* Adam Matthew Publications. Imaginative publishers of research collections.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
News  |  Orders  |  About Us
* A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z  

Papers from the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex

Part 11: Topic Collections- Industry and Social Conditions, 1938-1955

There are over 80 Topic Collections in the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex covering issues ranging from Anti-Semitism and Commodities to Leisure and Work. These represent surveys and investigations carried out by Mass-Observation mainly between 1937 and 1949, with some later files for the 1960s and 1970s.

Together with the Worktown Collection these represent the raw material of the Mass-Observation Archive.  Some of this was worked up into a polished form in the Publications which appear in Part 1 of this project.  Brief details also appeared in the File Reports, some of which have been published in microfiche.  But this is the first time that Topic Collections have been published in their entirety, giving scholars an opportunity to re-examine and re-interpret the extensive evidence that was gathered in the form of transcribed conversations, questionnaires, ‘overheards’ (literally overheard remarks), and reports.  The files are also an important source of ephemeral evidence as observers gathered many pertinent pamphlets, leaflets, news cuttings and other evidence (including transcribed graffiti).

Coverage of the Topic Collections commenced with Part 4 and 5 of this project, which focussed on social welfare and living conditions, covering: Reconstruction, Family  Planning, Health, Day Nurseries, Adult & Higher  Education, Post-War Hopes, Public Administration & Social Services in Wartime, Beveridge Report Surveys, Housing, Work, Fuel and Food.   

Parts 6-8 offered material on the Home Front During World War II, and topics such as: Evacuation, Youth, Children & Education, Women in Wartime, Anti-Semitism, Air-Raids, Propaganda & Morale, the 1940 London Survey, Conscientious Objection & Pacifism, Forces, Gas Masks & Dogs in Wartime.

Parts 9 and 10 dealt with life in Britain from 1937 to 1965, covering Shopping and Self-image; and Leisure and Entertainment respectively.

This eleventh part focuses on Industry and Social Conditions, 1938-55, and complements the material in Parts 4 & 5.  It covers:

  • Happiness, 1937-1951  (TC 7, 1 box);
  • Labour Party ‘Ask Your Dad’, 1948 (TC 10, 1 box);
  • Coal Mining, 1938-1948 (TC 64, 2 boxes).
  • Industry, 1940-1955 (TC 75, 12 boxes);
  • General Elections, 1945-1955 (TC 76, 9 boxes);

It looks in detail at the lives of working-class families in the coal industry – at the reality of their everyday lives and their hopes and expectations. It also looks at the promises made in successive post-war elections by all parties.

The box of Happiness relates primarily to a 1938 survey in which ordinary members of the public were invited to take part in a competition that involved them in giving their own definition of happiness.  Some answers are somewhat trite, though commendable:  “Happiness is only to be found fully, in my opinion and experience, by helping others.”   “the greatest thing in life that money can’t buy.” – but these brief essays do reveal the aspirations of the masses and provide insights into their spirituality.

The Labour Party ‘Ask Your Dad’ survey is set in the context of post-war disillusionment with the state of the economy and the efficacy of welfare policies.  It concerns a 1948 Labour Party campaign in which voters were told to ‘ask your Dad’ if they thought conditions were better under the Tories before the war.

The Coal Mining material contains detailed investigations of coal-mining communities across the country, including Blaina and Nantyglo in South Wales; Betteshanger Colliery in Kent; Newton Colliery in Manchester; Clifton Colliery in Nottingham; and Rossington Colliery in Doncaster. 

This is Mass-Observation at its best with reports on discussions with miner’s wives contrasted with lengthy accounts of union meetings.  There are accounts of strikes and lock-outs, as well as on pit food and social activities.  Some observers were employed in the mines and describe all of the various functionaries from clerks and pit-scientists to rippers, colliers and hauliers.

Leonard Woolf was invited to review the research on Blaina and Nantyglo and responded enthusiastically:  “The reader … will learn, not only the material conditions of the life of the Blaina miner or munition worker, but also what he says that he thinks or feels about them.  Data of this sort, … if used with intelligence and caution, may be of the highest importance.”


