Following some recent research associated with a current writing project, I stumbled upon a gem on the Sheffield local history website. It is an article in the Sheffield Telegraph in which the couple with whom George Orwell lodged during 1936 recall the writer’s short period with them during which he became almost “one of the family”. Kate and Gilbert Searle, the couple, are pictured in the above photograph, which accompanied the text below in the Sheffield Morning Telegraph of Friday February 2nd 1990
Orwell Memories On A Diamond Day
It was over half a century ago but Kate and Gilbert Searle remember well the time when George Orwell stayed at their Sheffield home.
The couple, who celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary yesterday, had been married for just six years when Orwell spent time in their home in Wallace Road, Neepsend, as a guest, typing on their kitchen table and living as one of the family.
It was in 1936, during one of his many visits to the north of England to research and see for himself how the working classes lived. Much of what Orwell saw and experienced in Sheffield was recorded in his famous social documentaries The Road to Wigan Pier, Inside the Whale, and Essays in Journalism.
‘He stayed with us twice in 1936 for a few days at a time,’ recalls Mrs Searle, now 83, herself an ardent socialist and at the time secretary of the Lansdowne Labour Party women’s section.
“He was a very jolly fellow, very intelligent: — he’d been educated at Eton. He used to go out with my husband to lots of Socialist meetings in town. He wanted to see how both sides lived.”
Orwell also questioned Mr Searle, now a Chelsea pensioner and in those days a corporal in the Royal Ordnance Corps, about his army days.
The author spent whole days tramping around Sheffield and Barnsley looking for material and typed up his day’s thoughts and experiences on his old typewriter on the Searles’ kitchen table.
He was obviously not impressed by the industrial scenes which he witnessed — in the Road to Wigan Pier he recounts: “Sheffield could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the old world… and the stench.”
“He used to say to us “I cannot understand you people, you are so strong-willed and you know about life yet you don’t stand up to the upper classes,” “ said Mrs Searle.
I think he had good intentions in trying to write about the working classes, but as I said to him you have to live with us for more than a week to find out what its all about. After he left us he went to Leeds to stay with his sister — he had to get back to middle-class life. I never saw him again, although he sent us the odd letter.”
But the Searles never forgot Orwell and he did not forget them. In an essay among the collection of Essays and Journalism 1931-1949 which the couple now treasure he wrote: “I left Sheffield at 10:30 this morning and in spite of its being such a frightful place… I was quite sorry to leave the Searles. I have seldom met people with more natural decency. They were as kind to me as anyone could possibly hope to be, and hope and trust they liked me.”
Many thanks to the Sheffield Telegraph and reporter Jane Tadman. Thanks also to the Sheffield History website forum, and to the contribution of ‘Neddy’ the forum member who pointed me in the direction of the newspaper article.
IR Aug 2011