Social History – the Mass Observation Diaries

If you have been exploring your family history in the first half of the 20th Century, perhaps you have come across the Mass Observation Diaries.

The Mass Observation Diaries document everyday life in Britain. A great deal of material was collected in the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s, but newer material has also been collected continuously since 1981 – which will no doubt please future historians and novelists (the diaries have proved invaluable for those writing books set in the Second World War, for instance).

Mass observation was a UK social research organisation, founded in 1937 and its archives are housed at the University of Sussex. The aim of the organisation was to record everyday life in Britain, using untrained volunteers (about 500 people) who kept diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires or directives asking them about their lives.

Investigators were also paid to anonymously record people’s conversations and behaviour at work and out and about – such as conversations at public meetings or sports events.

The organisation’s origins are pretty fascinating. It was founded by a group who wanted to create an “anthropology of ourselves” and it launched through the pages of the periodical the New Statesman on 30 January 1937, with a letter from the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, painter and film-maker Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, a poet and Daily Mirror journalist.

The project’s founders had been dissatisfied with newspaper coverage of the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 and wanted to discern public feeling, instead of being presented with government image making. In 1937, following the coronation of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, they published a book of their findings from the first mass observation efforts.

Mass observation continued to operate throughout the Second World War and into the 1950s, producing books about their work as well as thousands of reports. But gradually, the emphasis moved away from social issues to consumer behaviour and Mass Observation was registered as a limited company in 1949.

In 1970, the archive of reports, letters and books came to the University of Sussex so that they could be used for historical research, and in 1981 the national panel for mass observation was revived.

Jean Lucey Pratt was one of the mass observation diarists. A freelance writer who lived near Slough, she is one of the stars of the mass observation project known under the pseudonym Maggie Joy Blunt and her journals have since been published in their own right by social historian Simon Garfield.

Garfield calls Pratt’s chronicling of her life “a valuable social document about a woman finding her way in the 20th century”, because of their focus on the evolving status of women as the century went on.

If you would like to find out more about the mass observation diaries, including academic interpretations of the papers and how to use the diaries, the website massobs can help you. And if you want to become a mass observer yourself (in the main the project is only looking for men aged 16-44 who live in the north of the UK), you can find details of how to apply here.

If you would like help with your own family tree, Finders International provides a family tree verification service. Contact us ([email protected]) to find out more.