George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1) was an instant success in the UK when it was published in 1937 and has remained in print, although perhaps not often read: a cruel but accurate description of the condition, during the Great Depression, of the working class in northern England.
It opens with a description of the lodging house at 22 Darlington Street in the Scholes district of Wigan, Lancashire, run by Mr and Mrs Brooker, who also owned a tripe shop. Orwell spent a few days there and was so struck that he devoted his first chapter to it. To him, the dirt, the small-minded landlords and the poverty of their lodgers (worn down by exhausting, poorly paid work and harassed by the administrative authorities) epitomised the region, where working conditions were harsh and unemployment high. He described ‘labyrinthine slums’ and ‘dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles’, commenting that ‘it is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long.’
The tripe shop has long been demolished but nearby, in a cheerful, grassy open space, a hard-to-spot plaque commemorates Orwell’s visit. Under drizzle one day last summer, Darlington Street was neither smart nor sinister. It was mainly very long, with neat two-storey redbrick terraced houses as far as the eye could see. They looked identical, though on closer inspection the paint was flaking more on some doors than others and there were plastic flowers in some of the windows. A few ground floors were shops, though most had gone out of business, with steel shutters closed and windows boarded up. Some of the survivors offered pizzas and hamburgers and kebabs. The green-painted woodwork of a betting shop caught my eye. The poverty wasn’t immediately apparent; Orwell would not now observe a woman who ‘knew well enough what was happening to her — understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drainpipe.’ There are now roses in some of the tiny backyards, wide, clean pavements and trees.
‘Nothing wrong with being poor’
Scholes is still poor. More than 17% of Wigan’s population claimed state benefits in 2011 (2), compared with an average of 13.5% nationally, and 16% lived in council housing (9% nationwide). Scholes is one of the most deprived areas of a deprived town. Orwell describes ‘whole blocks of cities living on the dole and the PAC [Public Assistance Committees, created in 1930].’ Today, Barbara Nettleton, founder of the Sunshine House community centre, believes it’s important to teach residents that ‘there’s nothing wrong with being poor.’
During a brief postwar interlude, mines, cotton mills and steelworks often worked at full capacity and the Welfare State was established. Nettleton recalled: ‘When I was a child, I didn’t need an alarm clock in the morning, because I had the mill clock near my house. You could leave one job in the morning and be in another job by the afternoon.’
Orwell wrote of an earlier time: ‘The first sound in the mornings was the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street.’ Yet retired factory worker Les Bond recalled clogs in his home town, Accrington, 50km from Wigan: ‘We were a thriving centre of industry. We had sawmills, textiles, engineering and mining. In the morning, you’d hear [people] going to work, the rattle of clogs on the pavement, and then they’d come home and you’d hear another rattle of clogs on the pavement.’ Later, ‘at the end of the 60s, we had people with enough confidence to get a mortgage and buy a house. That’s over. The industries, they’re all gone.’ Since the Thatcher era (3), deindustrialisation, globalisation and neoliberalism have destroyed the region.
Gareth Lane of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) is too young to remember the miners’ strike of 1984-85, but told me its failure was ‘a severe blow to the working class. We’re finding it hard to get back to where we were, and organise workers.’ Even the memories of this former bastion of industry have vanished, except among older people and political activists.
A young car salesman I met in the miners’ club in Astley said: ‘I’m only 30 — what do you expect me to say about the miners?’ There were picture plates over the bar, one with the words ‘Despite pitfalls, some good, some bad, I’m proud to be a mining lad’ around the symbols of helmet, boots and lamp. Orwell, who had been down a mine himself, admired the ‘splendid men’ able to work in such hellish conditions.
Orwell is not popular in these parts. When Wigan Pier was published, it was criticised as being bleaker than the reality. Unemployed miner and political activist Jerry Kennan, who had been Orwell’s ‘guide’, maintained the writer had left his first lodgings because he felt they were not sordid enough, and moved to the Brookers’ house because it was closer to the dirt and poverty he was looking for. (Kennan’s pride may have been hurt because Orwell did not give him a signed copy of the book.) Orwell’s diary reveals that he moved because his original landlady had unexpectedly fallen ill, but the myth persists and is repeated with glee by many commentators who believe Orwell is out of date and should be forgotten.
