Mass Observation came to Bolton in 1937 to study the everyday life of its working class people. Defining itself as anthropological fieldwork, the “Worktown” project was interested in social behaviour, work, religion, customs and leisure. Tom Harrisson, the leader of the Worktown study, insisted the investigation should be scientific and as objective as possible. Harrisson had hoped to use film and sound recording in the collection of data but this did not come about. Instead, observers simply wrote what they heard, eaves-dropping on conversations in public places while remaining hidden. These conversations are now documented in the Worktown archive and are of major importance to our knowledge of Lancashire dialect as spoken in inter-war Bolton, the principal cotton spinning town of South Lancashire.
Dialect was crucial to identity; familiarity in its use was important to a sense of belonging. It marked the social and cultural gap between the working -class Harrisson wished to study, without its permission, and his own identity as a public school educated Oxbridge drop-out. With foresight, Harrisson engaged a number of Bolton observers to help those recruited from the south of England in understanding the Bolton dialect and accent. Humphrey Spender, the Worktown photographer, for example, struggled to understand the people, noting that “To me their language and accent was foreign. For me to go into a north country pub, and really speaking a completely different language, to be a kind of ‘hail fellow well met’ person was embarrassing.”
However a number of other observers displayed great proficiency in the transliteration of speech to written word. While dialect permeates the archive, there are sections in which conversation dominated and in which the environment was conducive to recording. Observations of sport – especially football, crown green bowling and rounders and all-in wrestling give insight to the language of spectators. The records of Boltonians on holiday are heard in the boxes devoted to Blackpool, beginning with the train journey to the shore. Pub conversations are found in the single book to emanate from the Worktown study, The Pub and the People.
When Mass Observation re-visited Bolton in 1960 it recorded that no voice change could be detected between then and 1937.
Dr. Robert Snape, Emeritus Professor, University of Bolton & Founder of the Centre for Worktown Studies