Life in ‘Worktown’
There were several parts to Mass Observation’s work. Initially, it concentrated largely on the Lancashire cotton town of Bolton – known as ‘Worktown’ to Mass Observation – which became the focus of the first major study. But they undertook shorter surveys nationally and during the Second World War encouraged volunteer observers to write diaries about their experiences.
Bolton was chosen in part as it was thought to be fairly typical of an industrial area, but also because Harrisson knew several industrialists in the area who were sympathetic to the project.
To begin, Harrisson rented a small house in Davenport Street. For nearly three years it housed a variety of men and women who observed, often in great detail, the lives and activities of local people. Some of these volunteers were from the area but most were students or intellectuals from London. The observers were sent out on specific tasks to note down everything they observed.
Harrisson was a great visionary, but not a great organiser. Many projects were never completed and money was always tight. Only one book resulting from their work in Bolton was ever published – The Pub and the People – and this only in 1943. In Worktown, the book explains “the pub has more buildings, holds more people, takes more of their time and money, than church, cinema, dance-hall, and political organisations put together”.
The statistics are thorough and often meaningless. In the course of a single Thursday night, pub-goers drink, on average, 3.16 pints of beer; on a Saturday, the average goes up to 3.45 pints. However, among the statistics there are graphic vignettes of the drinkers and their lives. A woman drinker memorably praises snuff: “Eeee, it’s lovely, makes your navel perk like a whelk!”
And in the lounge of the Dog and Partridge on 27 May 1937, one observer found a group of market traders: “Large tough guy with masses of hair held down by a hairnet sits at a table with a group of four (one woman)... Hairnet suddenly takes a small live tortoise out of his overcoat pocket and threatens woman with it. She screams a little. ‘What do you feed it on?’ someone asks. ‘Milk’. ‘How much?’ A quiet thin man in bowler sitting in another group leans forward and says quickly ‘quart and a half ’. Hairnet says ‘I gave it a saucer full on Sunday’…”
At the same time, Mass Observation began to recruit volunteers from all over Britain for particular projects. The first was to record what they did on Coronation Day on 12 May 1937. Even today, Mass Observation asks its volunteers to record in detail their activities on 12 May every year.
Members were also asked to report on specific activities, such as wrestling, football pools, and “music: jazz and dancing”. They also looked at astrology. “A Man of 45” reported: “No, I never bother with it, but there are folks, especially in the football pools season, who use all sorts of things like that to mark their coupons.”
The Second World War is now regarded as
Tom Harrisson was the anthropologist behind the Mass Observation project