Monday, October 11, 2010

A Pub, A Pint And A Post-It Note : 3. Mass Observation


The Richard Oastler, Bethel Street, Brighouse West Yorkshire HD6 1JN
Busy, town-centre Wetherspoon pub located in a former Victorian chapel


Camfell Flame
Rich Ruby Ale ABV 4.4%


Back in the 1930s a group called Mass-Observation made use of hundreds of volunteers to document the most minute detail of life in Britain. In a series of projects they dissected various aspects of everyday life, charting what people did and what people said with the precision of scientists. One of their most famous projects was a detailed study of people and pubs in a typical northern working class town (they called it Worktown but it was, in fact, Bolton in Lancashire). Here is an excerpt from the report of one of their volunteers.

"Room empty when observer enters. Landlady sitting by herself at table near bar. She is 50-60, with red face, dark red jumper, dark blue dress, black hair. Waiter-on comes (from other room) to serving hatch, calling out the order before he gets there, puts down his tray and some empty glasses. Landlady takes glass, holds it under nozzle of beer engine, gives two pulls at handle. the first short and sharp, the second longer and slower. Puts full glass on tray. Waiter-on goes off, comes back, switches on lights".

The various reports were gathered together and published in a book called "The Pub And The People" and it was this book that I was reading whilst enjoying a pint in the Richard Oastler in Brighouse. And this prompted the thought : what would the observer see if they were to return to a pub 70 years later? And this prompted my Post-It Note, my own attempt to replicate a little of the The Pub And The People experiment in 2010.

If you want to read my observations you can click on the Post-It note and attempt to decipher my handwriting. But after carefully reading the various reports from the 1930s and comparing them with my observations last week, two thoughts came to my mind.  The first is that the pace of work of the average bar worker has increased considerably. Back in the 1930s the reports were full of descriptions of bar staff, reading papers, filing their nails or staring into space in thought. Today, the staff seem to be constantly moving, serving, clearing glasses or restocking shelves. Tea breaks are taken on the move: activity is constant. The second observation is perhaps a result of the first, and it is that interaction between staff and customers has been reduced to the very minimum. Customers limit their conversation to stating their orders, staff limit theirs to calling the price. The gossip, jokes, banter and half-bored soliloquies of the 1930s seem long gone.

Of course this was not a scientific experiment and the results may be unrepresentative (but somehow I doubt it). It was merely a way of passing a half hour in a pub, with a pint and a ubiquitous Post-It note.


  1. Yes, I guess life has sped up considerably since the 1930s. There are often times when I wish it would slow down again!

    And how was the pint?

  2. Roy : dark, rich and very filling - the perfect liquid lunch.

  3. This book is right up your alley! Fun to see your handwriting, which happens to be amazingly like my own!

  4. Willow : The funny thing is that Betsy said almost exactly the same thing in a comment on a previous PPP post. Maybe I have some Hanna blood in me.

  5. Anonymous3:29 PM

    You probably do have some Hanna blood in you... you look like my brother Steve and you're not too far from Sorbie Castle where the Hanna clan all started!
    I enjoy your interest in and your sharing of pub history!
    :) The Bach

  6. What wonderful observations. I guess it's typical in many locations and businesses that the pace of work has changed and interactions are minimized, but you hardly expect it in a social place like a pub.

  7. Bach (or should I say Cousin Bach) : One day it will be my pleasure to buy you a pint.
    Christine : Yes there is something sad about a businesslike pub - they were never meant to be that way.

  8. that sounds like a really cool book...i really need to come visit so you dont have to drink all these pints...smiles.

  9. Brian : I have to say that it is a bit of a struggle, but I put a brave face on things. Cheers.

  10. I think I must be channelling Sir Titus Salt - I nearly fell off my chair when you said 'pub in a former Victorian chapel'. What is the world coming to?

  11. This is a lot of fun. When we use to evaluate new teachers we as observers had to do that for twenty minutes straight. You would see all sorts of things and I used the computer as I could type faster than doing the hand written word. The last time I did this I described a bratty kid deliberately throwing a tray of paint on the floor intentionally to get the young teachers attention. I am interested in the company that made the book as we have similar ones over here covering late history of cities or counties.

  12. I have to say, Wetherspoon Pubs are often located in some very fine old buildings.The Brighouse one is one of the best examples .The ones in Skipton,Rochdale & Manchester are other fine venues (tho, 'not so sure about The Barum Top one in Halifax)
    They offer Good cheap food,cheap Ale ,no daft music & a nice age-mix of drinkers.
    But your right Alan, They survive through sheer scale.The bigger the pub the smaller the craic.Non?
    I would hate to Work in one.I honestly dont know how the bar-people cope with the sheer volume of work involved.It would be enough to drive you to Drink!

  13. Jenny : What is worse, I think it was one of the Brighouse chapels where William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once preached!
    Larry B : Not sure that the Cresset Library is still in business, they used to specialise in new editions of out-of-print books.
    Tony : Your analysis of the pros and cons of Wetherspoons is spot on. They always remind me of the old Yates' Wine Lodges of the 1960s.

  14. Very interesting post. here in NZ I was brought up on stories or movies where the British pub was small, dark and cosy - there would be seats around a fire or pulled up to the bar and the barman/maid would be friendly and welcoming to local and stranger alike - the reality is just how you observed (yes I did read your notes but it must have been a big post-it) the bar is busy and conversation limited to the drink order.

  15. Marylin : I have a whole series of Post-It notes of different sizes for all eventualities.

  16. High turn-over of staff, high turn-over of locals, and so many chain pubs that all have the same interiors. Basically, no, or very little character and even less conversation.

    Our village pub closed a few months ago. There are signs that something's being done with it. Someone said it will be refurbished and re-opened. They wouldn't lie to me...would they?

  17. I'm sorry to tell you Martin that they will be probably converting it into flats.

  18. The post it note made fascinating reading. I could not work in a bar!!

  19. I'd love to go back to the 30's for a day..just to visit!

    Your post-it note posts are very enjoyable! You'd make an excellent detective! :)


Black Friar

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