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

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

Part 12: Topic Collections - Sexual Behaviour, 1939-1950

Publisher's Note

“Mass-Observation can be described as a project designed to involve the mass of “ordinary people” in a sociological research process - an “anthropology at home” - as a way of harnessing and explicating “public opinion” as well as, relatedly, helping close the gap between the decision-making of political leaders and the convictions and wishes of ordinary people. Its history is entwined in complex and fascinating ways with the history of the disciplines of anthropology, economics and particularly with sociology”.
Liz Stanley, Professor of Sociology , Manchester University
writing in The Archaeology of a 1930’s Mass-Observation Project

The Mass-Observation Archive is an indispensable source for all those interested in Britain in the 1930’s, the home front during World War II and the post-war history of Britain. Researchers are able to discover the views and feelings of ordinary people, through descriptive accounts of their experience and transcribed interviews, on a fascinating range of subjects such as housing, sport, fascism, communism, work, social conditions, religion, cinema, holidays, the onset of war, evacuation, rationing, the Blitz, public morale, post-war hopes, the welfare state, household budgeting, entertainment, shopping, education, the police, public health, trade unions, politics, strikes, transport, royalty, jazz, family planning, industry and drinking habits.

Mass-Observation was the result of three researchers engaged in social investigation who came together by coincidence. Charles Madge, poet and journalist, and Humphrey Jennings, a documentary film maker, envisaged a London-based project in which a national panel of volunteers would reply to regular questionnaires on a variety of subjects. Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist who had worked in Borneo and the New Hebrides, had ideas for an anthropological survey of the British starting with a study of Bolton.

They met, by chance, on the pages of the New Statesmen in January 1937 where a poem by Harrisson on the culinary habits of South Sea cannibals appeared on the same page as a letter by Madge announcing that a group of poets, painters and documentary film-makers in Blackheath, London, intended to start an “anthropology of ourselves” to explore the role of myth and superstition in national life and the gulf between public opinion and what was often described as public opinion by the Government and in the Press. They corresponded and on 30 January 1937 a further letter appeared in the New Statesman signed by Madge, Jennings and Harrisson formally announcing the creation of Mass-Observation.

In February 1937 Madge and Harrisson issued Mass-Observation, setting out the aims of the group and describing observers as “meteorological stations from whose reports a weather map of popular feeling can be compiled.” The emphasis was on a true, detached, scientific observation of popular attitudes and beliefs so that popular opinion could be properly understood. If there was a unity of vision, there was an immediate parting of the ways concerning research. Tom Harrisson based himself in Davenport Street in Bolton to establish the Worktown project. Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings set up the collation of observers’ diaries in Blackheath.

Madge and Jennings recruited some 500 volunteers from the general public to form what they called “a national panel.” The panel were asked to record the every day concerns of their lives on the twelfth of each month, including dreams, hopes, and fears. From time to time they were also asked to write a report or comment on a specific topic such as “Royalty” and to help with the completion of questionnaires. This activity produced the first full-scale book by Mass-Observation - May 12th - providing reactions the coronation of George VI and accounts of what the panel thought and did on that day. The book received a mixed reception, with Evelyn Waugh accusing it of “pseudo-scientific showmanship” but the evidence gathered is invaluable and can be used to analyse popular views on royalty, the abdication crisis and the role of the King as the country approached war.

At the same time Harrisson’s team of investigators produced a documentary account of everyday life in Bolton and Blackpool by observing, talking to and recording the views and activities of people from all levels of society. They analysed religious occasions such as weddings, christenings and funerals, as an anthropologist would analyse ritual behaviour. They attended political and social meetings, sporting and leisure activities, and observed and interviewed their subjects in the street and at work. Although the recordings of the investigators were sometimes subjective, the observations revealed a level of public feeling which went beyond the direct expression of an opinion.

The Worktown project collected an astonishing amount of material, but very little was published. One aspect (concerning seaside music hall jokes) appears in Mass-Observation’s First Year’s Work (1938), an upbeat summary of their progress to date, to which Malinowski contributed an essay.

