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Festival of


Mass Observation in Bolton
"Part funded by the Strategic Priorities Fund of UK Research Innovation"
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About the festival

Welcome to the Festival of Worktown.


‘Worktown’ was the name given to Bolton by Mass Observation for its study of everyday life in an industrial town 1937-1940. The records of this study were taken to the south of England and now reside with the Mass Observation Archive in Sussex.


This Festival, presented by the University of Bolton’s Centre for Worktown Studies, brings Worktown back to Bolton. Based on local research on Worktown, undertaken by University staff in the Centre for Worktown Studies and also by local community groups, the Festival celebrates Bolton’s identity as Worktown through a range of educational and cultural activities.


Thanks to all our contributors and to Bolton Museum and Library, Bolton Socialist Club and the Bolton Station Community Partnership for hosting Festival events and exhibitions across the town. We hope you enjoy it.


Professor Robert Snape, Centre for Worktown Studies, University of Bolton

Listen to Professor Bob Snape describe the project below

Bob's intro to WorktownArtist Name
00:00 / 05:43

Why a festival of Worktown?

Dr. Bob Snape, Professor of Cultural History and Director of the Centre for Worktown Studies.



Tom Harrisson, founder of  the 'Worktown' project, recorded that Mass Observation chose Bolton because it was believed to be "representative of the industrial life pattern" that prevailed for the majority of people in Britain. As a large industrial town, this was to some extent true, but as with any town, Bolton had its unique identity. As the principal cotton town in South Lancashire it displayed many of the social, cultural and economic patterns characteristic of the cotton industry. But even within this context, Bolton had its own history, identity and customs. The Festival of Worktown re-orders this categorisation. By celebrating the history of  Bolton's everyday life at the micro-level, it also speaks to the wider social and cultural history of the Lancashire cotton industry and beyond that to the more general history of working class life across Britain.


The Worktown project sits within a wider inter-war interest in the British working class amongst intellectuals and artists that attracted many of them to the industrial north of England. Its establishment in 1937 coincided with the publication of George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. Like Harrisson, who was born in Argentina and educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Orwell was an outsider, born in India and educated at Eton before joining the Burma Police in 1921. Orwell was revolted by the ugliness of the industrial north, suggesting that a Southerner arriving in the North was conscious of entering a strange country with the "vague inferiority - complex of a civilised man venturing among savages". Harrisson too, having published Savage Civilization, a record of his anthropological study of Malekula in the New Hebrides, spoke of arriving in the "wilds of Lancashire'".  Charles Madge, who later took control of the Worktown study, adopted a more sociological approach but he also was an outsider, born in South Africa to an army officer and educated at Winchester and Cambridge. The social and cultural gulf between the founders of the Worktown project and those whose lives they came to investigate has stimulated debate around the extent to which the Worktown study was a colonial ethnography that positioned Bolton's working-class as a passive mass rather than an organized body with its own internal structures and institutions.



Mass Observation aimed to produce a "science of ourselves'. To achieve scientific objectivity, the Worktown project adopted a method of cultural immersion in Bolton, not just observing but also secretly listening and photographing; the observers had to remain unseen. Harrisson believed the camera to be an ideal tool for objectivity and invited the documentary photographer Humphrey Spender to Bolton to produce a photographic record to accompany the written records, an aim that has yet to be properly fulfilled. Spender's images are now held by Bolton Museum in the Humphrey Spender Worktown Collection. Spender claimed the photographs he was most proud of were those he took for the Worktown project. He was persuaded to work for Mass Observation by Tom Harrisson who, according to Spender "believed, as I did , that press photography was largely falsifying and irrelevant. Mass Observation was committed to study real lifeand for this purpose the concealed prying camera was essential. Every aspect of a public which had, until then, been so wrongly assessed by the press would at last be truthfully revealed." Spender, however, found his task challenging; feeling that he was effectively a foreigner in Bolton, the local accent and dialect were incomprehensible to him and when discovered, he was, as were all observers, prey to accusations of being "spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, envelope-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies and society playboys"


Harrisson's method was to collect as much primary data as possible and then to analyse it. Although four books were planned, only one, The Pub and the People, a  still recognised standard sociological text, was published. The rest of the recorded data - reports, observations, responses to questionnaires - were packed into boxes and sent to London where they remained in a basement until Asa Briggs, historian and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex, found them and took them to the University of Sussex where they became a special collection of the University library. For several decades, these records remained virtually inaccessible to the people of Bolton.


Eighty-three years after its inception, it is valid to pose the question of what the Worktown  study means to Bolton today. The Worktown Collection is an internationally acclaimed record of industrial life in Inter-war Britain, widely used by academics, journalists and social commentators across the globe. Uniquely, however, it is also a remarkable local history record of everyday working-class life in Bolton. Over the past decade the Centre for Worktown Studies - a joint undertaking by the University of Bolton and Bolton Museum - has sought  to re-connect Worktown to the Bolton of the twenty-first century. Through public engagement activities including lectures, photographic exhibitions, conferences, public talks and in 2014 a Bolton-wide repeat of Mass Observation's  ground-breaking survey of Happiness in Worktown, public awareness of Worktown has been enhanced. Of particular note is the  inter-active website , jointly produced by Bolton Museum and the Centre for Worktown Studies, through which the public can help in identifying the location of Spender's photographs and adding further historical annotation. However, Worktown has also become a dynamic creative force with artists, photographers, designers, dramatists, musicians and film-makers drawing inspiration from Worktown to articulate new perspectives on Bolton, typified by the University School of Art annual exhibition of 2016 under the theme of 'Worktown Re-visited'. Both the historical and artistic dimensions of Worktown enhance identification with place.


This Festival marks one further step in this process of re-connection.It is not simply a Festival of a local community but one by a local community with contributors who include staff and student members of the University of Bolton and of University Centre Blackburn College, Bolton Museum, Bolton at Home, Bolton University of the Third Age and Live from Worktown. 

We hope you enjoy it.

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