The Astonishing Story of the Project that launched Mass Observation
By David Hall
The astonishing story of the 1930s project that gave birth to Mass Observation
The astonishing story of the project that launched Mass Observation
In the late 1930s the Lancashire town of Bolton witnessed a ground-breaking social experiment. Over three years, a team of ninety observers recorded, in painstaking detail, the everyday lives of ordinary working people at work and play - in the pub, dance hall, factory and on holiday. Their aim was to create an 'anthropology of ourselves'. The first of its kind, it later grew into the Mass Observation movement that proved so crucial to our understanding of public opinion in future generations.
The project attracted a cast of larger-than-life characters, not least its founders, the charismatic and unconventional anthropologist Tom Harrisson and the surrealist intellectuals Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. They were joined by a disparate band of men and women - students, artists, writers and photographers, unemployed workers and local volunteers - who worked tirelessly to turn the idle pleasure of people-watching into a science.
Drawing on their vivid reports, photographs and first-hand sources, David Hall relates the extraordinary story of this eccentric, short-lived, but hugely influential project. Along the way, he creates a richly detailed, fascinating portrait of a lost chapter of British social history, and of the life of an industrial northern town before the world changed for ever.
Published in partnership with the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, which holds the papers of the British social research organisation Mass Observation from 1937 to the early 1950s, as well as new material collected continuously since 1981 about everyday life in Britain.
David Hall is a bestselling writer and TV producer. He has produced landmark documentaries and factual series for the BBC, Channel 4, PBS, Discovery, the History Channel and the Travel Channel. He is the author of MANCHESTER'S FINEST, an account of life in Manchester in the aftermath of the deaths of the Busby Babes in the Munich air disaster, and WORKING LIVES, which captures the forgotten voices of Britain's post-war working class.
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- Publication date:
13 Aug 2015
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A great read — Oscar Quine, THE INDEPENDENT
The book details how 90 observers (usually upper-class Oxbridge types), recorded minute details of everyday life, and how [Tom Harrisson's] experiment grew into the wider Mass Observation study. The social history is fascinating and class issues run throughout the book. A timely, readable reminder that while everything changes, everything also stays the same — GLASGOW HERALD
Hall's depiction of Harrisson's eccentricities is enthralling... there is much to enjoy - and plenty of contemporary resonance in an age when internet giants are collecting information about our tastes and habits — Francis Wheen, THE MAIL ON SUNDAY
lively and accessible — Peter Clarke, FINANCIAL TIMES
Drawing on vivid reports, photographs and first-hand sources (very little of which has ever been previously published) David Hall relates the extraordinary story of this eccentric and short lived but hugely influential project. He creates a detailed and fascinating portrait of a lost chapter of British social history and of the life of Bolton before the world would change forever. The photographs of Humphrey Spender are used in this fascinating book (these, of course are held by Bolton's Library and Museum Services) and they help to show how mass observation (from 1937 to the early 1950s as well as new material collected continuously since 1981) can tell us so much about our town and its people — Gail McBain, THE BOLTON NEWS
Highly readable, anecdote-rich history — Kevin Jackson, GUARDIAN
David Hall charts the first phase of the groundbreaking Mass-Observation project that examined working class life in Bolton... Including evocative photographs and stories from residents, the author takes us on a journey back to the 1930s and introduces us to life at street level. This fascinating and readable book throws light on the lives of many of our pre-WW2 relatives. — Amanda Randall, FAMILY TREE MAGAZINE