Two more books co-authored by Madge and Harrisson served to establish the reputation of Mass-Observation. These were Britain by Mass-Observation (1939) and War Begins at Home (1940). The former was an analysis of public opinion at the time of the Munich crisis and drew heavily on fieldwork and diarists’ accounts. It looked at the ways in which Hitler and Chamberlain were presented as mythical figures, evil incarnate and the magical bringer of peace, and at the methods by which politicians and the press sought to sway popular views. It showed that the Press was out of step in its hero-worship of Chamberlain as the public had seen through the Prime Minister from the time of the second Munich meeting and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia.

War Begins at Home was similarly critical of the Chamberlain government which was disparaged as being completely out of touch with the views of the public during the first months of war, as it had been during the period of appeasement with Germany.

The outbreak of war inevitably disrupted the activities of Mass-Observation and accelerated the divisions that were growing among its founders. Humphrey Jennings left in 1938 to join the Crown Film Unit. Charles Madge left in mid-1940 to oversee a wartime research project for the Institute of Economic and Social Research on Wartime Patterns of Saving and Spending. All activities were centralised in London and Tom Harrisson took over direction of the work.

Madge did not agree with Harrisson that Mass-Observation should accept the patronage of the Ministry of Information during the war (even though it was offered by a good friend, Dick Crossman). He was worried that they would become an instrument of propaganda and a part of the establishment. Harrisson saw this as a unique opportunity to gather facts on popular opinion “so that after the war we may be able to tell the truth for the first time.” It was also a means to keep Mass-Observation going. The work in Bolton was suspended in 1940 and the panel of diarists were asked to respond to monthly directives asking their opinions on subjects such as air raids, black- outs, employment and rationing. There were daily records of people’s reactions to the news and special investigations on subjects such as the response to the bombing of Coventry in November 1940. These surveys provided the basis of Mass-Observation’s Weekly Intelligence Reports for the Ministry of Information, and also for their reports for individual companies relating to shopping and lifestyles. As always, Mass-Observation were careful to retain the original evidence wherever possible so that it could be subjected to subsequent analysis free from the methodologies and preoccupations of the day.

Tom Harrisson joined the army late in 1942. After a year at a Yorkshire training camp where he devoted his free time to overseeing the publication of The Pub and the People: a Worktown Study (1943), he was parachuted into Borneo as a member of the covert Special Operations Executive (SOE). Until his return in 1946, another full time Observer, Bob Willcock, took over control of Mass-Observation. Writing in 1943 in the American Journal of Sociology Willcock noted that:

“Mass-Observation is particularly concerned with people’s behaviour, their subjective feelings, their worries, frustrations, hopes, desires and fears ... The Blitz period, despite and even partly because of its human tragedies, was a field day for Mass-Observation.”

Willcock helped to organise surveys of factory life, fashion, radio, religion, films and hundreds of other topics. Mass-Observation also played a major role in sounding out public opinion regarding the post war world and the need for social reform. As well as surveys on the Beveridge Report, there were numerous studies on issues such as Reconstruction, Health, Education, Demobilisation, Fuel, Food and Housing.

After the war Mass-Observation continued to function as a hybrid between a gatherer of public opinion for the government and a market research analyst. In 1947 Willcock left to work directly for the British Social Survey Unit and Tom Harrisson accepted a post as Government Ethnologist for Sarawak. In 1949 Harrisson passed his rights over to Mass-Observation (UK) Ltd, an independent market research organisation, that continues today as a subsidiary of the British Market Research Bureau. In exchange he retained all rights to the pre-1949 material which was deposited at the University of Sussex in 1970 at the invitation of Asa Briggs, then Vice-Chancellor at Sussex. This material was subsequently deeded to the university in 1975.

