A unique legacy
After the war, Mass Observation’s founders moved onto other things, and the project was slowly wound up. Fortunately, the papers were kept safe and were eventually deposited with the University of Sussex. They are now held in the university’s collections at The Keep archive centre in Falmer, just outside Brighton ( thekeep.info).
Historians are divided about the worth of Mass Observation. A critic wrote of one study that: “The facts simply multiply like maggots in a cheese.”
Indeed, much of what observers recorded is trivial and uninteresting. They studied which end of a cigarette people tapped before lighting it. It was found that 53 per cent tapped the end they put in their mouths.
Even the diarists occasionally doubted the worth of what they were writing. In the middle of May 1940, one of their number Pam Ashford, wrote: “If my great grandmother had kept a diary on the Eve of Waterloo, and had recorded all the trivialities I put into mine on the eve of this terrible battle that is coming, well I should think she was daft.”
Although Harrisson claimed that the organisation was scientific and thorough, it was anything but. In the Worktown studies, for example, there is nothing about Bolton Wanderers, whose football matches were attended by thousands of working men, yet there is a detailed study of minor Christian sects that attracted few adherents.
The observers, whose diaries are now regarded as being the most important part of the archives, have also been criticised as being unrepresentative, as most writers were self-selecting, middle class and few were actively engaged in war work. But Tom Harrisson argued: “At this degree of intimacy, the word ‘typical’ is no longer suitable. No one is privately typical of anyone else.”
Simon Garfield who has used the Mass Observation Archives extensively for a series of bestselling books, says that the diarists “cogently and engagingly contributed to what is now universally regarded as a unique and invaluable record of quiet lives transformed by events far beyond their control”.
And what they wrote is often a useful antidote to the usual propaganda about the war that is still trotted out today. Through the reports and diaries they left behind we get a flavour of everyday life at the time that the 1939 National Register was being compiled. Simon Fowler is a professional writer, historian and teacher. He has used the Mass Observation Archives to look at the lives of soldiers during the Second World War.
Staff at the Mass Observation project help to plan a survey at their headquarters