The revealing findings of a 1930s study into happiness in Bolton

A Bolton pub in the 1930s

A Bolton pub in the 1930s - Credit: not Archant

Academics in Bolton have analysed the results of a 1930s study into happiness in the town. Here they reveal their findings.

Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings who chose Bolton for the Mass Observation project

Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings who chose Bolton for the Mass Observation project - Credit: not Archant

In 1936, Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge decided to form the research movement called Mass Observation, which aimed to use trained observers to gather knowledge of everyday life. Harrisson decided to study the northern working classes and chose Bolton, which he called Worktown.

He actually moved to Bolton and obtained part-time work in a local cotton mill, immersing himself in the local community and its customs. While numerous local people were trained to take part in this social research, Harrisson attracted others from wider afield such as the photographer Humphrey Spender and the politicians Richard Crossman and Woodrow Wyatt to come to Bolton.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought a premature end to this pioneering social research in Bolton and in the end only one book was published on the town, called The Pub and the People. These researchers did however leave behind a treasure trove of research material which Harrisson donated to the Mass Observation Archive held at the University of Sussex.

In April 1938, the Worktown researchers advertised a competition in the Bolton News. It invited local people to write in and answer the question: “What is happiness to you and yours?” Some 226 letters in response to this advert are held in the archive.

Bolton millworkers in the 1930s

Bolton millworkers in the 1930s - Credit: not Archant

In 2013, Professor Bob Snape, the Director of the Centre of Worktown at the University of Bolton handed a copy of these letters to Professor Jerome Carson. Since then Jerome has been conducting studies on the topic of happiness with Sandie McHugh. This led to a book on the topic, edited by Sandie, called “The changing nature of happiness: An in-depth study of a Northern town in North-West England 1938-2016”. But it was only relatively recently, that along with their colleague Dr Julie Prescott, they actually analysed the content of those letters. So what made people happy in 1938?

In reading and coding the original letters, Sandie and Julie identified four general themes and 12 subcategories. The most frequent description of happiness was to do with contentment. “Happiness…and contentment with your lot, however humble it might be, I think a contented mind gives true happiness.”

Most Read

There has been considerable debate in recent years about whether money can buy you happiness. Respondents in 1939 seemed to have a clear view on the subject, writing: “A million pounds cannot buy you happiness” and “Happiness is not bought.”

It is hard for us today to appreciate how tough life was in 1938. There was no National Health Service, no comprehensive welfare system and many young people were forced to start work at 14 or 15. Economic security was a major issue. For many just getting a regular weekly wage was a dream.

A Bolton market

A Bolton market - Credit: not Archant

“An assured income…paradise to us cotton workers who are never sure of two week’s pay,” wrote one. For another, happiness meant: “My husband to have a good steady job, good wage, so that we could have a holiday once a year.”

Despite this comparative poverty, what little income people had was often given to help others. “Just a bit of money to be able to give a friend a little treat sometimes…neighbours to be able to give them a few flowers, a magazine or some fruit, or a little gift.”

Similarly, religion seems to have been more important to people in 1938, expressed by one woman in the acronym: “JOY. Jesus first, Others next and Yourself last.”

Arnold Harrison, describing his home life in Bolton, wrote: “…mother as a young girl of twelve years of age went to school four days a week and worked the other day at a cotton mill…at fourteen she had been trained for a lifetime in the cotton mills of Bolton.”

Bolton millworkers in the 1930s

Bolton millworkers in the 1930s - Credit: not Archant

The Bolton Worktown letters give us a glimpse into what made people happy in 1938. What lessons do these voices from the past have for us today? At the very least they should cause us to pause and reflect how much better our education, health, housing conditions, economic security and prosperity are today. Yet, they also highlight the importance of family, community and faith.

The economist Lord Richard Layard in his book “Happiness: Lessons from a new science” identifies seven factors that lead to happiness. These are family relationships, finances, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values. These were the same factors that led to happiness in Bolton’s Worktown. Whatever happens, some things don’t change.


Three great things about Bolton today

The culture and heritage. The re-opening of the revamped Octagon Theatre has been delayed by Covid-19. Go to for the latest on their plans. Bolton Museum is a wonderful day out and the town is also home to two historic manor houses, Smithills and the Hall I’th’Woods. Check opening times and restrictions before you travel.

The food. The popular Bolton Food and Drink Festival has moved online this year, with events at from August 28th-31st. There are also plenty of places to eat and good produce to be found around the town, including many taking part in the Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

The shops. You’ll find a huge range of high street names and independent boutiques around the town centre and a £1.5bn scheme is aiming to make the town even more appealing with high quality retail units and a four star hotel.

To see more fabulous photographs from the archive, go online to

Bolton continues with ten-year transformation masterplan after the coronavirus

Comments powered by Disqus