The Trivial of Today: Tom Harrisson’s Mass-Observation in Bolton, 1937

An Anthropology of Ourselves

The blowpipe kills silently. The darts used in Borneo generally utilize the latex of the Antiaris Toxicaria tree for their poison, [beta]-Antiarin, and they are so toxic that a lethal dose for the average Japanese man would be just 0.68ml. The Allied Borneo campaign of the Second World War was orchestrated by the British to reclaim the strategically located and oil-rich island of Borneo in the South West Pacific and, by recruiting the Borneans to fight, to defeat the Japanese occupation for good. If the one thousand Japanese soldiers who died in the allied assault of 1945–47 weren’t killed by blowpipe, they may have been head-hunted — a brutal practice encouraged by British second lieutenant Tom Harrisson, who parachuted onto the island as part of a reconnaissance mission. Harrisson’s military commission was justified by his intimate knowledge of the island and the good relationship he kept with its inhabitants after an earlier anthropological project there beginning in 1932. In the war, he encouraged his troops to immerse themselves into the island, to live off the land, eat natural food and use natural medicines, to go barefoot as the natives did; to assimilate, integrate, and adapt. Eight years earlier in 1937, ‘The Barefoot Anthropologist’ Tom Harrisson had used these methods of immersion in a British anthropological project named Mass-Observation — a project he shared with the poet Charles Madge and the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings.

The Mass-Observation (M-O) project’s aim was to gather information about the public. Starting from its epicentres in Lancashire and London, it has since spiralled outwards into the wider country. M-O’s method of recruiting hundreds of untrained volunteers who kept diaries, conducted surveys, captured photographs, and engaged in surreptitious surveillance, was instrumental in forming a new broad administrative-bureaucratic apparatus, through which today’s approaches to social classification were made possible. In 1940, to Charles Madge’s final and conclusive dismay, Harrisson decided to affiliate the project with the Home Intelligence Department of Information — a government body interested in monitoring civilian morale during the war — and this made it clear there was a palpable political value in recording the behavioural patterns of a populace. M-O’s research methods are reminiscent of what Bruno Latour calls oligoptica, wherein a macro-social phenomenon might be analysed by looking at lots of overlapping, narrow viewpoints, and combining them to make a fuller picture. M-O’s founders and collaborators had considerable success with this new approach and published a number of titles such as: The Pub & The People (1943), War Begins at Home (1940), and Living Through the Blitz (1976) as well as several commissioned books containing material from the diaries kept by M-O’s observers. The Mass-Observation archives are housed at The Keep at the University of Sussex in Brighton, and this text is focussed on the Worktown material from its first year of action in 1937, before the involvement of the Ministry of Information.

Before the outset of the Second World War, Harrisson set up his home and base at 85 Davenport Street for a project of his own in the industrial town of Bolton — or as he called it, ‘Worktown’ — utilizing the anthropological skills he had learnt from his preliminary work in Borneo. His purpose was to amass a record of public opinion. He was interested in local perspectives towards national events, like King Edward’s abdication and the influx of Spanish refugees as well as local life in general, recording everything from living standards, industry, religious practices, political rallies, and suppin’ gills o’ mild in’t’pub. It was in Bolton that he came across Charles Madge’s manifesto in the New Statesman, published on the 30 January 1937. It called for poets, artists, and filmmakers to get involved in his project named Mass-Observation, a project with a basis similar to his own. Harrisson saw value in the potential of collaboration, but through their meetings he became aware that his approach was quite different to Madge’s. Harrisson was also an ornithologist — he published Birds of the Harrow District 1925–1930 in 1931 — and he chose to transfer his skills of detached and surreptitious observation into the realm of anthropology. Far better to ingratiate yourself into a place and allow things to naturally play out in front of you. Keep as quiet as you can.

Madge and Jennings looked upon the exercise less pragmatically, taking their inspiration from surrealist aesthetic practices. They saw beauty in the coincidences of life, in participation, and, crucially, the consensual involvement of their subjects. Madge commented on the ontological status of facts that, ‘we “know” [them] in a limited way: they necessarily involve a personal component’. His ideas about the value of subjective experience in the documentation of history radically disposed of the notion of the ‘objective’ expert. Madge recruited thirty volunteers from his home in Blackheath, London, to keep diaries recording their experiences on the twelfth of each month named ‘Day-Surveys’. Harrisson was never convinced of the efficacy of the Day-Surveys; his imperiousness catalysed his feelings that ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ would have to involve direct firsthand recordings of the working class, and saw value in:

watching what people do when they don’t realise they are being observed, as opposed to ringing their doorbells to read out a list of questions in an Oxbridge accent.

