(Not) A Very Merry Christmas!

18 December 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

Christmas isn’t always the perfect family time we like to think it is… sometimes illness, arguments, unexpected tasks, family tensions and catastrophes get in the way. We’ve selected some memories from the diaries in the Mass Observation archive of Christmases past which didn’t quite go according to plan…

‘My brother is a policeman and the most reactionary person I know; also he is stoically heterosexual, with two rather colourless children and a wife who thinks women should be paid less than men. It had always been a problem for me to relax among them. The last Christmas I spent with them was agonising. ..There were too many rows. I said ‘Never again’. And I never returned to that house, even for a visit.’
M, 45 SXMOA2/1/20/3

Detail from John Leech’s illustrations to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1st edition (Chapman and Hall, 1843) in the Gilbert Foyle Collection, SxGilbertFoyle/22

‘A nice short service but the ‘Te Deum’ was bloody awful… Read ‘National Velvet’ all afternoon… Gram on all evening, bed 10.30.’
M, 24 SXMOA99/51

‘Rob told me he had had a very severe bout of food poisoning…he thinks on reflection, it was the antipasto. He was violently sick all night and part of the next day…Meanwhile, he told me, Ruth had started to feel ill… As we spoke, upstairs in my bedroom she was violently sick, into a plastic carrier bag, it seems.’
F, 60 SXMOA99/14/4/15

‘The only misfortune was the Aran sweater that my aunt knitted for Elizabeth. The thank you letter is going to take a lot of careful phrasing as the sweater was far too small and had one sleeve an inch longer than the other… If only she’d rung for measurements!’
F, 53 SXMOA2/1/20

‘Karen helped both Marjorie and me to get up out of our seats and to be lowered gently into them! At 86 and 89 both movements need a strong arm to prevent a struggle or undignified collapse… I told Karen to be wary of handsome boys who tend to be demanding and arrogant… I have seen quite a few of them married for six or eight years and then going off with another woman and bringing another family into existence… I didn’t tell her that a billion pounds had not been paid to the first deserted families. Women have had the worst of the sexual revolution.’
M, 89 SXMOA99/85/1/10

‘Eventually cooked a turkey steak, potatoes, green beans and sprouts and was having it as it got dusk. However Jane had brought Sweep across to be here as a refuge because they had visitors and he was unhappy and restless, going to the door, clawing at the carpet etc so I let him out. This deterred me from my dinner and it got a bit cold and I didn’t enjoy it much.’
F, 71 SXMOA99/92/18

‘When I got home Bob went out to ‘do his kiosk’. He takes part in the BT ‘Watch the Box’ scheme which aims to prevent vandalism and ensure speedy reporting of faulty (telephone) kiosks. His particular box is about three-quarters of a mile away and he had reported the coin slot as jammed on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day he decided to take a screwdriver and see if he could free the jammed coins as he did not think the coin box was full. He also made sure he had his BT identity card in his pocket in case someone thought he was a vandal. In fact, the slot was jammed with two 5p pieces stuck together (a trick to try to get £1 worth of phone time, apparently) and he freed it easily with the screwdriver.’
F, 53 SXMOA2/1/20

‘Christmas shopping and preparations begin for me any time after the summer. I make out lists of people to whom I send things, averaging, over the past four years, 45. I keep past lists for about three years so that I may check up and avoid repetitions… on the other hand I don’t like festivities. I am unsociable and avoid them.’
F (no age given) SXMOA1/3/25/1

Detail from John Leech’s illustrations to A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, 1st edition (Chapman and Hall, 1843) in the Gilbert Foyle Collection, SxGilbertFoyle/22

‘Xmas was a day of gloom in our family, my father hated it and did his best to make it a day of misery my mother being religious tried to jolly it up so we had these two opposing forces battling it out, and the shadow of the marital war-games stills hangs over the 25th for me… A gay Xmas is much nicer and less trouble.’
F, 50 SXMOA16/1/1/64/12

