(1890-1968)

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - MASS OBSERVATION -

The best known of th he Mass Ob­ser­va­tion di­arists is Nella Last. Her di­ary has been pub­lished in sev­eral books and it was brought to life by Vic­to­ria Wood in 2006 as House­wife 494 – 49 be­ing her age when war broke out­out.

Un­shaped by for­mal education, her writ­ing is vivid, funny, in­tensely per­sonal, and of­ten mov­ing.

She con­tin­ued send­ing in her di­aries un­til 1966 on thin pa­per in ink, each week, care­fully tied up with cot­ton thread.

Nella had an un­happy re­la­tion­ship with her hus­band Will, a shy and rather moody man, but adored her two sons Arthur and Cliff.

By 1939, Will ran a small shop-fit­ting busi­ness, but had no other in­ter­ests, un­like his vi­va­cious wife.

Dur­ing the Se­cond World War, she worked in the lo­cal Women’s Vol­un­tary Ser­vice knit­ting ‘com­forts’, run­ning the lo­cal Bri­tish Restau­rant and look­ing af­ter the el­derly, which gave her a lot more con­fi­dence. She con­fided to her di­ary at the end of 1943 that: “I am a very nervy woman and cir­cum­stances rather kept me down. I have found a sur­pris­ing lot of lit­tle tal­ents I did not re­alise I pos­sessed and have grown to feel that I re­ally can help. It’s re­moved a feel­ing of frus­tra­tion and taken me into com­pany who never think I am odd – or if they do they don’t mean it as a re­buke. It’s made life more en­joy­able, if harder. I don’t mind work.” 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 (see panel left) 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.”

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

The op­por­tu­ni­ties of the war were re­placed with new and fright­en­ing un­cer­tainty

A sur­vey in­ter­viewer in­ves­ti­gates a fam­ily’s views on education at home in 1944

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