George Orwell on Yorkshire People and the UK’s North-South Divide

UK North-South Divide

Since moving to London I’ve been thinking about Yorkshire a lot. It’s the place where I was born and grew up so naturally many of my memories are tied up there. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate it when I was there, in fact I have always taken an unreserved delight in its natural beauty and friendly people, but from a young age the excitement of London always attracted me. I always knew that someday I would end up here, but for how long I wasn’t sure. The moving to London part was the only thing that you could say was planned but how I did it, when I did it, and what I would do once I arrived was left to improvisation.

I’ve been here for seven months now and although I’m really enjoying what London has to offer, there is a side to the city that can grind you down. Primarily I’m referring to the cost of living and how busy and impersonal it can be – it’s a common fact that people avoid eye contact like the plague, and a smile is received with great suspicion. It’s in my nature to smile at everyone who I inadvertently catch eye-contact with so from experience I can say approximately 1 out of every 9 people in London reciprocates a smile. Usually those who do are foreign.

The move to England’s capital has made me realise what I took for granted when I lived in Yorkshire but this isn’t the only reason why I’ve been thinking about my home more: seeing Yorkshire through the eyes of George Orwell in his novel The Road to Wigan Pier made me appreciate this region of Northern England even more. Although this book was written in 1937 it still packs the same political punch today as it did then, describing what it was like for Orwell leaving his job in Hampstead to travel north. The poverty may not be as extreme as what Orwell experienced all those years ago but the North-South divide still very much exists in today’s England.

If you’re wondering what the North-South divide refers to, it’s the economic and cultural differences between Southern England (such London, Oxfordshire, Surrey) and Northern England (Yorkshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and so on). The ‘divide’ can be felt through numerous features including: wages, house prices, social class, government spending, education and health – all of which are generally higher in the south.

It’s common knowledge for people living in the UK that a cultural and economic divide exists and it has been around since the Romans built a wall separating the North from the South. Symbols like the royal buildings and the parliament represent the wealthy South, and on the other side of the spectrum; factories, abandoned buildings, and rows of back-to-back houses are symbols of working-class life in the North. These are just a few establishments or buildings that perpetuate the segregation, and with this kind of stereotyping still prominent today it’s no surprise why many tourists in England don’t venture further up north. I am by no means saying that London and other regions in the south don’t suffer from areas of poverty, because they do, however that’s an entirely different divide that should be spoken about at a different time.

The South has always represented prosperity against a northern backdrop of economic struggle, and these differences have created further stereotypes pertaining to the people who live there. Quite often, Southerners are perceived as being pretentious, rude and snobbish by Northerners, and Northerners are perceived as being uneducated and uncivilised by Southerners. It’s sad and overwhelmingly flawed that such judgments can be attached to someone based simply on where they were bought up, but that is the case. Furthermore these stereotypes against Yorkshire people in particular have created a sort of defence mechanism whereby Yorkshire people have their own kind of ‘snobbishness’ which Orwell insightfully comments upon:

When you go to the industrial North you are conscious, quite apart from the unfamiliar scenery, or entering a strange country. This is partly because of the North-South antithesis which has been rubbed into us for such a long time past. There exists in England a curious cult of Northernness, a sort of Northern snobbishness. A Yorkshireman in the South will always take care to let you know that he regards you as an inferior. If you ask him why, he will explain that it is only the North that life is ‘real’ life, that the industrial work done in the North is the only ‘real’ work, that the North is inhabited by ‘real’ people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites. The Northerner has ‘grit’, he is grim, ‘dour’, plucky, warm-hearted and democratic; the Southerner is snobbish, effeminate and lazy… Hence the Southerner goes north, at any rate for the first time, with the vague inferiority-complex of a civilised man venturing among savages, while the Yorkshireman, like the Scotchman, comes to London in the spirit of a barbarian out for loot. ~ George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier

As Orwell pointed out, there has been a long history of separation between both ends of England. You would hope that increased education and a seemingly more liberal attitude would have erased this but it’s difficult when institutions like the media and film industry are incredibly good at perpetuating it. Just look at any chick-flick with a clichéd storyline of an American girl falling in love with an Englishman and I can guarantee he will be from the South – the posh, Etonian accent is the usual giveaway. And how are people from Yorkshire usually represented? I’m not going to research this but my guess would be a farmer, chav, or convict (please don’t see this as me perpetuating more stereotypes).

I want to say ignore these stereotypes from the media: they only care about making money. Yorkshire has so much to offer, it’s not only the natural landscape and quaint stone cottages with gardens filled with painted gnomes and pretty flowers that make Yorkshire so appealing. It’s the people who are famously friendly and down to earth, and a part of this friendliness is wrapped up in the Yorkshire accent which is recognised as being one of the friendliest accents in the UK. We’ve all been in a situation where we are instantly made to feel welcome just by the sound of someone’s voice and you get that in Yorkshire:

All the Northern accents, for instance, persist strongly, while Southern ones are collapsing before the movies and the BBC – George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier

Some people might read this and say the Industrial Revolution injected a lot of prosperity into the North but once that industry fell into decline people were left out of jobs and many who could afford moved away for better opportunities. Today, we can see the same thing happening again, more and more people, particularly young people are moving to London because there are significantly less career opportunities in the North. It’s true that London is very competitive but at least there are jobs available even if they’re not the most desirable ones.

