The Queen, The Crown and Mass Observation

21 November 2019

Cultural Studies | History

What did the British public think of the Royal Family in 1966? As Olivia Colman takes over the role of Queen Elizabeth II from Claire Foy in the new season of The Crown, documents from Mass Observation Online show how the public viewed their monarch's transition to middle age.

In the opening episode of the new season of The Crown, the Queen’s Private Secretary describes the Queen’s new profile image for a stamp as ‘an elegant reflection of Her Majesty’s transition from young woman to mother of four and settled sovereign.’ The Queen’s response is less impressed: ‘age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it.’ The appeal of The Crown – besides the cut-glass accents, sumptuous curtains and antique marmalade sets – has always been its ability to dramatise family conflicts arising from constitutional roles. To this, Season 3 adds a new layer: the drama of middle age.

But how did the British public view the transition of their monarch from young woman to middle age? The Mass Observation Archive at The Keep, digitised by Adam Matthew in Mass Observation Online, contains records from the pioneering social research organisation, which used volunteers to track everyday life in Britain from 1937 until the mid-sixties. The collection includes a 1966 report written by Leonard M. Harris titled Long to reign over us? The status of the Royal Family in the Sixties. The report is based on surveys Harris conducted with the help of Mass Observation in 1964, the year The Crown’s third season begins, shedding light on public perception of the Royal Family at the time.

Image © Mass Observation Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Although the survey respondents rarely discuss the Queen’s age directly, it is often latent in their language: ‘she’s a good churchwoman and sets a good example of family life’; she is ‘amiable’, a ‘lovely, homely person’, ‘a bit set in her ways’; ‘she has that motherly way with her’; she is ‘a Christian gentlewoman’ with ‘charm, poise and dignity’. Frequently, observations on the Queen’s changing appearance are focussed on her clothing: ‘her dress is very nice. It’s not showy’; ‘perhaps she could dress better’.

According to the volunteer observers, the Queen’s muted, if not middle-aged and dowdy, clothing in stark contrast to those worn by Princess Margaret: ‘Princess Margaret stepped out yesterday looking young and attractive in a stylish Mod outfit’ (Daily Mirror, 1965); ‘I like her clothes and hair-do’s. She’s always doing something different, even if it’s only changing her hair-do’s’; ‘she’s very charming and she dresses beautifully’; ‘Princess Margaret is young and gay. She lives with the times.’ 

Image © Mass Observation Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Image © Mass Observation Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

In fact, while the Daily Mirror describes Princess Margaret as ‘young and attractive’ in 1965, the paper uses more homely terms to describe her older sister in the same year: ‘The Queen had a good gossip over the tea cups yesterday. And she told forty women “It’s nice to be altogether and have a natter with each other”.’ In the eyes of Mass Observationists, Princess Margaret’s trendy clothing becomes a metonym for dynamism, modernity and youth, whilst the Queen’s dress-style is pragmatic, unshowy and rarely noticeable. As The Crown lavishly dramatises the tension between regal ritual and private personality inside Buckingham Palace, Mass Observation Online shows public’s impressions of their monarch’s ‘transition’ – as The Crown terms it – ‘from young woman to mother of four and settled sovereign’ in the mid-1960s.

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About the Author

Dr Laura Blomvall

Dr Laura Blomvall

I joined Adam Matthew in August 2019 in the Outreach team, liaising with the academic and library communities to support their engagement with digital resources in their research, teaching and learning. I completed a PhD in Modern Literature in March 2019, and I have had my research published by Cambridge University Press, Palgrave Macmillan, Routledge, Taylor and Francis and several academic journals.