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Bolton Worktown

Mass Observation

Mass-Observation is a UK social research project; originally the name of an organisation, which ran from 1937 to the mid-1960s, and was revived in 1981 at the University of Sussex.

It was created by three former Cambridge students from Cambridge: anthropologist Tom Harrisson (who left Cambridge before graduating), poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Bolton was named worktown by Tom Harrison.

Collaborators included literary critic William Empson, photographers Humphrey Spender and Michael Wickham, collagist Julian Trevelyan, novelists Inez Pearn and G.B. Edwards, spiritualist medium Rosemary Brown, journalist Anne Symonds, and painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell. Run on a shoestring budget with money from their own pockets and the occasional philanthropic contribution or book advance, the project relied primarily on its network of volunteer correspondents.

A re-evaluation of the Mass-Observation archives led to a relaunch of the project in 1981.  Today, housed at the University of Sussex, Mass-Observation continues to collect the thoughts of its panel of writers through regular questionnaires (known as directives) and is used by students, academics, media researchers and the public for its unique collection of material on everyday life in Britain.

Photograph of a Library Reading Room taken by Humphrey Spender in April 1938
Library Reading Room by Humphrey Spender - April 1938
Photo of a Mill Interior taken by Humphrey Spender in November 1937
Mill Interior by Humphrey Spender - November 1937
Photograph of Weekend Drinkers By Humphrey Spender
Weekend Drinkers By Humphrey Spender

Humphrey Spender

Humphrey Spender’s photographs of Bolton are a unique document of everyday life in a working-class community in the 1930s.

Spender became fascinated with photography at an early age, learning from his idolised older brother Michael. He trained as an architect to please his family but had no real passion or aptitude for the subject. As the global depression of the 1930s impacted on the building industry he was unable to secure a job in architecture and returned to his true passion.

He set up a London based portrait studio and his family connections gave him the opportunity to photograph the rich and famous.

He had a strong social conscience despite his privileged background. Through liberal friends he became concerned about social injustice. He photographed living conditions in the slums of Stepney to draw attention to the causes of juvenile crime and was commissioned by Left Review to document the Jarrow Hunger Marchers.

Spender took around 850 photographs in Bolton and Blackpool on a series of visits between August 1937 and April 1938. He also made several paintings and drawings in the town which were sold to private collectors and have become lost over the passage of time.

Bolton Museum acquired the negatives in the early 1990s and they now form the core of the Worktown Archive.

The astonishing story of the project that launched Mass Observation In the late 1930s the Lancashire town of Bolton witnessed a ground-breaking social experiment. Over three years, a team of ninety observers recorded, in painstaking detail, the everyday lives of ordinary working people at work and play - in the pub, dance hall, factory and on holiday. Their aim was to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. The first of its kind, it later grew into the Mass Observation movement that proved so crucial to our understanding of public opinion in future generations. The project attracted a cast of larger-than-life characters, not least its founders, the charismatic and unconventional anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the surrealist intellectuals Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. They were joined by a disparate band of men and women - students, artists, writers and photographers, unemployed workers and local volunteers - who worked tirelessly to turn the idle pleasure of people-watching into a science. Drawing on their vivid reports, photographs and first-hand sources, David Hall relates the extraordinary story of this eccentric, short-lived, but hugely influential project. Along the way, he creates a richly detailed, fascinating portrait of a lost chapter of British social history, and of the life of an industrial northern town before the world changed for ever. Published in partnership with the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which holds the papers of the British social research organisation Mass Observation from 1937 to the early 1950s, as well as new material collected continuously since 1981 about everyday life in Britain.

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