Many of Harrisson’s English-born team of volunteers were young artists and intellectuals, middle class, and socialist. At this time, the British working class was the focus of much enticing and sympathetic art and literature. John Grierson’s documentary films, as part of the growing British Documentary Movement, captured the living standards and work routines of labourers. His 1929 film Drifters follows herring fisherman in the hellish North Sea for eighty minutes — without voiceover — and his veneration of the working class was seen to usher in a new age of documentary films as filmmakers assumed political positions in their choice of subject matter and their choice of subjects. Later, in the 1930s, Grierson became the film officer of the General Post Office Film Unita government proposition to unite the country and oversaw the creation of a revolutionary kind of documentary film. The ability to record speech on-location allowed filmmakers to give a voice to their underprivileged subjects. Edgar Anstey and Arthur Elton’s 1935 film about the horrifying slums of the East End, named Housing Problems, was produced under Grierson, and features interviews with local residents, one complaining in her Cockney sociolect that the ‘vermin in the walls is wicked’. Much of the country had never seen such such gruelling drudgery on film, especially with ‘original’ actors ‘taken from the raw’.

The Spanish Civil War (1936–39) attracted many on the Left who chose to fight against Franco’s nationalist forces. George Orwell went, and his 1938 book Homage to Catalonia is an account of his observations and experiences in fighting for the Republican militia. Orwell’s decision to fight was indicative of a split in the Left with regard to the issue of pacifism, exacerbated by the rise of fascism on the continent, and Mosley in the capital. One year before Homage to Catalonia was published, Orwell finished The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological chronicle of the bleak conditions in Bolton’s neighbour town, Wigan. The books offered two potential destinations for the sympathetic left who sought to offer their solidarity: fight in Spain or travel to the North of England; ‘going native’ to work with their comrades in a new, poor, place.

Harrisson’s commitment to the details of inclusiveness, into the local plural pronoun ‘us’, underlines all of his efforts in Bolton. He worked in Worktown, on eleven-hour shifts in the mill for twenty-seven shillings a week, and as an ice-cream vendor, and a lorry driver, constantly meeting working people on-the-go. Harrisson’s willingness to integrate shows M-O’s project to be an amplification of life in the cracks, evidenced by his claim that the responsibility of the anthropologist was not to practice champagne-socialist povertytourism, but to promote the interests of the subject. His 1937 book Savage Civilisation was so named not to describe the tribe of cannibals with whom he lived on the island of Malekula, but the ignorant eyes of dismissive white people. Like the people of Borneo, Harrisson considered the Northern English working class to be ‘a race apart’. His use of the term ‘going native’ to describe his immersion in life in Bolton might seem a little exoticizing to the locals, but it might also be taken at face value. He saw himself as:

belonging intensely, sentimentally, emotionally with England, and yet of not belonging to it […] finding its habits and its voices and its people and its faces strange.

His feelings of detachment or difference to some extent would complicate his mission to be absorbed by the town, but the implied distance between himself and the locals is one which a professional relationship necessitates: he assimilates only so far as it is useful to the project.

Local Politics and the Left-Wing

At The Keep, the archivist claimed that Harrisson wasn’t really intending to archive, just collect and publish lots of information. The nature of Mass-Observation is a ‘perpetual and indefinite accumulation’; but in the archivist’s estimations, Harrisson’s project is stripped of a crucial ingredient for it to be truly considered an archive — the intention of the collector. Indeed, the first document in the Left-Wing Literature section of the Worktown political material read like clumsy inconsequential coursework. It was a full page of disgruntled rebuttals from Boltonians who were asked the question: ‘what do you think is most important: Littlewoods [a local shop] or Local Politics?’  The answers were:

  • ‘What the bloody hell do you want to know that for?’
  • ‘There’s more in Littlewoods than Local Politics.’
  • ‘You’re a bloody cheeky bugger.’
  • ‘That’s a bloody daft question to ask anyway.’

