December 5, 2014

In the clink: George Orwell’s time in prison


On the razzle and in the clink.

On the razzle and in the clink.

In 1933, George Orwell’s now canonical memoir Down and Out in Paris and London was published, documenting his vivid recollections of living among the poor and destitute. But suspicions of whether Orwell was telling the truth about his gruelling experiences quickly arose, when a reviewer wondered “if the author was really down and out”.

Since then, doubts have hung over Orwell’s first-person accounts, and the stories in his journalism: did he really live them? How much was made-up or polished-up for the purposes of memorable journalism? New evidence suggests we should have more faith in the writer. Dr Luke Seaber of University College London has discovered court records in the London Metropolitan archives that give “unambiguous external confirmation that Orwell did indeed carry out, more or less as described, one of his ‘down-and-out’ experiments”, The Guardian reports.

Not only do the records prove that Orwell was indeed arrested and spent time in a prison cell, but they closely affirm everything Orwell described in his unpublished essay “Clink”, in which he described that very night. Here’s Orwell’s take on how he purposely got himself drunk and arrested, in order to experience life in a cell:

When the charge sheet was filled up I told the story I always tell, viz that my name was Edward Burton, and my parents kept a cake-shop in Blythburgh, where I had been employed as a clerk in a draper’s shop; that I had had the sack for drunkenness, and my parents, finally getting sick of my drunken habits, had turned me adrift…I added that I had been working as an outside porter at Billingsgate, and having unexpectedly ‘knocked up’ six shillings on Saturday had gone on the razzle.

The Old Street Prison record from 21st December 1931 reads: “Edward Burton, “Fish Porter”, “Drunk and incapable.”  And Orwell’s account is verified in other ways, too:

The records also confirm a number of other details of Orwell’s essay, particularly his descriptions of the other prisoners with whom he waited in the Old Street cells. Orwell’s lines about an “ugly Belgian youth charged with obstructing traffic with a barrow” corresponds to “Pierre Sussman, aged 20, who pleaded guilty to obstructing Shoreditch High Street with a costerbarrow”.

Orwell’s biographer, Gordon Bowker said the findings didn’t surprise him:

Orwell’s reportage is so vivid it is often tempting to ask whether events he described really happened or were invented. But in case after case I found that where doubt was cast on his claims, other evidence either proved they were accurate or gave them clear support.

So even if some bits of Down and Out in Paris in London were made up or exaggerated, George Orwell, on this occassion was “really down and out”. And at least now we’ll always have the evidence to prove that on the 21st December 1931 one of England’s great writers went out on the razzle, and had a bloody good time.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.