In the 1930s, inspired by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, dozens of young middle-class men and women headed north to observe what was described as a race apart – the ordinary working people of Bolton. Drawing on their reports, photographs and first hand-accounts David Hall tells the story of the influential project in Work Town (W&N, £9.99).
How did you first find out about the project?
I’d been aware of Humphrey Spender’s Worktown photographs for several years and knew of their significance in the development of documentary photography. But it was only after writing Working Lives – a collection of oral testimonies from industrial workers of the 1950s and 1960s – when my agent suggested that I might find it interesting to look at the Mass Observation archive, that I realised there was a lot more to the Worktown project than Spender’s photographs.
Very little of this material has previously been published. Why did you choose to present it in this way – telling the story of how the project was carried out, rather than just publishing the findings themselves?
Although the findings are interesting – giving us, as they do, an incredibly detailed picture of life in a northern industrial town at a time when Britain was still a major manufacturing nation – it was the story of the project itself and the people who were involved that I was drawn to. For me it was a story of larger than life characters – many of whom went on to become leading figures in the worlds of art, politics and journalism – and of major personality clashes in a group who were disorganised from the outset, took on far too much work and were prone to internal squabbling, but who were united in their common desire to make Britain a fairer, more equitable and better informed society. It was also very clear that it was a story of an organisation that was very much in tune with the times – the beginning of market research, of opinion polling, of political polls, of getting the opinions of ordinary people on everything from the price of a pint of beer to the big political issues of the day. And it was very influential. Some of the work on saving and spending led to the thinking behind the Beveridge Report and ultimately the foundation of the welfare state. Above all what I found fascinating was the story of this group of middle-class, university-educated young people people who came to Bolton, of their relationships with the local working-class observers and helpers and the whole question of crossing the class divide that was so deeply entrenched in pre-war Britain.
“There was something very patronising about educated middle-class observers coming to find out about the working-class savages of the north.”
Tom Harrisson described working-class northerners as “a race apart”. Do you think that perception still exists today?
Yes, but I don’t think it is quite as marked as it was in the 1930s. There was something very patronising about the Worktown project and the whole idea of educated middle-class observers coming to find out about the working-class savages of the north. And I still find elements of that today in the slightly patronising attitude to northerners, and the north in general, shown by people who think civilisation ends at Watford. But with increased social and geographical mobility, the Harrisson perception of working-class northerners as “a race apart” is not anything like as pronounced as it was. I think the real “race apart” today are the 1 per cent of the population whose earnings are hundreds of times more than most of the rest of the population – the bankers, city traders and senior managers in industry. They are today’s “race apart”, not just from working-class northerners but from ordinary, hard working people everywhere.
The reason for the research was that Britain was perceived as a divided nation, between a small, educated political elite and the rest of the population. Is that still pertinent today, particularly in the light of the discourse around the Brexit vote?
Yes, we are still a divided nation. You don’t have to look any further than the establishment stitch-up over the Orgreave miners to see how divided we are. As for the Brexit vote, I don’t think there can be any doubt that for many who voted out, it was a protest vote – a protest against educated political and economic elites who were out of touch with their lives but thought they knew what was best for them. What should be remembered about Brexit, though, is that it was not a vote that was based on region or class. As well as Scotland, all of the biggest northern cities – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds – voted to remain and the young, from whatever part of the country or social class, voted overwhelmingly to remain.
Why do you think such a division persists in Britain, more than in other countries?
I’m not sure the division persists in Britain more than in any other countries. Just look at the US presidential election. Trump has set himself up as the champion of the ordinary working man and for many Americans it would appear that voting for him was a way of registering a protest against what is seen as an increasingly corrupt political establishment. In Europe extreme right wing politicians are attracting support on the basis that the established political parties are out of touch with the views of the ordinary man and women, particularly on the question of immigration.
Do you think there is a modern equivalent of Mass Observation?
Yes, many modern equivalents – social media, radio phone-ins, blogs and podcasts, websites asking for comment and feedback, opinion polls. There are many ways now for people to have their say. It was very different when Mass Observation was set up. People were not asked for their views on anything and didn’t have any of the forums that people now have. Today everybody seems to have opinions on everything and they make them public on Twitter and Facebook. And Mass Observation itself is still with us, sending out directives to a panel of writers whose responses help to give insights into everyday life today.