A Band of Orwell Devotees Finds Out
As the laws of coincidence would have it, exactly seventy years to the day after George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was first published, a small band of 20 Orwellites gathered to spend the day paying homage to the writer in the village of Wallington in Hertfordshire, where Orwell lived and worked from 1936 until 1940. Ironically, the event, organized by the Orwell Society, was scheduled to coincide not with the publication of the novel but rather with the anniversary of Orwell’s marriage to his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, whom he wed on June 9th, 1936. As June 9th happened to fall on a Sunday this year, arrangements were made with the vicar and churchwardens of St. Mary’s Church to hold the event the day before.
– wedding certificate –
A steady rain fell as our group gathered at Baldock Station before setting off for lunch at the local Orange Tree Pub—not a particularly auspicious start to the day! Fortunately, the weather gods apparently deemed it wrong to rain on this parade, and by the time we had finished lunch, the skies had already started to clear.
– Orange Tree Pub –
Arriving in the quaint village of approximately 150 residents, one immediately gets the feeling of having stepped back in time. Unlike many other villages in England, the population has not even doubled since the Orwells lived here. Just three miles east of the historic market town of Baldock, Wallington is steeped in history, with the Ickneild Way, which predates the Roman period, cutting directly through the village.
– Dan Pinnock at St. Mary’s Church –
Serving as our guide, Wallington native and local historian Dan Pinnock led the way to our first stop: the historic St. Mary’s Church, dating back to the mid-15th century, where Eric Blair and Eileen O’Shaughnessy were wed eighty-three years ago. Local legend has it that after Eric and Eileen walked up the road to the church together, ‘Mr Blair . . . vaulted over the church wall to meet her inside the side gate and carried her to the porch’, something Dan Pinnock says was ‘never seen in Wallington before or since!’ (12-13).
– St. Mary’s Church –
Despite the romantic flourish, practical concerns had apparently troubled Blair before the wedding, and in a letter to Geoffrey Gorer, Blair wrote: ‘we are telling as few people as possible till the deed is done, lest our relatives combine against us in some way & prevent it’ (Orwell 251). His fear seems not unfounded, for following the nuptials and ensuing luncheon, Blair’s mother and sister are said to have had a private talk with Eileen, expressing their concern and wondering ‘“if she knew what she was taking on”.’ Pinnock opines, ‘She knew, but she didn’t seem to mind’, and indeed, it is likely that Eileen knew exactly what she had taken on—after all, before the wedding she had requested that Vicar John Woods omit the ‘obey promise’! (13).
– Duck Pond –
Walking down the hill from St. Mary’s and passing the picturesque Duck Pond and Well Green reservoir, our next stop was The Great Barn, a black wooden structure marked only by a small sign reading ‘Manor Farm’. Dating back to 1786, the barn is now covered with a lead roof, although Pinnock says it was originally ‘thatched with central double doors which could be opened when threshing to give a cross draught to separate the corn from the chaff’ (7).
– The Great Barn –
The farm is widely considered to have been the inspiration for the Manor Farm of ‘Willingdon’ in Orwell’s allegorical novella Animal Farm, and the connection between the two seems obvious. The history of the farm—pigs and all—lends this supposition further support. Manor Farm, it seems, was acquired by Agrar Limited, a land investment company, around the end of the First World War. Says Pinnock: ‘it was intended that a “Model Farm” be created, turned over to dairy cows and pig production; the aim probably being to offset the transport costs on the large amount of dairy products being shipped in through the eastern ports at that time’ (6). Although I saw no pigs on the day we visited, a flock of sheep ran to meet us at the fence surrounding an adjacent field; bleating as insistently as they were, I could not help but wonder if they might be shouting, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad!’
– sheep –
Following the stop at Manor Farm, our merry band proceeded along the aptly named ‘The Road’ to the junction with Kits Lane, where the thatched cottage known as ‘The Stores’ or ‘Monks Fitchett’ is located. Believed to date from the late 17th or early 18th century, the cottage, too, was once owned by Agrar Farms, which ‘installed a small general store and Post Office in the main room’ (Coutts Smith 2). Following the bankruptcy of the company in 1925 (2), the cottage was leased to George Titley, who continued to operate the ‘Wallington Cash Stores’. In 1929, however, the farm was sold and the cottage purchased by the Smeeton family. The Smeetons then ran the shop until 1935, when it was temporarily closed. Eric Blair reopened the shop after moving into the cottage on April 2nd, 1936 (Pinnock 8-9).
