Memories of the Second World War from the Mass Observation archive

The Keep, where the Mass Observation archive is stored

A few months ago I spent over 80 hours in The Keep, an archive near Brighton, reading the written thoughts and memories of 235 people on the subject of the Second World War. This material was collected by the Mass Observation Project, an initiative that originating during the war but was revived in 1981 to record the thoughts and experiences of people in the UK on a variety of topics. The project recruits volunteers to make up a national writing panel. They are sent ‘directives’ which ask them questions about certain topics and then they write responses and send them back in. These anonymous texts make up a fantastic resource for researchers as they cover so many topics including current events.

My research focuses on how people remember the Second World War today, and in particular how they remember materials created by the Ministry of Information during the war. This Mass Observation material has been a really useful starting point for me, as I have been able to read people’s accounts of their own memories and thought processes and pick out references they make to the Ministry of Information. I will be presenting the results of this research at this year’s International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference at the University of Leicester.

But beyond the content analysis that I conducted, which focuses closely on the core aims of my research project, there are some more general observations I’d like to explore here. Reading this material has been an amazing experience. It is so fascinating to spend time reading the individual thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, often presented in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Many of the responses flow so naturally, as the writer’s thoughts turn from one specific memory to wider topics and emotions rise and fall and spur them on to the next topic. Some of the stories people share are so moving and others really funny – reading these genuinely did make me laugh and cry!

Here are just a few things that really struck me while working on the Mass Observation archive:

Mass Observation is a good listener

People share things in their responses that they have never shared with a friend or relative. For some people the Mass Observation project serves as a personal diary, an opportunity to share emotions, opinions and experiences that they have never had the opportunity to share before. No doubt it is the anonymous nature of the project that allows people to feel comfortable opening up in their writing. However some state that they’ve never been asked or found the right moment to share their stories, and when you read this kind of sentiment from people in their 80s it is particularly sad.

Some of the stories people share are unbelievably sad, and you get the sense in their responses that they are letting out a degree of emotion that they are not often able to. One woman relates her feelings about the death of her boyfriend in the RAF almost 70 years after it happened and her description is so arresting and poignant that I felt like I was there.

One man seemed to approach the directive as an opportunity to tell his life story. He was born into severe poverty before the war and had a very hard upbringing, but his life was changed drastically by the war when he joined the RAF and his eyes were opened to the world. His story is exciting, moving and completely riveting. I was thinking as I was reading it that it would make an excellent film. But this document may be the only account of his incredible life and he appreciated the opportunity to put it down in writing.

The grass is always greener during the war

People are never truly happy with their current situation as they can always find things to criticize, so in comparison the past is remembered fondly. This is something which is even more apparent with memories of the Second World War when terms link ‘Blitz Spirit’ are actively employed to describe wartime society. Many people write about the war as having been a time when community spirit was good, people were friendly, the streets were safer and everybody worked hard. Some even slip into proverbial language:

“during the war you could leave your door unlocked”

It is important to note that many of those with positive reports about wartime society were children during the war. Older respondents usually have a more balanced view. Some writers acknowledge that the war they experienced in childhood was probably a little rose tinted.

“I think adults were always careful to play down the danger element which is why my childhood seemed so happy to me”

Modern life is of course terrible. People cite the ‘crooked ways of politicians and councillors’, ‘childhood obesity’, ‘malnutrition in the poorest climes of Britain’, ‘greediness and materialism’, ‘the greedy, the work-shy, the hangers-on’ as building up to a picture of Britain that is thoroughly rotten in comparison to the good old days of the Second World War. Since these responses were written in 2009 it is notable that MPs’ expenses are commonly mentioned and employed to illustrate the problems in modern society.

Young people are also a target for criticism, in that they are compared with the brave men and women who fought and worked during the Second World War.

