Nature and Scope


Nature of the MaterialWorktown Photo - Town centre tea room

Introduction to the Collection

Scope of the Collection



Source Library

Copyright and Data Protection Notice



The Archive of Mass-Observation, a pioneering social research organisation, has been described as a "treasure trove", "an invaluable resource for sociologists and cultural historians" and "a fascinating source of precious data for researchers across the widest range of disciplines". Mass Observation Online makes the Mass Observation Archive available to researchers in its entirety.


Topic Collection 7 - Happiness 1938

Nature of the Material

Mass Observation Online makes available original manuscript and typescript papers created and collected by the Mass Observation organisation, as well as printed publications, photographs and interactive features. A pioneering social research organisation, Mass Observation was founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, film-maker Humphrey Jennings and poet Charles Madge. Their aim was to create an 'anthropology of ourselves', and by recruiting a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers they studied the everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. This resource covers the original Mass Observation project, the bulk of which was carried out from 1937 until the mid-1950s, offering an unparalleled insight into everyday life in Britain during these transformative years.




Introduction to the Collection

In order to utilise the vast resources of Mass Observation effectively, it is helpful for the user to have an understanding of the history of the organisation; of the methodologies and philosophies which were its foundation; and of the nature of the varied material which constitutes its archive. For a detailed analysis, users may find it helpful to consult the occasional paper: Mass Observation: A Short History, by Tom Jeffery in the Occasional Papers section in Essays.

The vast content of the Archive can be divided into two main types: material collected by investigators, and material submitted by volunteers. This raw data was, in turn, summarised in the file reports (or in a few cases, the official publications). The diagram below shows how the various materials fit into this model. The material collected by investigators comprises thematic studies, undertaken by paid ‘observers’, and comprising surveys, collections of ephemera, accounts of ‘overheards’ and covert observations of the general public. The material submitted by volunteers, on the other hand, are deeply personal accounts of individual lives provided by the amateur observers from MO’s ‘National Panel’. The duality apparent in these two opposing methods of data collection was present from the very beginning of Mass Observation’s conception, and has been attributed to the conflicting aims of the co-founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge. From the very start Mass Observation’s methods were divided: Harrisson taking his anthropological, scientific approach to Bolton for the Worktown study, in which the invisibility of the Mass Observation observer was essential, while Madge remained in London to build up the collection of diaries and personal writings from the volunteer National Panel. 

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

The value of Mass Observation is the way in which the everyday and the extraordinary are juxtaposed. The varying types of material collected by MO were always intended to complement each other, and to be used in conjunction with one another; this process is now made easier by Mass Observation Online, which allows keyword searches to be performed across all material types.

For a detailed description of each document type please visit The Documents page.


Scope of the Collection

Mass Observation Online offers revolutionary access to one of the most important archives for the study of social history in the modern era. The material covers:

  • The end of the ‘Hungry Thirties’ when the impact of the Depression was still being felt;
  • The onset of war, the Blitz and war on the home front;
  • The post-war world, with the rise of consumerism and television.

The archive has always been immensely popular with students because it offers immediate and engaging evidence of major trends such as the increasing role of women in work, the birth of the welfare state, anti-semitism and anti-communism, the growth of secularism and the increasing importance of radio, television and cinema in people’s lives, as well as insight into such varied subjects as abortion, old age, eating habits, shopping, fashion, coal mining, sex, reading, and the decline of Empire. Through interviews, overheard conversations, directive responses and diary entries it offers brilliant cameos describing life in the jazz halls, what people thought of the movies they saw, how people survived the random terror of the Blitz, and where they lived and worked.


