Mass Observation and the lives of ordinary people

By Guest, 9 May 2017 - 3:31pm

As Mass Observation calls for more people to submit a diary of their day on 12th May, Simon Fowler looks at how this giant anthropology project first came about 80 years ago

A family meal in 1939 (Credit: Getty Images)

For a decade before, during and after the Second World War, an extraordinary organisation recorded the lives of ordinary people, the minutiae of everyday life and often the feelings of members.

Mass Observation was established in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, film-maker Humphrey Jennings and journalist Charles Madge.

Harrisson argued that more was known about the people of the New Hebrides, where he had lived for three years, than industrial workers of Lancashire. He later wrote that: “While anthropologists... go all over the world studying so-called primitive peoples, no one is making comparable studies of ourselves. I was determined to return to study the cannibals of Britain. So I headed up here to the less savage, but to me equally exotic Bolton.”

The project was also a successor to a Victorian tradition that investigated the social conditions of the poor in London and other cities. It led to a number of bestselling books exposing, often in graphic detail, the lives of slum dwellers, such as William Booth’s In Darkest England and The Way Out (1890) and Jack London’s The People of the Abyss from 1903.

Mass Observation sought to record the mundane and the ordinary. Charles Madge, looking back in 1961, was thankful that “some sort of a net had been spread to catch that fleeting, glinting apparition, the essence of the time”. And one of the volunteer observers, Christopher Tomlin, was attracted to the organisation because “it wants to know and inform, tell all classes about the emotions, acts, thoughts and struggles of the ordinary or ‘average’ man and woman. Too many articles and books have been written on high-flown subjects but none about the prosaic things of everyday life.”

The immediate spur for the formation of Mass Observation was the Abdication Crisis of late 1936. The newspapers were universally hostile when they wrote about Edward VIII’s intention to marry Wallis Simpson. Yet it was clear the vast majority of British people supported the King, and their opinions were not being heard. Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge wanted to change this.

Tom Harrisson was the anthropologist behind the Mass Observation project (Credit: Getty Images)

Life in 'Worktown'

There were several parts to Mass Observation’s work. Initially, it concentrated largely on the Lancashire cotton town of Bolton – known as ‘Worktown’ to Mass Observation – which became the focus of the first major study. But they undertook shorter surveys nationally and during the Second World War encouraged volunteer observers to write diaries about their experiences.

Bolton was chosen in part as it was thought to be fairly typical of an industrial area, but also because Harrisson knew several industrialists in the area who were sympathetic to the project.

To begin, Harrisson rented a small house in Davenport Street. For nearly three years it housed a variety of men and women who observed, often in great detail, the lives and activities of local people. Some of these volunteers were from the area but most were students or intellectuals from London. The observers were sent out on specific tasks to note down everything they observed.

Harrisson was a great visionary, but not a great organiser. Many projects were never completed and money was always tight. Only one book resulting from their work in Bolton was ever published – The Pub and the People – and this only in 1943. In Worktown, the book explains “the pub has more buildings, holds more people, takes more of their time and money, than church, cinema, dance-hall, and political organisations put together”.

The statistics are thorough and often meaningless. In the course of a single Thursday night, pub-goers drink, on average, 3.16 pints of beer; on a Saturday, the average goes up to 3.45 pints. However, among the statistics there are graphic vignettes of the drinkers and their lives. A woman drinker memorably praises snuff: “Eeee, it’s lovely, makes your navel perk like a whelk!” 

Among the details recorded by Mass Observation was daily drinking quotas by pub-goers (Credit: Getty Images)

And in the lounge of the Dog and Partridge on 27 May 1937, one observer found a group of market traders: “Large tough guy with masses of hair held down by a hairnet sits at a table with a group of four (one woman)... Hairnet suddenly takes a small live tortoise out of his overcoat pocket and threatens woman with it. She screams a little. ‘What do you feed it on?’ someone asks. ‘Milk’. ‘How much?’ A quiet thin man in bowler sitting in another group leans forward and says quickly ‘quart and a half’. Hairnet says ‘I gave it a saucer full on Sunday’…”

At the same time, Mass Observation began to recruit volunteers from all over Britain for particular projects. The first was to record what they did on Coronation Day on 12 May 1937. Even today, Mass Observation asks its volunteers to record in detail their activities on 12 May every year.

Members were also asked to report on specific activities, such as wrestling, football pools, and “music: jazz and dancing”. They also looked at astrology. “A Man of 45” reported: “No, I never bother with it, but there are folks, especially in the football pools season, who use all sorts of things like that to mark their coupons.”

The Second World War is now regarded as being the most important period in the organisation’s history, although it was not thought so at the time. In the early years of the war, Mass Observation undertook various projects for the Ministry of Information, but increasingly its work was taken over by the War-Time Social Survey.

Tom Harrisson, himself, eventually joined the Special Operations Executive and was parachuted into the jungles of Borneo to fight the Japanese.

At the beginning of the war, appeals were put in newspapers asking people to keep a diary of their lives. Some 500 people responded and began to write about their experiences, hopes and fears. They were not typical of the population as a whole, largely living in the South-east, and often clerical workers, teachers, students, journalists and librarians. Nella Last (made famous after the publication of her diary) was unusual in being a housewife from Barrow-in-Furness.

