MASS OBSERVATION ARCHIVE
Papers from the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex
Part 5: Topic Collections on Welfare and Social Conditions, 1939-1949 and
Part 6: Topic Collections - the Home Front during World War Two
“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) - a general introduction by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson;
Early publications such as May 12th: Mass-Observation Day Surveys (1937); First Year’s Work (1938); Britain by Mass-Observation (1939); War Begins at Home, (1940);
Copies of Weekly Intelligence Service issued February - May 1940
Reports on Clothes Rationing (1941), Home Propaganda (1941), A Savings Survey (1941), People in Production (1942) People’s Homes (1942) and The Journey Home (1944);
War Factory (1943) and The Pub and the People (1943);
Individual surveys such as An Exmoor Village (1947) and Browns of Chester (a shop survey, 1947);
Reports on social and political issues such as Britain and her Birth-rate (1945), Peace and the Public (1947), Juvenile Delinquency (1948), The Press and its Readers (1949) and Vote’s Choice (1950).
We also include both volumes that appeared between the formation of Mass-Observation (UK) Ltd in 1949 and the establishment of the Archive at the University of Sussex in 1970. These have also been long out of print. They are Britain Revisited, (1961) by Tom Harrisson and Long to Reign Over Us, (1966) by William Kimber.
These volumes are essential reading for anyone interested in the Mass-Observation project and their wide-ranging sociological investigations of British life from 1937 to 1966. They will be welcomed by anthropologists, social scientists and cultural historians.
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.
The team of investigators, led by Harrisson, was made up of students, artists and writers, photographers, unemployed workers and local people. At peak periods (during university vacations) there were up to 60 investigators and the project was run from a base at 85 Davenport Street, Bolton.
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 4-6: 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; Beveridge Report Surveys; Capital Punishment; Drinking Habits; Happiness; Housing; Leisure; Personal Appearance; Reconstruction; Sexual Behaviour; Squatting; Voting Attitudes 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 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:
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 work we are at present doing on reconstruction originates in numerous requests we have received for information on public attitudes towards Post War reconstruction....
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.”
The material provides illuminating feedback from the general public on all manner of questions posed to them by the investigators. The proposals for the Beveridge Report evoked the following response dated 2 December 1942, in Streatham from a male skilled worker of 50; “I have read it and think it champion and will take a load off the minds of many people. The most important proposals - well they are all very important but suppose the Retirement Pension and Unemployment increase are perhaps the greatest benefit. It should be passed as quickly as possible. I do not see how anybody can oppose it except perhaps the Insurance Companies but they don’t matter they have feathered their nest long enough”.
There was also a demand for equality in education:
“I reckon every school should come under the state, and every child should have the same sort of education. I don’t think it’s fair one should get more than another; because after all they can’t help it, coming into the world. I’ve a daughter myself, they gave her the option of going into an art school - she was rather clever - but circumstance made it so I couldn’t do it - and I think, why can’t she have the same chance as another child, being so clever; but we couldn’t get help or anything, so I had to turn it down.”
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. The files will be used by historians trying to understand the Labour landslide of 1945, by sociologists and social historians investigating cultural issues, and by those studying Family Planning, Post War Reconstruction and State Provision for Social Need.
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 & Demobilisation, 1939-1946 (TC27, 3 boxes)
Food, 1937-1952 (TC67, 9 boxes)
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 as well as pressing issues such as the need to re-home evacuees and people whose houses had been destroyed by enemy bombing. Also the need to build new homes after the war including ribbon development, housing estates, tower blocks and garden cities.
There are files relating to the problems of social environment and the impact that these factors can have on individual development. This is well illustrated by a quotation from a Housing Centre file of 1940: “If I’d been born in Glasgow, then I’d have been an anarchist … and two feet shorter.”
There are detailed housing surveys for a number of areas such as Stepney in 1941, which describe the average family size (2-4), the number of rooms per 100 families (132 living rooms, 168 bedrooms), average area for a family of four (4390 cubic feet), the average family income (76s 7d), the average rent paid (15s 6d), and the percentage of family members earning a living (49%). These details are provided for hundreds of individual homes, together with household budgets and accounts of household temperature, lighting, use of fuel, pastimes, the length of time taken cooking and cleaning and the regularity of bathing. There is material covering towns and cities across the UK from Portsmouth to Liverpool.
The files on Work deal principally with Unemployment and Demobilisation. The starting point is a survey of unemployment in 1939 and an account of contemporary demonstrations. 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 early as 1940 and continued until 1950 as Britain’s ruined economy struggled to cope with post-war realities. The files also reflect an increased emphasis on nutrition during the War with advice on how to create a healthy and sustaining diet with bread, potatoes, carrots and dripping. Hundreds of sample menus show what people ate. There are also illustrations of Mass-Observation’s forays into market research with research exercises carried out regarding margarine, coffee, fish fillets and crisp-bread.
There are good files on fuel use and rationing, 1937-1942, and of the fuel crisis of 1947 that caused the government to appeal to people to “economise in all fuels—even to the point of inconvenience.” To what extent did food, clothes and fuel rationing—and the introduction of prescription charges lead to the downfall of the post-war Labour Government? The files here show clearly the growing public dissatisfaction with such measures.
Housing, Work, Food and Fuel are all key areas for any analysis of welfare and social conditions. These files describe life during and after World War II and capture the concerns and aspirations of the people. They help to explain the desire for home ownership, the interest in gardening, and the need to build a ‘New Britain’ after the war.
Part 6: Topic Collections - The Home Front During World War Two
The experience of war is the focus of Part 6 with Topic Collections covering:
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)
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. For instance, Box 4 of the Children & Education series contains hundreds of essays written by children in 1937 describing “The Finest Man Who Ever Lived.” King George V is the most popular choice, which is perhaps indicative of patriotic fervour, but Edward VIII, Gandhi, Haile Selassie, Hitler (“He has raised a nation from the dust and made it a first rate power”) and even Raymond Westwood (inside-left for Bolton Wanderers) are chosen.
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 Mass-Observation’s surveys. There are also accounts of the war-time reading habits of children, including an analysis of some comics from 1940 which are also included in the collection. The impact of evacuation on mothers and fathers is also fully explored.
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. There is much on the demarcation between men and women in employment and the friction and resentment this caused. There are also details of women’s social lives from dances and trips to the cinema to the “Great Digby Man Chase” (an account of the competition between women to catch the best partner).
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. For instance:
“I have always found the Jews to be pretty decent, but there are some rotten bastards you know, some of them need beating up, they bleed the poor people all ways up, especially the Moneylenders. I have no time for them myself so long as they don’t trouble me. I am off to watch Arsenal get beaten again.”
In contrast: “I think it’s all wrong. Live and let live, we’ve got to go somewhere. I like most of them. They don’t interfere with us. I suppose he thinks he’s right [Hitler]. I don’t agree with it at all.”
The survey showed that 69% of the men surveyed and 77% of the women were opposed to Anti-Semitism, whilst 15% of the men and 4% of the women were strongly Anti-Semitic, but it is the primary evidence rather than the statistics that are revealing. The views of school children on “Negroes and Jews” reflect views aired in households stripped of any veneer.
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.
Thanks are due to Dorothy Sheridan, Joy Eldridge and Anna Green 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)
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: