The Word is a recent addition to the landscape of South Shields, a new cultural centre and library that was an appropriate venue for the start of a weekend of events to celebrate the life of South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy.
Education was a big part of Eileen’s life her mother Marie had a teaching background and Eileen attended Sunderland Church High school where she was awarded a bursary to St Hugh’s College, Oxford.
It was 2012 when I first came across Eileen and March 2014 when the resultant documentary Wildflower was first shown in South Shields with Richard Blair and Quentin Kopp making the journey up the M1 to watch the film about Richard’s mother, and wife of author George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair).
In 2018 a flurry of activity surrounded the story of Eileen – plans were made to publish the book by Canadian author Sylvia Topp and a nomination for a blue plaque in the town was proposed.
With the Orwell Society (OS) driving the project forward, South Tyneside Council agreed to the proposal and to get the ball rolling I added the local link.
Dave Harland is owner of 35 Beach Road, Eileen’s childhood home. I first met Dave in 2012 when we arranged to film in his house, he knew about the O’Shaughnessy family being previous owners making him a valuable addition to the documentary.
20 years ago local journalist Janis Blower told Dave about the previous owners and the article featured in a Shields Gazette double page spread (7 August 2002).
“It’s a lovely old house and there are lots of original features we have tried to keep. I believe the house dates back to the end of the 19th century” said Dave.
I popped in to see him and suggest the idea of a plaque, of course he was thrilled about the news and had no objections “a plaque is a marvellous idea, absolutely wonderful”.
With this news the OS steamed ahead with the nomination and planned an event in March 2020, which would have been the 75th anniversary of Eileen’s death. But when covid brought lockdown in the UK, the pandemic scuppered plans.
We finally got to meet up at The Word on Saturday 26 March 2022 and planted a flag for Eileen.
Led by the OS Chair Quentin Kopp, Patron Richard Blair (Orwell’s son) with around 30 members of the society from all parts of the UK including Richard Young from Epsom, Stephen and Margaret Ingle from Dunblane, Richard Keeble and Mariline from Lincoln, John Lloyd and Helen Davies from ‘a small town near Hereford’ plus special guest for the day, South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck.
In the large circular top floor room a screening of the documentary Wildflower was followed by a Q&A with Quentin Kopp and author Sylvia Topp, Tom Kelly read his poem ‘You, you, you’ then Richard explained the mission of the Orwell Society and his father’s legacy.
Afterwards we walked over to The Customs House and King Street where Eileen’s father Laurence worked then went to her birthplace on Lawe Road 10 minutes away. Unfortunately the house is covered in scaffolding and hollowed out with only the front façade left.
Our MP Emma Lewell-Buck has raised this in the House of Commons and we are looking to work with South Tyneside Council to resolve this issue.
On a bright blue Sunday morning in Beach Road, Dave Harland welcomed into his front garden the OS plus Mayor Pat Hay to unveil the blue plaque.
“It was a real honour to unveil a special blue plaque in tribute to a little-known local woman who shaped and supported one of the greatest writers of the 20th century”.
“George Orwell wrote masterpieces but Eileen’s influence over him and the impact she had on his creative writing is often overlooked. There’s no doubt she was a guiding force in his life”.
Quentin Kopp added “I’m delighted that after the enforced two year delay Eileen has been given great recognition at her family home”.
Finally an emotional journey to St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond, and the grave of Eileen Maud Blair. Kept in immaculate condition, OS member Brian Thompson from Newcastle regularly tends to the grave planting flowers and uses hand scissors to keep the grass trim, he also arranged for a small plaque to be added near the headstone.
For his work tending to his mother’s grave, Richard thanked Brian with a gift of a hardback graphic novel of 1984, I was also pleased to receive a copy of Animal Farm “for all the hard work you’ve put in recording my mothers life in South Shields” said Richard.
He finally added “My mother played a vital role in Orwell’s life, not just as a supporter, but at times, when he had bouts of illness, a carer, and also as a creative inspiration. I am thrilled that we are finally able to celebrate the life of my mother in this way.”
Link to the film ‘Wildflower’
George Orwell’s first wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy (Alikivi, 11mins edit) – YouTube
To find out more information and how to join The Orwell Society check the official website: www.orwellsociety.com
Alikivi March 2022.