Worktown by David Hall, book review: Story of Mass Observation experiment misses social bias

Hall's book tells the story of the birth of Mass Observation, which gauges the public's mood and their attitudes towards current affairs

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The Independent Culture

I spent the summer of my graduation assisting a professor at the University of Sussex. Day after day, I sat in a side room on the first floor of the library that housed the Mass Observation (MO) archive. As sun poured, intermittently, through the window, I leafed through piles of papers, marked with different handwriting. The pages bore responses to different questionnaires (known as "directives") sent out by the MO project to a few thousand volunteers across the country. Still going strong, MO sticks to the brief on which it was founded in 1937: to gauge the public's mood and their attitudes towards current affairs.

Worktown by David Hall tells the story of the birth of MO. In the late 1930s, Bolton became the site of an astonishing social experiment. Ninety "observers" descended on the past-its-best mill town. For three years, they lived among its inhabitants and recorded the minutiae of their daily lives. The project leader, Tom Harrison, dubbed the endeavour "the Worktown project" and, to ensure an "objective" record, he instructed observers to note everything. The length of time it took a pub-goer to finish his pint was recorded, as was the number of bald men in the upper gallery of a cinema and the fact that five of the brunettes wore flowered dresses to a dance and four wore green.

Harrison was the bolder of the two architects of the nascent MO, the other being Charles Madge. Both were public school Oxbridge types. But while Madge was an introvert who coordinated the project from his home in Blackheath, Harrison was the project's charming, heavy-drinking and mercurial man on the ground. When it came to observing, he had good pedigree. A keen ornithologist, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge before dropping out and spending 18 months in the South Pacific with indigenous tribes.

Hall does a good job of telling the human story behind the project and gives good treatment to its interplay with the wider tumultuous context: the abdication of Edward VIII, Hitler's march across Europe and the Spanish Civil War. But this being English social history, the central story is one of class – one with which Hall never quite gets to grips.

He makes a virtue of early survey responses from the Bolton residents. "On the other side of my pair of mules is a side-piecer who is spinning temporarily," records one respondent. "He called to me in bantering tones 'Where shall I see you tonight and I'll buy you a drink?'" Through the terminology, you can almost smell the oil and cotton on the looms. Hall treats these accounts with a deft hand. As I know from that summer in the library, there can be an awful lot of chaff between the wheat.

Each chapter is structured around these two strands: Hall thematically unpicks the remarkably untapped social history of the Bolton responses while telling the story of those overseeing the project. Frustratingly though, he rarely interrogates the relationship between the two that lay at the crux of the project. Harrison was unbending in his conviction that the observers could record an objective view of working-class life. However, the project was often criticised as the upper-middle classes using the lower-middle classes to spy on the working classes.

The directives issued by Madge from Blackheath and the observations of Harrison's team were undoubtedly flavoured by both the titillation of class transgression and the left-leaning politics of most involved. Hall notes the common backgrounds of those behind MO but then fails to reappraise the body of work they curated. How were questions set? What prejudices did their choice of language betray? On what did they focus and what did they ignore?

Worktown is a great read. But in failing to recognise Harrison and Madge's claims of objectivity as preposterous, Hall misses a trick. Had he questioned the intent of this gilded elite in putting beneath their microscope the working class of Bolton, he may have also made an important contribution to the canon of social history.