Presentation for the Festival of Worktown, 14 July 2020.
Bolton is known as Worktown but apart from in the Library and that mural at the back of the Sweet Green Tavern, Bolton has not really celebrated Worktown.
And what many people know about it is:
- All the records are all in Sussex
- The Bolton Study was a bunch of toffs coming to Bolton to snoop
This is strange as the Mass Observation Study was not only ground breaking anthropology but offers a more detailed idea of a town in the late 1930s than anywhere else in Britain.
During the Bill Naughton Festival in 2017/18 Live from Worktown had a look at Bill’s volunteering with MO. We discovered the names of around 100 volunteers – many from the affluent south, Oxbridge students etc.
But we also discovered that at least thirty of these volunteers and helpers were from Bolton, working class and many unemployed.
we decided to find out more and gathered together a small group of six people to find out – but that dratted virus got in the way. So here we report on where we got to and issue a plea for others to help us find more about these people. We are concentrating on four questions:
- Who were they and why did they volunteer?
- What did they do?
- How did they get on with the outsiders?
- What happened to them?
To save time here we have uploaded a list of the local MO volunteers and our findings so far onto the Live from Worktown website, livefromworktown.org.
Who were they and why did they volunteer?’
A bit of background to begin with. In 1936 Baldwin’s Conservative Government was austerity ‘max’ and the depression was only just easing – Bolton had 14,000 unemployed. 1936 revealed Hitler’s military ambitions, Mussolini conquered Abyssinia and Britain remained neutral in the face of Franco’s rebellion against the Spanish republic. In the face of international turmoil the politics of extremes were popular: The Communist Party and its offshoot, the National Unemployed Workers Movement, the Peace Pledge Union and the British Union of Facsists all had active groups in Bolton.
The first people Harrisson seems to have been in touch with in Bolton in August or September 1936 were Albert Smith and ‘Jack’…Jack Fagan?
Albert Smith and Bolton Peace Week
Albert Smith says he suggested Bolton as the site for Harrisson’s investigation. Albert’s dad was an insurance salesman, and young Albert got a scholarship to Jesus College, Oxford, where sometime, somehow he met Harrisson. Harrisson lived there for a while though was never a student there. In 1936 Albert was a Workers Educational Association tutor in Bolton: a difficult, strong-minded pacifist and anarchist with a bit of a stammer who sometimes wore plus fours.
Harrisson arrived in Bolton and stayed in the Lever Arms pub on Nelson Square. He went to Albert’s WEA class for unemployed men. Here it was he met Tom Honeyford, Ernie Luetchford, Peter Jackson, Tom Binks, all later contributors to MO.
But a key catalyst had already taken place: Bolton Peace Week, a series of rallies, speeches and performances between 21 – 27 September 1936. Peace Weeks became a feature of public life for a year or so, but Bolton’s was probably the very first in Britain.
Phil Harker (secretary), Jack Fagan (Marshall), Brian O’Hara, Harold Shaw and Peter Jackson were all on the organising committee along with Albert Smith who wrote the pamphlet for BPW with the Director of Education.
The Networks of Local Connections
So some who became MO volunteers knew each other already. And there are other, significant, connections between locals who became MO volunteers. Many of the local MO volunteers were linked political groupings, such as:
Labour Party - Joe Darbishire, Jack Fagan, Eric and Alice Bennett and Brian O’Hara were active – Eric and Brian were candidates for municipal elections in 1938: Bill Rigby helped by canvassing for them, as did Walter Hood, one of the outside ‘paid’ observers. Jack Fagan was on the Labour Executive and in November 1937 offered to get Harrisson 20 volunteers who could ‘keep their mouths shut’.
Eric Bennett, an NUR official was on Bolton Trades Council
Jack Fagan, Phil Harker, John Bright (the Unitarian minister associated with MO) Brian O’Hara and Councillor Farrington went to the inaugural meeting of the Left Book Club. Brian became chairman with an office at 7, Churchgate.