During his return to Britain in 1959 Tom Harrisson presided over a second visit to Bolton and Blackpool and papers relating to this are also in the archive. In 1975 he started a further project on attitudes towards royalty. Sadly the untimely death of Tom Harrisson and his wife in a motor accident in Bangkok halted this, but the work was completed by Philip Ziegler. A further phase of Mass-Observation activity was started by Dorothy Sheridan with Mass-Observation in the 1980s and has continued through the 1990s and into the new millennium with the assistance of a new panel of volunteers.

The Mass-Observation Archive was officially opened at the University of Sussex in 1975 and offers access to all of this material. The papers of the Mass-Observation can be divided into seven groups:

  • Publications, 1937-continuing - Twenty-five books appeared during Mass-Observation’s original phase of activity, 1937-1950, most of which are now out of print. Two further books were published in the 1960s and Mass-Observation has generated over a dozen more since 1981, as well as booklets for schools.
  • The Worktown Collection, 1937-1940 - these are the sixty-five boxes of material gathered during Mass-Observation’s first major field survey.
  • The Topic Collections, 1937-1960 - the primary material generated by Mass-Observation’s studies on a host of topics from 1937 onwards including records of interviews, detailed questionnaires, written submissions from observers and ephemera related to the topic.
  • The File Reports, 1937-1972 - these are the typewritten reports which summarised their investigations. These are a very useful introduction to the boxed collections and particularly to the Topic Collections.
  • The Day Surveys, 1937-1938 - these were the diaries kept by the 500 strong panel on the 12th of each month.
  • The Diaries, 1939-1963 - Even after the discontinuation of the Day Surveys many observers continued to submit a monthly diary to Mass-Observation. Not all are complete and many diarists stopped writing after the war. The latest diary submitted was in 1963. Nella Last’s War and Among You Taking Notes were based on the Diaries.
  • The Directive Replies, 1939-1955 - over 3,000 people responded to the monthly questionnaires sent out by Mass-Observation concerning race, class, marriage, money, health, education and other topics.

The Mass-Observation Archive also includes material generated by the new panel of volunteer writers since 1981. It continues to place an emphasis on subjective experience and descriptively rich material which can offer insights into every day life. This qualitative data is complementary to the data derived from statistical and quantitative social research.

Adam Matthew Publications is delighted to be working with the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex to make the original research notes, records and publications more widely available. The microfilm edition is divided into a number of parts.

Part 1: Publications, 1937-1966

Part One of the microfilm publication acts as an introduction to the archive consisting of all twenty-five books published by Mass-Observation during its initial period of activity from 1937 to 1950, both books published in the 1960s and a guide to the archives. Few libraries possess these volumes and most are out of print. They are used heavily by researchers at the archive as they offer carefully worked analysis of projects undertaken by Mass-Observation. Titles include: Mass-Observation (1937); May 12th: Mass-Observation Day Surveys (1937); First Year’s Work (1938); Britain by Mass-Observation (1939); War Begins at Home, (1940); Weekly Intelligence Service (issued February - May 1940); Clothes Rationing (1941); Home Propaganda (1941); A Savings Survey (1941); People in Production (1942); People’s Homes (1942); War Factory (1943); The Pub and the People (1943); The Journey Home (1944); Britain and her Birth-rate (1945); An Exmoor Village (1947); Browns of Chester (a shop survey, 1947); Peace and the Public (1947); Juvenile Delinquency (1948); The Press and its Readers (1949); Voter’s Choice (1950); Britain Revisited, (1961); and Long to Reign Over Us, (1966).

Parts 2 & 3: The Worktown Collection, 1937-1940

Mass-Observation’s first major study was of a typical northern industrial town (a Worktown). They chose Bolton because of “what it shares in common with other principal working-class and industrial work places throughout Britain.” But to get a full picture of people’s lives they also had to study Blackpool (Holidaytown) where so many of the local people took their annual holiday.

