The Mass Observation project studied working class life in Bolton from 1937 to 1940. Researchers under the direction of Tom Harrisson would record every aspect of day-to-day life. Here Bob Snape head of the Centre for Worktown Studies at Bolton University looks at the changes in social housing and in Bolton and its impact the people who called Worktown home

IN the nineteenth century the dominant pattern of working-class housing in northern industrial towns like Bolton was that of the terraced street. Aided by the close proximity of churches and chapels, pubs, lads’ and girls’ clubs, schools and Sunday Schools, local communities, such as those described Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum easily formed.

Tom Harrisson organised a one-day survey of Davenport Street where the Worktown study observation team was based. The survey ran from 5.30am. to half an hour after midnight.

The street was rarely quiet; 594 people were observed and the busiest period was between 8pm and 8.30pm when 84 people, mainly women, many of whom never left the house, were observed in the front street.

Only a few yards away was the Royal public house which served as a social meeting place for local residents. Children played around the back of the houses, a space that was also popular with adolescents in the evening.

After the First World War the government launched a national programme of building new housing estates to replace slum housing. The majority were built on the periphery of towns and while there was virtually unanimous agreement that the new council houses, with indoor toilets, bath and sometimes a garden were immensely superior to the houses they had replaced, there were also concerns about the breaking-up of established social communities and the difficulties of re-creating a sense of community on the estates.

The Bolton News:

Women who did not leave them to go to work were often lonely and prey to mental illness. Many estates lacked social facilities, notably pubs.

In Liverpool, for example, the Norris Green estate housed 30,000 people but, as the Survey of Merseyside discovered, the historical associations and institutions that gave cohesion were almost entirely absent; the formation of a social unit from a diverse collection of people had, as its report noted, failed to take place.

At the time of the Worktown project Bolton had built 11 housing estates. Mass Observation adopted the Top o’ t’ Brow estate for an investigation of the effects of changing from being a street dweller to an estate dweller.

The Bolton News:

The change was marked. As one observer noted: “From living within five minutes walk from the town centre they (the residents) are on an estate of 466 houses where the only five shops are those built in the centre of the estate by the Corporation.”

Consequently bus journeys to town were necessary on a regular basis. The bus became not only a means of transport but a place for social intercourse. Conductors became familiar with passengers and journeys into and from the town centre were often marked by jokes and wisecracks.

The function of the bus as a social meeting place was particularly evident on Saturday nights, especially on the last bus home. Passengers pockets could be seen to hold “liveners” - pint bottles of beer or stout. Joviality and good humour reigned and the observer sensed a feeling that “everybody’s happy and although noisy, never wranglesome”.

In this respect the bus partially took the place of the absent pub as the ‘meeting place’ of the estate, with the bus stop at the shopping centre becoming to a limited extent the centre around which the estate revolved.

The Bolton News:

It was, as Mass Observation remarked, as if the sociability of the estate was hurled into the town at weekends to drift back into the estate bus-load by bus-load, to take up its routine until the following weekend when the process was repeated.

The lack of a pub on the estate affected men in particular. The estate man was observed to have completely changed his social activities on removing from the street to the estate, sometimes breaking down the habits of a lifetime.

As a street dweller he may have frequented a pub five or six nights a week for several years, but on the estate his visits were restricted to weekends or even more infrequent intervals.

A street dwelling man could, it was observed, keep a steady pattern in his leisure, perhaps leaving home 6.30 for a leisurely walk to Merehall Bowling Green followed by a stroll at 9pm to the Alexandra Hotel in Meadow Street for a pint or two and a game of dominoes.

On the housing estate, however, there appeared to be a complete lack of regularity. ‘Going-out’ at night for recreation did not occur nearly so much as with the street dweller and, where it did occur, it was spasmodic.

Whereas it was common for the street dweller to have a ‘mate’ or ‘boozing partner’ living in or close to his own street, the average estate man who left to visit a pub apparently preferred his own company or relied on meeting friends in his work around the town.

The Bolton News:

SH, an acquaintance of one of the observers had lived on estate for two-and-a-half years and had been unemployed since June 1935 when his colliery closed down.

SH went two or three weekly to pubs in his former village almost three miles away, feeling more at home there amongst people with whom he had been brought up; all the pubs let him have “strap”.

In the village he had visited the pub every night but since coming to the estate this had been reduced to weekends only. The move to the estate and unemployment, had left him with a sense of alienation and a lack of interest in communal life.

A distinctive new feature of estate houses was that most had gardens. On the on hand, gardens offered a form of social glue; as an observer noted: “Amongst the gardeners there is a friendly spirit with gifts of plants” and experienced gardeners were willing to help and advise novices.

“However, at competition times when the Corporation offers prizes for smart gardens, his comradeship could be marred by petty spite, particularly if a prize had been won by recourse to plants bought from nurserymen.”

An ill-kept garden was considered anti social as “the brotherhood of gardeners regards with scowls and mutterings the expanses of chickweed, sorrel, dandelion etc. of their non-gardening neighbours”.

Estate living also changed women’s lives. Few social or leisure opportunities existed.

One male respondent told Mass Observation: “I don’t know how a woman stands the deadly monotony of this estate without going nuts.”

The Bolton News:

There was no cinema or pub and only recently had a Methodist Mission been opened, providing mothers’ meetings on Wednesday afternoons.

As an observer remarked street dwelling women rarely gossiped, or ‘nattered’ in the street but in the house, often making some excuse to call on a neighbour; on the estate, in contrast, gossiping usually took place outdoors, often at the garden gate.

Residents established a Tenants’ Association to campaign for improved services, including a pay station for poor law relief on the estate.

The move to an estate did not in itself address poverty. The Methodist Mission helped, providing free meals for the children of unemployed parents; 25 per cent of children had a free dinner and 33 per cent free milk.

Although the school started a savings club, some parents told their children to save in the gas meter. Only one child was sent for the Secondary School examination.

Planning for the estate had also neglected the provision of a rounders field for girls. Although warned not to use a field behind the school the association organised a protest practice, asking parents to send their children and said it was prepared to face the consequences.

The new estates provided better and healthier living conditions, but with few social facilities and shops. The provision of gardens was enjoyed by many and nurtured social intercourse and association.

The Bolton News:

While estates exhibited difficulties in re-creating a community spirit, the lack of one sometimes initiated active social citizenship and the organisation of sports clubs, leisure associations and self-representation.