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George Orwell > The Road to Wigan Pier > Chapter 5

The Road to Wigan Pier

Chapter 5

When you see the unemployment figures quoted at two millions, it is fatally
easy to take this as meaning that two million people are out of work and
the rest of the population is comparatively comfortable. I admit that till
recently I was in the habit of doing so myself. I used to calculate that if
you put the registered unemployed at round about two millions and threw in
the destitute and those who for one reason and another were not registered,
you might take the number of underfed people in England (for everyone on
the dole or thereabouts is underfed) as being, at the very most, five

This is an enormous under-estimate, because, in the first place, the
only people shown on unemployment figures are those actually drawing the
dole--that is, in general, heads of families. An unemployed man's
dependants do not figure on the list unless they too are drawing a separate
allowance. A Labour Exchange officer told me that to get at the real number
of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the
official figures by something over three. This alone brings the number of
unemployed to round about six millions. But in addition there are great
numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view,
might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything
that can be described as a living wage.[For instance, a recent census of
the Lancashire cotton mills revealed the fact that over 40,000 full-time
employees receive less than thirty shillings a week each. In Preston,
to take only one town, the number receiving over thirty shillings a week
was 640 and the number receiving wider thirty shillings was 3113.] Allow
for these and their dependants, throw in as before the old-age pensioners,
the destitute, and other nondescripts, and you get an underfed population
of well over ten millions. Sir John Orr puts it at twenty millions.

Take the figures for Wigan, which is typical enough of the industrial
and mining districts. The number of insured workers is round about 36,000
(26,000 men and 10,000 women). Of these, the number unemployed at the
beginning of 1936 was about 10,000. But this was in winter when the mines
are working full time; in summer it would probably be 12,000. Multiply by
three, as above, and you get 30,000 or 36,000. The total population of
Wigan is a little under 87,000; so that at any moment more than one person
in three out of the whole population--not merely the registered workers
--is either drawing or living on the dole. Those ten or twelve thousand
unemployed contain a steady core of from four to five thousand miners who
have been continuously unemployed for the past seven years. And Wigan is
not especially badly off as industrial towns go. 'Even in Sheffield, which
has been doing well for the last year or so because of wars and rumours of
war, the proportion of unemployment is about the same--one in three of
registered workers unemployed.

When a man is first unemployed, until his insurance stamps are
exhausted, he draws 'full benefit', of which the rates are as follows:

per week

Single man 17s.
Wife 9s.
Each child below 14 3s.

Thus in a typical family of parents and three children of whom one was
over fourteen, the total income would be 32s. per week, plus anything that
might be earned by the eldest child. When a man's stamps are exhausted,
before being turned over to the P.A.C. (Public Assistance Committee), he
receives twenty-six weeks' 'transitional benefit' from the U.A.B.
(Unemployment Assistance Board), the rates being as follows:

per week

Single man 15s.
Man and wife 24s.
Children 14-18 6s.
Children 11-14 4s. 6d.
Children 8-11 4s.
Children 5-8 3s. 6d.
Children 3-5 3s.

Thus on the U.A.B. the income of the typical family of five persons
would be 37s. 6d. a week if no child was in work. When a man is on the
U.A.B. a quarter of his dole is regarded as rent, with a minimum of 7s. 6d.
a week. If the rent he is paying is more than a quarter of his dole he
receives an extra allowance, but if it is less than 7s. 6d., a
corresponding amount is deducted. Payments on the P.A.C. theoretically
comes out of the local rates, but are backed by a central fund. The rates
of benefit are:

per week

Single man 12s. 6d.
Man and wife 23s.
Eldest child 4s.
Any other child 3s.

Being at the discretion of the local bodies these rates vary slightly,
and a single man may or may not get an extra 2s. 6d. weekly, bringing his
benefit up to 15s. As on the U.A.B., a quarter of a married man's dole is
regarded as rent. Thus in the typical family considered above the total
income would be 33s. a week, a quarter of this being regarded as rent. In
addition, in most districts a coal allowance of 1s. 6d. a week (1s. 6d. is
equivalent to about a hundredweight of coal) is granted for six weeks
before and six weeks after Christmas.

