One of the brief fifteen minute talks I gave recently at the Southbank Centre as part of its The Rest is Noise festival was on the extraordinary organisation Mass Observation which was founded in 1937 in London. Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, Humphrey Jennings a film maker and Tom Harrisson a self-styled anthropologist decided, as part of a project to monitor the mood of the nation, that the English working classes should be studied as if they were a tribe of savages. Harrisson, a keen bird watcher had got a taste for social observation while living with cannibals in the South Pacific and on his return to England camped in Bolton, Lancashire to live amongst the natives. Known to Mass Observation as "Worktown" it became the focus of some intense scrutiny when volunteer "observers" arrived to study the social habits of the locals. The idea was to publish the results in a series of books but only one, The Pub and the People, got into print before the war broke out. Which is a shame, for Mass Observation's astonishing and eye opening study of the sexual antics of Worktown at play in Blackpool in 1937, which is held in the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University, has only been peeped at by researchers.
However, a taste of it can be found in a book by Gary Cross called Worktowners and happily the survey was the subject of an article by social historian Peter Gurney published in 1997 in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. My piece here is based entirely on Gurney's article which begins with a quote from one of the Blackpool observers, John Summerfield: "Walk about a bit; by now observer Wickham and myself are convinced that it isn't just bad luck on our part, it's true, all the girls are ugly, not some but everyone. . . "
The following is a description of the unorthodox approach to Anglo anthropology taken by the team of observers who set out to mingle with the Blackpool crowd: "When we began work in Blackpool we expected to see copulation everywhere. What we found was petting, feeling, masturbating one another. Observer units combed the sands at all hours, crawled under the piers and hulkings, pretended to be drunk and fell in heaps on located sand couples to feel what they were doing exactly, while others hung over the sea wall and the railings for hours watching couples in their hollowed-out sand pits below."
As Peter Gurney summed up this enterprise : "Thus, Mass-Observation systematized voyeurism and legitimated it as scientific 'observation.' Observers set out, we are told, 'with wild cries.' Eventually the quest was successful. All cases of necking seen in one night were recorded at the height of the season (length of contact was timed with a stopwatch). Of a total of 234 couples, 198 cases of 'em-bracing' were recorded, but only thirty-six couples were lying down. The results were tabulated and it was noted that: 'The most significant fact is that against 234 recorded cases of love-making skilled observers could find only four cases of copulation. It is difficult to say whether this result is not biased on the high side since an Observer was himself responsible for one of the cases considered. 'The observer was one of the few working-class participants, Jack Longford, who sent in a full and lurid report of his sexual encounter (standing up, against a wall) with a married woman from Leeds whose husband was a neurasthenic and who had come to Blackpool in search of 'fun.''"
What sort of people were these mass observers? Mostly lower middle class by all accounts and perhaps, as Gurney suggests, the kind of disaffected intellectuals described by George Orwell in his essay The Lion and the Unicorn: " Since about 1930 everyone describable as an "intellectual" has lived in a state of chronic discontent with the existing order. Necessarily so, because society as it was constituted had no room for him. In an Empire that was simply stagnant, neither being developed or falling to pieces, and in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be "clever" was to be suspect. If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left-wing political parties." The founder members of Mass Observation, Harrisson and Madge, were brought together by the letters page of the left wing New Statesman and Nation. A schoolmaster wrote to say he would have liked to have known what the general public thought of the "sexual situation" of the abdication of Edward Vlll and Charles Madge responded with a reply under the heading " Anthropology at home" that an organisation to find out had just been formed in London. Alongside Madge's letter was a poem by Tom Harrisson, the only one he ever had published, with the title Coconut Moon about the philosophy of cannibals. Harrison contacted Madge and in no time the new organisation Mass Observation was despatching an enthusiastic cabal of film makers, poets and literary critics to Bolton and Blackpool.
When war broke out Harrisson kept Mass Observation going and worked with the Ministry of Information to monitor the mood of the nation as the bombing began. Madge and others thought this was a betrayal of their detachment from government, but Harrisson and his observers did not sign the Official Secrets Act and in time he produced a vivid account of the experience of the Blitz in London and the bombings in other towns. After the war the organisation kept going with income from market research and eventually found its home at Sussex University. One strand of its "anthropology at home" was to ask observers to keep a diary for one day, the first being the Coronation Day on 12 May 1937. This has recently been revived and Mass Observation is, to some extent, back in business.