serving in Burma for five years, Eric returned to No 3 Queen Street in August 1927, ostensibly on sick leave. He had contracted dengue fever on a jungle patrol and he had no intention of returning. Sickened by his role as law enforcer in the British colonial project in Burma as he later explained in The Road to Wigan Pier, he resigned his post.
Richard Blair was disappointed by his son’s decision to turn his back on a promising career, accusing him of being a “dilettante” and an estrangement set in between them. By the autumn of 1927 Eric had moved to digs in London with the aim of gathering material about the way tramps and the poor live. In 1928 he moved on to Paris where he survived as a writer and worked among low-paid hotel staff for eighteen months. Respiratory illness and a spell in hospital in Paris drove him to return to No 3 Queen Street, Southwold late in 1929.
Uploaded 19 November 2017