All aspects of life and society were observed and recorded, just as if they were making notes on Trobriand Islanders. They explored rituals ranging from religious services to evenings at the pub. They charted beliefs, noting the activities of communist supporters of the Spanish Civil War, Fascist sympathisers of Hitler, and more traditional middle of the road views. They recorded urban myths, rude stories, jokes and graffiti. They studied class behaviour and the structure of society.

They achieved all this by following their subjects everywhere. At home, in the bed-sit, going to work on the bus, in the factory, in shops, in cafes, at football matches, in chip shops, at the cinema and on holiday. There is material on by-elections, jumble sales, the Boys’ Brigade, household budgets, public houses, pets, dances, jazz, education, shopping, children and food. Tom Harrisson reflected in 1970: “We sought to fully penetrate the society we were studying , to live in it as effective members of it and to percolate into every corner of every day and every night...”

The evidence and analysis gathered fills 65 archival boxes containing nearly 40,000 pages of original notes. In addition to material gathered between 1937 and 1940, there are notes made when they revisited the sites in 1960. All files have been filmed in their entirety.

The Worktown Collection contains excellent source material for all those interested in studying the ordinary people of Britain during a period of great change. It is a vital research tool for social historians, labour historians, historians of leisure, sociologists, and to those studying the fiction of Bennett, Lawrence and Orwell.

Parts 4-12: Topic Collections

There are over 80 Topic Collections in the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex covering issues as diverse as Adult & Higher Education; Air Raids; Anti-Semitism; Happiness; Housing; Leisure; Personal Appearance and Clothes; Sexual Behaviour; Shopping; Work and Youth. These represent surveys and investigations carried out by Mass-Observation from 1937 to 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 series. 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 data.

The material to be found in The Topic Collections includes not only accounts of interviews but also descriptions of people, places and events, reports with drafts and plans for proposed books, project plans, instructions to investigators, questionnaire replies, internal memoranda, correspondence, printed booklets, photographs, graphs and diagrams, maps, posters, tickets, bills, advertisements and press cuttings. It is indispensable to the researcher who wishes to study the unfiltered views of the “man in the street” with regard to all kinds of contemporary issues and gives an insight into public feeling captured through a qualitative method of approach.

Part 4: Topic Collections on Social Welfare and the Beveridge Report, 1939-1949

Part 4 covers eight Topic Collections which have a strong bearing on Social Welfare and the Beveridge Report. These are: Reconstruction (TC 2, 3 boxes); Family Planning (TC 3, 4 boxes); Health (TC 13, 5 boxes); Day Nurseries (TC 19, 1 box); Adult and Higher Education (TC 36, 1 box); Post War Hopes (TC 40, 1 box); Public Administration and Social Services in Wartime (TC 44, 1 box); and Beveridge Report Surveys (TC 53, 4 boxes).

Some consist of a single box, others run to up to six boxes. All comprise individually lettered files within the boxes, all of which have been filmed in their entirety. Their aim is set out in one of the early Reconstruction files (TC2/2/D): “The central aim of what we are doing is to find out what people really feel about events after the war, what their private hopes and fears are about their homes, their jobs, the political mechanism designed to make their wants known, as distinct from what planners, politicians and press-men would like them to feel.”

This material will be invaluable to anyone interested in social welfare. The Topic Collections offer a unique grass roots perspective of these issues, offering the genuine views of the public, rather than the wishes of the planners and politicians.

Part 5: Topic Collections on Welfare and Social Conditions, 1939-1949

Part 5 continues coverage of welfare related topics with collections on: Housing, 1938-1948 (TC1, 10 boxes); Work: Registration and Demobilisation, 1939-1946 (TC27, 3 boxes); Food, 1937-1952 (TC67, 9 boxes); and Fuel, 1937-1947 (TC68, 5 boxes).

The scope of the Housing files is remarkably wide and embraces a number of the key themes of social history. Where did people live their lives? How did they live their lives? What was the social geography of the home? What did people think about their homes? All of these issues are addressed.

