In pre-war England, a “prole” is a member of the proletariat, sometimes disparagingly referred to as a “navvy” (unskilled manual labourer with no fixed employment). The protagonist of Coming Up for Air is an embittered lower-middle-class salary man living in Ellesemere Road, an inconsequential “inner-outer suburb” populated with people very much like himself. They’re neither working class (prole) nor bourgeoisie; they are stuck, uncomfortably, in the middle.
When you’ve time to look about you, and when you happen to be in the right mood, it’s a thing that makes you laugh inside to walk down these streets in the inner-outer suburbs and to think of the lives that go on there. Because, after all, what is a road like Ellesmere Road? Just a prison with the cells all in a row. A line of semi-detatched torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten-pound-a-weekers quake and shiver, every one of them with the boss twisting his tail and the wife riding him like the nightmare and the kids sucking his blood like leeches. There’s a lot of rot talked about the sufferings of the working class. I’m not so sorry for the proles myself. Did you ever know a navvy who lay awake thinking about the sack? The prole suffers physically, but he’s a free man when he isn’t working. But in every one of those little stucco boxes there’s some poor bastard who’s never free except when he’s asleep and dreaming that he’s got the boss down the bottom of a well and is bunging lumps of coal at him.
From Coming up for Air, by George Orwell (published 1950)