It will be seen that the income of a family on the dole normally
averages round about thirty shillings a week. One can write at least a
quarter of this off as rent, which is to say that the average person, child
or adult, has got to be fed, clothed, warmed, and otherwise cared-for for
six or seven shillings a week. Enormous groups of people, probably at least
a third of the whole population of the industrial areas, are living at this
level. The Means Test is very strictly enforced, and you are liable to be
refused relief at the slightest hint that you are getting money from
another source. Dock-labourers, for instance, who are generally hired by
the half-day, have to sign on at a Labour Exchange twice daily; if they
fail to do so it is assumed that they have been working and their dole is
reduced correspondingly. I have seen cases of evasion of the Means Test,
but I should say that in the industrial towns, where there is still a
certain amount of communal life and everyone has neighbours who know him,
it is much harder than it would be in London. The usual method is for a
young man who is actually living with his parents to get an accommodation
address, so that supposedly he has a separate establishment and draws a
separate allowance. But there is much spying and tale-bearing. One man I
knew, for instance, was seen feeding his neighbour's chickens while the
neighbour was away. It was reported to the authorities that he 'had a job
feeding chickens' and he had great difficulty in refuting this. The
favourite joke in Wigan was about a man who was refused relief on the
ground that he 'had a job carting firewood'. He had been seen, it was said,
carting firewood at night. He had to explain that he was not carting
firewood but doing a moonlight flit. The 'firewood' was his furniture.

The most cruel and evil effect of the Means Test is the way in which
it breaks up families. Old people, sometimes bedridden, are driven out of
their homes by it. An old age pensioner, for instance, if a widower, would
normally live with one or other of his children; his weekly ten shillings
goes towards the household expenses, and probably he is not badly cared
for. Under the Means Test, however, he counts as a 'lodger' and if he stays
at home his children's dole will be docked. So, perhaps at seventy or
seventy-five years of age, he has to turn out into lodgings, handing his
pension over to the lodging-house keeper and existing on the verge of
starvation. I have seen several cases of this myself. It is happening all
over England at this moment, thanks to the Means Test.

Nevertheless, in spite of the frightful extent of unemployment, it is
a fact that poverty--extreme poverty--is less in evidence in the
industrial North than it is in London. Everything is poorer and shabbier,
there are fewer motor-cars and fewer well-dressed people; but also there
are fewer people who are obviously destitute. Even in a town the size of
Liverpool or Manchester you are struck by the fewness of the beggars.
London is a sort of whirlpool which draws derelict people towards it, and
it is so vast that life there is solitary and anonymous. Until you break
the law nobody will take any notice of you, and you can go to pieces as you
could not possibly do in a place where you had neighbours who knew you. But
in the industrial towns the old communal way of life has not yet broken up,
tradition is still strong and almost everyone has a family--potentially,
therefore, a home. In a town of 50,000 or 100,000 inhabitants there is no
casual and as it were unaccounted-for population; nobody sleeping in the
streets, for instance. Moreover, there is just this to be said for the
unemployment regulations, that they do not discourage people from marrying.
A man and wife on twenty-three shillings a week are not far from the
starvation line, but they can make a home of sorts; they are vastly better
off than a single man on fifteen shillings. The life of a single unemployed
man is dreadful. He lives sometimes in a common lodging-house, more often
in a 'furnished' room for which he usually pays six shillings a week,
finding himself as best he can on the other nine (say six shillings a week
for food and three for clothes, tobacco, and amusements). Of course he
cannot feed or look after himself properly, and a man who pays six
shillings a week for his room is not encouraged to be indoors more than is
necessary. So he spends his days loafing in the public library or any other
place where he can keep warm. That keeping warm--is almost the sole
preoccupation of a single unemployed man in winter. In Wigan a favourite
refuge was the pictures, which are fantastically cheap there. You can
always get a seat for fourpence, and at the matinee at some houses you can
even get a seat for twopence. Even people on the verge of starvation will
readily pay twopence to get out of the ghastly cold of a winter afternoon.
In Sheffield I was taken to a public hall to listen to a lecture by a
clergyman, and it was by a long way the silliest and worst-delivered
lecture I have ever heard or ever expect to hear. I found it physically
impossible to sit it out, indeed my feet carried me out, seemingly of their
own accord, before it was half-way through. Yet the hall was thronged with
unemployed men; they would have sat through far worse drivel for the sake
of a warm place to shelter in.

