Mass-Observation was a large-scale investigation into the habits and customs of the people of Britain that was started in Bolton in 1937. Bolton was named “Worktown” by Tom Harrisson.
The project focused on Bolton initially and during the Second World War was enlisted by the Government to monitor public morale in the population as a whole. The project still exists today and the archive is currently held at the University of Sussex.
The founders of Mass-Observation were: Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist who had made a name for himself studying cannibals in the New Hebrides; Charles Madge, at the time a promising poet and a member of a London based artists movement called the Blackheath group; Humphrey Jennings, an artist, poet, historian, translator and film-maker. Also a member of the Blackheath group. Jennings became widely known for the influential war documentaries he made after he left the Mass-Observation.
Between the two World Wars the Mass-Observation founders felt that there was a gap in real knowledge about the lives of ordinary people.
It seemed obvious to go out and study the very different worlds of tribes living in remote places. What happened closer to home was generally taken for granted and probably seemed a little mundane by comparison.
The media generally portrayed the population as having a broad consensus about the issues of the day. The Mass-Observation was formed to test this depiction of reality.
It was also an opportunity for a diverse group with a wide range of interests to work in a new and creative way. Artists and poets influenced by surrealism and socialist ideology worked alongside sociologists and anthropologists to develop a “science of ourselves”.
Many of the observers were middle-class students at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, though there were some working-class people from Bolton itself. Many of the people that joined the team during that time were politically on the left – though the project itself claimed no political allegiance.
The emergence of Fascism in Europe had unsettled the intellectual middle-class and for them the investigation was a way of connecting with a part of society they had no experience of. Many found a certain amount of reassurance that, at least in the North West of England, there was little evidence of a thriving Fascist movement.
The team decided that the best way to understand what real people did and what they thought about the world was to watch and record them as they went about their everyday lives. This was generally without their knowledge, though the team did also conduct surveys.
Tom Harrisson instructed the observers to record hand gestures, hats, clothing and all kinds of minute detail. For instance, observers recorded how many pieces were in a six-penny portion of chips (25 and one sixth!) or the proportion of black to brown shoes worn on the high street.
There were also many volunteer diarists who would write down their day to day observations. They would also be expected to respond to “directives” where they would be instructed to investigate, or give their opinions on a particular subject on a given day.
Harrisson was very interested in public houses, work life, political rallies and so forth. It was these kinds of themes that he asked Spender to observe and photograph.
There was some suspicion about the motives behind the Mass-Observation. Spender experienced directly negative reactions from people who objected to being photographed and made this observation years after the project had finished: “We were called spies, pryers, mass-eavesdroppers, nosey parkers, peeping-toms, lopers, snoopers, envelop-steamers, keyhole artists, sex maniacs, sissies, society playboys.”. Spender was uncomfortable with feeling like he was intruding on peoples’ privacy. These feelings eventually persuaded him to give up journalistic photography for good.
Once the Second World War had begun the project was co-opted by Duff Cooper, Minister of Information. The Mass Observation was utilised to monitor public opinion and morale and to gauge the effectiveness of public information campaigns. The Mass Observation earned the title “Cooper’s Snoopers” from the popular press of the day.