The files on Work deal principally with Unemployment and Demobilisation. The starting point is a survey of unemployment in 1939. By 1941, following conscription and national service, the emphasis had changed. In a survey carried out in 1942 one man was asked: “What do you think will happen to the men who are demobilised after the war?” His answer was phlegmatic: “They’ll all be put in the queue for the dole and forgotten.”

World War II was as much an economic war as a military one as is revealed on the files on Food and Fuel. Attacks on convoys, disruption of shipping and concentration on rearmament and the war effort resulted in food and fuel shortages at home. Rationing started as in 1940 and continued until 1950 as Britain’s ruined economy struggled to cope with post-war realities.

Part 6: Topic Collections - The Home Front During World War Two

The experience of war is the focus of Part 6 with collections on: Evacuation, 1939-1944 (TC5, 2 boxes); Youth, 1937-1943 (TC51, 3 boxes); Children & Education, 1932-1952 (TC59, 7 boxes); Women in Wartime, 1939-1945 (TC32, 4 boxes); and Anti-Semitism, 1939-1951 (TC62, 4 boxes).

The first three of these Topic Collections concentrate on the experience of children before, during and after World War II. These provide a unique perspective on events. The joys and horrors of evacuation are told by children in their own words and the problems of maintaining good quality education in constrained circumstances is revealed by many teachers who responded to M-O’s surveys. There are also accounts of the war-time reading habits of children, including an analysis of some comics from 1940.

As Penny Summerfield has noted “Mass-Observation is a major source for social historians writing about women and work in the second world war” (PRAXIS 37/38) and the collection dealing with Women in Wartime is one of their most important groups of material relating to this topic. Much of the evidence concerns an investigation into wartime employment for women resulting from the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) survey of 1941. This reveals women’s attitudes to work and documents their experiences in the Land Army, in telephone exchanges, in war factories, in the WAAF and in other fields of employment open to women.

Finally, the Topic Collection relating to Anti-Semitism reveals attitudes to Jews in Britain in 1939, 1946-1947 and 1951. The 1939 survey of London’s East End is particularly revealing and capture the views of ordinary people in their own words. The later surveys show how views changed following the discovery of the death camps and terrorist activity (aimed at British soldiers) in Palestine. The answers to the question—”How do you feel about what’s going on in Palestine?” - are extremely interesting.

Part 7: Topic Collections - Air-Raids, Morale and the Blitz

This seventh part continues coverage of Topic Collections relating to the Home Front During World War II. It covers: Air-Raids, 1938-1945 (TC23, 12 boxes); Propaganda and Morale, 1939-1944 (TC43, 5 boxes); and London Survey, 1940 (TC65, 5 boxes).

There is exceptional material on the Blitz, with first-hand accounts of air-raids, descriptions of the devastation caused and the impact that this had. London was not alone in sustaining damage and there is also extensive coverage of air-raids across the country, from Aberdeen to Brighton, and from Cardiff to Coventry. There is material on the preparations that were made for the raids and the reparations that followed. There is much on the ARP and fire services and on the building of shelters. Above all, these papers capture the experience of ordinary people caught up in total war.

The section on Propaganda & Morale and the London Survey look at the psychological impact of the bombing campaign and also at a wider range of issues such as attitudes towards Evacuation, Jews, War Aims and the like. In Tom Harrisson’s words: “It’s value is that it tells us exhaustively about the lower professional group (shopkeepers, clerks, civil servants) who probably dominate the country numerically and otherwise.”

Part 8: Topic Collections - Conscription, Pacifism and War Service

Part 8 covers four further topic collections relating to World War II: Conscientious Objection and Pacifism, 1939-1944 (TC6, 3 boxes); Forces (Men), 1939-1956 (TC29, 5 boxes); Gas Masks, 1939-1943 (TC55, 2 boxes); and Dogs in Wartime, 1939-1942 (TC79, 1 box).