– The Stores today –
Blair’s decision to resurrect the shop was motivated by a desire to offset the 7s. 6d. rent he paid; more importantly, keeping shop left him plenty of time for writing (Orwell 243-44). Already familiar with bookselling, Blair found running a general store far less demanding: ‘It is very little trouble & no hanging about like in a bookshop. In a grocer’s shop people come in to buy something, in a bookshop they come in to make a nuisance of themselves’ (251). However, offering only goods such as ‘groceries, sweets, packets of aspirin, etc.’ (253), Blair’s expectations were not unrealistic: ‘Of course there couldn’t be much profit in a village of 50-100 inhabitants, especially as vans come from Baldock . . . several times a week . . .’ (243). Still, in its first week in business the shop took in 19s. and then 25s. or 30s. the second week. Satisfied, Blair reported to Geoffrey Gorer: ‘That is turnover & the profit on it abt pays the rent’, adding optimistically, ‘I think the business could be worked up to £3 or so’ (251).
– plaque –
But the cottage was more than just a business for Eric and Eileen—it was the first home the newlyweds were to share and the home where Blair would spend more years than he spent in any other residence in his adult life. It was here he began to hit his stride as the writer known the world over as George Orwell and here he penned The Road to Wigan Pier and ‘Shooting an Elephant’. It was this cottage he left to fight in the Spanish Civil War and to this cottage he returned to draft Homage to Catalonia, an account of his experiences there. Those who knew him believe that some of Orwell’s happiest years were spent in this home on Kits Lane (Pinnock 12), where he kept chickens and a goat, tended a garden, planted roses and fruit trees, and entertained frequent visitors.
– wildflower garden –
Situated next door to ‘The Plough’, once a pub Orwell frequented but now a private residence (Pinnock 22), the cottage known as ‘The Stores’ looks much the same today as it did in Orwell’s time. A newly thatched roof has replaced the corrugated iron one Orwell knew, and the cottage is now distinguished by a red plaque indicating that Orwell lived there from 1936-1940. The Woolworth’s roses Orwell had so proudly planted no longer flank the 3’9” front door of The Stores (one can only imagine 6’3” Orwell ducking in and out of it!), but a colorful cottage garden buzzing with bees has done an admirable job of taking their place. The cottage continues to exude a storybook charm straight out of the English countryside of yore, something Orwell would surely be pleased to know.
– Village Hall –
The day’s events concluded in the Village Hall, where the churchwardens of St. Mary’s graciously provided a tea of homemade sandwiches and cakes, including a plum cake baked from one of George Orwell’s own recipes! Chatting with the friendly locals, I learned that the Village Hall had once been the village school. A historic building in its own right, the school served the village from the 1840s until 1938, and Pinnock says it ‘achieved its highest attendance figures in the 1890s’, with ‘around thirty-five to forty pupils’ (4). Although the school closed in 1938, it was in operation during Orwell’s first two years in Wallington, and one can imagine Orwell, longing for a child of his own, watching the children file in and out its front door.
– cake spread –
For many people passing through Hertfordshire, Wallington may seem like just another picturesque village in the English countryside. But for fans and scholars of Orwell, seeing St. Mary’s Church, The Great Barn, and The Stores in their pastoral surroundings helps to bring images of Orwell’s life in Wallington into clearer focus.
Coutts Smith, Jim. George Orwell in Wallington. 2010. Mardleybury, 2017.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell Volume 1: An Age Like This 1920-1940. 1970. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, Penguin, 1982.
Pinnock, Dan. Orwell’s Life in Wallington. 2011. Mardleybury, 2017.
The Orwell Society would like to thank
everyone in Wallington who made our visit so enjoyable and memorable.
Article and photographs by Carol Biederstadt
Uploaded 7th July 2017