Boston College Libraries Faculty Newsletter



Mass Observation Online:
The Archive of a Pioneering Social Research Organization

In recent decades the popularity of Britain’s Royal Family has declined with a variety of polls indicating that numerous Britons are not at all sure that their country is benefiting from the presence of the monarchy. Many feel that the Royal Family should not be financed from public money while others believe that there should be no monarchy at all. Though uncertainty about the usefulness of the Royal Family was certainly expressed in the first half of the Twentieth Century, it is difficult to identify precise statistics about republican, anti-monarchical sentiments voiced then. However, a particularly useful tool to gauge attitudes towards the Royal Family is the BC Library resource Mass Observation Online, a fascinating searchable collection of British social history material from the Mass-Observation Organisation (MO) established in 1937. One of MO’s earliest publications May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day Surveys 1937 documents the attitudes and reactions of a great number of ordinary people to the coronation of George VI who ascended the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to marry the American Wallis Simpson. MO had anticipated that the populace would not be quite as uncritically supportive of the monarchy as the accounts depicted in the press. They were correct as the work undermined to some degree the newspapers’, and indeed the Government’s, picture of mass approval of and enthusiasm for Britain’s Royalty. It is an odd book with a diverse range of reactions, often idiosyncratic, to the Royal Family, the coronation, the abdication, and the role of the monarchy as the nation approached war.


A few years later, in June 1940, another MO report, The Royal Family, “based on indirect questioning and the collection of a number of overheard remarks,” revealed that with the onset of WWII interest in the King and Queen had declined appreciably. Typical of the responses was that of a middle class male aged 20 who remarked:

“I should think they’re quite nice people, quite harmless, but redundant, -- is that the word? – unnecessary. I’m not very interested in them.”

Another observed:

“People simply aren’t interested in them. They don’t dislike them, or anything – they just don’t think about them. I don’t think I’ve spoken about them at the office for – oh, ever such a long time.”

A working woman related her disinterest specifically to the war:

“I think it’s all a bit silly – kings and queens in wartime. I don’t think they’re wanted. All them things are all right in peacetime – we like to have ceremonies, and royal robes, -- but now it’s up to us all – not Kings and Queens. That’s what I think, anyway.”

In like manner a thirty-old laborer commented:

“Kings and Queens don’t make much difference when it comes to wars and so on. Ours are just figure-heads, and that shows more than ever in wartime.”

Still, a number of observers praised the role of the Royals as unifying figureheads while others acknowledged the difficulty of their jobs. Some had good things to say about them as individuals. The Duke of Windsor is mentioned a lot but with mixed feelings.

This brief 1940 report concluded that the decrease in prestige of the Royal Family since the outbreak of the war was partly because of the failure to exploit the symbolic value of Royalty, partly because all leadership was being discredited, and partly because of antipathy to behavior of other royals, prime examples being the capitulation of King Leopold and the recent unfavorable accounts provided to the British public of Queen Wilhelmina, Princess Juliana, the King of Italy, and the Duke of Windsor. The major conclusion of the report was that many Britons felt that British Royalty would seek shelter abroad if the war went badly, an action that would do little to enhance their popularity: “In particular, there is the feeling well based on precedent, that Royalty is something different from the mass of people, and under present stresses, will slide off the top of the country into another country when things get tough.”

A quarter century later Mass Observation published the results of another major survey on British attitudes to the Royal Family, Long to Reign Over Us? The Status of the Royal Family in the Sixties. This revealed that though the existence of the monarchy was by and large well accepted in Britain, people were not particularly interested in it nor actively advocated alternatives. “The first and most striking thing to emerge from the report is the extent to which the monarchical idea is tacitly accepted rather than actively supported. The prevalent American view of the average English as a fervid and outspoken royalist is just not true. The reaction of the average man to the monarchical idea is roughly equivalent to his reaction to the weather. He just accepts it. He grumbles about it, or praises it, but he does not expect to alter it. He certainly does not attempt to do anything about it.” Today, almost fifty years later, distinctly more anti-monarchical and republican sentiments are more frequently expressed in Britain. It is a trend that many supporters of Royalty hope the present publicity and excitement over the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton will reverse.

The origin of the Mass Observation Organisation was first announced in a 30 January, 1937 letter to the New Statesman and Nation signed by Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist who had worked in Borneo and the New Hebrides, Charles Madge, poet and journalist, and Humphrey Jennings, a documentary film maker. The letter recommended that a new research project be established, the goal of which would be an “anthropology at home … a science of ourselves”. Accordingly, they proposed new areas of anthropological exploration of everyday life in Britain including such pedestrian, and in some cases arcane, areas as “behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; the anthropology of football pools; bathroom behavior; beards, armpits, eyebrows; anti-Semitism; distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke; funerals and undertakers; female taboos about eating; the private lives of midwives.” The authors, holding that national life was rife with myth and superstition and that a large chasm existed between true public opinion and social behavior and what was publicized as such by the Government and the press, considered that their proposed Mass Observation project would reveal in a scientific manner the truth about what the average Briton did and believed. Though the MO’s collection techniques varied, there were two principal strategies: a) teams of investigators were paid to observe and record in detail ordinary individuals’ conversation and behavior in a variety of public situations such as religious gatherings, leisure and sporting activities, other meetings, normal pursuits in the street and at work; b) a National Panel of volunteers who kept diaries, personal reports on various topics, and completed questionnaires sent by the central organization. MO continued its activities through World War II and into the first part of the 1950s. Gradually a focus on consumer behavior rather than social issues became more prominent. In 1949 Mass Observation was registered as a limited company and for the next couple of decades it was a commercial market research organization. In the 1970s MO began a new life as an important archive at the University of Sussex. Then in 1981, with renewed interest in the original goals of the organization, MO was re-launched and fresh data began to be collected from new panels and questionnaires. MO continues to this day.


It is true that Mass Observation, especially in the early years, came in for copious criticism, despite the support of such luminaries as Julian Huxley and Bronislaw Malinowski, for its flawed survey and statistical techniques. Nevertheless, MO’s findings and publications offer fascinating analysis of Britain’s social, cultural and economic everyday life for the period 1937 onwards. The range of topics covered is very broad including World War II; sex, marriage, the family, birth control; popular culture -- cinema-going, radio, music, the advent of television, sport, drinking habits; attitudes to war; political and economic views – welfare state, public health, trade unions, strikes, transport, industry, America, Russia and Europe, fascism, communism; social conditions and activities -- shopping, consumerism, branding, household budgeting, housing, religious practices, holidays, education, the police. Particularly interesting are the personal diaries kept by ordinary men and women from 1939 onwards and which are an important component of the MO archive. The diaries covering the war years, 1939 to 1945, constitute an especially rich resource for anyone studying Britons’ personal experiences and feelings during a time of great turmoil. The personal accounts covering such topics as the onset of the war, public morale, the Blitz, food rationing, the Dunkirk evacuation, loved ones killed, post-war hope, social relations, frustrations, pastimes, love affairs and a host of other subjects are a treasure trove to the researcher of the period. In addition to the obvious interest from the coverage of an incredibly broad amalgam of subjects, Mass Observation -- its organization, its history, its techniques, its personalities, and so on – is itself an extraordinary social phenomenon that repays further study. Caleb Crain's September 11, 2006 New Yorker article Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation movement and the meaning of everyday life provides a useful overview. The “Essays” section of the database, Mass Observation Online, makes available plentiful other scholarly treatment of MO.


Brendan Rapple
Collection Development Librarian