In the 1930s The WEA Council included Councillor Farrington, Albert Smith and Mr James Banks (Editor of the Labour newspaper the Bolton Citizen which Clarice Banks, his daughter-in-law and Brian O’Hara wrote for),
Peter Jackson volunteered for the Bolton Unemployed Welfare Association, and his signing on times were adjusted to help him in this activity.
Jack Fagan and Harold Smith ran a series of talks about Socialism at the Socialist Club, at which the WEA and Bolton Chess Club met, of which Brian O’Hara was a prominent member.
Harold Shaw and Harry Gordon were both in the local Anti-Fascist Committee.
Phil Harker left to join the International Brigade in Spain but returned to volunteer for MO in 1937.
Phil Harker, Harry Gordon and Jack Fagan were ex-Communist Party members
People like Ernie Luetchford, Bill Naughton, Leslie Taylor appear not to been affiliated to this political network, but there were more workaday connections between local volunteers.
- David Bee who helped with the Pub and the People was Peter Jackson’s brother-in-law.
- Tom Binks lived in the same road as Alice Foley, who was on the WEA council and a senior figure in the Weaver’s Union.
- Peter Jackson and Jack Fagan had lived in the same street in the past.
- Bill Naughton was Jack Fagan’s brother-in-law: his wife Annie, being Jack’s wife Jo’s older sister.
MO Headquarters was 85 Davenport Street and:
- Harold Shaw lived at 69, a few doors down,
- The Duckworths lived next to Harold at 67. Father Ernest, mother Constance, Sheila (born in 1927) and little Tommy (born in 1936) were the source of scores of comments, interviews and observations between 1937 and 1940.
- John Biss Shaw, whose funeral was photographed by Humphrey Spender, lived at 73.
- Alice Mayoh, housekeeper at 85, lived with her husband Frank over the road at 76 (or it may have been Lily Mayoh at 84).
- Tom Hadfield, a warehouseman credited with helping with the Pub and the People had earlier lived with his mum and dad at 82.
- Tom Honeyford, who lived in Walkden, had in-laws at 301 Vernon Street, just round the corner from Davenport Street
- Ernie Leutchford’s parents-in-law lived in Snowden Street just over the road from Davenport Street.
- Bill Naughton was said to deliver coal to Davenport Street.
- Louie Boon (Bob Davies’ partner and at the core of Bolton CP), delivered newspapers to 85.
- Peter Jackson, Jack Fagan and Phil Harker lived within five or ten minutes walk from 85 Davenport Street. Later Joyce Mangnall lived in Fleet Street a street or so away from Jack Fagan and Peter Jackson.
One oddity is that of the CP members – Bob Davies, Louie Boon and Harold Shaw, although on the edges of MO activity never got directly involved. Louis Boon said she didn’t agree with some of what MO did and didn't like their attitude to women. Whereas people who had been CP members but had left, like Harry Gordon, Phil Harker and Jack Fagan, did get involved. Was MO seen by the CP as a distraction from the purity of their cause?
Motivation of the local volunteers
So motivation? This included several themes:
- MO was something to do for unemployed people.
- Harrisson charmed people and promised great things.
- People involved were often not wholly committed to society’s status quo – this included people with left wing views or seduced by the avant-garde nature of MO.
- Volunteering was something different, a lark, a change from the daily grind.
- Many of the people involved were already involved in political work and were what we would call ‘activists’…
- …and MO could be seen as sympathetic to other work they were involved in.
- Although MO was a strange idea, involving people they might be uncertain about (intellectuals, artists, toffs) many locals got involved in MO alongside people they knew: colleagues and friends.
These motivational themes match pretty closely the motivations of the outsider observers as well.
What did they do and How did they get on with the outsider volunteers?
Harrisson’s view was that observers ‘are trained to observe and record on the spot without being noticed: not a stranger, a participant’. Dennis Chapman dismissed this as naïve, suggesting that outside affluent observers were seen as ‘other’, sometimes tolerated, sometimes rejected.
