“I am just on the grisly job of typing out my novel. I can’t type much because it tires me too much to sit up at table, and I asked Roger Senhouse to try and send me a stenog. for a fortnight, but of course it’s not so easy to get people for short periods like that.” (Letter written at Barnhill on Jura to Anthony Powell, 15 Nov. 1948)
George Orwell was photographed at his 27b Canonbury Square flat in Islington during late-1945 by the Anglo-Italian anarchist, editor and writer, Vernon Richards (1915-2001). He is captured doing everyday activities around his home, including typing. There are two well-known photos of Orwell at his typewriter taken at this time.
One of these photos makes it possible to identify that the machine Orwell famously typed Nineteen Eighty-Four on while dying of pulmonary tuberculosis – as no typist was available to travel to the remote Scottish island of Jura – was a “Remington Home Portable”.
Look closely at the photo below and compare it with Orwell’s typewriter above. You will note that the text is impossible to read on Orwell’s typewriter but one can easily compare and see that it is very likely to be “Remington”, “Home Portable” and “Ribbon Reverse”.
There were a number of different “portable” or “compact” Remingtons manufactured from 1921 onwards but none have a shorter word above a longer one written on the machine except for the “Home Portable”. For example, Orwell’s typewriter cannot be the “Remington Portable” (below) for this reason. So, even though we cannot read the text on Orwell’s machine this is convincing evidence that we can now confidently identify Orwell’s model Remington as a Home Portable.
My local library procured The Typewriter Age Guide via inter-library loans which confirmed that the “Home” model was produced between 1933-39. This particular typewriter was manufactured in the USA but assembled in Remington’s factory at 16 Crutched Friars, near Fenchurch Street Station, in London.
This extremely compact typewriter was phenomenally popular. It was very portable measuring just 25x28x10 centimetres. The author Quentin Crisp also owned the same model.
This brief video demonstrates a Remington Home Portable that was originally assembled in 1935. It has been refurbished and truly is a thing of beauty.
Exactly when Orwell purchased his Remington Home Portable is a mystery. He likely owned other typewriters earlier in his career or borrowed one when he could. It is possible he had access to a typewriter when he worked as a schoolteacher (when his first typewritten letters appear in 1932). He may have purchased it secondhand from Booklover’s Corner, where he worked in the mid-1930s:
“Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance”
It is certain that he used Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s machine, perhaps before they were married, as well as when they resided at Wallington. On New Year’s Day in 1938, Eileen typed a letter to a friend saying:
“…I have no pen, no ink, no glasses and the prospect of no light, because the pens, the inks, the glasses and the candles are all in the room where George is working and if I disturb him again it will be for the fifteenth time tonight. But full of determined ingenuity I found a typewriter, and blind people are said to type in their dark.”
What happened to Orwell’s typewriter?
There are two stories but neither lead to knowing where the typewriter may be today. There are lengthy back stories to both but I will summarise. Firstly, it has been suggested that Orwell donated his old typewriter in 1949 to the Freedom Press. I have a suspicion that Orwell may have given either Eileen O’Shaughnessy’s old typewriter to the Freedom Press or another one he owned but have no evidence to support this guess.
The second story is that Orwell’s second wife, Sonia Brownell, parted with his Remington in the 1960s, giving it to Jim Haynes, one of the founders of the International Times, a radical “hippy” newspaper. Haynes gave it to one of the editors, Tom McGrath, who sold it to someone unknown in Scotland to feed his heroin addiction.
Either way, no-one appears to know where Orwell’s typewriter(s) are located. The much-photographed machine in Orwell’s bedroom at Barnhill, on Jura, is just a prop.
Your thoughts about my typewriter sleuthing and the theories suggested in this post would be greatly appreciated.
Featured image: Vernon Richards p. 34
REFERENCES (and Images)
Charlie Foxtrot: https://charliefoxtrot.com.au/
Davison, Peter ed., The Lost Orwell: Being a Supplement to the Complete Works of George Orwell, Timewell Press, 2006
Hermann, Jan, The Strange Case of Orwell’s Typewriter, 2016: https://www.artsjournal.com/herman/2016/03/the-strange-case-of-orwells-typewriter.html
Oz Typewriter: https://oztypewriter.blogspot.com/
Richards, Vernon, ed., George Orwell at Home (and Among the Anarchists): Essays and Photographs, Freedom Press, 1998
Solomon, Raymond S., Orwell among the anarchists (book review) https://freedomnews.org.uk/orwell-among-the-anarchists/
The Classic Typewriter: https://site.xavier.edu/polt/typewriters/rem-portables.htm#3
The Typewriter Age Guide, Office Machines and Equipment Federation, Dec. 1973
Walter, Nicholas, Damned Fools in Utopia: And Other Writings on Anarchism and War Resistance, PM Press, 2011