At times I have seen unmarried men on the dole living in the extreme
of misery. In one town I remember a whole colony of them who were
squatting, more or less illicitly, in a derelict house which was
practically falling down. They had collected a few scraps of furniture,
presumably off refuse-tips, and I remember that their sole table was an old
marble-topped wash-hand-stand. But this kind of thing is exceptional. A
working-class bachelor is a rarity, and so long as a man is married
unemployment makes comparatively little alteration in his way of life. His
home is impoverished but it is still a home, and it is noticeable
everywhere that the anomalous position created by unemployment--the man
being out of work while the woman's work continues as before--has not
altered the relative status of the sexes. In a working-class home it is the
man who is the master and not, as in a middle-class home, the woman or the
baby. Practically never, for instance, in a working-class home, will you
see the man doing a stroke of the housework. Unemployment has not changed
this convention, which on the face of it seems a little unfair. The man is
idle from morning to night but the woman is as busy as ever--more so,
indeed, because she has to manage with less money. Yet so far as my
experience goes the women do not protest. I believe that they, as well as
the men, feel that a man would lose his manhood if, merely because he was
out of work, he developed into a 'Mary Ann'.

But there is no doubt about the deadening, debilitating effect of
unemployment upon everybody, married or single, and upon men more than upon
women. The best intellects will not stand up against it. Once or twice it
has happened to me to meet unemployed men of genuine literary ability;
there are others whom I haven't met but whose work I occasionally see in
the magazines. Now and again, at long intervals, these men will produce an
article or a short story which is quite obviously better than most of the
stuff that gets whooped up by the blurb-reviewers. Why, then, do they make
so little use of their talents? They have all the leisure in the world; why
don't they sit down and write books? Because to write books you need not
only comfort and solitude--and solitude is never easy to attain in a
working-class home--you also need peace of mind. You can't settle to
anything, you can't command the spirit of hope in which anything has got to
be created, with that dull evil cloud of unemployment hanging over you.
Still, an unemployed man who feels at home with books can at any rate
occupy himself by reading. But what about the man who cannot read without
discomfort? Take a miner, for instance, who has worked in the pit since
childhood and has been trained to be a miner and nothing else. How the
devil is he to fill up the empty days? It is absurd to say that he ought to
be looking for work. There is no work to look for, and everybody knows it.
You can't go on looking for work every day for seven years. There are
allotments, which occupy the time and help to feed a family, but in a big
town there are only allotments for a small proportion of the people. Then
there are the occupational centres which were started a few years ago to
help the unemployed. On the whole this movement has been a failure, but
some of the centres are still flourishing. I have visited one or two of
them. There are shelters where the men can keep warm and there are
periodical classes in carpentering, boot-making, leather-work, handloom-
weaving, basket-work, sea-grass work, etc., etc.; the idea being that the
men can make furniture and so forth, not for sale but for their own homes,
getting tools free and materials cheaply. Most of the Socialists I have
talked to denounce this movement as they denounce the project--it is
always being talked about but it never comes to anything--to give the
unemployed small-holdings. They say that the occupational centres are
simply a device to keep the unemployed quiet and give them the illusion
that something is being done for them. Undoubtedly that is the underlying
motive. Keep a man busy mending boots and he is less likely to read the
Daily Worker. Also there is a nasty Y.M.C.A. atmosphere about these places
which you can feel as soon as you go in. The unemployed men who frequent
them are mostly of the cap-touching type--the type who tells you oilily
that he is 'Temperance' and votes Conservative. Yet even here you feel
yourself torn both ways. For probably it is better that a man should waste
his time even with such rubbish as sea-grass work than that for years upon
end he should do absolutely nothing.

By far the best work for the unemployed is being done by the
N.U.W.M.--National Unemployed Workers' Movement. This is a revolutionary
organization intended to hold the unemployed together, stop them
blacklegging during strikes, and give them legal advice against the Means
Test. It is a movement that has been built out of nothing by the pennies
and efforts of the unemployed themselves. I have seen a good deal of the
N.U.W.M., and I greatly admire the men, ragged and underfed like the
others, who keep the organization going. Still more I admire the tact and
patience with which they do it; for it is not easy to coax even a penny-a-
week subscription out of the pockets of people on the P.A.C. As I said
earlier, the English working class do not show much capacity for
leadership, but they have a wonderful talent for organization. The whole
trade union movement testifies to this; so do the excellent working-men's
clubs--really a sort of glorified cooperative pub, and splendidly
organized--which are so common in Yorkshire. In many towns the N.U.W.M.
have shelters and arrange speeches by Communist speakers. But even at these
shelters the men who go there do nothing but sit round the stove and
occasionally play a game of dominoes. If this move-met could be combined
with something along the lines of the occupational centres, it would be
nearer what is needed. It is a deadly thing to see a skilled man running to
seed, year after year, in utter, hopeless idleness. It ought not to be
impossible to give him the chance of using his hands and making furniture
and so forth for his own home, with-out turning him into a Y.M.C.A. cocoa-
drunkard. We may as well face the fact that several million men in England
will--unless another war breaks out--never have a real job this side
the grave. One thing that probably could be done and certainly ought to be
done as a matter of course is to give every unemployed man a patch of
ground and free tools if he chose to apply for them. It is disgraceful that
men who are expected to keep alive on the P.A.C. should not even have the
chance to grow vegetables for their families.