And the difference between outsiders Worktowners was often obvious.
- Sheila Fox had a sports car, an unheard of luxury.
- Humphrey Spender said no one understood his accent and he found Bolton ‘quite menacing’.
- Julian Trevelyan, surrealist artist referred to Mrs Mayoh the housekeeper as ‘old crone’.
- Artists William Coldstream and Graham Bell were appalled by Bolton: small, undistinguished, awful food, terrible smell, stupid people.
And attitudes by some of the outsiders to the locals was not the best:
- Harry Gordon, was used as a translator and introduced local people to observers – but sometimes having introduced people he was not allowed to remain involved in the discussion.
- Joyce Mangnall did interviews and introduced people but seems to have been used mostly as a cook.
- Studies of MO often pay little attention to the local volunteers. Ernie Luetchford for instance, a rough and ready local volunteer with an eye for detail and impressive descriptive skills is referred to as Eric Letchford in two recent books, The Mass Observers by James Hinton and David Hall’s
Yet Bill Naughton and Harry Gordon said they loved talking to the outsiders – people the like of which they had never met before. Bill Rigby palled up with Gertrud Wagner. Walter Hood and Ernie got friendly. And there were positive relationships between those at 85 and Davenport Street neighbours and several sexual relationships developed between outsiders and locals.
Local Volunteers’ contribution
A key and often unregarded feature of local volunteers contribution is that they were the silent machinery that kept it all going. They:
- acted as guides around town,
- advised new observers where to go and where not to go,
- introduced people to MO and vice-versa,
- offered contacts,
- made connections,
So people who did not do many observations like Joyce Mangnall, Harry Gordon and Bill Naughton may have been as crucial to the project as active observers. Jack Fagan did everything - offered connections, did observations and was ‘observed’ himself when Harrisson recorded discussions with him.
But the observation reports were the purpose of the project. Many locals observed. And remember two of the long-term outsiders who were at Davenport Street for a long time were no different from the locals. Of the original ‘live in’ outside observers, Walter Hood and Joe Wilcock were both from working class backgrounds (and John Sommerfield had done a range of manual jobs). The other two original ‘full timers’ were local men Leslie Taylor and Eric Bennett. And the next most prolific observers were not the Oxbridge types, but people like Ernie Luetchford, Peter Jackson and Tom Binks.
Going through the reports it becomes clear that a majority of observers’ reports were written by people from a working-class background.
It could be no other way really as most outsiders were in Bolton for a few weeks, or a few days if they didn't like it. Some of the locals were around for years and became very adept at observing.
Several of Ernie Luetchford’s observations were about things that happened in front of him rather than being planned observations: such as the bloke in his local, the Trafalgar, calling Bolton Wanderers players cissies and Ernie’s account of a doorstep altercation in Vernon Street.
And opportunism was always a key part of the Bolton study:
- Three observers were sent one day to note all that went on in one street for 18 hours. Which street? Davenport Street.
- And for several weeks in 1939 a 300-yard stretch of a main road in Bolton was studied and everyone along it interviewed. Where? Higher Bridge Street which was two minutes-walk from Davenport Street.
But the opportunism was more intrusive than that:
- Harrisson reported several conversations with Jack Fagan about a number of topics.
- Walter Hood visited Ernie Luetchford’s family for Sunday High Tea and recorded that.
- Gertrud Wagner reported a shopping ‘follow’ of the housekeeper Mrs Mayoh.
- Joe Darbyshire was interviewed about poverty.
- Peter Jackson, Bill Rigby and Tom Honeyford wrote long pieces about their experiences – respectively ‘a brush with the bureaucrats’, ‘a day in the life’ and ‘his life story’.
- Eric Bennet wrote up his discussions with his wife about planning their holiday budget
So some of the locals straddled the observational fence, finding themselves on both sides. What must that have felt like?
Although Harrisson was committed to there being no other life at Davenport Street than MO, people did get on with other things. Joe Wilcock and Walter Hood for instance got involved actively in fund raising for the Basque children staying at Watermillock and Walter Hood’s activities in the Labour Party, canvassing at elections, was no front.
