Mike Paterson of London Historians talks us through George Orwell’s time in Hayes from April 1932-July 1933.
Being a schoolmaster doesn’t fire the imagination quite like service in the Imperial Indian police in Burma or getting shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War, but several key events in the author’s career occurred while in Hayes. His first book, Down and Out in Paris and London was published by Victor Gollancz in January 1933. In order to save the blushes of his family about his career as a plongeur and a tramp, Eric Blair for the first time chose the pen-name George Orwell, having previously and occasionally written under the name P.S. Burton in magazine articles. He had to spend much of his spare time editing the manuscript for a nervous and demanding Gollancz, while simultaneously writing his next book, Burmese Days.
After resigning his police commission and returning from Burma in 1927, Orwell divided his time over the next five years between investigating the lifestyle of ‘gentlemen of the road’, living an impoverished bohemian lifestyle in Paris, and hanging out at his parents’ retirement house in Suffolk. Although he had some success getting articles accepted in the Adelphi magazine and the New Statesman, he was nonetheless skint. So he took a teacher’s job at a private prep school in Hayes: the Hawthorns High School. There were only 14-15 boy pupils and one other teacher, a Mr Shaw. This made Orwell — being the senior of the two — technically headmaster.
Orwell was known as being strict in the classroom (not a word of English was allowed in French lessons), yet kindly and enthusiastic at extra-curricular activities. He frequently took the lads on nature rambles, showing them how to capture marsh gas in jars, that sort of thing; he also wrote and directed the school play, Charles II, which was performed in St Mary’s Church nearby.
Orwell wrote about Hayes that it was “one of the most God-forsaken places I have ever struck”. Given what we know, he was hardly giving the area a fair crack of the whip. Much as he worked on being empathetic to the common man, Orwell was a bit of a snob, particularly when it came to the suburban middle-classes. His time in Hayes provided a rich vein which he mined profitably in both A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying (and probably Coming Up for Air). So one would like to think that rather than having a deep-felt antipathy for poor Hayes, Orwell was simply impressing his literary friends.
Today, the building that was the Hawthorns High School is the Fountain House Hotel. It has a plaque to Orwell on the front of the building, sponsored by the Hayes Literary Society.
The most famous picture of Orwell (and possibly the best, although the one of him smoking over the typewriter is a contender) is his mugshot for his NUJ card. Several days’ beard growth, frayed collar, lush barnet. It’s the one which more than any shows his essential kindness and decency and was taken in 1933 and is therefore exactly contemporary with his time in Hayes, aged about 30.
Armed with this and today’s sojourn, I have a great mental picture of the writer during that time in west London suburbia, the period of his breakthrough, about to start delivering arguably the finest writing of the 20th century.