Archive of Mass Observation, 1937-1967

Scope and Content

The Archive falls into two sections, derived from the two streams of information gathering:

1. The observational work, 1937-60

2. The National Panel of volunteer writers, 1937-67

1. The observational work, 1937-60

A team of paid investigators went into a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work, and recorded people's behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible. The material they produced falls into three main groups:

1.1 the File Reports, 1937-55

1.2 the Topic Collections, 1937-60

1.3 the Worktown Collection, 1937-40

1.1 The File Reports, 1937-55

A series of 3,000 typed original reports providing a top level summary of Mass Observation methods and conclusions of almost all the studies carried out between 1937 and 1955. The reports vary considerably in length and treatment of topic. In general, they are based on the whole range of Mass Observation data-collection methods (including material sent to Mass Observation by members of the volunteer panel in the form of diaries and directive replies as well as drawing on more traditional survey and questionnaire material and observations).

'Series' of reports. The sequence also contains a number of Series . These are mostly regularly produced Reports on wartime morale which were sent to the Ministry of Information and which resemble each other in terms of structure and topics covered.

Non Mass Observation items. The sequence also includes a considerable number of Reports and articles which were not authored or published by Mass Observation personnel but which were kept by Mass Observation for their own day-to-day reference within the sequence.

1.2 Topic Collections, 1937-60

Mass Observation personnel investigated a number of specific topics from 1937 onwards. These investigations often spanned several years, and the resulting materials are organized as a series of over 80 Topic Collections. The topic collections consist of project plans, observations and descriptions, internal memoranda, correspondence, drafts and final versions of questionnaires, instructions to investigators and the results of surveys. Mass Observation also collected press cuttings, articles, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, tickets, sketches and other ephemera relevant to individual surveys.

1.3 The Worktown Collection 1937-40

Between 1937 and 1940, Mass Observation conducted a major study of the towns of Bolton and Blackpool. The team of investigators, led by Tom Harrisson and later by Charles Madge, comprised students, artists and writers, photographers, unemployed workers and local people.

People's conversations and behaviour were recorded in a variety of settings - in the street, in the pub, at dance halls and cinemas, in churches and chapels, at meetings and public events, at work in the cotton mills and on holiday in Blackpool. The aim was to document Bolton's social and political life using the technique of 'scientific observation'. The collection includes written material and printed ephemera. See below for links to the Collection's handlists. Over 800 photographs were taken by Humphrey Spender, of which 355 are available for consultation in the Archive.

2. The National Panel of volunteer writers, 1937-67

The National Panel was composed of people from all over Britain who either kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires send to them by the central team of Mass Observers. The material they produced falls into three main groups:

  • 2.1 Diaries, 1939-67
  • 2.2 Day Surveys, 1937-38
  • 2.3 Directive Replies, 1939-55

2.1 Diaries, 1939-67

About 500 men and women kept personal diaries which they sent to Mass Observation in monthly instalments. No special instructions were given to diarists, and consequently the diaries vary considerably in style and content. Although some people maintained a continuous flow for years on end, other diarists wrote intermittently or for one short period. Most diarists stopped after 1945, although a few carried on well into the postwar years. The last diary received is dated 1967.

2.2 Day Surveys ,1937-38

One-day diaries written by people from all over Britain who volunteered to be members of M-O's national 'panel' of observers.

2.3 Directive Replies, 1939-1955

From January 1939, Mass Observation produced a monthly questionnaire which it distributed to members of the volunteer panel. The questionnaire was known as a 'directive'. Over 3,000 people took part in this project between 1939 and 1945, although for any one month, the number of replies received never exceeded 500 and was usually much less. no directive replies for the year 1941 have survived although there is no doubt that directives were sent out that year and replies were received. One of Mass Observation's chief concerns was the study of civilian adaptation to wartime conditions. Most of the directive questions dealt with food and clothing rationing, evacuation of children, air raids, housing, transport, conscription, the Armed Forces, war work, separation from loved ones, health and so on. There was also an interest in people's reactions to the news. Reactions to government propaganda campaigns were monitored as well as views on newsreels, newspapers, BBC Radio and the cinema. Opinions were solicited on the progress of the war, political leaders and other nationalities. Some questions were repeated at intervals. Questions on wider issues - class, race, marriage, money, health, education, and especially people's hopes and fears for the post-war period - were also included.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Archive results from the work of the social research organisation, Mass Observation. This organisation was founded in 1937 by three young men, part of a small group of like-minded friends. The origins resulted from a strange coincidence. Early in 1937, Tom Harrisson's one and only published poem appeared in the New Statesman on the same page as a letter from Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, in which they outlined their London-based project to encourage a national panel of volunteers to reply to regular questionnaires on a variety of matters. Interested by the similarity in aims to his own current anthropological study in Bolton, Harrisson contacted Madge and Jennings. Within the space of a month, the two projects, related in their ideals, although different in the techniques they employed to gather information, joined together under the title of Mass Observation.

Harrisson and a team of observers continued their study of life and people in Bolton (the Worktown Project), while Madge remained in London to organise the writing of the volunteer panel. Their aim, stated in a further letter to the New Statesman, was to create an 'anthropology of ourselves' - a study of the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain.

Although Jennings and then Madge moved on, Mass Observation continued to operate throughout the Second World War and into the early 1950s, producing a series of books about their work as well as thousands of reports. Gradually the emphasis shifted away from social issues towards consumer behaviour. In 1949, Mass Observation was registered as a limited company.

Information for Mass Observation's reports was gathered by two means:

  • the observational work: a team of paid investigators recorded people's behaviour and conversation in as much detail as possible in a variety of public situations: meetings, religious occasions, sporting and leisure activities, in the street and at work.
  • the National Panel, composed of people from all over Britain who either kept diaries or replied to regular open-ended questionnaires send to them by the central team of Mass Observers.

Access Information

The collection is open to all bona fide researchers, by appointment only, telephone or email a week in advance of your intended visit. Researchers must abide by the conditions protecting the collection.

Acquisition Information

Deposited by Tom Harrisson in 1970 and, on the established of the archive as a charitable trust in 1975, vested in the Mass Observation Archive Trust, in the care of the University of Sussex.


Prepared by John Farrant, September 2002.

Other Finding Aids

Handlists are available in the Library, and most may be accessed on the Mass Observation Archive's website

Alternative Form Available

The File Report Series is published on microfiche as the 'Tom Harrisson Mass Observation Archive' by Primary Source Microfilm; and the early Mass Observation Publications, Worktown Papers and selected Topic Collections are published on four sets of microfilm by Adam Matthew Publications, Marlborough, Wiltshire. The Mass Observation Archive's website lists libraries which are believed to hold copies.

Conditions Governing Use

Reproduction conditions vary. Please consult the Head of Special Collections.

Related Material

  • SxMs 71 Madge Papers
  • SxMs 12 Wartime Social Survey
  • SxMOA 4 Mary Adams Papers
  • SxMOA 17 Wartime Social Survey Papers 1940-41 (F. Brown)
  • SxMOA 18 Wartime Social Survey Papers 1940-41 (M. Burns)


The Mass Observation Archive's website lists publications relating to the Archive under three heads:

1. Archive publications

These include our newsletters, booklets for schools, and occasional paper series.

2. Original publications 1937-66

Books produced by Mass Observation from 1937-50, and other books published before the archive was established.

3. Publications 1974 onwards

Other works based on archive materials, including works written by Archive staff.

Corporate Names