Orwell on eBay: Doublepluswrong

The internet auction site, eBay, currently lists a rowing medal that the seller claims was won by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair, 1903 – 1950), the writer most famous for Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Colourised picture of Blair in 1940 by Cassowary Colorizations (CC BY 2.0).

4 August 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch gets Orwellian.

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell invented the concept of “blackwhite”, the ability to accept whatever one is told, regardless of the facts (this was probably before the phrase “conspiracy theory” was invented). I recently came across a claim on eBay that I really wanted to accept as true – but boring old facts sadly prevented me from doing so. I hope that Big Brother was not watching.

For a starting bid of £29, a current eBay listing offers:

A 1938 Bronze and Enamel Poplar Blackwall and District Rowing Club (medal). Won By the famous Author George Orwell, he lived in the area at the time and was a keen rower.

Poplar, Blackwall and District Rowing Club (PBDRC) is sited on the northern bank of the Thames opposite Greenwich on the Isle of Dogs, London.

My immediate cause for concern was that the medal had the author’s pen name, “G(eorge) Orwell”, engraved on it, not “Eric Blair”, his birth and his legal name and the one that he used in his daily business throughout his life.

Further, if Blair really was “a keen rower”, this would have been discovered and documented a long time ago by HTBS contributors, particularly as the inveterate writer was a life-long diarist. In October 2020, Greg Denieffe noted what tenuous rowing connections Blair had in his HTBS piece George Orwell: Books, Berks and BoatersThis lack of involvement in rowing was despite the fact that Blair had lived in and around Henley and had attended Eton. Perhaps his one reference to Eton rowing was in his famous lines:

From the whole decade before 1914 there seems to breathe forth a smell of the more vulgar, un-grown-up kind of luxury…… an atmosphere, as it were, of eating everlasting strawberry ices on green lawns to the tune of the Eton Boating Song.

A little research into Blair’s life around the time of the 1938 medal did reveal one near truth in the eBay listing – he did once live near Poplar Blackwall and District Rowing Club. In June 1937, Blair returned from the Spanish Civil War and stayed at the home of his brother-in-law, Laurence O’Shaughnessy, in Greenwich. However, he soon moved back to a former home in Wallington, Hertfordshire, forty miles from London. A letter written by his wife, Eileen, indicates that they were there at least by New Year’s Day 1938.

Blair’s brother-in-law’s house at 24 Crooms Hill, Greenwich, was close to PBD Rowing Club – though the Thames did tend to get in the way. Picture from Google Earth.

In March 1938, one of Blair’s lungs haemorrhaged and he was taken to the Preston Hall Sanatorium in Kent. During a long convalescence, the doctors advised that his health would benefit from warmer climes. In September, Blair set out for French Morocco and he stayed near Casablanca for six months while writing Coming Up for Air.

Thus, the possibility that a 35-year-old chain-smoker in the early stages of tuberculosis and who spent most of 1938 in a sanatorium or living abroad, beat the tough young watermen of the East End at their club’s regatta is non-existent. However, my research did discover a time when a deft bit of rowing by his nephew probably saved Blair’s life. 

Blair’s desk preserved at “Barnhill”, the ramshackle farmhouse on the remote Scottish Isle of Jura where he lived from 1946 until 1949 and where he wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. From terriwindling.com. Draft first page of Nineteen Eighty-Four from orwelltoday.com

In 2014, the Daily Record interviewed Blair’s adopted son, Richard, while he was revisiting Jura.

In the evenings, they would go fishing or checking their lobster pots. It was after a week camping in June 1947 that Orwell’s boat capsized. He was with Richard on his knee, his nephew Henry and niece Lucy (and niece Jane) when he realised he had miscalculated the tides, their outboard was swamped in the clashing waters.

Henry rowed them to an islet but when he jumped off and pulled the dinghy in, it capsized. “I remember being under the water but because I was on father’s knee he managed to get me. We scrambled to the land and were picked up by a lobster boat. It could have gone badly. The tide was running and we could have been dragged away and been drowned…”

Henry Dakin, the son of Majorie Dakin, Blair’s eldest sister, was then a twenty-one-year-old soldier. His sister Jane was 24 and sister Lucy was 16. Toddler Richard was 3.

Blair and Richard on Jura in front of Barnhill.

The incident was also vividly recalled by Lucy and Jane, in a 2012 interview now on YouTube (they refer to Richard as “Rick”). The story really starts at 1 min 42 secs and is a great insight into life with “Uncle Eric”. At 7 min 32 secs, Lucy notes that, “I always say that if it hadn’t been for Henry, Nineteen Eighty-Four wouldn’t have been finished…”

Well rowed, Henry.

One comment

  1. There is a well known family that has rowed for years at PBDRC the Orwell’s so I presume this was a medal won by one of them

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