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What is the Mass Observation Archive?

The Mass Observation Archive was set as a Social Study by 3 rather accomplished young men in 1937 with the goal of creating an "anthropology of ourselves."

They enlisted the help of a group of observers & volunteer writers to research regular people's lives in Britain & this ground-breaking effort lasted well into the early 1950s.

The New Statesman first published details of this project on the 30th January 1937 and was the brainchild of Tom Harrisson, an Ornithologist & Anthropologist, Humphrey Jennings, a Filmmaker & Painter & Charles Madge a Poet, Writer & Journalist for the Daily Mirror. These men were brought together when Harrisson's poem was published in the New Statesman in early 1937, interestingly on the same page as a letter from Madge & Jennings outlining their London-based attempt to attract a national panel of volunteers to respond to periodical surveys on a variety of topics. Harrisson approached Madge & Jennings after noticing a parallel in goals to his own study of the British People & so the Mass Observation Project was launched!

Within a month, the 2 initiatives, which were pretty similar in their aims but differed in their techniques they used to obtain data, merged under the banner of Mass Observation. Their goal was to establish an "anthropology of ourselves" - a study of ordinary people's daily lives in Great Britain.

People Shadows - image via Pexels

While Madge remained in London to organise the drafting of the volunteer panel, Harrisson and a team of observers resumed their study of life & people in Bolton (The Worktown Project). Where a team of investigators from Bolton went to a range of public places, including religious events, meetings, recreational & sporting activities, workplaces etc. They captured as much as possible about people's actions & interactions. They would create a diverse documentary account of life in Great Britain. The National Panel of Diarists was made up of people from all over the country who kept diaries or responded to open-ended questionnaires supplied to them by the London office on a regular basis.

Despite the departure of Jennings and then Madge, Mass Observation continued to operate during WWII and into the early 1950s, publishing a series of publications & thousands of reports. The focus gradually turned away from social issues and toward consumer behaviour.

Evacuees in Montgomeryshire - Public Domain (Wiki Commons)

In some of my own studies relating to World War II, I was interested to note that many of the diaries & accounts written by members of the public for the Mass Observation Project during this time are often used by historians as they detail the thoughts & opinions of the day. These can include thoughts on objectors, fear of air raids, food shortages, rationing & the evacuation of children.

WW2 Transforming Llanrwst Square - Public Domain (Wiki Commons)

The Archive was transferred to Sussex University in 1970 and was made available to the public as a historical research resource. The Archive houses all of Mass Observation's material from 1937 to 1949, as well as a few additional additions from the 1950s & 60s.

In 1981, the original Mass Observation concept was resurrected from the archives. New volunteer writers or correspondents were recruited from throughout the UK via the press & media.

The 12th of May Diary Project, as well as other projects & collaborations, help the Mass Observation Project collect material about ordinary life.

Getting involved

On many occasions I have contributed to the project by writing a daily diary for the 12th of May Mass Observation project. This is always submitted anonymously other than including some small details in relation to my age, geographical area, relationship status, occupation as well as including a brief self-portrait. In the diaries I have detailed my movements of the day & if I was working what my day consisted of. Any time spent with family or friends (mentioning no names). Thoughts on any matters affecting the public or country at that particular time. You write it as you would any other diary. At the bottom of this you must write a statement agreeing that copyright of this material be handed over to the project. You then either submit it via email or post. It’s that simple!

I really find this a worthwhile project & as a historian like to think that I’m playing my part in Social History.

Check out the Mass Observation website, there are a wealth of resources from blogs to podcasts that tell the story of Britain’s people.

If you would like to contribute a diary from the 12th May this year then visit the project webpage to find out how to take part.


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