During World War II there were over 40,000 conscientious objectors in Britain. Most were from middle and lower-middle class backgrounds and were influenced by religious beliefs. TC6 explores their experience of the war, mainly through individual accounts sent in by members of the Mass-Observation panel who were either C.O.’s or involved in pacifist activities. There are many descriptions of pacifist meetings and the violent antagonism that these sometimes engendered.

The section on Forces (TC29) covers a wide range of material including personal reports from male volunteer Mass-Observers in the Armed Forces; the Conscription Survey (1939); views on recruitment (1939); thoughts on Army Education; and attitudes of the public towards the forces (1940-41). There is much on life in the Forces, including soldier’s views of the Blitz, the conduct of the war, army training and on fellow combatants (there was fierce rivalry - even hostility - between many allied forces). Material on the ‘Home Guard’ shows the intense seriousness of Britain’s attempts to repel potential invaders - or was it to reinforce civilian morale? There are many posters and booklets dispensing government advice, as well as first-hand accounts of military manoeuvres and training facilities by the volunteers.

The section on Gas Masks looks at government advice and the extent to which this was followed by the general public. The carrying of gas masks by civilians was seen as a key indicator of wartime morale.

Part 9: Topic Collections - Shopping and Self-image, 1938-1965

Part 9 includes important material for wartime and post-war Britain. It covers the following topic collections: Commercial Advertising, 1938-47 (TC 22, 1 box); Commodities, 1941-64 (TC 78, 6 boxes); Co-op Stores, 1939-47 (TC 21, 1 box); Personal Appearance and Clothes, 1938-54 (TC 18, 5 boxes); and Shopping, 1937-65 (TC 4, 7 boxes).

This part explores the emergence of Britain from the Depression and war-time austerity, through to the Macmillan years when it was proclaimed that ‘you’ve never had it so good.’ Surveys and interviews look at changing trends in consumption and increasing concern for personal appearance and possessions and their relationship to advertising.

There are 7 boxes of material looking at shopping, describing the whole process from viewing items in magazines, adverts and shop windows, to chatting about the items with friends and family, to visiting the shop and making the purchase. Together with the Co-op survey this offers a detailed examination of the retail trade, new goods and what makes people buy what they do. There is much on the impact of supermarkets in the post-war period and the threat that these would close down small family businesses.

From teenagers to working men and women on a night out, the material on Personal Appearance and Clothes looks at all aspects of fashion and self-image. At the beginning of the war there is a careful examination of the preparations made for visits to dance halls. This turns into a full blown investigation of dance hall culture, with detailed interviews with professional dancers, many of whom were gigolos or escorts.

The section on Commercial Advertising has a fascinating section on ‘war and sexism’, which looks at the creation of gender stereotypes in advertising from pipe-smoking men, to women who are told that “on or off parade, your skin must be faultless.” The section on Commodities features various product surveys from baked beans, razor blades and electrical appliances to tea and toothpaste; How were these different products tailored to suit a specific audience?

Part 10: Topic Collections - Leisure and Entertainment, 1937-1951

Part 10 makes available fascinating material for the study of the social history of leisure. It covers: Holidays, 1937-51 (TC 58, 2 boxes); Leisure, 1940-47 (TC 80, 6 boxes); Live Entertainment, 1938-48 (TC 16, 6 boxes); Music, Dancing and Jazz, 1939-41 (TC 38, 8 boxes); Sport, 1939-47 (TC 82, 2 boxes); Astrology & Spiritualism (TC 8, 1 box); and Wall-chalkings, Jokes, Games and Jig-saws, 1937-41 (TC 41, 77, 87, 1 box).

The section on holidays takes us back to another age when foreign holidays were a rarity. There are descriptions of mill towns, where up to two thirds of the population went off on holiday at the same time to the same place. 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 saved up throughout the year for their week in the sun (or the nearest they could get to it). There are many beautifully observed descriptions of shivering on the beach, walking the promenade and sampling local entertainments.