To study unemployment and its effects you have got to go to the
industrial areas. In the South unemployment exists, but it is scattered and
queerly unobtrusive. There are plenty of rural districts where a man out of
work is almost unheard-of, and you don't anywhere see the spectacle of
whole blocks of cities living on the dole and the P.A.C. It is only when
you lodge in streets where nobody has a job, where getting a job seems
about as probable as owning an aeroplane and much less probable than
winning fifty pounds in the Football Pool, that you begin to grasp the
changes that are being worked in our civilization. For a change is taking
place, there is no doubt about that. The attitude of the submerged working
class is profoundly different from what it was seven or eight years ago.

I first became aware of the unemployment problem in 1928. At that time
I had just come back from Burma, where unemployment was only a word, and I
had gone to Burma when I was still a boy and the post-war boom was not
quite over. When I first saw unemployed men at close quarters, the thing
that horrified and amazed me was to find that many of them were ashamed of
being unemployed. I was very ignorant, but not so ignorant as to imagine
that when the loss of foreign markets pushes two million men out of work,
those two million are any more to blame than the people who draw blanks in
the Calcutta Sweep. But at that time nobody cared to admit that
unemployment was inevitable, because this meant admitting that it would
probably continue. The middle classes were still talking about 'lazy idle
loafers on the dole' and saying that 'these men could all find work if they
wanted to', and naturally these opinions percolated to the working class
themselves. I remember the shock of astonishment it gave me, when I first
mingled with tramps and beggars, to find that a fair proportion, perhaps a
quarter, of these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical
parasites, were decent young miners and cotton-workers gazing at their
destiny with the same sort of dumb amazement as an animal in a trap. They
simply could not understand what was happening to them. They had been
brought up to work, and behold! it seemed as if they were never going to
have the chance of working again. In their circumstances it was inevitable,
at first, that they should be haunted by a feeling of personal degradation.
That was the attitude towards unemployment in those days: it was a disaster
which happened to you as an individual and for which you were to blame.

When a quarter of a million miners are unemployed, it is part of the
order of things that Alf Smith, a miner living in the back streets of
Newcastle, should be out of work. Alf Smith is merely one of the quarter
million, a statistical unit. But no human being finds it easy to regard
himself as a statistical unit. So long as Bert Jones across the street is
still at work, Alf Smith is bound to feel himself dishonoured and a
failure. Hence that frightful feeling of impotence and despair which is
almost the worst evil of unemployment--far worse than any hardship, worse
than the demoralization of enforced idleness, and Only less bad than the
physical degeneracy of Alf Smith's children, born on the P.A.C. Everyone
who saw Greenwood's play Love on the Dole must remember that dreadful
moment when the poor, good, stupid working man beats on the table and cries
out, 'O God, send me some work!' This was not dramatic exaggeration, it was
a touch from life. That cry must have been uttered, in almost those words,
in tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of English homes,
during the past fifteen years.

But, I think not again--or at least, not so often. That is the real
point: people are ceasing to kick against the pricks. After all, even the
middle classes--yes, even the bridge dubs in the country towns--are
beginning to realize that there is such a thing as unemployment. The 'My
dear, I don't believe in all this nonsense about unemployment. Why, only
last week we wanted a man to weed the garden, and we simply couldn't get
one. They don't want to work, that's all it is!' which you heard at every
decent tea-table five years ago, is growing perceptibly less frequent. As
for the working class themselves, they have gained immensely in economic
knowledge. I believe that the Daily Worker has accomplished a great deal
here: its influence is out of all proportion to its circulation. But in any
case they have had their lesson well rubbed into them, not only because
unemployment is so widespread but because it has lasted so long. When
people live on the dole for years at a time they grow used to it, and
drawing the dole, though it remains unpleasant, ceases to be shameful. Thus
the old, independent, workhouse-fearing tradition is undermined, just as
the ancient fear of debt is undermined by the hire-purchase system. In the
back streets of Wigan and Barnsley I saw every kind of privation, but I
probably saw much less conscious misery than I should have seen ten years
ago. The people have at any rate grasped that unemployment is a thing they
cannot help. It is not only Alf Smith who is out of work now; Bert Jones is
out of work as well, and both of them have been 'out' for years. It makes a
great deal of difference when things are the same for everybody.

