A FASCINATING account of the hopes and dreams of a class of girls living in pre-war Bolton will be published in a new book tomorrow.

Class of 37 features essays written by pupils aged 12 and 13 from Pikes Lane School which had lain unread for more than 80 years.

They were discovered by historians Hester Barron and Claire Langhamer while working on the Mass Observation Archive in Brighton.

"We couldn't believe it when we came across a box of essays all from the same class," said Claire. "You don't often get the chance to see first hand accounts of everyday life written by children. Usually the sources come from adults who have a different perspective.

The Mass Observation Project was led by Tom Harrison and in 1937 he set up a base in Bolton - which he named Worktown. The aim was to record all aspects of everyday life - including conversations held in cafes and pubs - and in the workplace.

A team of volunteers would carry our the research by stopping folk in the street and getting them to answer detailed questionnaires and often sitting in the corner eavesdropping on what was being said and taking copious notes. Photographer Humphrey Spender was also part of the project and his photos provide an invaluable archive, many of which are in the possession of Bolton Museum.

"We think a teacher at Pikes Lane was part of the Mass Observation study," said Claire, "and she encouraged this class to write a series of essays on a range of topics and also about their feelings.

"There is a beauty to their writing. These young girls were at an exciting time in their own lives and it was also a very particular time in our own history.

"There is something particularly poignant when you know that the world would change forever when the Second World War broke out just months after some of these essays were written."

As Hester and Claire sorted through the archive catalogued as ‘Children’s essays: observations in schools’ they began to see the same names appearing at the top of the essays and so began their connection to class Senior II at Pikes Lane.

This inspired them to try and find out more about these young girls whose voices had carried across the decade. They started to research their families, even bringing in a genealogist to help, with the ultimate aim of finding out what had happened to the girls.

As a result of extensive research they managed to track down relatives of a number of the girls.

"Many of them were still living in our around Bolton," said Claire, "and they were able to tell us more about these brilliant young girls we had got to know through their writing.

Ironically there was some information about the girls laying in the Mass Observation archive. A mass observer, Frank Cawson, visited Pikes Lane School in 1937 and produced pen portraits of the pupils.

Of one, Marion, he wrote: "One sister, mother expecting another. Father injured in war, gets pension. Very good at sports. Nicely behaved. Once had nervous trouble. Salvation Army."

The Covid pandemic coincided with the period Hester and Claire had set aside to come and meet the various family members they had managed to track down but undaunted they carried out numerous online interviews.

"We did manage to come up to Bolton before any of the lockdowns," said Claire, "and we were able to go to Pikes Lane and see the area these girls had written about."

Class of 37 covers a series of topics that the girls wrote about and using their own words builds up a detailed portrait of life in pre-war Bolton. The topics range from The Pictures and Holidays to Heartbreak and Expectations.

"The amount of detail, the way they express themselves, it is all remarkable," said Claire. "Some of it is very down to earth then there are the flights of fancy which probably every girl entering her teens experiences - wanting to go to Hollywood and be a movie star for example."

Although the book is now complete Hester and Claire, who are based at the University of Sussex are continuing to work on the Mass Observation archive and would love to hear from any relatives of the girls from Pikes Lane who they have not been able to track down.

Anyone with any information can email C.L.Langhamer@sussex.ac.uk

The Class of ’37 by Hester Barron and Claire Langhamer out July 22, RRP £16.99 (Metro Publishing)