Between the years 1936 to 1940, the Stores cottage in Wallington was home to one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. Situated near Baldock, George Orwell (real name Eric Blair), lived and worked within one of Hertfordshire’s rural villages which possibly later influenced and inspired his most read and loved novel: Animal Farm. What impact did this idyllic village have on both his writing career and life? Through a series of letters written to friends and family, George Orwell provides an insight into experiences of life within pastoral Hertfordshire, juxtaposing matters at home with his wider political concerns and literary career.
Orwell first documented his planned move to the countryside in a letter to Richard Rees (friend and editor of the Adelphi magazine) dated the 29th February 1936, describing his situation as being ‘rather a pig in a poke because I have never seen it [The Stores]’. Despite this fact he put faith in his friends and more importantly the cheap rate of 7 shillings 6 pence a week to rent the property. After several weeks of inhabiting the cottage, in a letter to Jack Common (friend and novelist), Orwell remarked fondly upon the proximity to London for such a cheap rate and encouraged Common to visit and bask in the quietness of the village despite the ‘primitiveness’ and lack of ‘conveniences’. Orwell frequently noted the state of the garden and its need for attention in letters; he had a strong desire to get it into shape and cultivate it for subsistence.
The name of the cottage was The Stores, originally functioning as village shop, the actual store had been closed for a period of time when he took occupancy. Orwell immediately had an intention of reopening it to the village, firstly putting out the ‘feelers’ to local residents if they would welcome its return. He asked Jack Common to put him in contact with suppliers to get the store running. He did not wish to sell perishable goods as these would incur unwanted costs for refrigeration. In addition, he did not want to sell tobacco as he was wary of upsetting the two village public houses who both sold it. Orwell remarked with surprise the need for two pubs in a village of around 75 people, one of which was his direct neighbour as seen below, the white house on the left (which no longer functions as one).
After reopening, the village store was a success and it paid the rent on the cottage. Orwell noted that for a writer this was important to cover and it allowed him to focus on writing without the pressure of finding an income. He also noted the fact that running a food store was much easier than a bookstore as people did not hang around for hours. Ultimately he enjoyed running the store, however, he realised that it tied him to the cottage and the village.
On the 9th June 1936, Orwell married Eileen O’Shaughnessy. In a letter dated the same day to fellow Etonian and friend, Hugh St Denys Nettleton King-Farlow, he writes ‘with one eye on the clock and the other on the prayer book’ as he explains he is to marry in a few hours. Both George and Eileen wished to keep the wedding low key and avoid the detection of their parents. The pictures below show the idyllic parish church where the couple were married by rector J.H Woods.
The marriage certificate below states his profession as ‘author’ and his father’s profession as ‘Retired Indian Civil Service (ICS) civil servant’.
By the 15th December 1936, Orwell had completed The Road to Wigan Pier and he included the manuscript with a letter to Leonard Moore his publishing agent. Upon completing the work, Orwell left for Spain which had fallen into civil war since July of that year.
Orwell was back home in Wallington by July 1937. On 16th August 1937 he recounted in a letter to friend Geoffrey Gorer (anthropologist and author) the wound he had suffered whilst away but had miraculously survived. He had been shot, but it had passed through his neck, missing the carotid artery and neck bone. It did however, leave him with one paralysed vocal cord that he stated stopped him from singing or shouting.
The following year on 16th February, he expresses the desire to ‘vegetate’ at the cottage and work on the garden, which by now was also home to several ducks and hens. He also began planning his next book: Coming Up For Air. Suffering from ill health his lungs had become bad and he was advised by doctors to spend the winter in a warm climate. As a result both he and Eileen travelled to Marrakech in French Morocco, but reluctant to let the farm go, he requested that Jack Common move in and run things in their absence.
The course of the Second World War meant that they were kept away from Wallington and lived mainly in London through its duration and after Eileen’s death in 1945 he could no longer face living there alone. Orwell kept Wallington until 1947 when he relinquished the lease. The legacy of living in the countryside arguably influenced the setting for his 1945 novel Animal Farm with the farm in Wallington being called ‘Manor Farm’.
Today a red plaque has been erected to mark his occupancy.
The letters can be found at the Hertfordshire Archives, County Hall in the four volumes compiled by Peter Davidson.
Do you or does anyone in your family remember George Orwell/Eric Blair living and running The Stores? Please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any memories, or memoirs, you wish to share.