When the economy is booming the country’s wealth feels more distributed, however, since the grip of the 2008 recession the divide has flared up once again. It’s no secret that money gets pummelled into London in order to encourage foreign investment and tourism yet the north of England struggles to get government grants to build new buildings and projects which would help boost the economy and lessen the North-South Divide. The London Olympics was a prime example of how the South gets unprecedented exposure and regeneration – do you think the North benefited from the Olympics in any way? I don’t because only a minuscule percentage of the people who came to England ventured up there.

The North is under-represented so it needs you to use your own initiative by spending time to visit these regions. Ignore the stereotypes and make up your own mind. Take a leaf out of Orwell’s book, and it’s very likely that after spending some time there and getting to know the people you’ll realise how special it is, just like he did.

If it’s the people that make the place, then you can count on Yorkshire.

And just to prove that Yorkshire isn’t all slag-heaps and slums:

Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire

Bolton Abbey, one of my favourite places in Yorkshire

Haworth, Bronte Moors

Haworth, a picturesque village in West Yorkshire where the Brontë sisters lived.

Ruins of Fountain's Abbey

The Ruins of Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Great Scar in Malham Cove

Great Scar Limestone at Malham Cove

Have you experienced the North-South Divide in the UK or perhaps in your own country?

Comments

  1. says

    I love this – very interesting! :) I must go to Yorkshire and I must read the Road to Wigan Pier. Coincidentally, have you read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell? (there’s a BBC adaptation but the book is much better) – it’s about a southern girl and a northern industrial man :) A great love story :)

    • says

      Yes you must go to Yorkshire, I have a sneaky feeling you won’t have long to wait :) Oh no, I haven’t read North and South by Gaskell but the description sounds great – I’ll read the book then!

  2. says

    Very good article. I completely agree about London: people can be very cold and distant. I have lived in Edinburgh as well, and there it was different. I’ve never been to Yorkshire or to the north of England, though, but I’d like to visit. I’m a big fan of the Bronte sisters, so…

    Here in Italy we also have a divide between the north and the south, and it causes a lot of friction. As it happens with the UK, few foreign tourists venture to the south of Italy (Sicily or Puglia are stunning!), and the centre/north of Italy gets all the attention!

    • says

      I have to admit, I’ve been to Italy on four occasions and it’s never been to the South. And it’s funny, a few people from Italy who I’ve chanced upon have said ‘You must go South, it is the real Italy’! Which now reminds me of Yorkshiremen claiming Yorkshire to being the authentic part of England. Thanks for your insight Stefania!.

  3. Pete says

    Very interesting Shing!
    Most every Englishman I’ve known was from the North. (I played rugby). I didn’t realize that there was such a social divide. But it explains why my rugby friends called a guy from Surrey a “shandy drinking wanker”. That was years ago, but it still makes me laugh!

    • says

      Haha it’s easy for a sport like rugby to bring out the North-South divide! I’m not well versed in the sport but I know enough to know it’s very much a ‘Northern thing’, at least where rugby league is concerned! Thanks for sharing your experience Pete :)

  4. says

    I’m from the Midlands, but prefer northerners to southerners – even though my nickname at uni in Hull was Cockney Wanker!

    I also prefer Southern Italy to the North – the food, climate, music is all better.

  5. says

    Great write up Shing. As a fellow Yorkshire person (born, bred and still residing) I can relate to all of this, only you express it better.

    This divide whilst economical has also really grown into a divide of attitude and state of mind. Our media still seems to be (or at least feels to be) London-centric – as if nothing or very little of importance happens outside of London. I’m hoping that with the DSS moving to Leeds and the BBC relocating to Salford this may erode those divisive views.

    Like Richard I also went to Hull University and found a great mix of characters from across our country (and others). Some of my closest friends were from “darn south”.

    Post University many of my close friends (originally based in the North/Midlands) went to live and work in the “Big Smoke”. The vast majority have now returned to the North and are settled here. I guess like the whole London experience for someone not originating there is an odd one at times.

    • says

      Big up Yorkshire! Good point, but I still feel sceptical that the BBC’s move will have any impact, but at the very least it does help raise the North’s profile. Long-term structures need to be put into place to rebalance the economy and iron out cultural gaps. And in terms of tourism, we need to be offering sustainable reasons to visit England which are distributed and fair – INSTEAD OF HYPING UP ALL THESE ROYAL WEDDINGS AND BABIES!!! Ok. Rant over :)

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