The Mass Observation project studied working class life in Bolton from 1937-40. Researchers under the direction of Tom Harrisson would record every aspect of day-to-day life. Here Dr Bob Snape, head of the Centre of Worktown Studies at Bolton University, looks at the pub culture which existed at the time

At the time of the Worktown project there were around 300 pubs in Bolton. While their main purpose was to sell beer and while people went to them to drink, the pub was also a social institution.

It was a place where people could meet, talk, play games, sing songs and, for some, place illegal bets with bookies’ runners - off-course betting was only legalised in 1960.

Mass Observation reckoned Bolton’s average nightly pub population to be 20,000, allowing for variations between weekend and weekdays. The pub was a central and focal point of neighbourhood communities - 90 per cent of pub regulars in Bolton did not walk further than three hundred yards to their local.

To Mass Observation, the local pub was effectively a club with regular patrons who felt themselves members rather than casual drinkers. It was, as observer John Sommerfield noted, the only kind of building used by large numbers of ordinary people where their thoughts and actions were not being in some way arranged for them; in the pub a man was a participator, not a spectator.

The character of the pub was thus shaped by its landlord and especially its customers.

Unsurprisingly, the pub occupies a considerable proportion of the Worktown archive, which is part of the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex. It was also the subject of the only book to emanate from the Worktown project, The Pub and the People, published in 1943. Drawing from these historical records we now have unique insights to what happened inside Worktown’s pubs, but first a note on the beer.

The Bolton News:

For most Boltonians who drank, drink meant beer. Most beer was supplied by Magee’s and Walker’s; other breweries included Threlfall’s, Hamer’s and Cornbrook’s. The four principal drinks in order of popularity were Mild (5d a pint, or just over two pence), Best Mild (6d / 2.5 pence a pint), IPA, or India Pale Ale, (7d) and Strong Ale (11d / around 5p). The observers found draught stout in only one pub; it was however popular as a bottled drink.

Mass Observation’s survey of why Boltonians drank beer revealed that most correspondents believed it to have health-giving properties, a benefit frequently proclaimed in brewers’ advertising strategies.

To one respondent beer was “food, drink and medicine”; several felt it gave them strength. Observers noted that many midday drinkers were labourers having a pint with their lunch.

The belief that beer was nourishing partly explains why the landlord of The Globe on Higher Bridge Street told Tom Harrisson that when Dobson Barlows and Musgraves engineering firms had been open, with a total of 10,000 employees, he pulled 100 pints daily in readiness for the demand that would come with the lunchtime break.

The Bolton News:

To the uninitiated, the pub was a complex building with several rooms, each with a special significance in terms of clientele, often reflecting class distinctions.

Observers found the beer house normally had three rooms. The vault was a small room, typically with a serving hatch to the bar, a bare stone-flagged floor and either spittoons or a line of sawdust for cigarette ends and spitting. It was customarily a male-only room.

However, as observer John Sommerfield, principal author of The Pub and the People noted, both custom and class determined room use; a working-class man was free to enter the vault whenever he liked but not if he was accompanied by his wife or girl friend.

Men normally stood in the vault, even though may have been on their feet all day. It was a place in which they knew they would meet company and also have a good chance of placing a bet through a bookmaker’s runner.

The taproom was more comfortable with seating accommodation and tables upon which games including cards and dominoes could be played. However, observers found it an insular space; casual drinkers were resented and it was bad form for a stranger to go in for a drink.

The best room was the more spacious parlour, often with a piano, fireplace and more comfortable seating and one to which men might take their wives at weekend.

The Bolton News:

As in most towns, pub names reflected local history. In 1937 Mass Observation claimed to have located 69 pubs named after important families with links to Bolton, for example the Lord Derby and the Duke of Bridgewater; 37 with aristocratic or royal associations, for example The British Queen, and 49 with references to animals. Several pubs acquired nicknames; the Golden Lion was known as the ‘Brass Cat; the Junction Inn the ‘Smoother’ because it was shaped like a smoothing iron and the Stanley Arms ‘Sally up Steps’ meaning the five steps up to the pub door and landlady Sally.

