Mass Observation at eighty

When I was writing my blog about the seventieth anniversary of Exmoor Village it struck me that 2017 was the eightieth anniversary of Mass Observation, the organisation which commissioned the diarists to study Luccombe on Exmoor, and countless other projects. 


The 1947 edition of Exmoor Village

The anniversary seems to have been largely overlooked, beyond a conference last summer, which is a shame as it was a significant social experiment.

Mass Observation was founded by the ornithologist and anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet and journalist Charles Madge and the experimental film-maker Humphrey Jennings.  It became a market-research firm in 1949 and the material it had collected went into storage until it was transferred to the University of Sussex, to become the Mass Observation archive.

One of the first contributors was Naomi Mitchison (1897-1999), sister of JBS Haldane FRS and wife of the Labour Politician Gilbert Richard (Dick) Mitchison.  Dick was Labour MP for Kettering from 1945 to 1964 after which he was given a life peerage.  Naomi was a poet, novelist and left-wing political writer.

Wartime diary
Dorothy Sheridan, from 1990 to 2008 the director of the Mass Observation Archive held at the University of Sussex, edited Naomi’s wartime diary Among you taking notes … Dorothy wrote in the introduction how Mass Observation at first functioned with about 500 people who, through questionnaires or ‘directives’, recorded their reactions to key events.  In 1939, only two years after its inception, Mass Observation was faced with the problem of how to continue its activities during wartime when it feared that there would be no reliable postal service to dispatch the monthly or bi-monthly directives.  Instead, Mass Observation recruited people from all parts of the United Kingdom to keep a continuous record of their everyday lives.  Naomi was one of about 200 people who agreed to keep a wartime diary.  She was living for most of the time at Carradale House, Kintyre, on the west coast of Scotland.


Carradale © Anne Burgess and licensed for reuse under this creative commons licence.

Naomi was a long-standing member of the Open Spaces Society and we published a letter from her (then aged 92) in Open Space summer 1990:

It might interest you to know a small history. I am selling a beautiful caravan site by the sea at Carradale which has been enjoyed and friendly for many years.  The gravel road down to the sea runs through it, and is much used by people walking to and from the sea.

After reading Open Space, always interesting, I suddenly realised that there must now be a right of way for walkers to and from the beach, so at once I rang the regional council and it was delighted to put it through.  Of course the new owners might have agreed to let people walk through, but one never knows.  Anyhow it was done in time!

 My late husband was always very keen about public rights and, I think, helped you when he was in the Lords.

This was before the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 which gave the public rights of access to most of Scotland.

The Listening Project
It struck me that the BBC’s The Listening Project was a sort of modern Mass Observation, and I was interested to find that Fi Glover of the project interviewed Dorothy Sheridan on 25 November 2012 to talk about the project’s value to oral history.  It is worth hearing.  Dorothy observes that The Listening Project offers a level of intimacy which is not found in Mass Observation.

Meanwhile, Mass Observation project carries on but in a different format.  You can read here how current observers respond to open-ended questionnaires about three times a year, on broad themes, such as the countryside, age and care and what makes you happy?

Long may it continue.


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in History, Politics, Public paths, Scotland and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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