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