Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation
By David Hall
(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
Women from Bolton march to London to demand a seven-hour day for cotton workers in 1939