It was two weeks into lockdown 1.0 when it happened. As my doom scrolling offered nothing but banana bread and the latest grim statistics, I, like many others, was hit by a new strand of FOMO – a fear of not having something to show for it all.
Naturally, I set out to trace my family history. One of the ways Ancestry (other genealogy services are available) lets you do this is through digital census reports. By compiling names, dates, occupations and street addresses, you can, in theory, collect genealogical cookie crumbs left behind by your ancestors to join the dots and reconstruct their life stories.
Safe to say this proved immensely difficult and nowhere near as straightforward as their slick advertising would have me believe. But in the end, by persevering long enough to make my free trial worth it, I managed to climb past the Baby Boomers and found myself deep in Lost Generation territory. As it turned out, my great-great-great grandparents were very busy people.
I’ve always been interested in what records, censuses and ‘arbitrary’ observations can tell us about individuals and their communities. All of this might help explain my fascination with the late Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, as well as my eagerness as a naive oral history interviewer while at university, armed with nothing but a tape recorder and a list of Sheffield pensioners with a tale or two.
But seeing as it’s World Book Day tomorrow (big shout out to our favourites, News From Nowhere) now’s a good time more than ever to indulge in a book that has stayed with me since the day I put it down—Worktown by David Hall, which recounts the story of a short-lived social research project that went on to inspire a whole movement in Mass-Observation.
One of the largest investigations into British popular culture during the twentieth century, Mass-Observation set out to record the habits and daily routines of the nation—to construct a new science of ourselves and the everyday lives of working people.
Published in 2015, Worktown recalls one of Mass-Observation’s first and most celebrated projects: a 1939 community study of Bolton, Lancashire’s prized cotton town. Led by anthropologist Tom Harrison, the team of voluntary Mass-Observers ventured into Bolton’s pubs, churches, dance halls and cotton mills and began recording everything and anything about the lives who occupied each space—from conversations and hand gestures to how long it took someone to down a pint. If they were to understand the lives of their subjects, then every minute detail mattered.
Worktown is the story not only of the men and women who made up the study, but the army of volunteers driving it forward. Drawing on their reports, photographs and first-hand accounts, Hall paints a picture of a project that aimed to bring attention to the culture of the masses.
As the book explains, Worktown was both a product of the Documentary Movement times—sitting along the likes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier—and ahead, placing itself as the vanguard of emerging disciplines of market research, opinion polling and sociology.
Just like my own ancestors’ records, the sixty-five boxes containing Mass-Observations’ written records and some 850 photographs are now stored away in a faraway archive—waiting to be uncovered by those interested in the lives of others during a time of social, political and cultural upheavals.
Browse The Collection Here