That’s war!

A snippet from David Hall's Worktown, on the Mass-Observation project in Bolton, a textile town near Manchester:

At 2.40 [pm] the most interesting event of the day took place. Eight aeroplanes flew over -- a rare sight in Worktown, which is nowhere near a military airport and some distance from a civil one. 'Two men in the garden of no. 84 [Davenport St] shout to attract the attention of two women. Young woman points and says, 'Look at them!' Other woman points and says, 'That's war!' and laughs. The butcher at the Co-op shop and the landlord of the Royal pub come out to see.'1

The date is not clear but it's a workday in (probably) 1937, perhaps in spring; the quotation within the quotation is evidently from the much later account of Brian Barefoot, one of the observers, or possibly from a M-O report written up at the time. This particular episode is from the compilation of 'A Day in the Life of a Street', Davenport St, the location of the M-O HQ.

Without any more information it would be difficult to identify the aircraft, though I would say the formation flying suggests they were likely RAF. There is a bit more we can dig out, though. In emotional terms, there's curiosity, with at least six people stopping what they were doing to look upwards (and the M-O judgement that it was 'the most interesting event of the day'!) There's also the assumption that other people will find the sight interesting ('Look at them!')

Beyond that, there is evidence for the response of one woman, older or at least not young. She laughed but not, it would seem, out of joy. Instead it appears to have been either a sardonic or a nervous laugh at her own comment: 'That's war!' Presumably, she didn't think the formation of aircraft literally meant war; but equally clearly she did relate it in some way to war. Whether that's because she knew or guessed that aircraft flying like that were likely to be military, or whether she associated formations of aeroplanes with militarised aerial theatre she'd seen at the cinema or air displays, I can't say. But she certainly didn't associate the spectacle above her with peaceful civilian flying. And this was just one street: similar scenes must have been replicated all over Bolton (population approx. 163,000). Probably hundreds of others witnessed this spontaneous aerial theatre; how they responded can only be guessed. But there must be more nuggets in the Mass Observation Archives.


  1. David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016), 113. 

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