‘Christmas at home consists of washing up (one maid and about seven in the house); sitting in the lounge (there are no comfortable chairs) and watching my father go to sleep after lunch; perhaps a walk round suburban roads in the morning and on Christmas morning a ridiculous ceremony of opening presents… I particularly dislike my sister and do my best to conceal it.’
F (no age given) SXMOA1/3/25/1

‘A went to bed for his usual siesta. I watched The Reluctant Dragon, which I had recorded and which, in 1941, I had given top rating. Why? I was very unimpressed and bored by it all and even the cartoon was below Disney’s then high standard…. We are both very relieved when Twelfth Night has passed and it can all be abandoned. I enjoyed my childhood Christmasses and our carol services at boarding school, but that was then; this is now.’
M, 68 SXMOA16/1/2/18/12

‘Continued typing a letter begun yesterday to a dear gay friend in Australia. He’d sent me a tea towel with lots of little Koala bears on it, and a sexy Xmas card. At page five-and-a-half I smelt burning. The peas! Mostly blackened; I salvaged a few and got some more out, scoured the black pan, boiled it clean again and set it boiling again; this time winding up my very useful timer clock to remind me in five minutes.’
M, 66 SXMOA16/1/2/18

‘I spent all Xmas Day in bed coughing due to a flu virus, waited on hand and foot by my mate who had had it a little earlier but was still coughing. Luckily we have two different coughs, she sounding like a trombone, I like a cat being sick.’
F, 50 SXMOA16/1/1/64/12

‘Shopping – I leave that as far as possible to mother. Services – never attend them. Emotions – disgust. Interest – nil. Parties – never go to any. Dances – don’t dance…. Christmas I know from past experience will be a bore, it always is. For example, Christmas Day, spent at home with parents and a widow of some 75 years who always visits us at that time. Dinner is late and mother gets irritated because of the extra cooking. After dinner sit around and eat chocolates and nuts and play some damn fool card game.’
M, 28 SXMOA1/3/25/2

Detail from Birmingham Co-operative Society leaflet, 1938, SXMOA1/3

‘I cycled to church… a lovely ride through West London. The church was a tiny one in Petersham. I wore trousers but no-one in my family complained. It was the first time I had darkened the doors of a church for ages…..We had Christmas dinner at half past six. My sister had provided a chestnut and apple roast as a turkey substitute for me and the other vegetarian in the family. My other sister asked me to wear a skirt for the meal. I declined but I don’t think she really expected me to anyway.’
F, 25 SXMOA16/1/2/3/11

‘The evening buffet started with soup served in the dining room but – Someone Had Blundered and the buffet was not yet laid out in the Turpin Room and we had to wait. Profuse apologies from the waiter.’
F, 77 SXMOA99/92/18


The Many Hats of Mass Observation

19 July 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

A lady wearing a hat to complete her outfit is an unusual sight in 2018, unless she is on her way to Ascot or a high-end wedding. But in 1939, at the start of what would become World War 2, the subject of hats and their wearing were felt to be important by the people at Mass Observation. There was anxiety on the topic, and, although definite fears were unspecified, the interest of MO in women’s fashion in general showed that the subject was considered to be an indicator of, and an influence on, the state of female civilian morale. ‘What happiness for the millions, who in this way can escape from their sooty street so gardenless, by buying a hat with flowers in front, ‘as good as any lady in the land’,’ wrote MO’s founder Tom Harrisson. A woman could be, ‘a Duchess for 3/11.’

In December 1939 an MO Observer was sent to a fashion gala at Grosvenor House attended by the wealthy and aristocratic. He reported that, ‘standards of fashion generally were quite up to pre-war standard’, with women ‘only too glad to go back to ultra-fashionable dress. Hats particularly take this turn.’ There was, ‘Obvious approval when told by the commentator that it is more patriotic to buy new clothes than not to.’

