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Finding out about the history of pubs

The Bar Man column, by CAMRA's Jeff Hoyle, Friday, March 20, 2020

I love pictures of old pubs and one of the best sources for images of Lynn pubs is www.kingslynn-forums.co.uk.

However, the problem with photos is that either they only show the building or that the people are posing for some event, such as a trip or a birthday and it makes it more difficult to get a feel as to what it was really like to drink there at the time.

The Bar Man column by CAMRA's Jeff Hoyle
The Bar Man column by CAMRA's Jeff Hoyle

For an insight of what went on in pubs and other areas of life the Mass Observation project is an excellent resource.

This social research project was founded in 1937 and the field observations were led by Tom Harrisson, who rented a terraced house in Bolton to serve as headquarters for the project. Harrisson was a graduate in natural Sciences at Cambridge and spent several years studying birds and remote tribes in Sarawak and the New Hebrides.

Still in his 20s when the Bolton project began, he recruited volunteers, maybe 200 over the course of the project, many of whom came up from the south and were middle-class, educated, literate, and politically left of centre. Harrisson’s methods were those he had employed in his ornithological studies, which involved meticulous observation.

He concentrated on four areas of study, work, religion, politics and pubs and his team would be sent out to record everything they saw and heard in minute detail.

You can imagine some of the challenges a young middle class educated idealistic observer might have encountered in one of around 300 Bolton pubs where he would be rather conspicuous and initially would be barely able to understand the dialect.

Harrisson’s guidelines included recording the type of pub; number and names of rooms; seating, tables, bars, spittoons (arrangement and usage), pictures, aspidistras and decoration generally; drinks bought and who buys which; who the people are and what they wear; who sits and who stands; behaviour on entering, ordering and leaving, standing drinks and drinking; subjects of conversation, swearing, smoking; whores, bookmakers, hawkers, betting and beggars: pub games, what is played, where, for money or nothing, rules, organisation in leagues: music, singing, social activities, picnics, outings; difference between weekend and weekday activities…the list goes on.

The observers would do a round of pubs each evening, making notes secretly for fear of being challenged and possibly being accused of being a spy – this was the run up to the war, but their challenge was small compared to that of the photographer on the team Humphrey Spender, brother of the poet Stephen, who was tasked with going and collecting undercover photographs, not easy with the equipment available at the time.

On more than one occasion he was challenged and threatened when discovered, with the police being called to confiscate his equipment.

He did draw the line and refuse to take pictures of the pub toilets and record behaviour there when requested by Harrisson.

The results of the project were written up in a book called ‘The Pub and the People: A Worktown Study’ which is still available.

The pictures Spender took are now owned by Bolton Council, and available to view on line, and there is a book by David Hall called Worktown, which has the full story of the project.

Many feel that history is the story of the rich and famous, but here ordinary people take centre stage and it makes compelling reading for those interested in going beyond the staged pictures and finding out what life was really like 80 years ago.

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