‘The poverty is still here’
I met Brian, 30, in a pub in Accrington. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were miners. He studied history and once planned to make it his career, but now works full-time in a factory making conservatories: ‘I spent seven years studying history, and look where it got me.’ He feels lucky: his school friends have moved away, are unemployed, or have precarious jobs. ‘The half-naked fillers Orwell saw at the bottom of the mine [loading coal on to a conveyor belt] have gone. Now what we have is the unemployed in the Jobcentres, and people on zero-hour contracts. The difference between Orwell’s time and today is that now there is no work. But the poverty is still here. It’s ingrained.’
We were a thriving centre of industry. We had sawmills, textiles, mining and engineering. In the morning, you'd hear people going to work, the rattle of clogs on the pavement Les Wilson
The few tidy pedestrian streets in the centres of Wigan, Sheffield and Accrington make little difference: these former industrial towns are poor. People go to discount food supermarkets, and shops where everything costs one pound: Poundland, Poundstretcher, Poundworld. They buy clothes in charity shops, and for second-hand computers and mobile phones go to pawnbrokers such as Cash Shop or Cash Converters. In Orwell’s day, everything was darkened by coal dust; now you notice the strident colours of the window displays, including those of the notorious BrightHouse hire purchase chain, which has branches opposite the town hall in Accrington and the big shopping centre in Wigan.
The poorer you are, the more you pay
BrightHouse doesn’t care about appearances. The paintwork around the windows is flaking, the carpet is worn. There are no high-end brands among its washing machines, flat-screen TVs, cookers or sofas. The interest is as high as 69.9% per year. A washing machine from a minor brand may be priced at £180.50, but BrightHouse’s customers can’t afford the whole amount up front and have to pay by instalments. The principle is simple, the poorer you are, the more you pay, and you will end up paying a lot. At £3 a week over three years, the washing machine will cost you £468; at £5 a week over three years, a TV priced at £327.50 will cost you £780 (not counting insurance). The UK financial authorities are aware that BrightHouse targets the poorest and most vulnerable (4). The chain has 270 branches across the UK, and thousands have signed hire purchase agreements.
Lissa (5), 25, still regrets signing. She has never worked: she suffers from Crohn’s disease, diagnosed when she was 17 and expecting her first child. She gets £300 incapacity benefit every two weeks, plus £300 employment and support allowance (sickness benefit) a month. Her partner gets £220 jobseeker’s allowance (unemployment benefit) a week. They and their four children live in a council flat, rent £80 a week plus utility bills. It’s hard to make ends meet. ‘Having to say no to the kids all the time is exhausting,’ she said, as the children played football among the pews in the church where we met. ‘So when the cooker broke down, I couldn’t help myself. I went to BrightHouse to buy a new one, and I ended up getting a 42-inch TV too. It was £30 a week for the two, over two years, and I thought it would be OK.’ When she missed a payment after an unexpected expense, her insurance cover lapsed. The TV broke down, but she must still finish paying for it.
Denise Hayes, vicar (6) of St Barnabas in Wigan, has heard many such stories. Her church also serves as a community centre with free tea and coffee, sofas, a pool table, games for children, and a small food shop with very low prices. Every afternoon it’s filled with the unemployed, people in precarious jobs, alcoholics, drug addicts, the desperate. That covers almost everyone in the parish, about 3,600 people. Hayes told me: ‘The situation was bad when I arrived, but in the four and a half years I’ve been here, it’s got worse. There’s no simple answer to the question “what is the main problem?” There’s high unemployment. The jobs are mainly zero-hour contracts. The wages are very low. Or the jobs need a high level of education, and people here don’t have that. And it’s got worse because of welfare reform.’
