Individual Voices: Mass Observation Diaries

05 May 2011

As part of the team working on the next instalment of Mass Observation Online, which will be released this May, I have been indexing hundreds of diaries from the archive, focusing on entries from November 1944 to November 1945. Mass Observation was an extraordinary attempt to chart the experiences of so-called “ordinary” people and the diaries offer the chance to consider how national and international issues were felt at a local level, adding fresh and hidden perspectives on the time. In addition to their importance as a primary resource, I have found them to be a compelling reading experience that brings you incredibly close to the lives of their authors.

Some of the diarists quote comments that their friends and colleagues made, allowing readers to listen in on conversations that were had. Diarist 5270 described what a friend had to say about working in a factory during the war:

“To think that Hilda and I worked from 7.30 in the morning till 7.30 at night for a measley £2 a week! We had to be up at 5’ 0’ Clock in the morning and we got home about half-eight at night….Yet there were men charge hands and foremen and setters-up who used to be navvies, and were getting £15 a week, for watching us mugs work”.

Later, having been asked to sweep the factory floor, the woman is quoted as saying: “I’m not going to sweep the floor! I can stay at home and sweep my mother’s floor for her. I came here to do war work, and if that’s all you can provide then you can go and get my release signed!” The woman got her release granted a week later.

Other diarists use vivid imagery that shows us the period through their eyes. I found this depiction of a bomb-damaged street particularly moving:

“It was a desolate scene: a few jagged walls standing amid heaps of rubble where several houses had been, on either side of the battered hulks of several others, and behind them the gutted roofs of a factory. There were one of two rusty Morrison table shelters standing by the side of the road and one had been left partly buried by ruins with its top caved in and another was upside down a pile of debris. And here and there amongst the ruins were still to be seen the occasional household article and even a china ornament; on the pavement was a book called “Dulcie King”, a school prize for 1904” (Diarist number 5205).

And a passing comment invites us to imagine what the diarists may have been thinking, as with this extract that gives a rare glimpse into the decision-making process of the electorate in 1945: “Churchill was the voice to inspire us when there were heroic and courageous things to be done, but now we’ve got down to the slogging, uneventful things it’s a bit different.” The sense that you are experiencing history through the thoughts of those that lived it is an incredibly powerful one, and one that keeps you reading.

Amongst the hundreds of diaries that I indexed, there were, of course, certain favourites. One that stands out in particular was Diarist 5098. This diarist is an elderly man in his eighties, living in Peckham, South London, whose world centred around a small allotment and regular trips to the British Museum. Undoubtedly an eccentric character, his diaries are often humorous and surprising, including the short autobiography of a spider called Mabel, a poem to the mayor of Ohio giving thanks for seeds donated to the ‘Dig For Victory’ campaign and a colourful cast of local characters: Inge the “chatterbox” who lives next door, and his 93 year old sweetheart whom he doesn’t name. Although this diarist may be one of the more quirky contributors to Mass Observation, the constant presence of fear that pervades his diaries is suggestive of the general mood amongst those who lived with the threat of bombing. His dreams often related to dying; he wrote poems about the ghost of Hitler, and drew this diagram explaining exactly where the rockets that hit his allotment fell:

Diarist 5098

Diarist 5098 wrote consistently on a daily basis, as did the vast majority of participants included in the project. Crucially, this means it is possible to chart how people’s experiences and feelings changed as the war went on. I indexed the archive chronologically, and couldn’t help but wait in suspense to find out what happened to each individual diarist. Would Diarist 5030, an elderly disabled man who sends his chocolate rations to Dutch refugee children, ever find a lodging that will allow him to listen to the radio all day? Would Diarist 5271 manage to get a transfer away from the town she hates, Bury St Edmunds, and her job in social services? And when would the husband of Diarist 5239 be demobilized from India so that they can at last start a family together? In the case of diarist number 5344, the confirmation that her fiance, a prisoner of war who had been missing for over a year, was presumed dead came as a shock, even though I had been expecting this to be revealed every time I came across one of her entries.

These individual voices illuminate the experiences of the many; their diaries are full of insights and I feel very fortunate to have read them:

“This morning I saw the sun which had just risen, and it was shining direct into my kitchen. I had looked at it through the window and noted it would be a fine day, when, as I turned to go out of the room, I passed right across the rays, level as they were into the room. I turned instinctively to do what I always do when I leave a room - turn off the light. Imagine it. I had got so used to the black-out and turning off the lights that I, for a moment, went to turn off the sun.” (Diarist number 5399)

Click here to view sample diaries of the entries above (PDF)