12th May and Mass Observation

9 November 2016

By Jessica Scantlebury

12th May (2)Regular readers of The Keep’s blog will remember reading about the Mass Observation Archive’s project to collect diaries written on the 12th May 2016. Over 1,000 diaries were received and you can now view them in the Reading Room at The Keep.

I have been reading through many of the diaries that were sent to us and made some interesting discoveries about the day, from how much tea was consumed to how many people thought about the forthcoming EU Referendum. You can find out more by clicking on the infographic shown on the right.



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

12 May 2016

By Jessica Scantlebury, Senior Archive Assistant 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’. This year, on Thursday 12th May 2016, the Mass Observation Archive is repeating this call for people from across the country 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. may12thDiarists 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 area, whereas for others it was just an ordinary day. The diarist 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)

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 of this, many of the diarist behave 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)


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.

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.

A version of this blog post appeared on the History Workshop  Online blog.