Work­town: The As­ton­ish­ing Story of the Pro­ject that Launched Mass-Ob­ser­va­tion

By David Hall

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - THE GUIDE -

(Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, 320 pages, £20) If you’ve heard of Mass Ob­ser­va­tion it is prob­a­bly be­cause the di­aries that mem­bers com­pleted dur­ing the Se­cond World War have be­come the ba­sis of re­cent books and TV pro­grammes.

Mass Ob­ser­va­tion had its ori­gins in the mill town of Bolton, known as ‘Work­town’. Its founder was an ec­cen­tric so­cial an­thro­pol­o­gist cal lled Tom Har­ris­son, who thought that more was kn nown about peo­ples of the South Pa­cific is­land wherew he had lived than in­dus­trial Lan­cashire. HeH wrote in 1937 that: “While an­thro­pol­o­gis sts go all over the world study­ing so-called prim­i­tive peo­ples, no one is mak­ing com­pa­ra­ble stud­ies of our­selves. I was de­ter­mined to re­turn to study the can­ni­bals of Bri­tain. So I headed up here to the less sav­age, but to me equally ex­oticc Bolton.”

Over a two-year pe­riod be­fore the Se­cond World War, he and a team of vol­un­teers at­tempted to study the peo­ple of Work­town in minute de­tail with the aim of pub­lish­ing a se­ries of books on aspects of their lives. Only one book was ever pub­lished and the field­work is now in the Mass Ob­ser­va­tion Ar­chives at Sus­sex Univer­sity.

The vol­un­teers were a mix­ture of Lon­don in­tel­lec­tu­als, middle-class un­der­grad­u­ates and lo­cal peo­ple who sat in pubs, at­tended churches, and prowled the streets and mar­kets record­ing in de­tail the be­hav­iour of Bolto­ni­ans, such as how long it took to buy a length of cloth, what was dis­cussed in pubs, and the so­cial strata of the mills.

The Work­town pro­ject failed due tot the fact that it was not rig­or­ously or­gan­isedo and so much of what was re ecorded was triv­ial or mean­ing­less. Ev ven so, the world that the ob­servers doc cu­mented in such de­tail has al­most com mpletely dis­ap­peared.

ThisT book tells the story of the men and (ffew) women who worked along­side Tom HHar­ris­son and how the Work­town pro­ject was run. Re­fer­ring to the sub­ti­tle, the most as­ton­ish­ing rev­e­la­tions in the book are the squalid con­di­tions the ob­servers lived in and the sex­ual li­aisons they all en­gaged in, which would have surely shocked the re­spectable work­ing-class cit­i­zens of Bolton.

Si­mon Fowler is a pro­fes­sional writer and

his­tory re­searcher

Women from Bolton march to Lon­don to de­mand a seven-hour day for cot­ton work­ers in 1939

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