For contemporary researchers it is the vast body of direct evidence that will prove to be most valuable – from the descriptions of miner’s houses and working conditions, to the direct transcriptions of conversations at the pits.

There are 12 boxes devoted to Industry and these bring together a wide variety of evidence relating to:

  • Planetown = Coventry
  • Oldville = Chester
  • Midville = Oldbury
  • Warvillage = Malmesbury
  • Tanktown = Luton (?) 

and other locations including Bristol, Leeds, London, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Worcester.

There is material on women’s war work, post-war jobs, training, factory conditions, accidents, illness, absenteeism, holidays, rest breaks, crèche arrangements, shipyard labour, wages, taxation, unions and demonstrations.

The immediacy and detail of the observations can be seen in this account of a shop stewards meeting in Coventry, 18 Jan 1942:

“… Next speaker was a very powerful chap aged about 40 – a first class speaker who said it was no good any more continuing with letters and telegrams, delegations, demonstrations.  They had tried all that and no notice was taken.  There was only one thing left which might bring a public inquiry and that was action and this meeting must decide what that action should be.  He said that the monstrous lock-out at Carnycroft was the last straw which showed which way the wind was blowing and it wouldn’t be long before other works followed suit and where now there had a dozen or so men put off, there would soon be hundreds.  Then a dark anxious looking man aged about 25 who said he was from Carnycrofts gave a long account of the patient negotiations the men had attempted and how everything had failed.  It seemed to be no-one’s business.  He advocated an immediate strike.”


First hand accounts are supported by a wealth of contextual material including ephemeral publications issued by unions and industry and newspaper clippings.

There are detailed investigations of a number of industries from tin mines in Cornwall to metal tube manufacturers in the midlands.  There are reports on the Dockers’ Strike of 1945, the Hotel Workers’ Strike of 1946, the Building Trades Strike and Railwaymen’s ‘Go-Slow’ of 1945-46 and the Transport Strike of 1947.

The 9 boxes on General Elections mainly cover the elections of 1945, 1950 and 1955.  There are observations and panel responses concerning posters, candidates, party leaders, and policies.  For instance, a soldier in Germany in 1945 gives an insight into Churchill’s immediate post-war dismissal:

“Churchill was a good war-leader, but he’s no use as a peace-time Prime Minister.  What we’re looking for now isn’t war-leadership but peace-leadership, and Churchill is the sort of man who’d be likely to spoil our relations with Russia.”


There are also newspaper reports, records of conversations and meetings and overheards such as the following:

“M35D    ‘What bloody good are words.  I’m for Labour.  I want action.’

M50C    ‘Well I’m a Socialist but I’m voting for Churchill –it’s the only way to finish off the Japs quickly.’

M35D     ‘And see all our Tommies come back to no ‘omes – not bloody likely.’


There is a mass of ephemeral material relating to individual constituency campaigns and these provide evidence of the importance of age, physical appearance, debating skills and knowledge of local issues in elections.  They also show how all parties wanted to lay claim to the Welfare State.  For instance, a 1949 local Labour magazine proclaims:

“Enter the Welfare State – Exit Fear.”  

It then trumpets the achievements of the Beveridge reforms, the abolition of the Poor Law and the Workhouse, and the introduction of Social Security.

A contemporaneous Conservative pamphlet points out that many of the major planks of the Welfare State were introduced by Conservative or Conservative-led National governments, whilst the Liberals also hark back to the introduction of welfare reforms by Lloyd George.

There are specific appeals to women voters and farmers in appropriate constituencies and discussions of the voting system.

Despite this bombardment of information many voters still did not know how they were going to vote:

“I really don’t know what I am going to vote.  It’s my wife that tells me all about that and she isn’t in at the moment.”

Digital Guide
* * *
* * *

* *© 2022 Adam Matthew Digital Ltd. All Rights Reserved.