“The youth of today takes that gift of freedom for granted”

“Sometimes, we old ones who survived the war feel a sort of contempt for the people we’re breeding now”

And this does not only come from older respondents. The youngest volunteer who responded to this directive, who is 16 years old, wrote that he doesn’t ‘think young people respect or even know the eminence and horrors during war’:

“it is usually young people that are my age, they do not respect the fallen, the people that gave their lives so willingly to let the children of tomorrow have a chance to grow up in a world where we are not judged or persecuted”

Don’t leave it too late to talk to relatives

One thing that I found particularly upsetting when reading these responses was the number of times people would express regret that they never asked their older relatives about their experiences in the war.

Those who had parents who were alive during the war often report that it never crossed their mind to ask their parents about the war, or that they thought it was a subject nobody wanted to talk about. For younger respondents who had grandparents who experienced the war, they often explain that by the time they were old enough to take an interest in the war and talk to their grandparents about it, their grandparents were too old or ill or had passed away.

“My maternal grandfather flew both bombing and supply missions. Shamefully, I didn’t ask nearly enough about this when I was growing up and by the time I realised that I should do this my grandfather was dead”.

For some, their interest in the Second World War only really developed later in life when it was too late to ask questions to relatives. I relate to this regret and sadness as I also missed the opportunity to ask my grandparents about their experiences during wartime. The Mass Observation responses have made me acutely aware of how common a regret this is, so now I take every opportunity to urge people to talk to their grandparents now if they are able to. The evidence from the older respondents shows that they are often willing to share their stories but they think that their children and grandchildren are not interested. This is a catch 22 that we must overcome!

However in a few cases, the problem is reversed. One older writer laments his lack of memory of the war since his grandchildren are so interested:

“In some ways I feel that I am sorry my recollections are few and hazy – my grandchildren want to know more and I can’t help them except by books etc.”

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3 thoughts on “Memories of the Second World War from the Mass Observation archive”

  1. Hi

    I found your piece very interesting and thought you may be able to help me with my own research. For the last three years I’ve been researching the history of pub music from Greco-Roman times. I’ve now reached WW2 and thought I’d struck gold withe M.O. Book ‘The Pub & the People’ which I purchased. However, it turns out to cover the period 1936-1939, published in 1943.

    From you own research in the archives can you tell me if you came across any material about pubs and the music being played there during WW2? Our daughter lives v. close to Falmer, so spending time there would be relatively easy – but I’d like to know in advance that it was likely to be worthwhile!

    Thanks for taking the time to read this.

    Kind regards

    Tom Hopkins

    1. Hi Tom,

      Really sorry for the long delay in my getting back to you! What an interesting topic of research! I haven’t personally come across any material about pubs and music during the war period, but that is because so far, I have been concentrating more closely on some of the post-1981 M.O. material. But I am absolutely convinced there will be material relating to it, since there is a so much – it’s just finding it that will be the difficult part. You can view the file titles and descriptions on The Keep website, so I’d recommend having a good look through there first to see what you can find. First, read this page: http://www.thekeep.info/collections/mass-observation-archive/ and then you can start looking through the hierarchies and searching for key words. I have done a little searching and have found this box of responses to a 1943 directive on the subject of pubs and a few other topics (http://www.thekeep.info/collections/getrecord/GB181_SxMOA1_3_67) – hopefully that might contain some interesting nuggets of information. There is also one topic collection on the subject of Music, Dancing & Jazz 1939-41 (SxMOA1/2/38 : TC38). I hope that is helpful – if there’s any way I can help further, let me know.

      Best of luck with your research!
      Katherine

      1. Hi Catherine

        Many thanks for your reply and suggestions for searching. I haven’t given up on the possibility of visiting the archives, since our daughter lives at Wivelsfield – just a few train stops from Falmer.

        I only discovered recently that ‘Worktown’ in the M.O. archives is actually Bolton. Bolton University hosts a lot of material, including photos, so that may also be of help in my research.

        Kind regards

        Tom

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