Victor Gollancz suggested at the end of 1935 that Orwell spend a short time investigating social conditions in economically depressed northern England. In the period from 31 January to 30 March 1936 Orwell was living in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield and researching the book.. The conventional view, based on a recollection by George Gorer, is that this was a specific commission with a £500 advance — two years' income for him at the time. However Taylor argues that Orwell's subsequent circumstances showed no indication of such largesse, Gollancz was not a person to part with such a sum on speculation, and Gollancz took little proprietorial interest in progress Gollancz published the work under the Left Book Club which gave Orwell a far higher circulation than his previous works. However Gollancz feared the second half would offend Left Book Club readers and inserted a mollifying preface to the book while Orwell was in Spain.
The book is divided into two sections.
George Orwell set out to report on working class life in the bleak industrial heartlands of the West Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire. Orwell spent a considerable time living among the people and as such his descriptions are detailed and vivid.
Chapter One describes the life of the Brooker Family, a more wealthy example of the northern working class. They have a shop and cheap lodging house in their home. Orwell describes the old people who live in the home and their living conditions.
Chapter Two describes the life of miners and conditions down a coal mine. Orwell describes how he went down a coal mine to observe proceedings and he explains how the coal is distributed. The working conditions are very poor. This is the part of the book most often quoted.
Chapter Three describes the social situation of the average miner. Hygienic and financial conditions are discussed. Orwell explains why most miners do not actually earn as much as they are sometimes believed to.
Chapter Four describes the housing situation in the industrial north. There is a housing shortage in the region and therefore people are more likely to accept substandard housing. The housing conditions are very poor.
Chapter Five explores unemployment and Orwell explains that the unemployment statistics of the time are misleading.
Chapter Six deals with the food of the average miner and how, although they generally have enough money to buy food, most families prefer to buy something tasty to enrich their dull lives. This leads to malnutrition and physical degeneration in many families.
Chapter Seven describes the ugliness of the industrial towns in the north of England.
Orwell sets out his initial premises very simply
The rest of the book consists of Orwell’s attempt to answer this difficult question. He points out that most people who argue against socialism do not do so because of straightforward selfish motives, or because they do not believe that the system would work, but for more complex emotional reasons, which (according to Orwell) most socialists misunderstand. He identifies 5 main problems.
In presenting these arguments Orwell takes on the role of devil's advocate. He states very plainly that he himself is in favour of socialism but feels it necessary to point out reasons why many people, who would benefit from socialism, and should logically support it, are in practice likely to be strong opponents. It is perhaps unfortunate that Orwell’s language in these passages is so lively and amusing that people tend to remember these parts of the book and forget its overall message. In short Orwell plays the devil's advocate but he also gives the devil all the best tunes.
Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, was so concerned that these passages would be misinterpreted, and that the (mostly middle class) members of the Left Book Club would be upset and write to him complaining letters, that he added a foreword in which he raises some caveats about Orwell's claims in Part Two. He suggests, for instance, that Orwell may exaggerate the visceral contempt that the English middle classes hold for the working class, adding, however, that, "I may be a bad judge of the question, for I am a Jew, and passed the years of my early boyhood in a fairly close Jewish community; and, among Jews of this type, class distinctions do not exist." Other concerns Gollancz raises are that Orwell should so instinctively dismiss movements such as pacifism or feminism as incompatible with or counter-productive to the Socialist cause, and that Orwell relies too much upon a poorly defined, emotional concept of Socialism. Gollancz's claim that Orwell "does not once define what he means by Socialism" in The Road to Wigan Pier is indeed difficult to refute. The foreword does not appear in some modern editions of the book, though it was included, for instance, in Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's first American edition in the 1950s.
At a later date Gollancz published part 1 on its own, against Orwell’s wishes, and he refused to publish “Homage to Catalonia” at all.
“...[A] middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the 'lower classes'.”
“The ordinary man may not flinch from a dictatorship of the proletariat, if you offer it tactfully; offer him a dictatorship of the prigs, and he gets ready to fight.”
“...[T]he food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.”
“Therefore the logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle. That is the goal towards which we are already moving, though, of course, we have no intention of getting there; just as a man who drinks a bottle of whisky a day does not actually intend to get cirrhosis of the liver.”
“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England."
"We have reached a stage when the very word ‘Socialism’ calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers."
"If only the sandals and the pistachio-coloured shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaller, and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
“We of the sinking middle class may sink without further struggles into the working classes where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches.”
Quotations wrongly attributed to George Orwell have appeared in buildings around Manchester. In Urbis, the entrance to the lift reads "Manchester, the belly and guts of the nation" and is cited as George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier. This line does not appear in the book and is unlikely that he wrote the words at all. Yet, the exact quotation also appears on the ground floor wall of The City Tower near Piccadilly Gardens. In 2007 the satirical character of Sleuth on Manchester website Manchester Confidential admitted that he'd made a mistake in providing this quote to Urbis — Sleuth 31/08/07. Sleuth is generally seen to be the alter-ego (if not exclusively) of the editor of the site, Jonathan Schofield.
The name of the book comes from a music hall routine by a British comedian. Although a pier is a structure built out into the water from the shore, in Britain the term has the connotation of a seaside holiday. Wigan was a small grimy mill town on a canal accessed by boats via an offloading structure, although it primarily used land transport. Hence the music hall joke of a mill town with its own seaside resort, and Orwell's choice of title implied his belief that socialism could improve life to an unprecedented degree even in a mill town.
Geographically, Wigan Pier is today the name given today to the area around the canal at the bottom of the Wigan flight of locks on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. The original "pier" at Wigan was a coal loading staithe, probably a wooden jetty, where wagons of coal from a nearby colliery were unloaded into waiting barges on the canal. The original wooden pier is believed to have been demolished in 1929, with the iron from the tippler being sold as scrap.
Scottish singer-songwriter Dick Gaughan has described Orwell's book as an "insulting portrayal of the working class", accusing the author of being "incapable of seeing beyond superficial appearances".
"The Road to Wigan Pier" by George Orwell with a preface by Victor Gollancz Pub Victor Gollancz ltd. 1937
"George Orwell a Life" by Bernard Crick Pub Penguin 1980