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 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. 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. It then looks in detail at football - with accounts of matches, observations of terrace culture and on the extent to which football was a working class game. There are also files on angling, athletics, billiards, cricket, darts, golf, greyhound racing, horse racing, pigeon racing, rowing, rugby, snooker, speedway and swimming.

Part 11: Topic Collections - Industry and Social Conditions, 1938-55

Complementing the material in Parts 4 & 5, this part 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).

The box of Happiness relates primarily to a 1938 survey in which ordinary members of the public were invited to give 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. It contrasts with the Labour Party ‘Ask Your Dad’ survey, which is set in the context of post-war disillusionment with the state of the economy and the efficacy of welfare policies.

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

Part 12: Topic Collections - Sexual Behaviour, 1939-1950

This twelfth part makes available Mass-Observation’s surveys of Sexual Behaviour from 1939 to 1950 (TC 12, 16 boxes), including the detailed evidence gathered for their controversial ‘Little Kinsey’ report.

Leonard England, Director of M-O in 1950, noted: “For many years Mass-Observation has been anxious to find out in this country not merely what the mass of people do about sex, but also what they say about it, and it has always believed that the first survey in a field that is almost entirely neglected in Britain should attempt to outline both habit and attitude…”

They explored such taboo topics as masturbation and venereal disease with some trepidation, but generally found members of the public across a wide spectrum willing and ready to talk about sex. Their 1949 survey asked:

“1(a) Do you think that standards of sexual morality are at the moment in a process of change or not?
(b) (If yes) What changes do you think are taking place?
(c) Would you say these changes are, on the whole, for the better or worse?
2. What are your feelings generally about marriage?
3. What is your attitude to pre-marital sexual intercourse?
4. What is your attitude to extra-marital sexual intercourse?
5. What is your attitude to divorce?
6. What is your attitude to prostitution?
7. What is your attitude to sex education?
8. What is your attitude to birth control?”

Later variants addressed more personal issues:
“17a Had you already had sexual intercourse with your husband/wife before you were married?
b (IF YES) How usual was it for you to experience a sexual climax in these cases?
c (IF NO) If you wanted to have sexual intercourse with your husband/wife before you were married, what was it that held you back?”

As always, the interest is not so much in the statistical tabulation of such responses, revealing that “women approve of marriage far more than men”, and that “middle-class people tend to be slightly more in favour of divorce, prostitution, extra-marital relationships etc and young people slightly more than older ones”, but much more in the specific responses. These reveal much about individual attitudes to morality and point to the onset of a more secular age. The clustering together of some of the responses is also revealing. In one box, 120 responses from teachers are followed by 150 from clergymen and 110 from doctors. The pragmatic attitude of many of the doctors who dealt with many of the problems first-hand is in clear contrast to the aspirational or dogmatic responses of teachers and clergy.

The responses witness a nation in transition.
“Well within living memory, it was perfectly possible for a girl to be married in this country without knowing the difference between male and female bodies. It was quite normal, too, for a bride to go to the altar a virgin. … Yet within another decade we were in the hothouse world of the pill and miniskirt, flower power and the Beatles.” (Godfrey Smith writing in The Sunday Times, 4 Sept 2005, on the Little Kinsey Report).

Please note that the names of individuals have been deliberately obscured, but details of age, gender, class and location are generally present.

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.


Thanks are due to Dorothy Sheridan, Fiona Courage, Sandra Koa-Wing, Joy Eldridge and Helen Monk at the Mass-Observation Archive for their help in the preparation of this microfilm edition. This brief account of Mass-Observation and its papers has been largely based on:

Dorothy Sheridan, The Tom Harrisson Mass-Observation Archive: A Guide for Researchers, University of Sussex Library, October 1995 (Revised) and

Tom Jeffery, Mass-Observation: A short history, Mass-Observation Occasional Paper No 10, University of Sussex Library, 1999 (new edition)

Further details concerning Mass-Observation, the Archive, and publications available for purchase can be found on the Mass-Observation website at:





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