Universal credit (a single benefit paid monthly) will replace six existing benefits, including jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, employment and support allowance, and child tax credit, paid weekly or every other week to recipients or, in the case of housing benefit, directly to the landlord, private or social. Introduced by the Conservative government in 2013, the system is being rolled out gradually; it is widely criticised as badly designed, problematic and failing to meet recipients’ needs.
Tony, former farm worker, single father of four and unemployed for eight years, is worried. With his youngest daughter wriggling in his arms, he said: ‘I’m supposed to go on to universal credit by the end of the year, and I don’t know how I’m going to manage. I’ve got enough problems now with the kids wanting things all the time. It’ll be even harder to say no when I have all that money at the beginning of the month.’ Tony gets £220 every Monday, but ‘£94 goes directly to the landlord.’ He buys cheap food ‘mostly burgers, potatoes and pasta’, but still runs short of money by the end of the week.
‘Sometimes the house is cold’
In Wigan Pier, people feed the gas meter with pennies. Tony uses a prepaid card: ‘I used to get bills, but then I missed a payment, and they nearly cut me off. With this card, I only use as much gas or electricity as I can afford. Sometimes the house is cold.’ Hayes said 90% of her parishioners have a prepayment meter, and she understands Tony’s fears: ‘The move to universal credit is creating a lot of instability. Many people here have been on benefits for years. So they don’t know what to do — they’ve never had to manage so much money before. The worst part is that before they get on to universal credit they have five to 11 weeks with nothing. How do you manage even five weeks with nothing coming in? They have to borrow money from friends, or loan sharks. But when the benefits eventually come, they owe so much money they can never pay it back.’
The wages are very low. Or the jobs need a high level of education, and people here don't have that. And it's got worse because of welfare reform Denise Hayes
There are other problems, including what the government calls ‘the removal of the spare room subsidy’, nicknamed the ‘bedroom tax’ when introduced in 2013. Take the example of a family with two children living in a social housing unit with three bedrooms; when the elder child leaves home, their room is vacant or only occasionally occupied, so it is officially considered superfluous and the family’s housing benefit is reduced by 14%; if there are two such rooms, the benefit is cut by 25%. If the family has two children of the same sex, they are supposed to share a bedroom, and the benefit is cut. Hayes said: ‘They try to get people into smaller accommodation. But they haven’t enough council housing, so people stay in their houses.’ Many tenants fall into arrears and are evicted. ‘These people have chaotic lives, and it makes their lives even more chaotic.’
Today, as in the 1930s, claiming benefits in the UK makes you a sponger, no matter how little you get. Orwell wrote: ‘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”.’ Former Conservative Party leader David Cameron talked of cutting benefits ‘for those who refuse to work’ during his 2010 election campaign; he won and became prime minister until the Brexit referendum. Claiming and maintaining an entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance is an obstacle course. David, a young accountant, has nightmares about the 50- or 100-page application forms and the opacity of the system: ‘For your jobseeker’s allowance, they look at where you live, who you are, if you’re married, if you have any children, and they decide how much to give you, and sometimes they don’t give you enough for food, or to pay for travel to go to job interviews, or any appointment they give you.’
‘Some haven’t worked for 10 years’
David works 16 hours a week for Sunshine House. For another 18 hours, he has to prove that he is actively seeking full-time work: ‘I owe the Jobcentre 34 hours a week.’ In Wigan Pier, Orwell mentioned the ‘means test’, used to assess the overall income of an unemployed household. Introduced in 1931, it was ‘one of the most hated institutions in inter-war Britain’ (7). Aneez Esmail, a GP and professor of general practice at the University of Manchester, said: ‘The number of people with mental health problems like heavy depression coming to me is more than half of my work. Some of these people haven’t been working for 10 years. They’ve been on benefits. And they’ve been told “You might have a mental health problem, but we believe you should be going to work now.” But these people can’t function properly.’
Ian drove a forklift truck for 35 years. Then one morning he woke up and found he couldn’t move. He was diagnosed with arthritis, and started claiming incapacity benefit: ‘They didn’t bother me at first. But now they say I’m fit for work because my arms aren’t paralysed. They’re making me retrain as an office worker: you can use a computer even if you are on crutches.’ As part of his retraining, Ian volunteers as a receptionist at Sunshine House. But he’s over 50: ‘When employers see my CV, what with my handicap and my age, they move straight on to the next candidate.’
