Mass Observation books take a peek at all our yesterdays
A collection of books about everyday life in 1930s and 1940s Britain, based on the contents of a unique archive at the University of Sussex, has been re-issued by publishers Faber.
The Mass Observation Archive is a repository of diaries and written observations that offer an alternative view of British life before, during and after the Second World War, through the eyes of its ordinary citizens.
The material dealing with the lead-up to and experience of World War II on the Home Front is well known to historians and writers now, but the lesser-known titles also make fascinating reading.
The books include titles such as Meet Yourself on Sundays (drawn from material written 1937-8 but published 1949); The Pub and the People (published 1943); and Meet Yourself at the Doctors (published 1949). Each book draws on original materials in the University’s Mass Observation Archive and each offers a glimpse of people not usually featured in the history books, from an age fast passing out of living memory. The two Meet Yourself books were also gloriously illustrated by the artist and St Trinian's creator Ronald Searle.
The books reveal a world that was contemplating a newly-emerging National Health Service; Sundays of roast meat, suet pudding and enforced leisure due to everything being shut; where radio entertainment still dominated; when a doctor would offer a patient a relaxing cigarette and when hawkers sold everything from meat pies to muscle rub in spit-and-sawdust pubs populated by “swigglers”*, bookmakers’ runners and men-only clubs.
The observers were also dedicated collectors of an eclectic and sometimes eccentric array of factual observations. They noted the high incidence of TB among pub workers; the number and types of hat worn; they noted what people ate for breakfast, what papers they read, and what they gossiped about in queues on buses and in waiting rooms.
Reports of Sunday pursuits led to the conclusion that “Sunday in England had changed little since the early 1800s”, when essayist Charles Lamb wrote of a London Sunday being “dull, empty and cheerless”. Happier observations paint the relatively exotic spectacle of the London population decamped to a South Coast resort during the heat wave of 1948.
Professor Dorothy Sheridan is Development Director for the Mass Observation Archive and has been associated with the Archive since 1972. She says: “The publications inevitably represent only a tiny proportion of the whole archive, much of which remains unpublished. A lot of the raw material was probably never even read at the time, let alone analysed. But the books do offer an extraordinarily vivid glimpse of a time which will soon not be accessible to living memory.”
John Seaton, the editor of the Faber Finds imprint, says: “I was keen to put together this reissue programme of some of the original titles because it struck me Mass Observation deserved to be seen and celebrated in its pristine state rather than only being known as a quarry for new social history anthologies. Nothing on this scale has been done before, but previously there was less awareness of Mass Observation than there now is. The success of titles like Simon Garfield's Our Hidden Lives trilogy has changed that. Now is a good time, I think, to take a fresh look at Mass Observations own original work.”
Mass Observation began in the 1930s when a team of full-time investigators were paid to observe others objectively in a northern town (Bolton) re-named “Worktown”. Volunteers from around the country were later recruited to keep personal diaries about key events or everyday life nationwide.
The project was wound up in the 1950s and eventually the collection was set up at the University as an archive by Mass Observation founder Tom Harrisson. The project was resurrected at the University in the 1980s and continues today, seeking opinion on diverse subjects and key events from a national panel of volunteers.
The archive has since served as an invaluable source of inspiration for social historians, writers and dramatists, resulting in a number of bestselling books, TV dramas and theatre plays.
Notes for Editors
*Swiggler – the name given to a person who swiggled his beer glass. This involved rolling the last bit of beer round the bottom of the glass – a habit that greatly interested the observers.
So far 11 of the 25 Mass Observation titles have been published as part of the Faber Finds series, which is devoted to the revival of high-quality titles in book form, printed to order. Faber plans to re-issue as many as 1,000 titles. Books can be ordered through local bookshops online or direct from Faber online.
The 25 books produced by Mass Observation were anthologies of material collected according to various themes and events and printed between the 1930s and 1950s. The first book, May 12th, covers the day of King George VI’s coronation in 1937. The last book, Britain Revisited, was published in 1959, as Britain emerged from post-war gloom, on the cusp of major change.
Image taken from Meet Yourself at the Doctors (1949), courtesy of Ronald Searle.
Further information available from the University of Sussex Press office