Also with a house overwhelmingly populated by young men there was a lot of talk about women and some sexual adventure.
Denis Chapman and Joyce Mangnall had an affair…
…as did Bill Naughton and Gertrud Wagner.
Walter Hood seemed to pick up local women regularly.
Brian Allwood got himself a local girlfriend.
Alex Hughes married local observer Annie Barlow.
Alex and Annie’s relationship blossomed in 39/40, when the Bolton work concentrated on war rumours and people’s morale - fulfilling a contract Harrisson had secured from the government. A huge number of counts and comments was required, from Brian Allwood, Geoffrey Taylor and Alex Hughes, the three young men at Davenport Street for the last few months. But this required less subterfuge because the MO boys were going through the same as everybody else, same rationing, use of the same air raid shelter at the Spinner’s Hall, hearing the same rumours. They did street counts and interviews but comment and rumour passed on by the Duckworths and Mayohs abound – one ironic rumour from Constance Duckworth in July 1940, was about Albert Smith, being confronted by a policeman as he had no ID card. He was taken for a spy! And there was Jack Fagan, still observing. In July 1940 he reported a strange incident in Queen’s Park when two men and a woman were reported to be up a tree taking photographs of the gas works over the road.
What happened to them afterwards?
Leslie Taylor and Eric Bennett followed Harrisson to London…but what then? There are two notable features of what happened next:
Conscientious Objectors: Once war came in September 1939 some men and women did not want to be involved. Jack Fagan, Bill Naughton, Tom Binks and Albert Smith all became Conscientious Objectors. Jack was sent to work in agriculture, then trams, Bill became a civil defence driver, Tom, and his wife Alice, worked on the land but were sent to prison for 28 days as a result of a breach. Albert so irritated the magistrates with his refusal to do anything that he was sent down for 12 months.
WEA Council: During the war too, Tom Binks, Jack Fagan, Peter Jackson and a Miss Duckworth (Sheila?) joined the WEA Council, which of course Albert Smith was already involved with.
And then later:
Joyce Mangnell worked some time at the Royal Ordnance factor in Chorley with her husband and in 1950 emigrated to Melbourne Australia where she took up either nursing or social work.
Albert Smith fell out with Harrisson very early, but that didn’t stop his activism. He was involved with Tom Binks in 1938 in setting up an invitation to Jomo Kenyatta, a young firebrand African Nationalist, to speak in Bolton. This was advertised in the BEN but no account of the speech followed – all a bit too anti-colonialist for an establishment newspaper no doubt.
After the war he worked as a librarian in Wales for a while but then - and we don't know where the money came from - he bought the old Eden Orphanage in Astley Bridge. He set up a school there and then established the ISIS Housing Association. At first Albert wanted houses built around community kitchens and laundry – communal ideas more in line with the Edwardian Garden City movement than the individualism of the 1970s
Brian O’Hara became a Labour Councillor, Chair of the Socialist Club and stalwart of Bolton Chess Club.
Bill Naughton and Gertrud Wagner had two children together, Barney and Michael, but in 1948 Gertrud went to back to Austria, taking the boys with her. She was replaced in Bill’s affections by a younger Austrian woman Erna Pirold. Bill got himself published in 1945 and hit the big time in the early 1960s when his pal Bernard Miles put on three of his plays at the Mermaid theatre. All three transferred to the West End. He never, as far as we can tell, publically acknowledged the influence of his Worktown experience – it obviously did influence him, but like his affair with Gertie he kept quiet about it.
But what about the others? Leslie Taylor, Eric Bennett, Peter Jackson, the Luetchford family, the Duckworths, Rita and the rest.
And most intriguing must be the fellow who represents the strongest thread that tied together so much of the local commitment to MO, the man who was involved from beginning to end, Jack Fagan. What happened to him?
Dick Perkins and Dave Burnham, Live from Worktown, July 2020