Bolton ‘Work Town’ survey 1937/38.

Bark Street, Bolton. This picture is undated and is simply labelled “the tannery”.

In 1937 a team of thirty-two researchers descended on the town of Bolton to carry out a unique Mass Observation survey of the everyday work and play of Bolton people.

The team were predominantly upper middle-class students (some Marxists), writers, artists and photographers led by Tom Harrisson, a budding social anthropologist, who regarded working-class Northerners as ‘a race apart’. One of the nine local helpers was Bill Naughton, a Co-op coalman, later writer of ‘All In Good Time’ (film the Family Way), ‘Spring and Port Wine’ and ‘Alfie’.  The survey was later titled ‘Work Town’.

Bolton was a town built on ‘King Cotton’, in the 1930’s no less than 112 spinning firms operated from 120 mills making, sheets, quilts, towels, brocades, twills and dress materials. Swan Lane Mill was the largest in the world. The workers stood on wooden floors and operated in temperatures between 73F and 98F, the tropical heat was maintained to prevent the cotton thread from snapping. In the cold of winter the workers left home in the dark and returned home in the dark, from the age of fourteen this was the lot of most Boltonians.

Humphrey Spender. ‘Man with hand up in pub’ (below, 1937/8).
© Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services

The survey is mostly remembered through the photographs of Humphrey Spender, the collection now in the archive of Bolton Museum/Art Gallery. Spender and fellow photographer Michael Wickham recorded the life of the working classes following their subjects on holiday to Blackpool to record them at leisure.  Observers, meanwhile, gathered statistics on every aspect of behaviour. Listening in to conversations in pubs was often the best means of gauging the working man’s mindset.  Accompanying Spender’s photograph of a ‘Man with hand up in pub’ is perhaps the best recorded quote: “Why I drink Beer, because it is food, drink, and medicine to me, my bowels work regular as clockwork and I think that is the key to health…”

Being brought up in Halliwell, Bolton in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, still a smoky, soot covered mill town, it was only in the past twenty years that I learnt of the Work Town Survey and found the photographs of Spender. The latest revelation, however, was that artists were amongst the survey team.

1 ‘Bolton’ by Sir William Coldstream, 1938. National Gallery of Canada. 2 Coldstream at easel photo by Humphrey Spender 1938. © Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services. 3 Graham Bell (left) and Humphrey Spender on the roof of the Mere Hall Art Gallery, 1937. By Humphrey Spender. © Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services. 4 on right. ‘On the Map’, Sir William Coldstream, 1937. In this picture Coldstream shows fellow-artist Graham Bell standing holding a map, and his friend Igor Anrep sitting on the ground.  Tate Gallery. 5 lower. ‘Bolton, Thomasson Park’ by Graham Bell 1938. Yale Centre.

Sir William Coldstream 1908-1987 was a noted portrait painter, knighted in 1956.  In 1949 he led the Slade School of Art as Principal, and Professor of Fine Art. Notable among his paintings is the portrait of Inez Pearn (at that time married to Stephen Spender, Humphrey Spender’s brother.).

Frank Graham Bell 1910 –1943, known as Graham, was a painter of portraits, landscapes, and still-life, and along with Coldstream, a founder member of the realist Euston Road School. Having enlisted in the RAF in 1942 his Wellington bomber plane crash-landed near Newark killing all the crew – Bell was only 32.

Bell and Coldstream started painting on the roof of the Art Gallery. “The place is in the middle of a dreadful slum.” noted Bell. Both artists painted a panoramic view of the town, devoid of human life. The two left Bolton after a three week stay, expressing relief to get back to London following their stay ‘in the hideous north’.

‘Bolton’, this collage artwork was created by Julian Trevelyan in 1937 and depicts a traditional industrial mill scene from the town. The collage shows the mills and chimneys of Bolton rising up into a bright blue sky. The fields and hills of the West Pennine Moors can be glimpsed in the background. Acquired in 2016 by Bolton Museum and Art Gallery. © Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services.

Julian Otto Trevelyan 1910 –1988 was an artist and poet, he was the most successful artist in tuning in with the ideals of the project.  A young Trevelyan attended the Atelier Dix-Sept in Paris working alongside artists including Max Ernst, Oskar Kokoschka, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso.

Trevelyan, the most active of the three artists in Bolton, spent a month in Bolton’s industrial streets, painting and creating collages from his suitcase full of materials.