Esmail, like many doctors from the Indian sub-continent, has spent much of his career, some 30 years, as a GP in working-class areas. He has seen poverty grow since austerity began in 2008, and does not believe the 4% unemployment rate the government boasted of last August: ‘I haven’t seen so much inequality before. I see complete destitution. When I was training as a doctor in Sheffield, the miners took pride in what they did, and they had hope for their children. But today, some of my patients say to me, “Doctor, how do we pay for the funeral? We don’t have any money.” Today it’s all just low-wage jobs.’
The jobs in Wigan, Sheffield, Accrington and Manchester today are with online retailers and fastfood chains. They need no qualifications, and mostly pay the minimum wage of £7.83 an hour. Jill, 53, decided to apply to Amazon. The conditions are tough, the pay is low and she has a long commute: ‘With the budget cuts, there aren’t so many buses. I have to change twice. It takes an hour and a half each way.’ But it’s a full-time job, better than the zero-hour contracts she was on for years.
Introduced by McDonald’s in the 1980s, the zero-hour contract spread to all sectors of the economy after the 2008 financial crisis. It has no legal definition, but gained de facto recognition by the state, and since 2014 the unemployed have been unable to turn down such a contract without having their benefits stopped. Gareth Lane of the BFAWU said: ‘It’s a contract with no guarantee of hours in a week or in a month. Basically, the management can give you as many hours as they want. One week you could have 50 hours, the next week you could have zero. The management can change it at any point they want, and you can’t say anything.’ Lane left school at 16 and worked on zero-hour contracts for ‘dozens of different companies’. Recruitment is usually via a placement agency, which makes the employee’s position even weaker. ‘Before the war, the workers used to have to queue at the docks to get a day’s work, and the managers picked their favourites. It’s the same today with this kind of work, but it’s over the phone. It’s much more isolating for the workers than it was then.’
Lane has been trying to organise rolling strikes by workers at McDonald’s, ‘McStrikes’, for two years. The zero-hour contracts make life uncertain: workers can’t even schedule time with their children, or plan their expenditure. Orwell would have included them among the ‘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.’
Finding money for a deposit and looking for accommodation other than social housing is impossible. The rent on a one-bedroom flat in a poor area of Manchester can be up to £750 a month, not including utilities, so I was not surprised to hear about a couple, both in full-time regular employment, who live in a homeless shelter in the suburbs of Salford. They were both working when I visited, and Justin, who showed me around, gave me no details ‘out of respect for their privacy’.
Hidden behind a medical centre next to a Pentecostal church, it’s the only shelter in south Manchester open 365 days a year, and mixed. It gets £100 of housing benefit a week for each person sheltered. In the canteen I found a dozen men, the youngest with acne, the oldest looking like Father Christmas, with a white beard, and two women. Someone wrapped in a blanket was lying on a sofa in the lounge. The dormitory is closed during the day; Justin only opens the door at 9.30pm. Curfew and lights out are at 10pm, and the shelterers must leave the dormitory at 6am. The beds were neatly lined up and identical, except for teddy bears on the women’s; 30 men and women share one big room, without privacy. When the shelter has to turn someone away because it’s full (which it always is), Justin lends them a duvet and suggests they go to a nearby McDonald’s, open round the clock. ‘But they mustn’t fall asleep, or they’ll be thrown out.’
Esmail told me the impact of budget cuts on vulnerable people has been severe: ‘Obesity is crazy here. It’s a social marker. The way you see it is by the number of people developing diabetes. We give medicines that cost £200 a week to control diabetes that is caused by obesity that is caused by poverty. What kind of stupidity is this?’ The extreme poverty of Orwell’s time has diminished, and people no longer die of hunger. But the poor are growing in number. In Esmail’s words, ‘people are more and more desperate. We have made despair a part of modern life.’