The pub was a place of customs and traditions, for example buying rounds, the celebration of Oak Apple Day in the Park View Inn (nicknamed The Dog and Kennel), spitting, and itinerant hawkers selling black puddings and hot pies.

Very few customers drank in isolation; conversation was the norm, even if with strangers. Pub conversations were categorised as follows: Pubs and drinking 28%; betting 16%; personal-topographical 15%; sport (not betting) 13%; jobs 12%; money 9%; politics 8%; films 2%.

To the mass observers, the most interesting aspect of the Bolton pub was its clientele, the drinkers. Drinkers sought out pubs with a warm social atmosphere in which they could feel part of a community.

A report of an evening in the Waterloo Tavern captures this well. The observer and his wife, together with a friend and his wife had been enjoying a convivial evening with the men drinking pints and the women Guinness stout when: “At 9.30 the place is a hubbub, not over noisy, but everyone seems to be talking at once. The waitress seems to be having difficulty in fulfilling orders and is looking desperate and bewildered.

“It is remarkable how the pub ‘atmosphere’, plus the drink, creates a spirit of bon homie that can be found nowhere else, where perfect strangers each discuss and argue with such a perfect understanding and familiarity”.

The Bolton News:

This sense of familiarity was the essence of the pub. Especially in the vault and taproom, conversations were communal - anyone could start a discussion and anyone could join in, provided they could understand the dialect.

Language and humour were coarse and often misogynistic, as in the following observer report from the Newmarket Inn on Bridge Street:

“When I entered, dominoes were in progress. I heard one player saying ‘Come on man, don’t go t’bloody sleep; tha’r like a bloody hen suppin’ tea. When tha’r winning it’s awreet but when tha’r losing, it’s aw’ bloody wrong’. Another man then says ‘I come in here because I believe in having my pleasure aw’t year round. I’m not savin’ up 12 bloody months fur’t sake o’ gooin’ away for a wik. Wife’s allus askin’ me what I do wi mi own time an’ I towd ‘er “why, I bloody well spend it , what dus’t think” and she says ‘Thy ought to have more bloody sense’. Dominoes player then chimes in “Come on mon, t’bloody holidays ‘ll be here before tha plays.”

The social function of the pub also derived from its role as a meeting place for pigeon flying, angling, and various other sports clubs. No opportunity for gambling was spurned.

One landlord, having placed a money bet on a pigeon race, placed and won a side-bet of one hundred black puddings which were later provided to club members in the vault.

Bowling, darts and dog societies, secret societies such as the Royal and Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, the Oddfellows and the Foresters, picnic and savings clubs all found the pub a convivial and convenient base for their activities.

While it has only been possible to offer a glimpse of pub life in Worktown, much more detail can be found in The Pub and the People, still in print and also available through Bolton Public Library.

Just as pubs today are in rapid decline and the new digital technologies of social media and on-line entertainment are felt to be responsible for a more private and individualistic leisure culture, Mass Observation believed this to be the case in Worktown, noting that: “The pub as a cultural institution is at present declining. This is part of a general trend in the cultural life of industrial England, which is shifting the emphasis of people’s leisure from active and communal forms to those that are passive and individual in the sense that members of the audience are brought into no relationship with one another.”

The Bolton News:

As pub closures today are increasingly associated with a weakening of community spirit, there is much contemporary resonance in this observation.

Humphrey Spender, Mass Observation’s photographer of Worktown and subject of a later column, certainly recognised the connection.

Having spent several hours in Worktown pubs, Spender had first hand experience of their warm social atmosphere and sense of ease and remembered with some fondness that whenever he was in a Bolton pub, he found “a kind of community feeling, the feeling of a lot of people who knew each other, and who were happy to know each other”.