That was reassuring, but what about most women? Fewer seemed to be wearing hats as the war went on and observers were regularly sent into the West End and East End of London to note exact numbers. They also drew and described hats in shop windows. In 1944 a hat count taken by an observer standing at Whitechapel Station recorded that out of 300 women, 94 were hatless, 128 wore hats (nearly half of them in black felt), while the remaining women wore scarves and ‘pixies’.

By 1947 Harrisson was worried about scarves. He set out to discover ‘if the scarf has become a permanent menace to the hat trade’ and reported that women were willing to sacrifice two clothing coupons for a scarf although hats were coupon-free. An observer in London one Sunday in October 1947 found that out of 20 women, 7 wore hats, 5 wore scarves and 8 went bareheaded.

An audience of middle-aged women at Brighton Dome, possibly the County Conference of the British Legion Women’s Section in November 1958. Nearly every woman is wearing a hat.

An audience of middle-aged women at Brighton Dome, possibly the County Conference of the British Legion Women’s Section in November 1958. Nearly every woman is wearing a hat.

It was a sign of things to come. In the early days of the War, MO had noted that 82 per cent of women over 40 were wearing ‘a proper hat’ compared with only 45 per cent of the under 40s. As time went on it was the younger women who were the quickest to lay their ‘proper’ hats aside while the older group clung on to theirs the longest. Harrisson, beginning a survey designed to prompt the reawakening of the British hat industry in October 1947, stated that, ‘It must be of great interest to the hat manufacturers to find out the present day attitude of the general public.’ However, the ensuing MO survey was to reveal that the general public, especially women, didn’t care half as much about hats as Harrisson did and they were certainly not prepared to spend large amounts of hard-earned money on them. MO has been quiet on the subject ever since.



Fuss, flannel and (street-party) fatigue!

14 May 2018

By Lindsey Tydeman

In 1947, the research organisation Mass Observation asked its correspondents to comment on the Royal Wedding. What were their opinions? And what did they do during the day? Thirty-four years later, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, they asked the same question…

Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten on 20 November 1947 was a much-needed lift for a post-war country still making do under rationing, or ‘fuss and flannel’, depending on your viewpoint. Many male diarists commented that too much money had been spent and that the event appealed only to the sillier type of woman. Female respondents tended to embrace the moment and its morale-boosting glamour, while remaining aware of the monarchy’s usefulness in Britain’s political context. Few respondents confessed to being outright royalists but acknowledged that the monarchy would probably continue, although a few predicted its inevitable destruction in the changing post-war political landscape. Some had suspicions that the wedding had been an arranged match; most, however, were empathic and supportive of a young couple, in love and about to begin their life partnership.

Male, 24, 1402
I feel we should try to achieve, one day in the very distant future, a race of men who aren’t so silly as to line the streets in their thousands in order to see… well, whatever one does see when one watches a Royal Wedding… I don’t know as I wasn’t there.

Male, 60, MUN.2
I could not conceivably care less.

Female, BEC.2
My brother got tickets for the Guildhall, as a Councillor, but as a Socialist disdained to use them, so mother and I went. We had a good view of the procession but were too high up to see into the coaches and cars, which was disappointing.

Male, 34, MAT.2
Do they, when out of the public eye, think of each other and talk to each other, as my wife and I do, are they really in love? I hope so… I think the Princess performs her duties excellently and I believe she will later be a ruler we can admire and respect.

Male, CHA.102
The whole thing is staged by Church and State to enhance the concept of family life, yet what relation the general standard of family life has to a couple who start with every circumstance of wealth and luxury is never questioned.

Extract from one Mass Observation response to the 1947 Royal Wedding

Extract from one Mass Observation response to the 1947 Royal Wedding

Male, 28, 109
I don’t feel very strongly about the Royal Wedding, either for or against. I certainly could not work up the enthusiasm to go to London to see it. If anything I feel that royalty has even lost its symbolical power and we could just as well get on without it.

