Untold lives blog

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21 January 2014

George Orwell’s loft

Today is the anniversary of the death on 21 January 1950 of Eric Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell.  Andy Simons tells us about Orwell's collection of pamphlets which now have an online inventory to help researchers explore this fascinating resource.

George Orwell’s collection of mostly political ephemera was an important barometer of the social changes of the 1930s and 1940s, and a measure of his influences during those decades.  While Orwell’s personal papers went to University College London and the National Archives, his miscellaneous materials are held by the British Library.  Totalling over 2700 items, a full inventory of Orwell’s collection of pamphlets is now available via the British Library’s website.

Orwell was not a writer of ‘bestselling’ books until the end of his life, after the Second World War.  He became known as a journalist, a critic of other people’s writings and a word-portraitist of the landscape of politics.  It is likely he never passed up the opportunity to acquire pamphlets of any persuasion.  He wryly observed in The Tribune that the pamphleteer’s road was paved by a “complete disregard for fairness or accuracy” (8 December 1944).   Perhaps the most appealing aspect of his pamphlets collection is that he wasn’t Hoovering them up to form a George Orwell Archive; he considered them as a spectrum of thought that was deserving of preserving.    

While Orwell could not acquire and preserve the thoughts of every political entity, those caught in his net were numerous.  He documented the major political parties and the better known minor ones that didn’t figure much electorally, such as The Communist Party of Great Britain, and The Socialist Party.  Orwell was especially strong in acquiring the ephemera of the fringe Left, but any non-mainstream organisation was worthy of attention, for example The Central Board for Conscientious Objectors and The Society of Individualists.  He was keen on foreign publications too, including much from Moscow.  

The author’s interest in non-human animals is revealed including articles from issues of The Smallholder and The Farmer and Stock-Breeder.  His wife Eileen worked for the Ministry of Food and so they retained a range of ‘war cookery’ guides.  And, given his pulmonary problems from tuberculosis, one shouldn’t be surprised that he read Smokeless Air: The Smoke Abatement Journal.

  Pamphlet The War in Wax
1899.SS.35 (15)  Noc

Perhaps the oddest item is a four-page pamphlet from January 1945, The War in Wax, an attempt to get shoppers in London’s Oxford Street to buy tickets to a twisted version of Madame Tussauds.  This promised paying customers an experience of "The horrors of the German Concentration Camp," “Tree-Hangings,” “Stamping to death,” and, on the last page, a children’s section of mechanical moving figures including Cinderella, Laurel & Hardy, Disney characters, Bing Crosby, and even Mae West.   This so-called attraction was too absurd for Orwell not to share, so the concept had a walk-on role as Ingsoc propaganda in 1984.  

Orwell’s heaps of pamphlets informed his writing, both fiction and non fiction. He took pride in his squirrelling-away of pamphlets, “political, religious and what-not”.  In 1949, he estimated that this hoard numbered 1200-2000, but even the higher figure was an underestimation.  He wrote that “a few of them must be great rarities” and they were “bound to be of historical interest in 50 years time.”  In line with most of his considerations, he wasn’t wrong.

Andy Simons
Curator, Printed Historical Sources

Further reading
Inventory of George Orwell’s pamphlet collection

A longer version of George Orwell’s Loft

George Orwell  - help  for researchers


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