Public History

12 May 2016: Capture this day for the Mass Observation Archive

On the 12th May 1937, the newly founded social research organisation, Mass Observation, famously requested day diaries written by the public from across Britain. This date was chosen to capture the public’s mood on the day of the Coronation of George VI: an event thought to be worthy of study by the organisation following the public’s and press’s reaction to the so-called ‘Abdication Crisis’ the previous year. This year, on Thursday 12th May 2016, the Mass Observation Archive is repeating this call for people from across the country, including readers of History Workshop Online, to submit an account of their day to the Archive.


In 1937, hundreds of Coronation diaries from people of all walks of life, albeit a greater number from the left-leaning middle classes, were sent to Mass Observation’s headquarters in London. Diarists wrote about everything, from waking in the morning to going to sleep at night. Some wrote about standing on The Mall and summarised the mood of the crowds who had gathered to watch the Coronation; many wrote about celebrations in their local areas, whereas for others May 12 was just an ordinary day. The diarists worked as “meteorological stations”, which Mass Observation hoped would enable them, and other social scientists, to compile a “weather map of popular feeling.” (Mass-Observation, 1937, p30)

6.30 a.m. was woken by phone. Felt particularly sleepy, and disagreeably aware that I had to attend on duty, in charge of boys from my school. As I got up I thought how nervous the King and Queen must be. My wife and I supposed that the young princesses must be nearly off their head with excitement. I decide to wear my old socks with a hole in the heel, rather than change them. (man, 27, schoolmaster, London, ‘inactive Left’) (May 12th, 1987, p119)

Got up at 4.30. Sold Daily Workers and pamphlets outside Belsize Park tube from 5.15 till 8.15, with five or six others. The mass was not so great as one would have expected, and it was not the sort of crowd which usually buys the literature we had to sell. Many of those who brought the pamphlets did so with the mistaken idea of the contents. A very peppery old officer with rows of medals asked for an official programme; I said: ‘This is a guide’, but he snorted and threw it back at me… (woman, North London) (May 12th, 1987, p174)

The 12th May project was not actually the first study carried out by Mass Observation. One of Mass Observation’s founders, Tom Harrisson, was already working with a team on an ethnographic study of ‘Worktown’ (Bolton) in early 1937 and Charles Madge, based in London, had collected dream diaries and day diaries from volunteer writers predating the Coronation. Regardless, the project has now come to be considered the one that launched the organisation (it resulted in one of Mass Observation’s most successful publications, May the Twelfth, which has been republished several times and is still available through the print on demand service, Faber Finds ). It is also the date that is now considered to be the anniversary of the organisation (which will celebrate 80 years in 2017). Most significantly, Mass Observation’s call for volunteer diarist and directive (opened-ended questionnaires) respondents marks the establishment of Mass Observation’s most enduring method of survey: the National Panel. The Mass Observation Archive is still committed to this approach, and since 1981 has run the Mass Observation Project, which almost 4,500 people have contributed to, and in 2010 relaunched the 12th May diary project. To date, the 12th May project has solicited over 4,300 diaries.

Call for May 12 diaries, 1937 (Mass Observation)

Recent 12th Mays, compared to that of 1937, have been on relatively ordinary days, apart from the first call in 2010 which, by coincidence, happened to be the day that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was formed. As a result, many of the diarist behaved like rolling news citizen-journalists ruminating on the new cabinet in real time as it was announced.

At 12.20 it is lunchtime. For the first time since starting at this school, in February, I decide that I want to go for a cigarette. I walk down the school drive, away from the school, and into the nearby Cemetery. I can’t help but think about the recent death of a friend. I sit on a bench and smoke a cigarette. I wish it didn’t- but it helps. Text message from J about the appointment of Theresa May as Minister of Women and Equality: “Theresa May!! The gays are gonna’ get it. Urgh”. (MT/2010/94, PGCE student, woman, aged 27)

The diaries also offer a unique window into what life is like in Britain in the 21st century. They are a place where the everyday, mundane and ordinary are discussed and recorded for posterity.

[I]… was in the village centre at 9am to go to the barber. Went to the Co-op to get £30 from the free cash machine they have there. Sadly, it turned out the barber didn’t open until 10am, which left me a bit annoyed. I took a library book back (first book I’ve had from a library in 10-20 years), and then went back home, planned the next week’s evening meals with my partner, and then went with her to the nearby Aldi supermarket to shop. I don’t do much while she’s shopping apart from provide the transport. The Aldi shopping was typically inexpensive coming in at something like £24. When we got back home I unpacked the shopping and immediately went back to the barber, which was now open. I had my hair cut for £10 (gave £1 tip), and then went to a greengrocer a few doors down to get some leeks, which they hadn’t had at Aldi for reasons unknown (just a gap in the shelf where they should’ve been). (MT/2015/226, man, aged 42, Manchester)

Much has been written about the Mass Observation Panel and its representativeness (the project is self-selected and therefore not representative). Annebella Pollen has written a useful appraisal of this and other such issues in History Workshop Journal. The question of ‘who are the Mass Observers’ is also being asked by a current ESRC research project led by the University of Southampton and due to conclude this summer with publications planned. Rather than being representative, the aim of the Mass Observation Project and the 12th May project is to be as inclusive as possible, while also encouraging those with an historical consciousness to provide an oppositional ‘ordinary’ voice which is different from official accounts.

Diary entry
A child’s May 12 diary from 2013 (Mass Observation)

Since 2011 we have worked with different groups in order to promote the 12th May to a wider audience. The most successful one of these has been our work with UK men’s prisons. The Archive has collected almost 300 diaries, from male prisoners, in varying institutions from youth offending and open prisons to Category B security institutions. In these diaries the writers detail their daily routine, frustrations at their life and the prison system as well as hopes and fears for the future. The diary collection acted as a springboard for further activities, including several writing workshops at Lewes Prison, three anthologies of the writing, and a research project led by the University of Sussex.

It’s nearly tea time, Monday’s teas are alright because we get our packet of shorty biscuits, one packet to last a week. Also, we get Association for 1hr 10min I think I’m going to clean my cell out and get a shower. Being clean means the world to me because theres a lot of people in here who don’t care to shower or keep clean. (Man, aged 31, Lewes prison)

This year, we are continuing our work with prisons, schools and community groups and would welcome any proposals of new groups to publicise the project to. In particular, we welcome suggestions of ways to encourage participation from members of the LGBTQ community. These diaries would complement the material collected by the National Lesbian and Gay Survey (NLGS) between 1986 and 2004. During the week of the 12th May (starting daily on 9th May), this collection is the subject of a BBC Radio 4 drama, written by the performer Christopher Green, called ‘The Experience of Love’. The timing of the broadcast is a happy coincidence, which we hope will help solicit a greater response.

nella last diaries 1945 1951 1961 010 300DPI
Nella Last’s diaries, 1945-1961 (Mass Observation)

The resulting diaries will be stored at The Keep archive centre just outside of Brighton. They will be used by a wide range of groups for both research and teaching and will also be used to engage new and older learners in school and community outreach sessions. Details of how to take part in the project can be found on the Mass Observation Archive’s website.

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