Female, 41, 653
On the actual day, when I was outside Buckingham Palace and the Royal Couple came on the balcony after their wedding, I was touched by the devotion of the English people to the crown. There was genuine love and good wishes.

Male, unidentified
This marriage has proved once again that Englishmen will take anything. When the first rumours appeared, there was considerable opposition to an alliance with such a discredited Royal House as the Greek. But the affair was managed with such deftness (cf the abdication) that now there is no more popular man in England.

Male, 1806
People, on the average, still need occasionally the modern equivalent of the Roman circus which provides excitement, mass interest and pageantry. Because the Royal wedding provided this, the expense incurred, even in difficult times, can be considered to have been well spent.

Male, 1788
I consider Princess Elizabeth is most fortunate if she has been able to marry for love as for State purposes, which would appear to be the case. I only hope that people will in the future interfere less with their private lives than they have done in the past.

The front page of The Argus on 20 November 1947

The front page of The Argus on 20 November 1947

Female, 54, BUR.5
As a socialist, I can only hope that some day we can do away with royalty, without causing pain to anyone.

Male, unidentified
I do not know Princess Elizabeth or the Duke of Edinburgh personally and so I wasn’t interested.

Male, 37, 881
The only regrettable feature was the scenes of extremely bad manners displayed by the public on the occasion of the married couple attending church on their honeymoon.

Male, aged 26, 1040
The Royal Wedding? Completely nauseated.

Male, 25, 2002
I approved of the Royal Wedding. It introduced a little colour and pageantry into our National life and made a lot of people, particularly the women, very happy… The majority of the criticism I felt was so much humbug and jealousy. Hurrah for a little colour!

Female, 41, 1607
I saw and heard it on the television, and was as excited and moved as if I’d been there… the Princess’s wedding dress was a magnificent example of the best artistry and workmanship in the world, and shows what can be done in this country if we try….even the most hardened socialist could not have begrudged this Princess a wedding worthy of her land…

In 1981, people also felt jaded and anxious; they were in a recession, prices were rising fast and there were high levels of unemployment. Thinking about the Royal Wedding, many contrasted it with the royal event of four years earlier, the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977, and expected local councils and their neighbours to organise celebrations of a similarly high standard. Diarists frequently recorded their disappointment that no street parties had been organised in their localities, or, that if they had, the programme was relatively low-key and budgets less than those of 1977. Nevertheless, where parties had been planned, women spent all day baking for them, snatching only a few moments to go to the TV. A minority of respondents were thinking about the rioting which had recently taken place across the UK’s major cities, and feared some attempt to disrupt the proceedings. Most planned their day around the TV, sometimes decamping to friends or relatives with colour sets, while others were determined to miss the event at all costs, planning long-distance walks or remote fishing trips. General exhaustion was felt across the UK by the evening. The big films shown on the day were The Sound of Music and Saturday Night Fever.

S783 F
It was a terrific lift for the country at a time when everyone seems to be down in the dumps. I went to see the wedding with my sister. We slept outside the Palace the night before and the atmosphere amongst the crowd had to be experienced to be believed. We made friends with 3 girls and a boy from America, all aged approx 20. They had given up their jobs and worked their way over here especially to see the wedding.

Directive response to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

Directive response to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer

R446 F
8.45 Sister arrived with slices of bread and butter/ honeyed toast and joined audience.

9.15 Niece appeared and joined audience. Husband left house, taken by brother-in-law, to start walking the Mendip Way from Weston-super-Mare.

P433 F
By 9.45 we were ready to start watching. I was interested to note that my father (retired, aged 72) who usually wanders round in his pyjamas all morning, was shaved and dressed by then.

R767 F
If I’m alive when Charles is crowned, I won’t spend the day with my family. That’s a promise.

