Mass Observation Archive in Bolton Central Library: A Taster for Educators, Social/Historical Researchers and Family History Researchers.   


There us much written about Mass Observation (MO) and comprehensive introductions are available in, for instance:

James Hinton, 2013, The Mass Observers: 1937 1949, OUP

David Hall, 2015, Worktown: the astonishing story of the project that launched Mass Observation, Hachette.

Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge, 1939, Britain by Mass Observation:  A Penguin Special, Penguin Books   


Our concentration here is not the national dimension of MO but than what happened in Bolton, particularly the findings from nearly three years of observational work.  A great deal has been written about the history of the organisation and its leaders, Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge, and much has been made of the diarists recruited by MO – See for instance Wartime Women: A Mass-observation Anthology of Women's Writings, 1937-1945, Dorothy Sheridan, 2009 and Nella Lasts War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzy Fleming, 1981.  But relatively little has been published about the detailed observations made in Bolton.  The observations got going in the spring of 1937, when Harrisson rented 85 Davenport Street, and carried on until August 1939 when the Davenport Street HQ closed. With four full time volunteers, at least 14 local part timers and scores of Oxbridge students who stayed a week or so, the amount of material collected was enormous.  Although there are formal interviews and surveys in the Bolton archive the great proportion of material consists of observers’ reports:  simple typed or handwritten accounts of what observers saw, heard and experienced.  As such the archive itself is a unique record of how people in one town lived: what they believed, liked, hated, ignored, danced to, talked about, bought – even how often they used swear words.  Many of the records are of visits to churches, pubs, regular events such as the New Year’s fair and most include a lot of ‘overheards’, i.e. overheard conversations, whether in shops, on trains, in the street.  The observers mostly kept to Tom Harrisson’s rule of recording what they saw and heard in as much detail as possible – concentrating on the precise focus of that day’s observation, whatever it was; smoking, or how people greeted each other, whether people wore hats or not, what they talked about, etc. 

Although reports of ‘overheards’ did not include people’s names (after all observers mostly want to be unobserved themselves, to ensure people behaved naturally) a great many people interviewed were identified precisely.  Some were interviewed because they had particular roles: vicars, market traders, trades unionists.  Also some of the formal surveys of local people’s activities included names and addresses.

So, The MO archive in Bolton Central Library offers detail of the town’s public life and annual events in the 1930s, but also contains much detail of ordinary people’s daily lives.  The archive therefore is a potential starting point for:

  • Investigations of social issuespolitics for instance, or prices and wages, strikes, temperance, housing.
  • Following the annual cycle of local events New Year Fair, Easter, Rose Queen processions, Wakes Holidays, Armistice Day, Christmas etc.
  • Finding out about what happened in particular places: schools, streets, pubs, churches and so on.
  • Looking for named individuals family members possibly.  

The various records are a tiny fraction of what is there, but give an idea of the sheer scale of what is available.  

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The names of over 70 pubs appear in the catalogue as having been visited.  These are usually recorded in single page reports of numbers present, drinks drunk, conversations.  Examples include: 

-          Box 3C Finishers Arms Picnic and Bowling Club – 3pp, setting up Moss Bank Bowling Club at the Finishers and details of the pub and club falling out. 

-          Box 3A Royal Hotel Vernon Street, Tom Harrisson, 3pp (MO’s ‘local’)

-          Survey of pubs in Bradshawgate (7/5/37) – 4pp. Volunteer Eric Letchford visited the Clarence, Queens, Brown Cow, Anchor, Balmoral, Oddfellows, the Red Cross, Pack Horse, Saddle, Swire Lodge, Gates, Prince William, Swan, Man and Scythe

-          Box 3B ‘pub prostitution’, Eric Letchford, 6pp 26/7/37

-          Box 3/D Star and Garter, Victory Hotel ‘match count’ (i.e. the number of matches lit and used during the observation)

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Box 4C Bowling Bolton and Surrounding Towns, annual competition, held at Gibraltar Rock Hotel, Deane Road, to raise funds for Bolton Royal Infirmary.

