Sussex digital project shares 1980s views of Thatcher’s Britain

Some of the 1980s ephemera that forms part of the Mass Observation Archive's 1980s collection

A University of Sussex digital project offers fascinating insights into the social history and cultural changes as experienced by those living during the 1980s in Thatcher’s Britain.

The Observing the 1980s project at the University of Sussex, funded by Jisc, collates first-hand accounts, written by volunteers, of their daily lives and views which were collected throughout the decade as part of the Mass Observation Archive. This material offers a unique and inspiring insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 80s period.

The project brings together ‘voices’ from the Mass Observation Project and the British Library’s Oral history collections alongside 1980s documents and ephemera such as public information leaflets, pamphlets, posters and tickets from the University of Sussex Library’s archives. As well as Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands War and the miners’ strike, other topics covered include Charles and Diana’s wedding, terrorism, AIDS, unemployment and immigration.

Historian Dr Lucy Robinson, academic lead for the project who created the '1984: Thatcher's Britain' course at the University of Sussex and developed the new open version, says: “The 1980s is attractive to historians because the decade is both close enough and far away enough to allow us to explore the limits of historical perspective and offers a diverse range of subjects in what was the last era before the internet revolution. A lot of the material comprises the personal memories of people who lived through the Thatcher era, making this resource seem all the more resonant now.”

Paola Marchionni, programme manager at Jisc, says: “Jisc has invested in this project in recognition of the value of how people’s stories can enrich the teaching and learning of recent history. Observing the 1980s is a truly collaborative effort that brings together different departments and expertise within the University of Sussex along with external partners, such as the British Library, in the delivery of innovative open educational resources.”

The material is also embedded into the University of Sussex Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) using open Moodle software. A variety of open education resources have been created including one titled ‘Thatcher's Britain: Observing the 1980s’, which includes videos, images and slides and which can be accessed by anyone through a guest login with no need sign up. There are also several infographics covering the Falklands Conflict, Unemployment, the Miners’ strike and Sexuality in Thatcher’s Britain on the website.

Additionally, a key benefit for educators is in the raw nature of the information and its potential use across subject areas such as politics, sociology, oral history, cultural and media studies, linguistics, gender studies, narrative and memory studies, migration studies, folklore studies, anthropology and contemporary history. Currently no established historiography of the 1980s exists, which adds to the value of digitising these collections and disseminating them as open educational resources.

It will also be available through HumBox and JORUM as well as via other educational resource sites such as the British Library.

Hear Dr Robinson talk about the Observing the 80s project on YouTube.

Notes to editors

The 23 volunteers selected for the project are men and women of different ages, from different social backgrounds. They have contributed their accounts to the Mass Observation project and the Observing the 80s team have then chosen extracts from their writing over the whole decade.

To accompany the written accounts, they have selected 26 interviews from the British Library Oral history collections to provide audio extracts and to ensure a broad coverage of key themes.

The Mass Observation Archive specialises in material about everyday life in Britain. It contains papers generated by the original Mass Observation social research organisation (1937 to early 1950s), and newer material, including diaries and personal observations of volunteer contributors from the public, collected continuously since 1981. The Archive is in the care of the University of Sussex and is housed in the Library in Special Collections.

The Project was led by Jane Harvell. Head of Academic Services in the Library and managed by University doctoral researcher Jill Kirby. Mass Observation material was selected for digitisation by Dorothy Sheridan, with University of Sussex historian and academic lead for the project, Dr Lucy Robinson. Work to make the material available openly was undertaken by Special Collections staff, the University’s IT services E-learning developer Stuart Lamour and current students.

For interviews and further information about Mass Observation and Observing th 1980s at the University of Sussex, contact Maggie Clune or Jacqui Bealing in the Sussex Press office. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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 Jisc is an independent education charity, owned by the Association of Colleges (AoC), GuildHE and Universities UK (UUK). It provides UK higher education, further education and skills sectors support on the use of digital technologies. It provides advice and guidance through Jisc Advance and owns a subsidiary company, Jisc Collections and Janet Limited, which provides an academic telecommunications network infrastructure and digital content services for over 19 million users across the UK.

Jisc’s vision is to make the UK the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world. Jisc’s mission is to enable the education sector in the UK to perform at the forefront of international practice by exploiting fully the possibilities of modern digital empowerment, content and connectivity. To find out more contact Charlie Covington of the Jisc press office on 07841951296 or

Last updated: Friday, 12 April 2013