Asked on the street, in the sleet, this exchange is incompatible with Harrisson’s idea of ‘going native’. The poor harvest seems to be easily explained by the questioner or the environment contaminating the answers. It is hard to look beyond the street and the sleet — a quick, dismissive answer might speed up the location of a Public House and a Famous Grouse — but there is a chance that the answers were genuinely characteristic of Bolton’s apathy towards local politics. The democratization of subjectivities in the Mass-Observation project results in a muddle of voices, a cacophony which can brutally aggregate and average important documents, but the caveat of this levelling is that it might also elevate voices which would otherwise be lost. In the Squab Pie section of the Left’s local newspaper The Citizen, which features short, funny sound bites, a shop assistant wrote in with the pithy: ‘Car instructions at the House of Lords: “Dead Slow”. How singularly appropriate.’ A frustrated man faced with impotent Labour canvassing says about his elected representatives: ‘they all shit in the same pot’. These quippy replies fall within a boundary of uncertainty in which it is difficult to distinguish apathy from irreverence, mild annoyance from considered polemic. One volunteer observer named Dennis Chapman said of Harrisson’s method: ‘he had no means of handling the data once it had been collected. It was just data, data, data […] then the immense problem of trying to make some kind of coherent pattern out of it.’ This task of discernment is liberally left to the visitor of the archives, and is not a responsibility taken up by the anthropologist himself. Harrisson said:

Many people who come here [to Bolton] are rather overwhelmed by the amount of apparently trivial observation and record we are collecting. But it is the trivial of today that may prove significant tomorrow. The observer or photographer must shed preconceptions about what is good to observe and what is bad to observe […] Everything that men, women and children do should be recorded with the discipline of natural science and human wonder.

M-O’s mantra of feverishly recording and passing no critical judgement seemed to Chapman, and many other sociologists and anthropologists, to be stubborn and dilettante. Chapman ‘didn’t have much sympathy with their approach, and their unwillingness to admit the existence of literature or skill or training or method’. More than this, far from the sangfroid anthropological stance, Harrisson and M-O actively involved themselves with the Left in the local politics of Bolton. It is difficult to harmonize Harrisson’s ostensibly disinterested data haul with his obvious socialist agenda. He saw a vast discrepancy between the electorate and the powerful, exemplified rather beautifully in his analysis of a government war-propaganda poster which read: ‘Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory’. He took issue with the requirements of the singular pronoun (as he saw it) your for the victory of plural, national, us. He decided that this democratically dangerous gulf was the main reason for the proliferation of the non-voter, and opportunistically, he knew he could capitalize on this untapped group — the disillusioned non-voter would be a valuable asset in the Left’s attempts to dethrone the Tories in Neville Chamberlain’s Fourth National ministry — the coalition government at the time.

Harrisson’s genuine fascination with the non-voter became a central tenet of M-O’s workings. Using his data, he began writing a book on the non-voter (which he never finished). An extract reads:

In this country the non-voter has received little interest either from politicians or political theorists, but it seems of prime importance at the present time for all democracies to discover why many of their citizens neglect their electoral opportunities.

In their attempts to mobilize the non-voter for the local council elections in November 1937, Mass-Observation conducted some eccentric experiments, employing the most puerile and caustic techniques. From their headquarters at 85 Davenport Street, they sent out a canvassing van with a loudspeaker. It was unpopular. They drove it around chasing the less-loud Tory van, and shouted down the Tories’ more dignified sloganeering. Eventually they drew a whimpering Tory surrender and a plea for the binding mutual respect for freedom of speech. M-O didn’t necessarily harness their own public opinion data in the most effective way when designing their municipal election campaigns for Labour. In the knowledge that this form of dirty politics was not much cared for in Bolton, the M-O canvassing van would play the seductive ‘Cleaning Windows’ from Wigan’s own George Formby, in the hope that the children who enjoyed it would run home to their non-voter parents and rally support.

From the confrontational activities to the corroborative, much of the explicitly political material in M-O’s Labour and Left-Wing Activities collection records the meetings and activities of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club a publishing group with a Left influence who published titles by George Orwell and Clement Attlee, and many other prominent authors. One meeting on 21 May 1937 was described as a:

v. satisfactory intellectual show, v. promising. Decided not to discuss Marx as insufficiently controversial.