H269, F
Mixed feelings. General conclusion from the office… that it’s been overdone, particularly the cheap and tatty souvenirs and pervading jingoism. What particularly annoyed my boss was that manufacturers seem to be using the wedding as an excuse to sell souvenirs by stamping a commemorative mark on to their ordinary products. She cited the example of a plastic kettle she bought several months ago now being stamped with a ‘Wedding stamp’.

D171, F
I felt really worried that the bride’s father, Earl Spencer, would never make it to the altar… The Queen Mother could be seen quite clearly mouthing the words ‘poor man’ as he approached…

L335, F
My husband, an agnostic, went to a pub in the morning and was very annoyed to see the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster given precedence over the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, in the Blessing.

Coverage of the 1981 Royal Wedding in The Argus

Coverage of the 1981 Royal Wedding in The Argus

H258, M
In all honesty I had really no intention of watching the wedding, actually I was waiting for the cowboy film to come on the TV…   and I’m really glad I did for I have never seen anything like it during my lifetime… there is not another country in the world who could have put on a show like it, the pomp, precision and timing of the whole ceremony all the way through, the only late part being going away on honeymoon, and you can understand that, he wouldn’t want to appear too eager.’

L333, F
8 am Drained 3 white bed quilts in bath. Washed and set hair. Emptied ashes. Opened greenhouse. All while watching Royal Wedding.

G232, F
I myself was very interested in attending the festivities along the route. However, I could not find a brave soul to come along, as the recent riots and the thought of pickpockets, muggers and the exorbitant prices charged by cowboy ice cream sellers etc, put them all off. My husband would not allow me to go alone.

H262, F
I liked it all and I’ll watch it again. I did feel sad that I wasn’t there in person, the atmosphere must have been something to behold, but I vowed to myself to be there for Charles’ coronation, whenever that may be.



Delving into Mass Observation – what the 12th May Day Diaries can tell us about health

24 April 2018

By Kirsty Pattrick

The joy of the day diary is that it catapults the reader into someone’s life for that brief moment. With a fascination of people, their lives and behaviours, this always feeds my sheer nosiness. The 12th May day diaries come from people of all ages across the UK, and they always leave me wanting more. All we know of these writers is their age and gender; that is our only request for the purpose of this collection, although some give further biographical information. I read of the mundane to the life-changing and utterly personal, feeling touched and richer from the experience.

12 May diaries submitted to Mass Observation in previous years

Examples of 12th May day diaries submitted to Mass Observation in previous years

Issues of health and wellbeing arise in so many of Mass Observation’s collections. These diaries capture the minutiae; the small, the repetitive, the routine. Yet what I see in a number of them is how daily events and actions are led by or the result of people’s health and wellbeing.

‘Today was a typical day as far as the last three months is concerned but not for my “normal” life. I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in December 2016. This time it has spread to my neck. The oncologist arranged for me to get a three-week course of radiotherapy. Since then I have suffered greatly with fatigue and can quite easily sleep for 16-18 hours a day.’ Female, 49

In The Keep’s Reading Room, I’m moved as I read of grief, loss and healing, of the value of friendships, of family and loved ones shared. The reflectiveness of those who wrote last year and the changes their lives have seen. For some, life can turn on its head far too quickly.

The 12th May 2017 was a Friday, and a wet day for many. Getting out into the garden was seen as a hobby for some, but a form of therapy for others; for health, for healing and for the serendipitous fun of seeing what food-growing skills they can master. Something I definitely identified with, reflecting on my sweetcorn harvest and cauliflower failure.

‘Life became unbearable due to his alcohol abuse and entanglement with someone else. My garden is my slave and I, its slave – a willing one.’ F,70

I saw similarities in routines: our use of media, commutes to school, work, exercise classes and duties of care, as well as food shopping, diet and financial worries. Yet within this ran a thread of how our daily lives impact on our health, and how our health has an impact on our daily life; from those in bed with colds and coughs, to injuries and then those managing illness, for some life-limiting and life-threatening.

