O’Brien’s ‘Brotherhood’ Inspired by Orwell’s Visit to Sheffield?

In his diary entry for 3 March 1936, George Orwell writes “In the evening was taken to a Methodist Church where some kind of men’s association (they call it a brotherhood) meet once a week to listen to a lecture and have discussions. Next week a communist is speaking, to the evident dismay of the clergyman who made the announcements. This week a clergyman who spoke on ‘Clean and Dirty Water.’ His lecture consisted of incredibly silly and disconnected ramblings about Shaw’s Adventures of a Black Girl, etc. Most of the audience did not understand a word of it and in fact hardly listened, and the talk and the questions afterwards were so unbearable that Brown and I slipped out… B says that most of the members of the Brotherhood are unemployed men who will put up with almost anything in order to have a warm place where they can sit for a few hours.”

There doesn’t seem to be any record of which Methodist Church it was that Orwell attended, but after spending some considerable time in Sheffield researching the subject it seems almost certain that it would have been Victoria Hall, the main Methodist church in Sheffield, where it seems that there was indeed a working men’s ‘Fellowship’ that met regularly there in the 1930s.

Sheffield's Victoria Hall

Orwell’s use of “Brotherhood” is interesting, because in Nineteen Eighty-Four he has O’Brien explaining the nature of the Brotherhood, a mysterious “huge underworld of conspirators, meeting secretly in cellars”. I know I might be considered fanciful, but I like the idea that Orwell had in mind the dejected group of unemployed Sheffielders when he wrote of the similarly marginalised (and doomed) members of the Brotherhood in his brilliant, but deeply depressing novel. Orwell’s diary entries are often mundane in the extreme. But he seems to have been deeply affected by his stay in Sheffield, to the extent that it might well have been a perfect model for the dystopian London of Nineteen Eighty-Four!

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