The agreement of M-O’s observers on Left issues is interesting insofar as one can sense a glimmer of the observer’s personality in an otherwise desolate data cull; however it might be said that the descriptor ‘insufficiently controversial’ could also be attributed to these documents because of this allegiance. Another peculiar Left Book Club record documents a garden party held on 18 March of the same year. The observer, while recording the LBC’s concern that the people of Bolton conflate the two main political parties, recalls that one member could ‘do great things with a yoyo’ and unfortunately, ‘the midges bit like hell… everyone complained’.

Envelope Steamers and Sex-Maniacs

Though a lot of the recouped data from Mass-Observation seems trivial, the very act of its reaping ironically involved some exploitative behaviour. The methods of snooping used in order to draw out the authenticity that Harrisson desired were rightly mistrusted by the local population. At the garden party, the observer writes:

owing to the fact that there were five people who knew what we [were] doing […] it meant I was unable to make any detailed notes.

Clearly the observers were not quite so native as they thought. Harrisson’s sociological intentions, on the surface at least, appeared to be a dispassionate accumulation of material on the common man. But socialist figureheads like Orwell and Auden were to vehemently criticize this idea as another form of totalitarianism. Auden’s 1940 poem ‘The Unknown Citizen’ lists the qualities of a man so unremarkable as to be worthy of remembrance by the erection of a monument:

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.

‘The Bureau of Statistics’ sounds suspiciously like the logical extension of M-O’s archives. The not-entirely-unfounded abuse M-O received for being, as photographer Humphrey Spender claimed, ‘spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelope-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs’, were therefore attacks on the new radical method: one of secrecy and subterfuge and attempted omniscience. The misuse of this acquired socialist power would anticipate the Soviet self-immolating form of communism — replete with informers and neighbourly denouncements and snitching — and in many ways Harrisson’s neuroticism about veracity boiled over into the downright fanatical. Harrisson valued the fact that he was able to go from birds to people without perceiving any inherent limitations. That said, there is no avian use for his bizarre invention: a ‘gadget which you can plug under a mattress to record sexual habits’, and frankly Humphrey Spender’s advice on secret photography sounds like it isn’t just his camera he is talking about:

you would try various forms of deception — like just fiddling with the camera, twisting the settings, taking the lens out, putting it back, committing awful crimes like blowing into it, or rather pretending to blow into it, cleaning the viewfinder.

These fundamental, innate contradictions form the spinal column of the Mass-Observation project. It is coal dust under painted fingernails. A Janus-faced creature of things and non-things. A man who removes his coat for you, only to reveal he is naked underneath. The more one delves to find what seems to be the key to this sociological cumulonimbus, the more it evades you, making obstacles from the perverted or banal interests of the observers themselves.

Many of the observers, eavesdroppers, and agents were plucked from the local populace and from their weekly directives of observing potato-selling; counting cigarette-butts; measuring the strength of applause in a room; noting the colours of clothes, of hair, of eyes; of depicting the location of hands in dances, the location of hands when kissing; the times of people undressing for bed — no matter what the activity, whether recorded in a diary or a Day-Survey or a report sheet — many were compelled to reflexively and candidly analyse their own positions as well as the routines and morale of fellow citizens. The methods of mass and of selfobservation, with potentially endless possibilities for inclusion, could make everybody an observer: looking outward at others — assessing, empathizing, understanding — giving agency to others’ unconscious lives, a contrivance by which the observer could expect the same reciprocal attention. The role of the observer when considered is within, but apart; hermetic, but pluralistic; clinical, but affectionate — and always local. The ordinariness of the some of the material in the M-O archives is what gives the documents and the individuals represented in them significance. The author and professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex Ben Highmore’s essay ‘Everyday Life and the Birth of Mass-Observation’ offers a thoughtful account on the vitality of the Mass-Observation records:

An archive is open. Dip in to it at will. Discover the dreams and nightmares of generations living through momentous historical circumstances. Find the way that necessity and aspiration are threaded through the activities of social life. But take care too. Pay heed to the fabric of memory, to the moment of memorial. These documents were not collected primarily, to furnish material for the social and cultural historians of the future. They are explosive documents, or at least they are meant to be. Treat them with the respect they deserve. They are meant to be detonated.

