Worktown: 75 years on – Anniversary Exhibition

How many pints of beer did the average person in Bolton drink a night in 1937?

An exhibition in Bolton to mark the 75th anniversary of the Mass Observation Worktown project will provide a snapshot of pre-war life, including the average number of pints drunk on different nights of the week.

Bolton Museum will host a special anniversary exhibition marking the start of the 1937 research project from Saturday, September 22 to Saturday, December 1.

Mass Observation was founded in the late 1930s by a group of young writers and intellectuals, led by Tom Harrisson. They believed that British society was deeply divided, with very little understanding or consideration given to the lives and opinions of ordinary people.

The first focused study carried out by Mass Observation began in 1937 in Bolton, which they called Worktown.

Bolton was chosen as a ‘typical’ northern working class town, and Harrisson recruited a team of men and women who tried to capture a vast range of information about the local population using observation techniques.

Drawing upon its own Worktown collections, especially the world famous photographs taken by Humphrey Spender, the museum has also brought together key loans, including items from the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex.

The exhibition will include selections from more than 850 photographs, which offer a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary people living and working in pre-war Bolton. They candidly capture people going about their daily lives, visiting local pubs, the theatre, parks and public spaces, as well as going on trips to Blackpool, known as Holidaytown.

The exhibition also features photographs and paintings by Julian Trevelyan and Humphrey Jennings, as well as observations made by people such as Bill Naughton, who later went on to become an award-winning playwright.

Other artefacts in the exhibition include the original suitcase filled with magazine and newspaper cuttings used by Julian Trevelyan to create collages in Bolton streets, as well as Humphrey Spender’s camera which was used for the majority of the photographs in the exhibition.

Bolton Council’s Cabinet Member for Culture, Councillor Chris Peacock, said: “The Worktown project is a fascinating collection of photos, diaries and paintings which captured a specific time in Bolton’s history. It recorded in great detail how people worked, ate and lived, even their political and religious beliefs and how they spent their leisure time.

“It is a really important collection both for Bolton and also for social historians across the country. We hope that people will come along, both from the local area and also from across the UK, to see how people used to live and to help us identify some of the people and places featured in the photos.”

The exhibition, which has been curated by Caroline Edge, a PhD research student at the University of Bolton, will be organised into themes including Davenport Street (the street in which the Worktown project was set up), leisure, politics, religion, work, art and holidays.

Dr Bob Snape, Head of the University’s Centre for Worktown Studies, said: “This exhibition is a fitting celebration of the 75th anniversary of Mass Observation’s Worktown project. There is growing national and international interest in the project and this exhibition should attract many people to Bolton.”

A special preview evening will be held at the museum on Friday September 21, for invited guests and attended by the Mayor of Bolton, Councillor Guy Harkin.

To coincide with the exhibition, Bolton Museum is also launching a new website www.boltonworktown.co.uk which will include all the photographs from the collection for the first time.

Images will be linked to maps of Bolton and visitors to the site will be encouraged to help identify places and people.

A Facebook campaign conducted by the museum has already resulted in a number of corrections being made to the archive. Bolton people were asked to help identify locations and individuals.

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