A brief tour round the actual locations that places in Orwell’s novel were inspired by, most of which still exist…
1: Ministry of Truth (MINITRU)
Senate House Library, Malet Street, London
Completed in 1937, the University of London’s Senate House Library was supposed to form the initial phase of a similarly-styled range of new buildings extending north along the length of Malet Street, but only the library was completed. Generally supposed to be the model for Ministry of Truth both because of its stark, forbidding architecture, and the fact that during the Second World War it housed the Ministry of Information, where all censorship was coordinated. (Orwell scholar WJ West notes that its telegraphic address was ‘Miniform’.)
At the time of the Second World War, Senate House was the capital’s tallest building. Orwell condemned its gleaming white exterior as a beacon that could be visible to aircraft at night, and serve as a landmark for Luftwaffe bombers searching for central London targets; however, Hitler allegedly ordered that it should not be bombed as he had earmarked the premises for his London HQ.
Senate House Library now constitutes one of the largest humanities and social science-focused libraries in the UK, with many collections of national and international importance.
2: Ministry of Love (MINILUV)
Former Peter Robinson premises, 200 Oxford Street, London.
Increased wartime activity caused rapid expansion within the BBC. In June 1942 its Empire Department moved into offices formerly part of the building housing the Peter Robinson department store at 200 Oxford Street. It was while working here as a talks producer for the Indian section of the Eastern Service that Orwell gathered many of the experiences that provided background to his description’s of working life inside the Ministries of Truth and Love.
The cafeteria at 200 Oxford Street is supposed to be the model for the ‘low ceilinged deep underground’ canteen in the novel: always overcrowded, and featuring many of the ersatz fare that Orwell loathed.
3: Winston and Julia’s countryside idyll
“Winston picked his way up the lane through the dappled light and shade, stepping out into pools of gold whenever the boughs parted. Under the trees to the left of him the ground was misty with bluebells… It was the second of May. From somewhere deeper in the heart of the wood came the droning of ring doves.”
In ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, Winston’s tryst with Julia at a pastoral byway represents an escape from the grime and oppression of urban existence they were accustomed to. From 1936 to 1940 he had lived in the small Hertfordshire village of Wallington, in a cramped and ancient cottage, nicknamed ‘The Stores’ because it had been a general store that closed down. The nearest town, Baldock, was five miles away, and Wallington was (and still is, to an extent) well off the beaten track. Orwell’s friends have described his first year in Wallington – the first year of his marriage to Eileen O’Shaughnessy – as the only period he was really happy.
Many of the scenes in Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ are thought to be set in the still-surviving Great Barn in Wallington which became ‘Willingdon’ in the book.
4: Winston’s and Julia’s hideaway
18 Percy Street, off Tottenham Court Road, London.
The former home of Sonia Brownell, who became Orwell’s second wife in October 1949. The author is reported to have visited Sonia Brownell often at her apartment during their courtship in 1946. Situated over a shop, 18 Percy Street is thought to have inspired Orwell’s conception of Winston and Julia’s not-so-secret trysting place located over the duplicitous Mr Charrington’s antique and curio emporium in the novel. Percy Street has long been associated with Greek cuisine, and, although the Akropolis, the restaurant where Orwell was once famously told to replace his jacket while dining during the hot summer of 1946, is gone, the Elysée, another Orwell favourite, still exists.
5: Victory mansions
Langford Court, off Abbey Road, London.
George Orwell and his first wife Eileen lived at 111 Langford Court, Langford Place from April 1941 to the summer of 1942. Orwell’s biographer Bernard Crick describes 111 Langford Court as being on the fifth floor of an eight-storey block, but with one bedroom. However, a correspondent to an Orwell-interest website, who claimed to be selling 111 Langford Court in 2005, describes it as occupying a top floor corner – apparently a studio apartment, with the lounge and bedroom combined, limiting privacy – ideal for maximum telescreen view.
Trafalgar Square, London.
“Winston was in Victory Square…He wandered round the base of the enormous fluted column, at the top of which Big Brother’s statue gazed southward… He walked slowly up to the north side of the square and got a sort of pale-coloured pleasure from identifying St Martin’s Church, whose bells, when it had bells, had chimed ‘You owe me three farthings’. Then he saw the girl standing at the base of the monument… It was not safe to go near her until some more people had accumulated. There were telescreens all round the pediment.”
The Second Front rally of Sunday 26 July 1942, when 60,000 people gathered in Trafalgar Square to agitate for a second front against Germany that would hasten the end of the war, probably served as a prototype for mass meetings in Victory Square. The ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ resonance is further enhanced by the appearance of posters around the square showing enlargement of Winston Churchill’s face in Big Brother style.
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