The Mass-Observation archive doesn’t so much become a history — with its papers filled with tepid scribblings — but it is a fecund opportunity to make a history and, as Highmore writes, to pay heed to the fabric of memory: to give equal footing to George Orwell and a shop assistant’s droll analysis of the House of Lords. With this freedom of reflection, it becomes apparent that the eighty-year-old lessons that remain in the accounts of the disenfranchised of Bolton might still need to be learnt.

  1. Herwig Zahorka, ‘Blowpipe Dart Poison in Borneo and the Secret of its Production: The Latex of Antiaris Toxicaria; the Poison-Making Procedure; the Heat-Sensitive Main Toxic Chemical Compound, and the Lethal Effect of the Poison’, The Free Library (online), 1 January 2006.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ben Highmore, Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction, (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 77.
  4. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, (USA: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 181.
  5. Sebastian Gillies, ‘Mass Observation and the New Statesman’, quoted by Vernon Bogdanor, Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self, New Statesman (online), 29 January 2010.
  6. Benjamin Kohlmann, Committed Styles: Modernism, Politics, and Left-Wing Literature in the 1930s (Oxford:
  7. Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 132.
  8. Judith M. Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1998), p. 132.
  9. Emmanuel Tsirigos, ‘The General Post Office Film Unit’, Documentary is Never Neutral (online), nd.
  10. Ian Aitken, Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film 3-Volume Set (Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), p. 1368.
  11. David Hall, ‘Going Native’, in Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (Orion: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015), p. 11.
  12. Ibid., p. 21.
  13. Tom Harrisson: The Barefoot Anthropologist, A Biography, dir. By Richard Chambers (BBC, January 2007).
  14. Carolyn Steedman, ‘After the Archive’, Comparative Critical Studies, 8, no. 2-3, (2011), 321-340 (p. 322).
  15. Brighton, The Keep, Mass-Observation Archives, Labour + Left-Wing Activities, L. T. 11 December 1937.
  16. Brighton, The Keep, Mass-Observation Archives, Labour + Left-Wing Activities, The Citizen, May 1938.
  17. David Hall, Worktown (Orion: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2015), p. 127.
  18. Ibid., p. 278.
  19. Ibid., p. 172.
  20. Mass-Observation Archives, 32/15, Dennis Chapman interviewed by Nick Stanley at Liverpool University School of Business Studies, 1979.
  21. Tom Harrisson: The Barefoot Anthropologist, A Biography, dir. By Richard Chambers (BBC, January 2007).
  22. Tom Harrisson, ‘The Non-Voter’ (1938), Bolton Worktown, Photography and Archives from the Mass Observation (online), 17 Nov 2009.
  23. Hall, p. 142.
  24. Mass-Observation Archives, Labour + Left-Wing Activities, Left Book Club, 21 May 1937.
  25. Mass-Observation Archives, Labour + Left-Wing Activities, Left Book Club, 18 March 1937.
  26. Ibid.
  27. W. H. Auden, ‘The Unknown Citizen’, 1940.
  28. Sean O’Hagan, ‘The Way We Were: Mass Observation at the Photographers’ Gallery’, Guardian (online), 21 July 2013.
  29. David Hall, ‘Sex Spies of Suburbia: They Seduced Girls in the Cinema, Peeked on Canoodling Couples — All in the Name of Official Research. A New Book Tells the Steamy Story’, Daily Mail (online, 7 August 2015., [accessed 25 November 2016]
  30. Hall, Worktown, p. 165.
  31. Ben Highmore, ‘Everyday Life and the Birth of Mass Observation’, Mass-Observation Online, University of Sussex, 2014.

Published by:


Jordan Harrison-Twist is a writer and designer living and working in London. Graduating Central Saint Martins with a BA (hons) degree in Graphic Design, he travelled to India to work for a publishers Tara Books, writing press, engaging in art direction, curation, and design work, and learning about sustainable and ethical publishing practices. He writes with humour, mixing pop culture with art and design, in the contexts of criticism and metafiction. His interests are literature and comedy (harbouring a secret obsession with space). He is from the North of England. His dissertation was named A Conversation with a Bicycle: A Cultural History of Collision Between Humans and Machines — and charted moments in literary texts, cinema, recent history, and art and design, in which humans and machines have met, collided, merged, spiralled together, repelled one another, imploded, or proved impossible to reconcile. The text touches on the Surrealist attachment to the mannequin, the ethics of artificial intelligence, sex robots, and commercial space travel.

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