INSPIRATION often flows from life’s experiences and if the death of Ian Robinson’s mother was the spark then the flame is a book that was seven years in the making and should interest every true Boltonian, this Christmas.

“The Town that Vanished” is a title that teacher Ian’s 70-year-old mother, Joyce Cain, understood only too well and was something that dawned on her son during his eulogy at her funeral.

He said: “During that reading, I realised that the town where she was born, a town of mills, corner shops, cinemas, side street pubs cobbled streets, Burnden Park, had all but disappeared.

“After her funeral, I became fascinated by her generation, those working class Boltonians who had swapped grimy terraced houses for green suburbs; potato pies for pizza; Blackpool for Benidorm; corner shops for curry houses; and tin baths in front of coal fires for takeaways in front of television sets.”

In an effort to understand the transformation, Ian picked up on a two-year secret mass observation study Worktown carried out by government trained officials, which delved into the lives and opinions on Boltonians in the later 1930s.

The original investigation was the brainchild of a young anthropologist, Tom Harrisson, who whilst living with cannibals in Borneo and Malekula, discovered the tribesmen he was living with knew as much about Bolton as he did. This was because they had heard of Unilever — a multi-national company with origins in the town.

On his return to Britain, Harrisson was determined to find out more about working class people because he realised they were a group who up to then were largely ignored by middle and upper class people.

Harrisson said “It is difficult to remember (now) how in those far-off days nearly everybody who was not born into the working-class regarded them as almost a race apart.”

He believed only secret surveillance would truly reveal the struggles working class people faced. To this end Harrisson brought together teams of Observers to live anonymously in 85 Davenport Street, a bug ridden house which became the northern headquarters of the project.

Each day those involved in the investigation were sent into pubs, shops, onto the streets and anywhere people gathered in public to record what Boltonians were wearing, what they said, what they did while out and about, even how they held their dominoes or lit their cigarettes. They covered the town going “around making reports on anything from the contents of a chemist’s shop to an account of a service in a spiritualist church.” They also collected pamphlets, newspaper cuttings, sermons until the house was overflowing with documents about Bolton.

Most of the reports were classed as “overheards”— simply a detailed record of the things people said.

Their ordinariness is what makes them so interesting like this one: “Men in V (vault) talk about income tax, then horses (animals not racing). Girl with blue beret, blue coat and shirt comes in selling War Cry and young soldier... Landlord says to wife 'if you read that you wouldn’t swear so much'.” Although there were local people involved, most notably Bill Naughton, most of the observers were middle class and educated.

Consequently, in spite of the observers’ best efforts to remain anonymous — sometimes they were identified by their unfamiliar accents, cars and clothes.

Ian explains: “When they were, they weren’t always welcome and occasionally suspicious Boltonians tried to stop them.

"Some resented them as being southern dandies flouncing around amidst people living hard lives, other Boltonians thought they were sinister spies.”

To also make a visual record Harrisson employed a young photographer called Humphrey Spender to join him to take photographs, again in secret.

Although Spender claimed to have been “repulsed and fascinated” by Boltonians in equal measure he furtively photographed them by hiding his camera under his coat. This resulted in 800 important photographs of Bolton’s pubs, shops, industry, sports, political meetings and Burnden Park — many of which have subsequently disappeared.

Occasionally Spender was also met with hostility, most notably in a pub when the landlord tried to stop him taking photographs of his customers.

The investigation effectively came to an end during the early years of the Second World War. When the war ended it was never revived although Tom Harrisson did return to Bolton in the late 1950s to do a follow-up study to see in what ways the town had changed in the intervening years.

At that time, he thought that in visual appearance at least Bolton had changed very little although he did recognise that people were more prosperous.

Today the original reports and documents gathered in Bolton are stored at the University of Sussex.

Julian Trevelyan a renowned artist involved in the investigation wrote later: “What became of all this material that cluttered up the rooms of Davenport Street the little house in Bolton that became our centre? How could it possibly be used?

“We liked to think it was forming a museum for some future generation of social historians....”

Ian added: “The investigation has become much more important than any of the original observers could have possibly imagined because of what has happened to Bolton since.

“As I argue in the book the Worktown archive is a unique, unparalleled record of a once proud northern manufacturing town on the cusp of its best years-a type of town that sadly no longer exists.”

To buy a copy of his book of the Town that Vanished go to the following link: