I’ve been reading about George Orwell and Sheffield. He stayed there, very briefly, March 2nd - 4th 1936 when he was researching The Road to Wigan Pier, his book that describes working class conditions in northern England during the Great Depression. He famously wrote, "Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World..." He certainly had plenty of experience of ugly towns, including some outside the Old World, having been a policeman in Burma. The picture below, of a Sheffield steelworks, was taken by Emil Hoppe in 1925, and no doubt things had got worse by the time Orwell arrived.
Orwell also described Sheffield thus, “stone walls blackened by smoke, a shallow river yellow with chemicals, serrated flames, like circular saws, coming out from the cowls of the foundry chimneys, thump and scream of steam hammers (the iron seems to scream under the blow), smell of sulphur, yellow clay, backsides of women wagging laboriously from side to side as they shove their perambulators up the hills....”
To me this sounds both ancient and oddly familiar. He is describing the environment in which my parents grew up. They were born and raised in Sheffield (as was I), and they would both have been ten years old at the time Orwell was writing.
My dad (that’s him above – a victim of excessive hand-tinting rather than too much makeup) wasn’t much given to talking about the past, though on the rare occasions when he did, I don’t think he was given to exaggeration or self-pity either. He used to tell the story that when he was a kid his evening meal often consisted of nothing more than a can of evaporated milk. Perhaps surprisingly, he continued to like evaporated milk: you might think he'd have developed a hatred of it, but all through my childhood we had it every Sunday teatime with tinned fruit.
George Orwell was a great anthropologist in his own country and a wonderful observer of class, managing the rare feat of being both genuinely sympathetic and genuinely uncondescending. He kept a diary as he traveled, along with notes and cuttings, and the published form of the diary that covers the Sheffield visit contains the following item from the News of the World, dated March 1st – I guess he read it on the train on the way up.
LIVING on 4s. A WEEK: MAN'S DESCRIPTION OF HOW HE DOES IT.
Following the disclosures in the News of the World of parent who have to bring up big families on tiny incomes, a correspondent draws our attention to the case of a man who spends less than 4s. a week on food.
His week's supply and its cost is as follows:-
3 Wholemeal loaves 1/0
½ lb. Margarine 2½d
½ lb. Dripping 3d
1lb. Cheese 7d
1lb. Onions 1½d
1lb. Carrots 1½d
1lb Broken biscuits 4d
2lb. Dates 5d
1 Tin evaporated milk 5d
10 Oranges 5d
Total cost 3/11 ½
In fact the man in question lived in London, where things were supposedly a little easier than in the north. Still it makes for amazing reading, and you’ll notice the can of evaporated milk there on the list.
The man was spending the modern British equivalent of 25 pence: at today’s exhange rates that’s 40 cents. I know it’s extremely hard to compare amounts of money from the past with those of the present. The website measuringworth.com offers various ways of calculating the comparison: using the retail price index 4 shillings comes out at £10.10, say $16 in today’s money. That’s pretty hard living.
Just as an exercise, and I accept not a deeply meaningful one, I checked the items on that list against what they’d cost today, using the Safeway website as my source. There are certainly cheaper supermarkets than Safeway, but we also know that food in poorer neighborhoods actually tends to cost more. Prices are in dollars.
Food For Life 7 Grain Whole Wheat Bread - 24 Oz – (4.39 each) – 13.00
Imperial Spread (no dripping listed) .99
Lucerne Cheese Natural Sharp Cheddar – 1 pound - 4.19
Onions - 1 pound - 1.10
Carrots – I pound – 1.00
Bahlsen Hit Vanilla Cookies (I'm not exactly sure what these are, but they’re Safeways' cheapest (at $3 a pound, so call it half price if they were broken) 1.50
Dates (4.39 for 7 oz - 0.63 per ounce so for 2 pounds – ouch) 20.00
Safeway / Vons Evaporated Milk - 12 Fl. Oz. - 1.39
Oranges (navels 85c each) 8.50
This obviously doesn’t mean a great deal – I assume 1936 wholemeal loaves were much cheaper than a modern Food For Life version, though as a proportion of the whole, the expenditure on bread is quite consistent. But of course it’s the dates that put everything out of whack. Would anybody ever spend two fifths of their food budget on dates? And could dates ever really have been so cheap in England?
My father left home and Sheffield, and joined the Royal Navy as soon as he reasonably could, in 1941, aged 16. He always said navy food wasn’t bad, but there was never enough of it, but I’m guessing that when you’re sixteen there’s never enough food, full stop.
When I was growing up in Sheffield, one of the regular Saturday morning outings was to go with my dad to the indoor food hall at what was the then newly-built Castle Market; a bit of 1960s Brutalist architecture that nobody liked at the time, but now considered a wonderful relic. We’d go to a fish stall where I’d have a plate of tiny cockles and my dad would have a plate of large whelks. If you think there was something vaguely pre-Oedipal about this, I think you may well have a point.
It turns out that at exactly this time, my best friend from Sheffield, Steve, was also being taken to the Castle Market by his dad. Once in a while Steve and I compete to see who has the more authentically working class origins. On this occasion Steve wins hands down. While I was being taken for a plate of cockles, he and his dad were tucking into plates of tripe. You just can’t compete with that.
I had no idea that this was standard Sheffield father-son bonding ritual until I discovered the Sheffield artist Pete McKee (born a good decade later than me) who paints stylized scenes from his own Sheffield childhood.
The one above is titled “Cockles in Castle Market” and it seems his experience was just the same as mine – whelks for dad (who looks infinitely groovier than my own dad), and cockles for the son, who in this incarnation has become faceless. I think I understand what he’s getting at.