MASS OBSERVATION ARCHIVES
Papers from the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex
Part 1: Publications, 1937-1966
Part 2: The Worktown Collection, 1937-1940
Part 3: The Worktown Collection, 1937-1940
“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.
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 between February and 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);
The Pub and the People (1943) - based on one aspect of the Worktown Study;
Individual surveys such as An Exmoor Village (1947) and Browns of Chester (a shop survey, 1947);
People and Paint (1949) - produced for ICI;
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
“There is a momentum of energy, enterprise, and intellectual courage in the movement; there is goodwill behind it, and indeed there is humility too, in its readiness to cooperate with other scientific workers. ... It has advanced towards that combination of simplicity and sincerity with a passion for fact and principle which is the essence of honest research. In the long run I am convinced that it will substantially contribute to greater national self-knowledge.”
Mass-Observation can have hoped for no greater accolade for their endeavours than these comments, penned by Malinowski in a review of their first year’s work. But whilst most anthropologists spent their time studying exotic cultures on distant islands or in jungles, Mass-Observation set about a thorough investigation of life in an English industrial town. For the most part this meant a detailed analysis of working-class culture - arguably as foreign to the investigators as the life of Trobriand islanders - but their investigations also paint a detailed picture of middle-class life and of the relationship between different classes and communities in the same town.
The work was partly funded by Victor Gollancz, publisher and founder of the Left Book Club, although only one book was produced for him as a result of the research (The Pub and the People). It followed his commissioning of George Orwell to visit Wigan and other northern towns in 1936 to write a “condition of England” piece which was published in 1937 as The Road to Wigan Pier. Where Orwell was angry, polemical and judgmental, Mass-Observation was dispassionate and analytical and built up a detailed picture of life at every level and in every situation. They observed their subjects at the factory and in the chip shop, on the terraces at a football game and at a bazaar in the church hall, in slum dwellings and in the dance hall, on the pleasure beach and in the unemployment line. Many of the investigators integrated with their subjects, joining in conversations at pubs and working in the mills. Others captured “overheard” comments and recorded everything from election speeches to the graffiti on the walls. 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...”
Mass-Observation wanted to study a typical northern industrial town (a Worktown) and 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 Tom 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. The evidence and analysis gathered fills 65 archival boxes containing nearly 40,000 pages of original notes. There are 9 boxes devoted to local politics, from fascist activities and Spanish Aid to municipal politics and by-elections. There are 12 boxes covering religion from accounts of church services and rivalries between Methodists and Catholics, to Jumble Sales, Sunday Schools and the Boys’ Brigade. There are 7 boxes relating to money matters including numerous “budgets” for individual households, showing what was earned and how it was spent. There is also much material relating to Public Houses, Sport, Special Days (Coronation Day, Christmas, Armistice Day), Film and Cinema, Public Services, Industry, Pets, Rude stories, Holidays, Dances, Jazz, Education, Shopping, Children and Food.
A flavour of the material can be gained from the following extract of an observer’s account titled PUBS, dated April 22 1937 which gives a vivid description of a visit to a local pub:
“The Great Birthday Night. Went in about 7.35. Approx 80 people, trade brisk, barmen skipping about like mad, large skinny black dog running about getting under peoples’ feet and being patted. Great barrels being rolled around. Cheerful air, conversation loud. Mostly working class people, men and women, women all over 40 except for one little tart with colleague of about 35 both standing with frozen smiles in one place not drinking. The birthday port going like mad, toothglasses half full for 5d. I had one, it was thick, sweet, gooseberryish. It didn’t taste any different to the ordinary threepenny a small glass stuff. While I was there another barrel of it was being heaved and shoved into position, the first one being almost empty, tilted down very far. Chaps coming up and saying give me three glasses of the Christmas stuff, I mean the birthday stuff. Everything very brisk, very animated. Barmen grinning and standing in a straight row behind the bar as if waiting for heavy work”.
On the other hand there is the housewife trying to make ends meet:
“Mrs D said they did not know how they were going to manage. ‘Yesterday it was awful. The kids couldn’t understand that there wasn’t any butties. It’s hard when the kids go hungry.’ Yesterday the D’s only had 6 slices of bread and marge and some potatoes.”
The Worktown Papers comprise the original notes and reports compiled during the intensive study that Mass-Observation carried out in Bolton (Worktown) and Blackpool (Holidaytown) between 1937 and 1940, together with notes made when they revisited the sites in 1960. The Papers are arranged into 65 boxes and, within these, into files. The files in each box are lettered from ‘A’ onwards with some boxes containing up to 16 files (A-P). It has sometimes been necessary to split the contents of individual boxes (not files) over more than one reel. 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 all those studying Britain in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the fiction of Bennett, Lawrence and Orwell, the impact of the war on people at home and middle- and working-class culture.
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: