When his father retired to the seaside town in 1921, Southwold became home to one of Britain’s most famous and successful authors. Through a hectic and varied life of illness and health, success and rejection, love and loss, wealth and poverty, Orwell returned to his parent’s home.
Having graduated from Eton College, Orwell was unable to attend university; his parents could not afford it and, since his academic reports suggest that he neglected his studies, a scholarship was seemingly out of the question. The family decided that Orwell should try to join the Imperial Police, the precursor of the Indian Police Service. So Orwell enrolled at a crammer in Southwold called Craighurst, to prepare for the entrance examination he would have to pass. During this time, he became acquainted with the local people and area. Although he was expelled from the school (for sending a dead rat as a birthday present to the town surveyor), Orwell did successfully pass the entrance exam and was able to join the force.
After his time serving with the police in Burma, Orwell returned to England where he lived in the family home at Southwold. It was from here that he made arrangements to move into rooms in Portobello Road, London. Whilst in London, Orwell began to explore the poorer, slumming areas of society, in imitation of Jack London, a writer whom he admired. For a time, he “went native”, which involved dressing like a tramp and experiencing the low-life. These experiences formed the material for his first published essay in English, “The Spike”, as well as the second half of his first book, the fantastic Down and Out in Paris and London.
Orwell’s House in Southwold
Orwell moved to Paris in 1928, where he began writing novels. In 1929, he fell seriously ill and was taken to a free hospital, Hôpital Cochin, where medical students were trained. His experiences there were the basis of his 1946 essay, ‘How the Poor Die’. In another stroke of bad luck, Orwell had all his money stolen from his lodgings house. He thence began undertaking menial jobs, like dishwashing in hotels. This was described later in the first part of Down and Out in Paris and London.
After nearly two years in Paris, Orwell came back to Southwold, where he stayed for the next 5 years. The Blair family had become well-established in the town; his sister Avril ran a tea-house. Orwell integrated with the local people, and became particularly drawn to Brenda Salkeld, a gym-teacher at St Felix Girls’ school, Southwold. She rejected his offer of marriage, but the two remained friends and were in regular correspondence for many years.
Orwell worked, for a time, as the tutor to three young brothers – one of whom was Richard Peters, later a distinguished academic. He lived a respectable life in the town, writing, painting and bathing on the beach. It was in Southwold that he met Mabel and Francis Fierz, who would have a great influence over his career in following years. He visited them often in London.
Orwell soon left Southwold, once again for the capital; but after a stint as a teacher in a prep school for boys, he returned to Suffolk in 1932. His parents had used his legacy to buy their own home, which he spent the summer helping his sister to make inhabitable. Though he had been previously unsuccessful, Orwell was able to get Down and Out published in this time. It was released on January 9, 1933 and proved a success.
Orwell moved back to London again, taking up a teaching position at Frays College in Uxbridge. On his days off, he would take motorcycle trips through the surrounding countryside. When one of these outings resulted in him getting caught in a downpour, and suffering from a chill that developed into pneumonia, Orwell looked to return straight to his family home in Southwold, just as soon as he was discharged from hospital.
The picturesque, seaside town, with its colourful beach huts and charming pier, served Orwell well, and he used this time to convalesce. Supported by his parents, he never returned to teaching.
He began work on the novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which was based upon his experiences as a teacher in Southwold – the title refers to his former love, Brenda Salkelkd. Brenda had left for Ireland and Orwell’s other friends and former love interests had also moved away or married. Consequently, he was relatively isolated in Southwold. He worked on the allotments, took solitary strolls along the beach and spent time with his elderly father.
After sending off A Clergyman’s Daughter for approval, he moved back to London for a time to take a job as a part-time assistant in a second hand bookshop in Hampstead.
He went on to have more success with his novels; he fought in the Spanish Civil War, got married and served in the Home Guard during World War II. His experiences created inspiration for two of his most famous and beloved novels: 1984 and Animal Farm.
He died, aged 46, after suffering from tuberculosis. Southwold was a significant place, particularly through Orwell’s thirties. Today, you can find a plaque on his parents’ former house, commemorating the author’s life.
Today in Southwold, a large homage to George Orwell can be found painted on the back of the Pier cafe building, viewable from the pier itself.
By Liz Ewing