Mass Observation in Bolton
- Dave Burnham
15th April 2023
The Mass Observation survey of life in Bolton between 1937 and 1940 is justly celebrated today. The aim was to observe and record everyday life in all its forms in one town – at work, at home, on the street, in the pub, in church. Scores of volunteers observed thousands of conversations and events over a three-year period, which were recorded in careful, sometimes dizzying detail. No other town has such a comprehensive account of its recent past. Worktown’s People tells the tale of three dozen Bolton people, most of them working class, who contributed to Mass Observation’s Bolton Survey. Little has been written about them as the focus has mostly been on the educated elite who led Mass Observation.
Recent research confirms that these local volunteers were at the very heart of Mass Observation in Bolton, contributing as many, if not more, observation reports than the outsiders. Most of the local volunteers did not keep diaries or write books and had no public profile, so their lives and activities have remained hidden. But the Mass Observation records offer insights into who these people were and what they did. Local records have revealed more and the children and grandchildren of the Bolton volunteers have also come forward with their memories. So in Worktown’s People we are able to introduce some of these volunteers to their successor citizens and celebrate their achievements. This narrative sets their life stories against the background of this grimy, bustling cotton town in the 1930s, fighting the Depression, mill closures and unemployment, and tells the tale of the observations they recorded for the colourful, avant-garde and sometimes bizarre cultural circus that was Mass Observation.