Box 4E All in Wrestling Competition which drew 19 signed replies and 42 letters

Box 4F Letters from people about ‘why I do the pools’ from J. Morris, K. Taylor, A. E. Jones, Joseph Burtonwood, A. Greenwood

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Box 9/D Councillors names and addresses, 7pp

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Box 11B List of canvass returns, with names and addresses of canvassers

Box 12D Astley Bridge bye election and Tonge bye election (which includes ‘how people wipe their feet at Castle Hill polling booth’).

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Box 13.  13C Labour Party Delegates. 2pp.  List of names

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Box 14D.  Working class church questionnaire, 6pp, replies from children and aduls.

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Box 21B and 21C interviews with twenty named clergymen, including the Reverent Bright, the Unitarian ‘padre’ to Mass Observation, 14pp in all, 22/12/37

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Box 22D Deane Rose Queen Festival, 3pp, 24/7/37

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Box 23B St Thomas’s Halliwell. 2pp.  Rose Queen crowning and field day.

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Box 28B Household Budgets.  Savings: men under £200 (annual income) 2pp questionnaire – list of names and addresses.

Box 30B chamber of trade.  Market Hall, Knowsley Street, 1p, names, addresses of traders.

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Box 3E sales – questionnaires, interviews and responses to questionnaire

Box 3B 17 responses to question what I enjoy most about my Christmas Shopping

1931 census 3pp – list of retailers

31C/D Christmas Questionnaire, 1938, 14 point questionnaire.  30 replies.

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32A food and shopping, questionnaire and interviews, June – August 1939, 166pp. Some names and some addresses

Box 32B Ministry of Food Questionnaire, May 1940, 15 replies

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Box 35A/B/C/D.  Cinema.  This includes the results of surveys of 560 people at the Odeon, Palladium and Crompton Cinemas.  The names and addresses of all respondents are included, which films they prefer and other comments.

Box 36C Walter Hood’s account of picking up a girl in town and taking her to the cinema.

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Box 39A Collectors, Weaver’s Association – list of collectors names and addresses

Do you like your job? Comments from four people

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Box 40E Textile workers. Report on questions to piecers and spinners

Box 41 analysis of a ‘special area’ of Bolton. The ‘special area’ is a 400 yard stretch of streets just off Bridge Street and Higher Bridge Street, which includes St George’s Road at one end and reaching nearly as far as the junction with Halliwell Road at the other.  It is fantastically detailed and includes both names and addresses of all the residents at that time.     

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Box 42A, Fears women had of being attacked by ‘The Wigan Slasher’ (30/11/1938)

Box 42C A Brush with the bureaucrats at the Labour Exchange by Mr Jackson

Box 42H Rude stories, swearing

Box 42M Tom Honeyfords life as a spinner

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Box 46A/B/C 564 letters from young, mainly affluent people about their holidays (September 1937)

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Box 48C, Palais de Danse, Walter Hood, who joined in enthusiastically in many observations, 25/3/37, 7pp and St Peter and Paul’s Dance, 3/4/37 5pp

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Guild of Help offer support to a man with a gambling problem

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Box 49 (from A to E), Children’s Essays.  This section includes 300 essays by 11 – 14 year old children at Pike’s Lane School and Church Road School  in July 1937.  The subjects include ‘money’, ‘a good man’ ‘hell’, ‘heaven’. They include work by Thomas Robinson, E. Greenhalgh, Jean Roberts, Irene Owen, Edna Quinlan, Arthur Makin, Richard Smith, Florence Bailey, Ethel Pasquill, and hundreds more.

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Box 52A Bill Naughton comments on limited interest in football as there are no pools in wartime

Box 52 ‘Spy Story’ Mrs Sheila Duckworth repeats scandal about Albert Smith, who refused to register for an ID card. He was a WEA lecturer, pacifist, and by the by a Mass Observation volunteer.  



This project has been developed in conjunction with, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund