By Dr Bob Snape, Head of the  Centre for Worktown Studies, University of Bolton

Welcome to the first article of ‘Worktown Life’, a new series about Mass Observation’s study of working-class life in Bolton between 1937-1940.

Mass Observation established a team of researchers in a rented house in Bolton, 85 Davenport Street, who worked under the direction of Tom Harrisson, the head of the investigation.

These researchers, or ‘observers’ - some from the south of England and some from Bolton – were sent out each day to collect information on people’s activities, taking their reports back to Davenport Street each evening.

Mass Observation gave the name of Worktown to Bolton because, in Tom Harrisson’s words “it was a town that existed because of and for work”.

The Bolton News:

Work shaped people’s lives - how they earned a living, where they lived and the amount of leisure time they had.

Eighty years after the Worktown project, these reports give fascinating historical insights to how Boltonians lived, worked and played in the late nineteen-thirties. Interest in Worktown is not confined to Bolton; historians across the world have visited the University of Bolton’s Centre for Worktown Studies to learn more about this unique record of our town.

This introductory article sets the context for the series by explaining why and how Mass Observation came to Bolton.

Britain in the 1930s was similar to today in several ways, with sharp contrasts of wealth and poverty, short time working and long-term unemployment for many, and political instability.

There was, too, a north-south divide as new industries emerged in the south of England while older established industries in the north declined.

The Bolton News:

Journalists and social commentators writing about the north of England remarked widely on its blighted industrial landscapes, dole queues, terraced streets, and smoke-filled skies.

Immediately prior to the Worktown project George Orwell had been in Wigan, investigating the effects of poverty and unemployment and writing The Road to Wigan Pier, while J. B. Priestley, travelling between Manchester and Bolton on his journey through England, noted that that “the ugliness is so complete that it is almost exhilarating. It challenges you to live there!”

The Bolton News:

Even travel guides excluded the northern industrial cities and towns on the basis that no-one could possibly wish to visit them.

This mythologised North caught the attention of Tom Harrisson, public school educated and a Cambridge University drop-out, who in 1936 came to live incognito in Bolton to undertake a South Lancashire Cultural Survey of everyday working-class life.

Harrisson had just returned from Malekula, an island in the New Hebrides, where he had completed an anthropological study of primitive tribes, immersing himself in their lives to understand their customs and ways of life.

The results of this had been published in a well-received book, Savage Civilisation and now he had come to what he later described as the ‘wilds of Lancashire’, imagined as a new ‘savage civilization’ of Bolton.

In 1937 Harrisson met Charles Madge, a young poet, who was interested in trying to find out on a national scale what ordinary people were thinking and doing and together they established Mass Observation as an exercise in studying the everyday behaviour of ordinary people.

The Bolton News:

Anyone could be a mass observer, secretly watching people, eavesdropping on their conversations and submitting their reports to Harrisson and Madge. Harrisson’s Lancashire Survey became part of Mass Observation, changing its name first to Northtown and shortly afterwards to Worktown.

Although Harrisson believed that Bolton offered a typical representation of the working life experienced by the vast majority of people in England, it was more specifically a south Lancashire cotton town, sharing with other cotton towns not only an economic base in textiles but a common cultural life which embraced Gracie Fields, George Formby, factory sports events, cotton queen competitions, bowling tournaments, holiday-making in Blackpool and a pronounced Lancashire dialect.

Harrisson wanted to capture the ‘real’ lives of Boltonians, sending out his observers to infiltrate places where he thought they could be found, such as pubs, shops, Bolton market, churches, dance halls and sports stadiums, and to record what people were doing and saying. Back in Davenport Street he read local newspapers and listened to George Formby records continuously to familiarise himself with local cultural patterns.

The Bolton News:

Local observers, for example Bill Naughton and Harry Gordon were able to help by suggesting places of interest and assisting southern observers to find their way around the town; Harry Gordon also provided the very necessary service of “translating” the Bolton dialect into a form of English the southern observers could understand.

Throughout the series we will be including photographs from Bolton Museum’s Humphrey Spender ‘Worktown Collection, and I would like to express my thanks to the Museum for granting permission to do so.

Over the next few weeks we will be re-visiting some of the places to which Harrisson directed his hidden observers, looking at what they saw and heard. We’ll start the journey next week by visiting the pub.