Inviting Trevelyan to join the team Harrisson stated: “We have a Scotch Materialist, a Tramp Recorder, a Harpo Marxist and a coalminer in the house at the moment … You must paint some Bolton chimneys; they are like salt mines without the savour … Bolton Art awaits you! You will enjoy it, I swear!”

Arriving at the Davenport Street house, the base for the team, Trevelyan reflected: “Arriving at Davenport Street for breakfast. A house like any other in Bolton, it contained a few beds and office desks and an old crone who cooked us bacon and eggs and tea on a smoky grate.”

Trevelyan collages. 1 Bolton 1,000,000 volts, 1937, Private Collection 2 right. ‘Rubbish may be shot here.’ The Tate. 3 right. Trevelyan’s suitcase containing his assortment of materials for collage. 4 bottom left. ‘Bolton Mills’ 1938, Bolton Library and Museum Services. © Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services. 5 right. Photo: Julian Trevelyan.

Trevelyan made a number of collages whilst in Bolton, in addition to painting watercolours of the townscape and taking photographs. Harrisson took a reproduction of his collage around the pubs and streets of Bolton to find out what local people thought of it, alongside copies of works by William Coldstream and Graham Bell. The collage produced a strong response, and Harrisson concluded that this showed that everybody was capable of responding to art, regardless of their class.

In 1960 a few of the original team returned to Bolton in a follow-up exercise to compare their observations from the 1930’s. Trevelyan produced a series of superb etchings. He was hugely influential in the revival of etching in the 1960s.  The Bolton prints can be viewed with other works produced by Julian Trevelyan, held in the Work Town Archive by arrangement at Bolton Museum.

Trevelyan’s superb series of Bolton Etchings, 1964. 1 Bolton. 2 Washday. 3 Bolton Wanderers. 4 right. Mills. 5 left below. Bolton market Hall. 6 right below. Mill Workers. © Bolton Council.  From the Collection of Bolton Library and Museum Services.

I departed Bolton in 1987 moving to North East Fife.  I visit my hometown regularly and often turn to the old industrial landscape of Bolton for inspiration in my own artwork.

A sprinkling of my Bolton art work: ‘Bolton circa 1930’. Lino-cut 2018. A few available ( 2 right. Pencil sketch ‘Church Wharf’. Right. 3 Pencil sketch based on a Spender photograph. 4 right. ‘Croal Valley’ . Lino-cut 1962 aged 16. 5 below left. ‘Man and Sycthe’ 1959 aged 13. 6 right: I’m on left at Bolton Art College with tutor Trevor Lofthouse on the right.

The Work Town project was ground-breaking in its scope and detail amassing an astonishing array of material, a fascinating insight into the work and play of the people of Bolton. The archive website can be viewed at

Thanks go to Bolton Museum and Art gallery Archive for permission to re-produce photos and art work work here.

Note: Mere Hall was donated to the town as an Art Gallery by J.P. Thomasson in 1890, the collections of Mere Hall were transferred to a purpose-built gallery at Le Mans Crescent, most of its collection was subsequently disposed of before 1948 to make way for new acquisitions. Mere Hall became local authority offices used for weddings until 2016

Bibliography…some help from ‘Work Town’ by David Hall, Weidenfeld & Nicolson ISBN 978 1 780 22780 1

Graham Bennison, September 2020. More of my art at also of interest

3 thoughts on “Bolton ‘Work Town’ survey 1937/38.

  1. Hi Graham, your name rings bells somewhere in the the distant past, I was born at 6, Dougill St. Just off Chorley Old Road and born 20,th ,September 1945 so 75 shortly.Friends with Dave Tatton and Ken Lyons I think both off whom went to Bolton Art College. I used to drive the van for a local group “The Invictors” who practiced at Chorley old Road Methodist and Chorley old Road Congie.I I’m currently living in Northern Thailand with my partner of 25 years, if it rings any bell get back to me.
    Regards Dave Shields

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David….I was in a wee group for a year or so at Chorley Old Road Congie. I was also in the scouts there, the 58th, Wilf Heppolette was Scoutmaster. I was also friends with Derek Billington who taught me aged 9, he was Scoutmaster at Somerset Rd Presyberterian. I moved to North East Fife in 1987 but still visit Bolton regularly. Nice to hear from you.


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