Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Reading the newspaper in Bolton in 1938

It is odd to think that in some ways the world I grew up in is far closer to that of my parents than the one I have shared with my children.

My parents and I belong to the wireless generation, remember ice on the inside of windows in the winter and accepted that public transport was the way you got around.

Now I could go on but there is always that danger that it becomes a bout of nostalgic tosh or becomes a political statement of the passage from a collectivist society to one where the overwhelming measure of success is wealth and fame.

So instead I shall reflect on these  pictures of the Reading Room from the Work Town collection.*

And before anyone accuses me of being either a tad reactionary or just dead old I am the first to enjoy visiting our local library. It is bright, light and unlike that blanket of serious silence you used to endure it is a place where children are encouraged to enjoy books, act out the stories they have read and want to come back to.

It’s also where the traditional book of reference sits beside a bank of computers offering a link to the world.

Now back in 1937 the Bolton Public Library did offer that all encompassing experience it is just not one that most people would feel comfortable in today.

It is all very spartan which may be because this was temporary reading room while the new one was being built in the Civic Centre.

This new library along with a museum and art gallery opened in 1939 and was designed by local architects, Bradshaw Gass & Hope.

But I remember something similar in our own Public Libray in New Cross in the 1950s.  The rows of newspapers and the big wooden tables and above all that powerful smell of disinfectant which I am convinced was also sprayed on the books.

It had a slightly sweet smell and so permeated the books that it still lingers on the odd copy sixty years after mother borrowed and forgot to return them. To open these volumes of the Deptford Public Library is to be transported back.

It is a feeling reinforced by the sharp lighting and above all by the fact that no one seems to take their hat or coat off.  They have wandered into a place which seems to be saying “by all means come in, do what you have to do but by golly don’t get comfortable.”

And under those stern notices to refrain from smoking and above all to be silent you can hear the pages turn and that resounding noise as a book is dropped onto a table or a chair is scraped across the wooden floor.

It is not a library that my children would recognise but it is familiar enough to me and no doubt to my parents.

Pictures; courtesy of Bolton Library Museum Services, 1993.83.19.22, 1993.83.12.21 & 1993.83.12.20

*The pictures are from Work Town which were part of a Mass observation “project founded in the late 1930s by a group of young writers and intellectuals, led by Tom Harrisson. They believed that British society was deeply divided, with very little understanding or consideration given to the lives and opinions of ordinary people.

The first focused study carried out by Mass Observation began in 1937 in Bolton, which they called Worktown.

Bolton was chosen as a ‘typical’ northern working class town, and Harrisson recruited a team of men and women who tried to capture a vast range of information about the local population using observation techniques."

They remain a wonderful and powerful record of life in the industrial north during the late 1930s and can be seen online at

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