Within the London section of Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described a visit to ‘Romton’: he was ‘on the tramp’ and his intention was sleeping in a casual ward he had heard about. Recently, Dr Luke Seaber (author of Incognito Social Investigation in British Literature: Certainties in Degradation, an academic exploration of writing such as Orwell’s) lead an Orwell Society party to the real locations disguised by the name ‘Romton’.
Orwell Society Member Jason Crimp describes their exploration, with photographs by Events Secretary Quentin Kopp.
Within the London section of Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell described a visit to ‘Romton’, with the intention of sleeping in a casual ward he had heard about. He claimed to have run out of money. At Romton Market he approached an Irishman, ‘obviously a tramp’, leaning against the pigpens. They spoke for an hour or two before walking to a small tin-roofed chapel in a side street a little away from the market. The Irishman knew they made a good cup of tea there.
They were indeed given tea and buns, in exchange for attending a service, praying and singing hymns for half an hour, described by Orwell as a humiliating experience. After which they made for the casual ward, for the spike, which opened at six in the evening. There he and a long queue of others entered the ward for the night. The place, as described, seems more like a prison—no doubt that was its intention—set in the grounds of a workhouse.
He spent one night there, barely sleeping through discomfort. There were no beds in the shared cells and he had to fend off an unwanted sexual advance. In the morning, after an hour or two of peeling potatoes, he and his fellow inmates were checked for smallpox, given a meal ticket and released. Orwell and a new friend, another Irishman named Paddy Jaques headed towards the spike in Edbury, around twelve miles away.
I don’t know why Orwell felt he needed to change the name of the town, but it barely needs explaining to anybody familiar with that part of the world that Romton in reality is Romford and indeed that Edbury is Edmonton. Romford was and is a market town. Out of London at the time but now on the fringes. Sort of ‘just about’ London, not quite Essex.
Society member Dr Luke Seaber recently spent time looking through local archives and succeeded in finding the locations of Orwell’s brief visit. The Society, or some of us, went up to Romford to take a look at the results.
Dr Luke Seaber (Right), OS Patron Richard Blair (Left)
The market no longer deals in livestock, though even a generation back it was still the place to buy fresh meat and the like. But a shopping mall has been built nearby in recent years and there is less of that and more of the cheap clothing and plastic buckets you see in many market squares. Still, there are a couple of fish stalls and when we were there there was man standing at his flower stall, occasionally yelling to attract attention in that increasingly arch way. And the Market Square retains an old feel, with a few very old pubs and a church. At one end is what looks like an old civic building, you’d think perhaps Georgian, until you look closer and see that in actual fact it’s a modern commercial office space.
The pigpens had been located about two thirds up the square, between a pawnbrokers and a whelk stall. Nothing of the past remains, of course. The road looks to have re-laid around twenty years ago. There is a pub named the Bull on the other side of the street. We speculated on the building’s age. We guessed 20s or 30s (built over an older pub presumably). Though not much left, we took a photo.
We walked to the tin-roofed chapel. Not quite on the same route as Orwell and his companion as a newer road layout forced us under pedestrian subways and over traffic islands, past the rather unforgiving facade of the Mercury Shopping Centre and at one point scuttling across the road.
The church Orwell describes has been torn down, though Luke told us this happened only a couple of years ago. One can still see the older one on Google maps (Manor Road, Romford). The owners, the Church of God, built a new one, on what looks like the same footprint, and almost the shape as the one they tore down. It still looks like a cricket pavilion, though the tin-roof has gone.
A church has replaced a church
Orwell in the book doesn’t mention the denomination, which was Irvingite. The Irvingites were a Catholic Apostolic movement created in the 1830s. They had what would seem to some the odd rule stipulating that ministers could only be ordained by one of the original ‘apostles’ of the church. There were none of the apostles left in the early twentieth century, having all died, the ministers slowly following. They were gone by the 50s and the church went into a ‘Time of Silence’, effectively ceasing to exist.
The building is now owned by the aforementioned Church of God. Their website suggests quite a fundamental approach to scripture and they are on the evangelical side of things and are affiliated with churches across the world. However, we had to stand outside as the church was shut up when we arrived. In any case, after the rebuild, I imagine the interior gives no clue to what it was like back when the poor tramps sat, caps in hand, embarrassed and ashamed to be singing hymns, intimidated by the well-meaning but stern lady who gave out the tea and led the service.
There does seem to be a lot of non-conformism in Romford. On the Saturday we were there, I saw street preachers near the rail station and many churches, including the Kingsway International Christian Centre, the St. Kilda Christian Centre, the Celestial Church of Christ, and others including a Christian Spiritualist church, the Havering Christian Bookshop and Centre and a shop named ‘Loving Jesus’. I don’t know what they sell.
The penurious congregation made their way from the chapel to the casual ward, as did we, slightly downhill to the Rom. The river at the road junction is not very impressive. Closed in by graffiti’d walls, it is sadly neglected, not much more than a stream running under the main road. On the other side of the river and a little along the road there is a large housing estate, built in the last few years on the site of the old hospital. The building would have passed to the hands of the NHS on its founding, but before that was the Romford Workhouse, with the causal ward attached.
The whole episode is denigrating. For a roof—though not a bed, one is stripped of one’s clothes, locked in a cell and given the floor to sleep on—side by side with a stranger who may or may not have a communicable disease, shouted at and treated as less than human, treated like those poor pigs in Romford Market, prodded and poked, made to wash in filthy water. It all feels a bit gratuitous and not a little disgusting. But for these men (and one mentioned mention), who we called tramps for the reason that they had to move from spike to spike and were not permitted to stay more than one night, it was how things went. It was just what was to be expected.
The casual ward has been torn down too, to build the rather nice housing estate. Not much is left. The gate house remains with the dirty yellow bricks the book mentions. We stood at the spot where on the old plan Luke had it suggests the building stood. Which was on the drive of some flats. So we stood on the very spot where Orwell spent the night mentioned in the book. As we chatted, a young man left his flat, doing his best not to notice us, I think.
At the gatehouse. Richard Blair (R) studies where his father would have walked
Orwell travelled to Edmonton the next day. We went to the pub. It was a lovely day and we sat in the garden. So thank you to Luke. It’s interesting that a few pages of the book can be shown in such a new way by actually being there. And naturally, it it always good to catch up and chat to society friends and some new people too.
Our thanks to Dr Seaber for his time, preparation and documents.
The Society is planning a follow-up visit to Southwell Workhouse in Nottinghamshire, which still has its Casual Ward attached, for further exploration. Members will be notified of the date of the visit.
Uploaded 6th June 2018