So you have whole populations settling down, as it were, to a lifetime
on the P.A.C. And what I think is admirable, perhaps even hopeful, is that
they have managed to do it without going spiritually to pieces. A working
man does not disintegrate under the strain of poverty as a middle-class
person does. Take, for instance, the fact that the working class think
nothing of getting married on the dole. It annoys the old ladies in
Brighton, but it is a proof of their essential good sense; they realize
that losing your job does not mean that you cease to be a human being. So
that in one way things in the distressed areas are not as bad as they might
be. Life is still fairly normal, more normal than one really has the right
to expect. Families are impoverished, but the family-system has not broken
up. The people are in effect living a reduced version of their former
lives. Instead of raging against their destiny they have made things
tolerable by lowering their standards.

But they don't necessarily lower their standards by cutting I out
luxuries and concentrating on necessities; more often it is the other way
about--the more natural way, if you come to think of it. Hence the fact
that in a decade of unparalleled depression, the consumption of all cheap
luxuries has in-creased. The two things that have probably made the
greatest difference of all are the movies and the mass-production of cheap
smart clothes since the war. The youth who leaves school at fourteen and
gets a blind-alley job is out of work at twenty, probably for life; but for
two pounds ten on the hire-purchase he can buy himself a suit which, for a
little while and at a little distance, looks as though it had been tailored
in Savile Row. The girl can look like a fashion plate at an even lower
price. You may have three halfpence in your pocket and not a prospect in
the world, and only the corner of a leaky bedroom to go home to; but in
your new clothes you can stand on the street corner, indulging in a private
daydream of yourself as dark Gable or Greta Garbo, which compensates you
for a great deal. And even at home there is generally a cup of tea going--
a 'nice cup of tea'--and Father, who has been out of work since 1929, is
temporarily happy because he has a sure tip for the Cesarewitch.

Trade since the war has had to adjust itself to meet the demands of
underpaid, underfed people, with the result that a luxury is nowadays
almost always cheaper than a necessity. One pair of plain solid shoes costs
as much as two ultra-smart pairs. For the price of one square meal you can
get two pounds of cheap sweets. You can't get much meat for threepence, but
you can get a lot offish-and-chips. Milk costs threepence a pint and even
'mild' beer costs fourpence, but aspirins are seven a penny and you can
wring forty cups of tea out of a quarter-pound packet. And above all there
is gambling, the cheapest of all luxuries. Even people on the verge of
starvation can buy a few days' hope ('Something to live for', as they call
it) by having a penny on a sweepstake. Organized gambling has now risen
almost to the status of a major industry. Consider, for instance, a
phenomenon like the Football Pools, with a turnover of about six million
pounds a year, almost all of it from the pockets of working-class people. I
happened to be in Yorkshire when Hitler re-occupied the Rhineland. Hitler,
Locarno, Fascism, and the threat of war aroused hardly a flicker of
interest locally, but the decision of the Football Association to stop
publishing their fixtures in advance (this was an attempt to quell the
Football Pools) flung all Yorkshire into a storm of fury. And then there is
the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon
people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes,
but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that
has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore.
Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has
access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity.
Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they
really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which
mitigate the surface of life.

Do you consider all this desirable? No, I don't. But it may be that
the psychological adjustment which the working class are visibly making is
the best they could make in the circumstances. They have neither turned
revolutionary nor lost their self-respect; merely they have kept their
tempers and settled down to make the best of things on a fish-and-chip
standard. The alternative would be God knows what continued agonies of
despair; or it might be attempted insurrections which, in a strongly
governed country like England, could only lead to futile massacres and a
regime of savage repression.

Of course the post-war development of cheap luxuries has been a very
fortunate thing for our rulers. It is quite likely that fish-and-chips,
art-silk stockings, tinned salmon, cut-price chocolate (five two-ounce bars
for sixpence), the movies, the radio, strong tea, and the Football Pools
have between them averted revolution. Therefore we are some-times told that
the whole thing is an astute manoeuvre by the governing class--a sort of
'bread and circuses' business--to hold the unemployed down. What I have
seen of our governing class does not convince me that they have that much
intelligence. The thing has happened, but by an un-conscious process--the
quite natural interaction between the manufacturer's need for a market and
the need of half-starved people for cheap palliatives.

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