In October 2018 I wrote about making a documentary on George Orwell’s first wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. The short film had a real local interest as Eileen was born just two minutes from where I live.
Little did I know when I started the search in 2012 that the film would be shown to the Orwell Society and Richard Blair, son of George Orwell, on the Isle of Jura where Orwell wrote the dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four.
Timeline research 2012-13:
In a graveyard in Newcastle you will find a headstone for Eileen Maud Blair who was married to George Orwell (real name Eric Blair), arguably one of the most controversial writer’s of the 20th century. Books included The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Homage to Catalonia (1938), Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949).
But who was Eileen?
Eileen’s story starts in Ireland where her father, Laurence O’Shaughnessey, was born in 1866 on the small island of Valencia and Portmagee in County Kerry. His father, Edward O’Shaughnessy was employed in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Aged 25, Laurence moved to England and boarded at 19 East India Dock Road, Limehouse in London and found work as a clerk for His Majesty Customs.
Eileen’s mother Mary Westgate was born in 1866 in Hempnall, Norfolk, at 24, Mary moved south to Greenwich in London and worked as an Assistant Teacher at Lewisham Hill Road School.
Laurence and Mary met and eventually married in Holy Trinity Church, Gravesend, Kent in February 1900. The couple then travelled to the North East and made a home at 109 Cleveland Road next to the Union Workhouse in Sunderland.
Laurence continued working as a Tax Clerk for HM Customs at Custom House, based at 138 High Street, Sunderland. In 1901 they had a son Laurence who went on to become a distinguished Medical Surgeon.
Six years later the family moved to 3 Park Terrace (re-named Lawe Road) South Shields and Laurence senior was employed as Port Administrator, Collector of His Majesties Customs and had an office in Midland Bank Chambers, 65 King Street, South Shields.
Then on 25th September 1905, Eileen Maud O’Shaughnessey was born and baptised on 15th November in St Aiden’s Church.
After a short time the family moved to 2 and a half Wellington Terrace, now known as Beach Road. They called the house ‘Westgate House’ after her mother’s maiden name and it’s still visible above the front door of 35 Beach Road.
Eileen was educated at the local Westoe School then attended Sunderland Church High School and finally in 1924 the family moved south when Eileen graduated to read English at St Hugh’s College in Oxford. Sadly, Eileen’s father Laurence died not long after, he was 62 years old.
After leaving education Eileen held various jobs including work as an English teacher and purchased a small secretarial agency. But she returned to education in 1934 for a Masters degree in Educational Psychology at the University College in London.
By 1935 Eileen was a graduate student and living with her widowed mother in Greenwich. One night she was invited to a house party at 77 Parliament Hill in Hampstead where she met the journalist and author George Orwell, real name Eric Blair.
Eric was born on 25th June 1903 in India. The Blair family had returned to the UK, settled in Oxfordshire and Eric received a scholarship to Eton College.
Over the months the couple found they had a great deal in common, a passion for poetry, literature and countryside walks. Eric was attracted to Eileen’s blue eye’s, heart shaped face and wavy dark brown hair, her Irish looking features. They married at Wallington Parish Church in Hertfordshire on the 9th June 1936 and lived at The Stores, 2 Kits Lane, Wallington.
In Europe, a Civil war had broken out in Spain and in 1936 Eileen’s husband travelled to Barcelona and joined the militia of the Workers Party of Marxist Unification. Orwell wanted to help the revolt against Franco and the Fascists. Eileen followed in early ‘37 where she stayed in the Hotel Continental on the Ramblas in Barcelona. She worked as a secretary for the ‘New Leader’ which was a newspaper for the Independent Labour Party.
The party’s General Secretary was John McNair from Tyneside. Orwell was stationed at the front and in battle was shot through the throat. He recuperated in a sanatorium outside Barcelona.
The couple returned to the UK and by 1939 Eileen worked at the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information. For a time they lived with her brother Laurence and her sister in law Gwen, at their home in Greenwich Park.
Orwell worked at the Empire Department of the BBC as head of cultural programming for India and South East Asia. Unfortunately during the Second World War Eileen’s brother was killed at Dunkirk while serving in the Army Medical Corp, and her mother died a year later – this was a very sad time for Eileen.
But good news was on the way as Eileen and George adopted a baby boy and named him Richard. Eileen by now had given up her job at the Ministry and taken well to motherhood. Orwell began writing ‘Animal Farm’.
Growing tired of London and feeling unwell for the last few months, Eileen travelled back to the North East with their son, Richard. They stayed with her sister-in-law Gwen at her home near Stockton and with the Second World War nearing it’s end Orwell was in Germany working as a War Correspondent.
Harvey Evers was a surgeon friend of her brother Laurence, he had a private clinic at Fernwood House in Newcastle a train ride away from where she was staying. Eileen made an appointment to see him but after the examination tumours were found on her uterus and a hysterectomy operation was arranged for 29th March 1945.
Before the operation Eileen was aware that she might not survive, and wrote long letters to Orwell. Sadly, under the anaesthetic Eileen died. Aged only 39, Eileen was buried on 3rd April in St Andrews Cemetery, Newcastle.
With Eileen’s death a deep sense of loneliness overwhelmed Orwell. He put off a return to the family home and went back to Germany to report on the end of the Second World War. Close friends looked after his son Richard at their flat in Canonbury Square, London.
His novel, ‘Animal Farm’ was published in the summer and in it he credited Eileen with helping to plan the book. In May 1946 Orwell rented Barnhill, a farmhouse on the remote island of Jura in Scotland and wrote Nineteen Eighty Four, the book was published in 1949.
Sadly on 21st January 1950 George Orwell died of tuberculosis in London aged 46. He is buried in the churchyard of All Saints in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire.
Sources: George Orwell biographies by Gordon Bowker and Scott Lucas. Family history research on Ancestry website. Local Studies in South Shields, Newcastle and Sunderland City Libraries.
Thanks to David Harland present owner of Westgate House.