The leader of Mass-Observation’s Worktown study of Bolton was the remarkable Tom Harrisson. His previous anthropological study of tribes in the New Hebrides led him to take a particular interest in the religious life of Bolton. He saw parallels between church and tribal rituals. A book examining religion in Bolton was planned after John Sommerfield’s ‘The Pub and the People’, to be published by Victor Gollancz of the Left Book Club who had help to fund the Worktown survey. The start of the Second World War and Harrisson’s decision to put Mass Observation at the service of the Ministry of Information meant the book was never completed. However there are a couple of early drafts of the book in the M-O Archive. Harrisson’s first attempt was the highly amusing “A Cannibal comes to Bolton”, in which he writes from the viewpoint of……….. yes, a Cannibal who has come to study this town built for work, in the dark industrial North. I will post some excerpts from the draft starting below, with accompanying illustrations. I have transcribed directly and it is a draft so obviously a bit rough in places.
Our story begins as a baffled Cannibal arrives on a Sunday to a strangely empty town:
Porters stood ready as the express swung into view. Plunging into the smoke and shadow of the terminus it curled about the platform now loud with ringing cries, and finally came to rest. “But at once,” Mr. Cannibal declares in his posthumous Savage Testimony, at once it became clear that the spirit in my train had fled into the bodies of its passengers. Amid clouds of steam and wild calls they extricated themselves from the narrow coffin-like compartments, and either carrying their own goods or hiring another to do so, scuttled off, seeming both glad and scared.
“My own belongings were few, and I preferred not to surrender them, and with them my freedom to go when and how I pleased. So this is Worktown at last, I said.
Now Cannibal had spent some hours earlier in the day about the central station of a much larger northern city [Manchester], and, not withstanding the fatigue of a night journey from the south, would greatly have enjoyed wandering about its deserted squares and streets
much longer. But for two reasons he resolved to stick to his original plan. He wanted to see the Englishman’s work before attempting to enjoy his leisure. And there were no trains to Worktown for three hours after ten o’ clock.
Sure that the journey must be long from this abode of the sleeping Cannibal had got on the train once more about half an hour ago. He had the feeling therefore not so much of arriving in Worktown as of being precipitated there. He sat down in the station to collect his thoughts, which were many. Dressed in European fashion, but with little knowledge of European ways, his first holiday in the white world was at the invitation of the League of Visitors. He wore the L.V. badge, with its motto Ab extra, and his surname was not Cannibal but something else which bothered the English tongue. Cannibal aroused no comment.
“After I had sat in this strange colourless place for some minutes,” he writes, “I began to realise that I was hungry. I went into the streets to find a food-place, but on reaching the open air (if the air of this town can be ever called open) I was so taken with what I saw in front of me that I quite forgot my pangs. For tall black and brown buildings such as I had never dreamed of reared themselves into the sunless sky. What were these gigantic pillars? What strange people lived here and what work did they do?
As far as I could see these enormous poles pointed upwards, while in between was the uneven landscape of houses, from the tops of which wavered thin streams of smoke through hat-like holes. What struck me most after the first shock of the tall finger-like buildings were others, not so tall and coming to a sharp point. I sketched some of these at the time.
In the middle of the town was a very large white building with a clock. This was evidently the Chief’s house.
If this was Worktown, Cannnibal reflected, then these tall and spiky buildings must be places of work. There were few people to be seen, but perhaps they were busy indoors. Probably it was for that reason that the other city had seemed deserted earlier in the day. Noticing Crompton’s Fried Fish across the road he made up his mind to postpone investigation.
TO BE CONTINUED…
The top two photographs are by Humphrey Spender, the town hall postcard from Bolton’s Local History Archive, all are ©Bolton MBC.