Most diarists eventually fell by the wayside: keeping a detailed daily diary was rather more onerous than they had expected. But for others it was a cathartic experience, making sense of their lives in a written form. One diarist described her diary as being an “invisible shoulder” and Mrs Last wrote about her unhappy marriage: “I always tried to keep my husband in a good mood – when a smacked head would have been the best treatment.”

There is scant evidence that Mass Observation ever responded to the diarists, apart from assuring anonymity. There was no attempt to direct or edit their work. The diaries rarely describe the horrors of war. The Blitz was very localised and most areas escaped with only minor damage. Nella Last felt guilty that: “It’s really astounding how little I do think of the war. I am often amazed at my ‘limited vision’ and I wonder whether others have it, too.”

Staff at the Mass Observation project help to plan a survey at their headquarters (Credit: Getty Images)

Yet in the dark days of 1940 the determination not to surrender is made clear in the diaries. Doris Melling, a 22-year-old typist from Liverpool, reported a conversation in her office after the French surrender on 24 June 1940: “The whole thing has proved that no one can be trusted – we have been let down everywhere. One woman this morning: ‘Well at least we know where we are now. We are not helping anyone but ourselves’.”

For most diarists their wartime experiences were a mixture of the familiar and the strange, as well as coping with the curbs and difficulties placed upon them by the state in the titanic struggle with the Nazis. Some clearly enjoyed the war and the new freedoms offered. However, many diarists, particularly the young women, were ambivalent when the war ended. The certainties and opportunities of war were replaced by a new and frightening uncertainty. Nella Last wrote on 10 May 1945: “I read the letter from Regional [Women’s Voluntary Service] and thought, ‘Umph, we’ll soon all be out of a job’ – it was not with any sense of exultation. It’s been a long and often trying road, but I found comradeship and I bought peace of mind when otherwise I’d have broken. The knowledge that I was ‘keeping things running in the right direction’ in however small degree steadied me.”

In addition, a panel of several thousand observers were asked for their views on a variety of subjects from snobbery, sexual behaviour to the need for a Second Front. This latter study led to a splenetic memo from Winston Churchill questioning the Communist bias of the organisation.

It is true that many of the initial volunteers were on the left of the Labour Party or Communists – certainly the three founders were left-wing intellectuals – but the wartime observers had a wide variety of political beliefs.

Other observers sent in detailed reports on all aspects of the war, which even today have hardly been touched by historians. One observer in Bolton recorded the tedium of life for soldiers on 29 July 1940: “Men being marched out to drill in local park. The man at the head of the obe [sic] section carries a Bren gun. All others have their rifles. Waterproof capes on shoulders. Sergeant in charge of one lot goes red in the face with shouting ‘left, right’ and blows out his cheeks, thumps his chest and gives up. The last lot to come out; two men at the back carrying large box (gun). One man is small, civilian gasmask, drops his cape. One of the two sergeants walking behind picks it up, walks with it some way, and then catches up man and gives it to him. All the men look tired, fed up and dull.”

A survey interviewer investigates a family's views on education at home in 1944 (Credit: Getty Images)

A unique legacy

After the war, Mass Observation’s founders moved onto other things, and the project was slowly wound up. Fortunately, the papers were kept safe and were eventually deposited with the University of Sussex. They are now held in the university’s collections at The Keep archive centre in Falmer, just outside Brighton.

Historians are divided about the worth of Mass Observation. A critic wrote of one study that: “The facts simply multiply like maggots in a cheese.”

Indeed, much of what observers recorded is trivial and uninteresting. They studied which end of a cigarette people tapped before lighting it. It was found that 53 per cent tapped the end they put in their mouths.

Even the diarists occasionally doubted the worth of what they were writing. In the middle of May 1940, one of their number Pam Ashford, wrote: “If my great grandmother had kept a diary on the Eve of Waterloo, and had recorded all the trivialities I put into mine on the eve of this terrible battle that is coming, well I should think she was daft.”

Although Harrisson claimed that the organisation was scientific and thorough, it was anything but. In the Worktown studies, for example, there is nothing about Bolton Wanderers, whose football matches were attended by thousands of working men, yet there is a detailed study of minor Christian sects that attracted few adherents.

The observers, whose diaries are now regarded as being the most important part of the archives, have also been criticised as being unrepresentative, as most writers were self-selecting, middle class and few were actively engaged in war work. But Tom Harrisson argued: “At this degree of intimacy, the word ‘typical’ is no longer suitable. No one is privately typical of anyone else.”

Simon Garfield who has used the Mass Observation Archives extensively for a series of bestselling books, says that the diarists “cogently and engagingly contributed to what is now universally regarded as a unique and invaluable record of quiet lives transformed by events far beyond their control”.

And what they wrote is often a useful antidote to the usual propaganda about the war that is still trotted out today. Through the reports and diaries they left behind we get a flavour of everyday life.

This article is reprinted from Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine issue 108, January 2016

To mark the 80th anniversary of the start of Mass Observation, the Mass Observation Archive is inviting members of the public to keep a diary of their lives on 12 May 2017. To take part, click here.

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