Mass Observation Worktown Study, Bolton History Centre, Bolton Central Library, Wartime (Reel 47, Box 64A)
Spy Incident, May 1940, Halliwell Road
This Spy incident took place on 29th May 1940, when the war had, after eight months, at last become deadly serious. After the incident the three young MO volunteers each wrote separate accounts. This triangulation created a comprehensive picture of what happened.
One morning all three of the young men living at 85 Davenport Street were out interviewing. Brian Allwood was 19, while Geoffrey Thomas and Alec Hughes were in their early twenties. (on 13 Jan Davenport Street residents were Taylor, Hughes, Jack Cornhill and Henry Novy. There’d been a change since then). MO was gathering information about behaviour of people in wartime for the ministry of Information. They interviewed people directly, just asking a couple of questions about people’s views of the war. Their target was morale, rumour and so on.
They were around Halliwell Road at around 11 am in the morning, near Virgil Street, half a mile or so from Davenport Street. They had been openly interviewing people on the street, taking notes – basically asking people what they thought of the war. The date is significant – 29 May 1940. The evacuation from Dunkirk was in full swing, but that was not generally known. What was known was that the Wehrmacht had pushed into France, Belgium and Holland from 10th May sending French and British forces reeling back. The atmosphere across Britain was tense. The incident started when one of the women (one of a group of women) they talked to shouted out, ‘you’re asking me who’ll win? We’ll win! Rule Britannia! Rule Britannia!’ Another woman called out, ‘don't tell him anything, he’s a spy’. There was some talk about spies from another woman. After this GT and BA continued on their way walking up Halliwell Road. AH was a little behind walking on the other side of the road. GT and BA heard a shout behind them, but did not turn as they did not think it could be for them. Immediately afterwards a burly man in a brown suit (though AH said it was green) came up behind them and grabbed both GT and BA by the arm. ‘You’re coming with me’, he said, ‘You’re enemies of the country’. GT was incensed and argued back. The besuited man said GT would end up under the clock (i.e. in police custody, as the cells had been at the foot of the Town Hall clock tower) and threatened to knock GT’s block off. GT said he would knock the man’s head off first, while at the same time wondering if he could do that. A crowd gathered around the group and AH who had been over the road crossed over to join it. More people gathered round including a group of workmen from up the road.
The man in the suit went over the road to make a telephone call, to the police presumably – GT had said that would be the best thing. But as he left he told a group of workmen, ‘don't let them get away’. AH asked the workmen who the man was and they told AH he was their boss. He ran a building site down the road. While they refused to tell the boys the man’s name they did say he’d arrest the king if he had the chance and were quite friendly towards the boys. Just then a red Coca Cola lorry pulled up. A policeman got out and said, ‘what's the matter? Has a bomb dropped?’
One woman walked up to the group and asked GT ‘et tu Belge?’. GT said he wasn’t. She then said ‘You are English?’ ‘Of course’, replied GT. The woman turned on her heel and walked off. Over the road from the altercation was an air raid post. The warden in the post came over and intervened. He said he knew Alec because he used to live at 99 Davenport Street (Arnold McMillan?). Then a special constable arrived and soon afterwards two detectives, dressed in grey macs and bowler hats (or felt hats in another Observer’s account. One of the Observer’s accounts referred to them as ‘dicks’). They took charge, asked the boys their age, which they told them and showed the detectives their Identity cards and MO cards, with which the detectives seemed to be satisfied. People asked the young Observers if they were from BIPO (the British Institute of Public Opinion, a national polling organisation), and of course they said no but that MO was something similar. Even after it was becoming clearer to people who the boys were one of the women carried on shouting and the warden threatened to have her arrested unless she shut up. Another woman told the police she was suspicious of her neighbour who was a ‘Bolshie’ and worked at the secret Euxton shell filling factory. (not unlikely that someone in Bolton would work in Chorley – a few stops away on the train – thousands of people worked there).
To get out of the noise GT suggested they retreat to the Warden’s hut, which they did and the detectives were quite friendly. GT complained about the man in the suit’s rudeness. The detectives said ‘people are nervous’. Once the two detectives were satisfied, and quite friendly they urged GT, BA and AH to leave one by one, so as to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. But when they left there were very few people still there. They walked down the road, passing the first policeman who said ‘Good day’. On reaching Higher Bridge Street they turned right to go towards Davenport Street.
Each writing a separate account confirmed that we each see things slightly differently. However the three young men agreed that people’s calmness was shallow and it did not take much for the jitters to breach the surface. As information was in short supply, rumour ruled and spy scares were not uncommon. Here’s a tale told by Jack Fagan (Reel 47, Box 64a, 10 November 1940, during the Blitz)
A woman became suspicious of a woman and two men in Queen’s Park. She could not find a park keeper so called the police who arrived and arrested a woman and two men who were up a tree taking photographs of the gas works over Spa Road.
One of the consequences of the silly and/or dangerous rumours and spy scares was a decision by the BBC to only broadcast the truth. That which the government wanted to keep secret was not broadcast, but lies about bad news were not told.
Dave Burnham, for Live from Worktown