WILDFLOWER – South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy 1905-45 timeline.

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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 2 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, arguably one of the most controversial writer’s of the 20th century. Orwell wrote many books including 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. 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. Aged 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 Surgeon.

Six years later the family moved to 3 Park Terrace, 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. Park Terrace is now re-named Lawe Road.

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. It is 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. A 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.

 Gary Alikivi.

WILDFLOWER – documentary about George Orwell’s wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy

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First reaction when I tell people about Eileen O’Shaughnessy is ‘Who…really!’ I tell them a bit more. ‘Orwell the writer. THE Orwell. 1984 and all that ?….Yep, that’s him’ I reply. S’pose everybody’s got to come from somewhere right ? But I had the same reaction when I found the connection between George Orwell and South Shields. In May 2012 I was in the Local Studies library when the librarian showed me a birth certificate with the name Eileen O’Shaughnessy. She thought Eileen was the wife of author George Orwell. (Real name Eric Arthur Blair). A few weeks passed and I was doing some research in the library when I saw a display at the back of the room. There were three large boards. On the left was a birth certificate and census records. To the right was a photo of George Orwell, a newspaper cutting and a picture of a cemetery in Newcastle. This looks interesting. In the middle was a large black and white photograph featuring about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun at the front. It was obviously a war image. Then I noticed a dark haired woman crouching behind the machine gun. I looked closer. Hair’s stood up on my arms. Goose bumps. I needed to know more. 

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Their wasn’t much information out there about Eileen, just a few bits and pieces that had been mentioned in Orwell books. So there was extensive research over the next year or so. Phone calls, letters, checking and re-checking details. Interviews on camera were arranged around the country. One lead to another and to another. It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. Weeks and months passed by while information was gathered but I never come across any obstacles. Everybody I asked wanted to be part of the documentary. During Summer 2013 I put the research to one side and started working on a film ‘Designs for Life’. The short film was about the growing demand for tattoo’s and that women are increasingly becoming part of the tattoo’d tribe. I’ve found having a couple of projects at different stages helps in the film making process. Spending time on something else gives you space away from the other project and finally return to it with fresh eyes and ears. ‘Designs for Life’ kept me busy until Autumn 2013 and further sales of previous documentaries funded my time to start piecing together the film about Eileen. 

Who knew that a library visit in 2012 would take me and my camera, from South Shields to Sunderland, Newcastle, Stockton, Warwickshire, Oxford, London and finally Barcelona. I remember I had the camera in my backpack walking through Barcelona Airport thinking how did I get here. It seemed so effortless, the whole process just fell into place. On 26th March 2014 I screened for the first time, Wildflower the documentary about Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Her son Richard Blair, and friends from The Orwell Society came up north to watch the film.

A short clip from the documentary edited this year. Why not check out other ALIKIVI films on You Tube and subscribe to the channel.

 

Gary Alikivi June 2018.

Recommended:

Secrets & Lies, Baron Avro Manhattan documentary, 17th July 2018.

Westoe Rose, Amy Flagg documentary, 19th July 2018.

Zamyatin, Tyneside-Russia documentary, 7th August 2018.

Why not check the ALIKIVI You Tube channel for more North East stories.

ZAMYATIN -Russian Link to Tyneside. New documentary.

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The Shields Gazette Journalist Peter French wrote on 17th August 2018 ‘It’s a long way from St Petersburg to South Shields. But it was a journey once made by a young Russian, an author, who not only upset the Communist authorities back home, but whose work may have influenced the writing of one of this country’s most influential novels – ‘1984’ by George Orwell.

His name was Yevgeny Zamyatin and his story is now told in a new video produced by local film-maker Gary Alikivi (Wilkinson). The film, which can be viewed on YouTube, may be less than 10 minutes long, but like much of Gary’s work it is informative as well as thought-provoking.

Watch the full film on 7th August post or read more at: https://www.shieldsgazette.com/lifestyle/nostalgia/the-link-between-a-russian-visitor-to-south-shields-and-george-orwell-s-1984-1-9306630

Gary Alikivi  August 2018.

SECRETS & LIES – New documentary about Baron Avro Manhattan

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As the blog hits 35,000 views Journalist Peter French wrote in The Shields Gazette 7th August 2018….The life and times of Avro Manhattan, an Italian born Baron whose artwork and writing made him friends and enemies throughout the world, and who chose to spend his final years, living with his wife in South Shields are truley fascinating. But don’t take my word for it – let the man himself revael to you all about it’.

To read the story go to…www.shieldsgazette.com/lifestyle/nostalgia/hit-man-s-target-settled-in-south-shields-1-9288202

Or watch the documentary ‘SECRETS & LIES’ posted on 17th July 2018.

Gary Alikivi August 2018.

ZAMYATIN: THE RUSSIA – TYNESIDE CONNECTION. Making the video.

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Diary entry 12th December 2016: Reading a post by Leslie Hurst on the Orwell Society blog, a possible link between Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin, author George Orwell and his wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Zamyatin was an author also on Tyneside in 1916 to supervise the building of icebreakers for the Russian Navy. Looked into this and found Zamyatin an interesting character and worth following up. 

Monday morning jumped on a metro to Newcastle City Library to check out Zamyatins link to Tyneside. Got the lift up to the local history section on the 6th floor and asked the library assistant if they had any material about him. She came back from the archive with three pieces of information, dates and index number. There was a local biography note, a page from Alan Myers book ‘Myers Literary Guide to the North East’ and a date of an article in the Journal from September 19th 1988. These were all photocopied. 

Within 20 minutes I had found what I was looking for. Normally in local history there is a bit searching, photocopy runs out of paper, the microfiche is difficult to thread and its running slow etc., but no it all went very smoothly.

Then went out into the town with grey skies and spit of rain. Over the road I caught sight of some graffitti. I had my small Canon camera with me so nipped over and took a few pics. The slogans were on the back of a muti storey car park with small slits for windows. Brutal architecture. Very East European. Amongst the slogans was a red hammer and sickle ! Went straight to Waterstones and bought a copy of his novel ‘We’.

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While working on this blog during 2017 I put aside the Zamyatin project untill I had more time. Then in May this year started to fully research and write the script. 

Diary entry 4th June 2018: Got on the metro to Jesmond and found the address where Zamyatin was living when he worked on Tyneside. As I went to knock on the door the owner walked up the path behind me. That was fortunate. Introduced myself and told her what I was there for. We talked for 10 minutes about Zamyatin then exchanged contacts. Took photo’s outside the house and the blue plaque on the wall. Then walked about 5 mins to St Andrews Cemetery to see the headstone of Eileen, Orwell’s wife. The grave is in good nick with a few flowers planted nearby. Did Eileen have any contact with Zamyatin ?

A short script was put together using A Soviet Heretic by D.J.Richards. The voice over’s were recorded at The Customs Space  studio in South Shields. Tyneside actor’s Iain Cunningham  with Jonathan Cash adding the voice of Zamyatin. Again, as on many projects North East musician John Clavering captured the mood.

The finished story of ‘Zamyatin – The Russia-Tyneside Connection’ can be seen here. To see more documentaries you can subscribe to my channel on You Tube.

 

 

 

Gary Alikivi July 2018.