If you are fascinated by social history, as am I, then having a chance to listen to people’s voices from past decades is more than enlightening – it’s inspiring. Such must have been the thinking behind a social research project, initiated in 1937, called the Mass Observation Project.
Three former students from Cambridge University – Charles Madge (poet); Tom Harrisson (anthropologist) and Humphrey Jennings (filmmaker) collaborated with others, including artists, photographers and journalists, in an attempt to “systematically… record human activity”.
At first they collected anecdotes and overheard comments, supplementing these with “man-in-the-street” interviews. But then, in 1939, they invited members of the public to record and send them a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. Some 480 people responded, offering diary entries that varied in style, content and length.
The concept proved useful during the Second World War when Mass Observation, on occasion, helped to shape public policy. The diary contributors were self-selecting so could not be held up as a true, scientifically balanced, cross-section of British society. Nevertheless, they provide us with a priceless insight into life back then.
One diary that many will have heard of is that of Nella Last. Nella sent in weekly diary entries throughout the Second World War, each one entitled ‘Housewife, 49’, which was her age when she first started the diary. Nella lived in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire and described herself as an ordinary housewife and mother. She captured her observations about everyday life in such a wonderful way that the TV film, Housewife, 49, is a must watch. Nella is played by the marvellous Victoria Wood, who perfectly captures the sense and spirit of the time. Nella continued to send in her diary entries until her death in 1968.
The diaries and reports produced by the Mass Observation Project are now housed by The Keep, at the University of Sussex.