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

Part 10: Leisure and Entertainment, 1937-1951

Publisher's Note

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 and Dogs in Wartime.

Part 9 offered material on Shopping, Personal Appearance & Clothes, as well as the Co-operative stores survey, Commercial Advertising and Commodities.

This tenth part looks at Leisure and Entertainment, 1937-1951 including:

  • Holidays, 1937-51 (TC 58) (2 boxes);
  • Leisure, 1940-47 (TC 80, 6 boxes);
  • Live Entertainment, 1938-1948 (TC 16, 6 boxes);
  • Music, Dancing and Jazz, 1939-41 (TC 38, 8 boxes);
  • Sport, 1939-47 (TC 82, 2 boxes);
  • Astrology & Spiritualism, 1938-47 (TC 8, 1 box);
  • Wall-chalkings, Jokes, Games and Jigsaws, 1937-41 (TC 41, 1 box)

This will provide a treasure trove for social historians studying a wide range of cultural phenomena.

The section on holidays takes us back to another age when foreign holidays were a rarity.  The following account is typical of the novelistic detail to be found in the reports, which also convey the emotions of the subjects:

“At 4pm the shadows were creeping over me so I thought it was time for a bathe, so I dressed in slacks and went down.  There was a bit of wind.  I went straight in for five minutes then lay full length on the shingle.  There was less than a dozen in, but dozens lying on the beach.  I shivered for a bit, then at 5 the sun went in, there being much cloud, so I decided to have another bathe (just in and out) and walked home.  We change in canvas huts.”

There are descriptions of mill towns, where up to two thirds of the population go off on holiday at the same time – many to the same destination.  There are reports of holiday camps and the industrialization of leisure – described by one observer as “a perfect opportunity to observe the consumers of mass-produced commodities.”  There are accounts of changing habits in betting and smoking and of the ways in which workers save up throughout the year for their week in the sun (or the nearest they could get to it).

The section on Live Entertainment starts with an in depth investigation of life at the circus and in fun-fairs.  The observers talk with the owners, the artistes and the public who attend.  There are even diary accounts of life on the road.  There is also much on Pantomime, Music Hall, Cabaret and Theatre. Many original programmes are included and contemporary cuttings, which provide a useful contrast to the records of observers.  The humour in pantomimes is analysed in detail, including a note on all topical political references.  Productions discussed run the full gamut from nude women in ‘artistic poses’ at the Windmill, to the latest performances of the Polish ballet.  There are reports from theatres in Blackpool, Bridlington, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Newcastle, Northampton, Oxford, Sheffield, Southport, and Worcester.

The section on Music, Dancing and Jazz will be of great interest to all those studying popular music and the emergence of swing and be-bop.  There are detailed reports on the goings on at Peckham Pavilion and the Streatham Locarno, as well as in Bolton, Brighton, Canterbury, Ipswich, and Liverpool.  Dance crazes such as the Lambeth Walk and the Chestnut Tree (immortalized by Orwell in 1984) are described in photographs and words. The Jazz reviews are tremendous. For instance:

“Coleman Hawkins. 2.4.39

Obs. impressions of his playing

1    Colossal impression of energy

2   The rasping sound which he produced

3   The deep breaths which he took

4   His style of playing ”

The review is thorough and appreciative.

There is also excellent material on night clubs, Denmark Street, music publishers, and dancing - as well as a good collection of sheet music and music advertising.

The section on Sport starts with a series of reports on the effect of the war on sport in Britain.  There are files on angling, athletics, billiards, cricket, darts, football, golf, greyhound racing, horse racing, pigeon racing, rowing, rugby, snooker, speedway and swimming.  These include many first-hand descriptions of matches and the crowds in attendance.  For instance:

“Arsenal were two up before half-time.  Compton, D., smashing a shot from the penalty line, and for his second, shooting low into the net after an amazing dribble past at least five men.”

This was a great period for Arsenal, with Leslie and Dennis Compton scoring 14 goals in 3 matches!

The box on astrology and spiritualism has material concerning psychic phenomena, psychometry and fortune telling, but is largely concerned with almanacs and horoscopes and popular perceptions regarding these.

The final box contains a wide variety of disparate, but interesting, files. These include:

  • Wall chalkings – an analysis of graffiti and street paintings;
  • Jokes – taken from air-raids, the music hall, soldiers and elsewhere – in its own way, a barometer of public taste;
  • Children’s games – observed and described;
  • Toys – with catalogues from Harrod’s and Hamleys;
  • Jigsaw puzzles – describing the most popular designs.

Countless study topics are suggested by even a casual glance through the files and the joy of the Mass-Observation files is that they are full of compelling, detailed accounts of moments in the lives of ordinary people.



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