Life in ‘Work­town’

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - MASS OBSERVATION -

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

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