It was criticised in the 1930s for recruiting “psychoanthroposociological Nosey Parkers” to spy on fellow Britons, but delivered crucial insights into morale during the Second World War. Now the pioneering social research organisation Mass-Observation (M-O) has been commemorated with a blue plaque on the London house that was its first headquarters.
No. 6 Grotes Buildings in Blackheath was the home of the journalist and poet Charles Madge, who — along with anthropologist and ornithologist Tom Harrisson and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings — was one of M-O’s three principal founders. To the consternation of Madge’s wife, poet Kathleen Raine, the family home became a makeshift sorting office, reading room and writers’ hub, processing reports on myriad aspects of public opinion and behaviour sent in by volunteer observers.
M-O had its genesis in the abdication crisis of 1936 when Madge and other intellectuals in his circle recognised that there was no reliable barometer of British public opinion. They distrusted claims in the press about how people thought or lived their lives. After their letter inviting volunteers to write about everyday life appeared in the New Statesman in January 1937, Harrisson got in touch. He had recruited 1,300 volunteers to observe great crested grebes, had lived among cannibals and was running an anthropological study of working-class Bolton. Helping to lead M-O was a natural fit.
One of M-O’s mainstays was marshalling volunteers to submit regular diary entries or detailed responses to open-ended questionnaires. Another was incognito fieldwork, as at Bolton, where — as a recent study found — one volunteer observing pub life was rendered incapable after downing eight and half pints in under two hours. The Bolton, or “Worktown”, project retained its own HQ in the town’s Davenport Street.
Howard Spencer, senior historian at English Heritage, which runs the blue plaque scheme, said: “Mass-Observation studies ranged from an analysis of the Lambeth Walk [dance] and the pub culture of working-class London, to a survey on the extent of antisemitic beliefs. It is this eclectic approach that made the project so unique and groundbreaking, and such a valuable sociological and historical resource.
“By the end of the project’s first year there were around six hundred ‘mass observers’ and it would have been in this 18th-century house that Madge, helped by a team of volunteers, sifted through hundreds of handwritten responses, including many on the coronation of George VI. It seems very fitting to look back at that moment in history as we anticipate next year’s coronation.
The difference between perceived and actual public opinion that so concerned Madge and Harrisson was illustrated by M-O’s responses relating to the policy of appeasing Nazi Germany. Contrary to a perception of near-universal support for prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s efforts to avoid war, M-O found private expressions of shame and disgust, along with the willingness of many to admit that they did not understand foreign policy.
Not surprisingly, many Britons took umbrage at M-O’s activities. It was The Daily Herald, as cited in Tom Jeffery’s 1978 history of M-O, that labeled its observers nosey parkers, while The London Evening News warned of “unequalled opportunities for the pettifogging, the malicious, the cranky, the interfering, the mildly dotty.”
During the Second World War, M-O, which had moved to a new base in Notting Hill, worked on behalf of the government and proved invaluable in providing a ready-made apparatus to track morale and public responses to specific situations. Its reports on the aftermath of the Coventry Blitz and other German bombing led to significant reforms to emergency responses and welfare provision in affected areas.
Today, the reports provide exceptionally varied, colourful and intimate insights into the wartime lives of a cross-section of Britons. In late 1942 one young observer stated that she “didn’t know the Americans were so nice, and would like an American boy-friend, but has no time to pick one up.” Another group of observers said they disapproved of “some” jitterbugging that had taken place at the dance hall they frequented, but did not object to “jitterbugging in principle”.
The same report noted that: “A C. of E. parson was heard making love to a boy friend by the girls at a telephone exchange, and several of them went to hear him preach to see what sort of a man he was.”
Bringing home the tragedy of war, another entry ran: “M40D lost his home on a Sunday night, was made to sleep in a shelter which was hit on the following Sunday night, and his wife and four children killed. He feels there is nothing left to live for now.”
By this time, M-O was under the sole charge of Harrisson after Jennings left in 1938 and Madge quit in 1940 due to his disquiet at the new ties to government. Harrisson, too, left before the war’s end, joining the Army and and serving behind enemy lines in the Far East.
“One of the key aims of the Organisation was to write ‘history from below’Howard Spencer, English Heritage
Condensed findings from M-O’s research were published in book form in titles including Britain by Mass Observation (1939), People’s Homes (1943) and The Pub and the People (1943). The reports also informed important postwar histories such as Angus Calder’s The People’s War: Britain 1939-45 (1969).
M-O outlasted the conflict but morphed into a market research company in 1949. It was eventually incorporated into the British Market Research Bureau (BRMB) which, among other things, complied the pop charts for many years. The M-O archives were lodged by Tom Harrisson at the University of Sussex in 1970. The project was started up again 1981 by Professor David Pocock and continues to receive responses to open-ended questionnaires from a panel of around 450 observers.
Spencer said that, in drawing attention to the entire organisation and its body of work, the blue plaque paid fitting tribute to M-O’s founders’ ideals. “One of the key aims of the organisation was to write what they described as a history from below. It’s social history, rather than top-down stuff. That’s something that we don’t often get to do in the blue plaque scheme, because it tends to celebrate individuals. There are plenty of other stories to be told as well, so it’s very good to be able to tell this one.”
The top image shows a British airman among a group of civilians crowded around the window of a shop in Holborn, London, to look at a map entitled ‘Britain’s Air Offensive’. Photo: Alamy