Creating record of everyday people’s lives

For 75 years Mass Observation has recorded life in the UK. Sheena Hastings looks at how it reflects British life and why it still matters.

TODAY there are so many ways in which those who want to know about our daily habits and even our opinions can do so that it would be almost impossible to count them. Our actions are observed, stored, analysed and used to commercial advantage by a scary number of organisations.

Supermarkets plunder itemised records of our shopping trolley’s contents; after spending money with one company online, hey presto, you find other companies selling similar goods are targeting you with their offerings at “competitive prices”. The online bookseller analyses your reading choices and tries to tempt you with a few more in the same vein.

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Many (often annoying) assumptions are made about us on the strength of past behaviour. Credit card companies and private health companies canvas for business by post – and they uncannily know your date of birth.

Back in the 1930s and 1940s the age of Big Brother had not yet arrived, and market research was still only in its infancy, even in the US. After the crisis brought about by Edward VIII’s abdication a group of intellectuals that included anthropologist Tom Harrisson suspected there might be a discrepancy between what ordinary people were saying and feeling and how their attitudes were being portrayed by the Press and via the government publicity machine.

The world was changing fast, fascism was on the rise in Europe, and a tidal wave of conflict was about to sweep across the world. Social researchers wanted to find out what ordinary people felt about their lives and the world around them.

The idea was revolutionary – the man or woman in the street had never been asked to talk about themselves in this way before. Over successive decades thousands of people of all ages were recruited across the country to contribute a “day diary” periodically, and to respond to “directives” on topics such happiness, education, work, hobbies, aspects of war, the economy and much more.

This independent social research was called Mass Observation, and in its first years it was run on a tiny budget generated by donations, bequests and the proceeds of the publication of books based on the data it amassed. MO has now existed for three-quarters of a century (although its social research stopped temporarily in the 60s and 70s while a commercial arm continued in market research) and the archive that was generated was housed by the University of Sussex, which is still home to this amazing resource.

One Yorkshire diarist, contributing to MO in 1937, discussed how her mother would have been more interested in the coronation if it had been Edward VIII who had been crowned, and said the family preferred him to his brother because he had an interest in social problems, while George VI would probably do whatever he was told to do.

Both volunteers and paid observers generated material for the MO archive during the war. After a parachute bomb was dropped on the Bean Street area of Hull on March 14, 1941, the locals were reported to be horrified but extraordinarily robust in the face of the loss not just of their individual homes but a whole neighbourhood. The MO observer remarked: “...The first reaction was one of considerable shock. But their recovery was rapid. It is to this rapidity of recovery that we can pay tribute, indicating as it does the high morale of the people.”

As the war continued, Yorkshire volunteer diarist Edie Rutherford wrote in March 1943 about how she had, just for fun, tried making pastry using liquid paraffin. The result was not bad, even if her flat did smell like a motor car fire while the pie was in the oven.

During the blitz Edie reported: “Sirens 10 to 9 last night, quite like old times. All clear midnight. Plenty of noise but according to news today, we didn’t hit any of them...Standing on balcony we cd see from our height the a.a.guns for miles over the moors all banging away, and searchlights scanning the skies for miles round.”

The wide scope of MO research meant very little was out of bounds. Decades after the war a 36-year-old Leeds librarian observed developments in donor conception saying that “anyone+anyone” could now make a baby.

The overarching purpose of Mass Observation was that of creating a “meteorological weather map of feelings and opinions” across the country, using methods that would circumvent the perceptions portrayed in the popular press of the day, says Fiona Courage, MO Archive curator at Sussex University.

“What MO did in those war years was really reflect people’s mood. They were patriotic but very open about being tired of the confilict...Material was built up about the lives of women working in munitions factories, what was going on in dance halls, conversations on trams and buses, and how people felt about moral issues.” The archive is open for free to anyone who wants to go and use it, and much of its material is available online.

Many books have been published by anthropologists, sociologists and others thanks to the work of MO, and among the steady panel of 500 regular diary contributors are those who clearly had an urge to write burning inside them, says Courage.

“One of the things that always strikes me when I look through the archive is how long some of the responses are. Early on, when there was no TV and people were much more curtailed socially, some diarists went into prolific detail about themselves. A few, like Nella Last, a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness, published books of their own.” Last wrote diaries for MO from 1939 to 1965 – a total of about two million words.

Joe Moran, reader in cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University and a regular user of the MO Archive, believes the value of MO material lies in those precious first-person accounts of life. “For a start there is so much of it, and the material has an immediacy, concrete quality and particularity about it. I think it’s the emphasis on the seemingly trivial and mundane that makes it so compelling.”

May 12 might be quite an ordinary day for most of us, but for those who research the “ordinary” a collection of details about everyday life is an extraordinarily rich resource. Mass Observation want members of the public to submit an electronic diary of the day to be stored for posterity. You need to write in as much detail as you can about what you do, what you eat and drink, who you meet, what you buy or sell, what you’re working on, places you visit, things you see and hear around you and your own thoughts and opinions. For details of requirements go to www.massobs.org.uk/12may

Quotations reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London, on behalf of the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive; © The Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive.

Volunteers who shared their thoughts

The creators of the Mass Observation project were anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings.

Collaborators included the critic William Empson, photographer Humphrey Spender, the collagist Julian Trevelyan and painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell.

Run on a shoestring with money from their own pockets and the odd philanthropic contribution or book advance, the project relied for most on its network of volunteer correspondents and their day diaries.

MO first used paid observers in the Worktown Project of 1937, which aimed to create a documentary account of everyday life in Bolton and Blackpool. These paid investigators attended political and social events, sporting and leisure activities and observed and interviewed their subjects in the street and at work.

They were asked to record what they saw in great detail and were even instructed to listen in on people’s conversations.

Staff observed a number of specific topics from 1937 onwards, and these often spanned many years and were collated into topic collections. Not only did staff and volunteers write down observations – they also collected and collated all sorts of ephemera, from cinema tickets and theatre programmes to surveys and household accounts.

MO research was occasionally influential in shaping British policy. For example, its study of saving habits was used by John Maynard Keynes to argue successfully for tax policy changes.