Mass Observation Bolton Survey: Tom Harrisson’s Interview with John Bright, Unitarian Minister at Halliwell Chapel (Reel 20 Box 21C, 7 November 1937).
The main Unitarian Chapel in Bolton was – and is - Bank Street, established in 1696, the traditional place of worship of numbers of powerful mill owners, the Haslams, Pillings, Scotts and attracted progressives such as Methodist socialist leader Sarah Reddish and previously Catholic trade union leader Alice Foley. John Bright though, worked out of a new, much smaller and less prestigious chapel in Halliwell. Bright came from a working-class background, born on 9 March 1897, in Atcham in Shropshire. At first Bright aimed for ordination into the Church of England, but served two years as a private in the Great War, then trained as a Unitarian Minister at Manchester Harris College, Oxford, the college for non-conformists.
The interview took place around 10.30 at night, where Bright lived, in an annexe of the Grosvenor Hotel on Manchester Road.
Top two trouser buttons undone. Wearing a ‘come to Jesus’ collar, drinking cocoa and eating biscuits. Bright considers himself to be more intelligent than other Unitarians. Faulkner, at Bank Street, he regards as very ordinary.
Bright believes in a cycle of enlightenment and barbarism – this smacks of inevitability even astrology. Bright said he had studied astrology and spiritualism and had 2 spirit controls – an old Chinaman and a girl. They speak Chinese which he cannot understand. The job of religion is to develop group consciousness. Bright said there was no real difference between Unitarians and Congregationalists and that Unitarian magazine was ‘all balls’.
Bank Street Chapel still has a number of rich men, Percy Taylor (Lib), Pilling and Lester Hesselden, who raised most of the money for Halliwell Road Unitarian Chapel, which has a working-class congregation, 90% of whom are women, with around 40 attending.
Bright said it was ridiculous that all churches preached Christian morals every week knowing full well none of their congregation were observing them – he was looking for a ‘working morality’ but lived in a hotel annexe and didn't go about trying to meet Bolton people to find that morality. Went to bed at 5am and got up in the afternoon. Lots of evening functions at the Church – whose purpose was to raise money. THH asked what was the point of money raising. JB said to raise £255 a year for his salary. In return he gave them what they wanted from the pulpit. They wanted something comforting and often topical. He hoped the Almighty would send him inspiration but if not he used the Quaker Adult Instruction books. The congregation did not like him in a tweed suit – wanted something different. He said people were giving up the church and taking up nature worship, so he had arranged a monthly hiker and motor cyclist service 8.30 am one Sunday a month.
Swears frequently, keeps motor bike in the hall.
(The following year John Bright, aged 42, married Elsie Begg, 21, who seems to have come from a working class Halliwell family. The Brights left Bolton in late 1939. The question raised by this report is not so much about the cynicism - let alone strangeness - of Bright’s comments, but how Harrisson managed to get Bright to be so candid).
Dave Burnham for Live from Worktown