Worktown Photos - Back street near Burnden Park football ground


  • A complete set of the File Reports, 1937-1951, with full text searching ability
  • Access to all of the Day Surveys 1937-1938, Directives 1939-1955 and Diaries, 1939-1967
  • Topic Collections 1937-1965, with full text searchability
  • The 'Worktown Collection'
  • Mass-Observation Publications
  • Eighteen contextual essays by leading scholars describing the archive and suggesting research and teaching strategies, and four occasional papers
  • Photographs by Humphrey Spender, an interactive map and chronology, and much valuable supporting material



  • A complete set of the File Reports, 1937-1951, with full text searchability
  • Mass-Observations’ Publications
  • Seven Topic Collections, including: Household Matters and Household Budgeting, 1939-1950; Juvenile Delinquency, 1946-47; Korea, 1950; Radio Listening, 1939-1948; Famous Persons, 1938-52; Peace and the Public Survey, 1956; and World Outlook, 1945-1950
  • The Day Surveys, 1937-1938
  • Diaries, 1939-1940 
  • Directives, 1939-1940 


  • Diaries, 1941-1942
  • Directives for 1942 (no directives were completed in 1941)
  • Six Topic Collections including: Film, 1937-48; Reading Habits, 1937-47; Dreams, 1937-48; Religion, 1937-50; Victory Celebrations, 1945-46; and Capital Punishment, 1938-56


  • The remaining war years Diaries, 1943-45
  • Directives for 1943-45
  • Five Topic Collections, including: Smoking Habits, 1937-65; Drinking Habits, 1939-63; Gambling, 1937-51; Posters, 1939-47; and the Britain Can Make it Exhibition 1946
  • The entire Worktown Collection


  • Diaries, 1946-1950
  • Directives for 1946-1947
  • Thirty Topic Collections, including: Bird-Nesting Survey, 1951; Blind People, 1947; Art, 1938-1949; Picture Postcard Analysis, 1940-41; Radio Rediffusion Surveys, 1949 and 1955; Police, Law and Invasion Preparations, 1939-41; Press, 1938-42; Newspaper Reading, 1937-62; Royalty, 1937-60; Poetry, 1939-40; Reconstruction, 1941-43; Family Planning, 1944-49; Health, 1939-47; Beveridge Report Surveys, 1942 and 1947; Work – Registration and Demobilisation, 1939-46; Anti-Semitism, 1939-51; Propaganda and Morale, 1939-44; Conscientious Objection and Pacifism, 1939-44; Forces (Men), 1939-56; Gas Masks, 1939-43; Holidays, 1937-51; Leisure, 1940-47; Live Entertainment, 1938-48; Music, Dancing and Jazz, 1939-41; Sport, 1939-47; Industry, 1940-55; Coal Mining, 1938-48; Happiness, 1938; Labour Party ‘Ask Your Dad’, 1948; and Sexual Behaviour, 1939-1950


  • Diaries, 1951-1967
  • Directives for 1948-1955
  • Thirty five Topic Collections, including: By-Elections, 1937-47; Browns of Chester, 1942-55; Voting Attitudes, 1944; Local Council Elections, 1937-51; Games and Jigsaws, 1937-41; Transport, 1937-43 and 1963; Road Safety, 1946-55; Demolition in London, 1941; Squatting, 1946; Photography, 1940-44; Science 1938-41; Meet Yourself on Sunday, 1948-50; Food, 1937-53; Fuel, 1937-47; Air-raids, 1938-45; Personal Appearance and Clothes, 1938-54; Shopping, 1939-63; Commercial Advertising, 1938-47; Commodities, 1941-64; Co-op Stores, 1939-47; Youth, 1937-43; Children and Education, 1937-52; Day Nurseries, 1941-46; Adult and Higher Education, 1937-48; Evacuation, 1939-44; Housing, 1938-48; General Elections, 1944-55; London Survey, 1940; Women in Wartime, 1939-45; Astrology and Spiritualism, 1938-47; Dogs in Wartime, 1939-42; Post War Hopes, 1944; Public Administration & Social Services in Wartime, 1941-42; and Wall Chalkings, 1939-43


*Please note: Some material has been omitted due to its condition.


Source Library

Mass Observation Online is sourced from the Mass Observation Archive. The Archive is a charitable trust in the care of the University of Sussex. It is housed at The Keep as part of the University's Special Collections. The University of Sussex’s finding aid for the Mass Observation Archive can be found here.


Copyright and Data Protection Notice


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* Please note: If you have only purchased certain modules, you will not have access to all documents and primary source links within the secondary contextual material. Please contact your institution if you would like full access to the entire resource.