At Last—Orwell’s ‘Rambling’ Preacher Identified

Continuing from my most recent post on the subject (yet again, some might say!) of Orwell’s stay in Sheffield in March 1936, my continued research might well have finally yielded a result. In his 1991 book At The Heart of the City Nicholas Farr provides a detailed history of Sheffield’s Methodist Mission Hall, which was subsequently replaced when the Victoria Hall was built in the early twentieth century. Farr’s attention to detail is impressive, which makes the book more than a challenging read. However, quite early on he describes the various inspirational preachers who have spoken at the hall throughout the years, one of the most renowned (in Methodist circles) being the reverend Percy Medcraft, who preached at the hall during the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. In 1936, one of his audience was, as Farr writes: “One man who came… to hear Medcraft… and then resumed his travels… was Eric Blair, who wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell. At the time, he may have been preparing The Road to Wigan Pier. His impressions of Sheffield were not kind, and one wonders what he thought of the mission.”Orwell's The Road To Wigan Pier

We know now that Orwell was indeed preparing ‘Wigan Pier’, and we know from his diaries what he thought of the mission (see previous post). He was scathing, particularly of the speaker, who it seems, must have almost certainly been Percy Medcraft.

Rev Percy Medcraft
Rev Percy Medcraft

It is unfortunate that the Methodist preacher was described by Orwell in such scathing terms. Medcraft was devoted to his ministry for more than a decade, doing what he could to improve the lives of the Sheffield poor. He would have suspected, I’m sure, that his preaching was probably received by deaf ears, and this, surely, must have affected his delivery.

Orwell moved on, and he later visited the coalfields at Barnsley, where he stayed with a mining family. More on that later.

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