12 May postcard

My friend ‘has dementia and over the past four or five years it has resulted in a personality change, sad. She forgets what she has ordered by the time it arrives, and actually thought she had already had lunch. He is very patient and calm, and lets some of her wilder statements pass.’ Female, 87

I read of cancer, the NHS, carers and the managing of medication along with the exploration of alternative therapies; the hope, the fears and the lifelines given.

‘My husband gave up work 16 years ago because of ME so he holds everything together at home and keeps the ship sailing while I go to work.’ Female, 55

Conversations with family, friends, groups or the local shop owner range from everyday actions, providing pleasure and happiness, to feelings of burden, frustration or an upset. For some, these events provided a beacon of support and a boost of mood.

My friend ‘wanted to introduce me to another friend whose child is self-harming and has recently made a suicide attempt. My older child did the same 5 years ago, so we chatted about that and what had helped in my child’s situation. It was all quite ranty and sweary, and much more fun than its sounds as we were all pretty honest about some quite difficult subjects and it felt quite cathartic.’ Female, 45

‘I sit on a table with three ladies who always make me laugh. I needed that today because my overall mood today was down. I woke up missing my children and my mum and I know I will go to bed feeling the same.’ Female, 55 Sutton Park Prison

‘I wake up at 6. I was feeling pretty low last night – stressed, poor and stretched in multiple directions – and it still weighs on me this morning. I try not to let it show. I sit on the sofa with my two-year-old and dutifully read through the first “Where’s Wally” book (my own childhood copy, it must be about a quarter of a century old)’. Male, 31

The diaries provide multiple windows of observation on the lives of individuals, families, communities and groups on the same date across Britain. They can give an insight into how people’s health and wellbeing, their feelings and emotions can guide their day and their actions. Ways of managing, overcoming and avoiding health issues are explored and explained; from medication and meditation to exercise and regular companionship.

The parallel lives recorded on this one date are compelling. We share a lot of love for porridge, for morning exercise, tea in bed, and for hiding back under the duvet. We are also habitual in grabbing for our devices before we rise, checking the news, emails and Facebook. It was the end of the week for a lot of our writers, and pizza was on the table in quite a few households. Concerns and worries were heavily linked to politics, to the next general election and to Trump’s presidency. In the evening, there were also thoughts and reflections upon the NHS cyber attack that had taken place earlier in the day.

One thread that runs through is the action of recording, of writing, sharing and reflecting. The process itself is cathartic, therapeutic, purposeful and productive for many. As closing time hits the Reading Room, I spend time reflecting on the diverse lives I’ve shared today and, as ever, am in awe of the time our writers dedicate to Mass Observation.

If you’d like to meet the Mass Observation team and hear extracts from 12 May Day Diaries dating back to 1937, do join us on Wednesday 9 May for an afternoon talk, Recording Everyday Lives. You can also bring your friends and family to The Keep on Saturday 12 May, for Writing Your Day with Mass Observation, a hands-on morning of activities. More details and booking info can be found on the Events pages of our website.

Mass Observation has teamed up with Action for M.E. for this year’s 12 May, with the aim of capturing everyday lived experiences of people living with M.E., or those caring for or living with them. Find out more about the project and how to take part on the Mass Observation website.




What did we watch on Christmas Day 1986?

15 December 2017

By Lindsey Tydeman

December 1986 editions of the Radio Times

December 1986 editions of the Radio Times, from our archive

In 1986 the research organisation Mass Observation asked its contributors to keep a Christmas Day Diary. Several hundred people responded, and sent in hour-by-hour descriptions of their day. Each respondent was given a letter and number, to preserve anonymity. They wrote about food, drink, presents, their families, their dogs, and, of course, their televisions. Although many families made the decision to ‘switch off’ on Christmas Day, for others, watching television together after the present-opening and Christmas Day dinner, was an important element of the seasonal ritual. We’re publishing just a few of their responses below to provide a flavour of Christmas viewing 31 years ago.

Viewers had four terrestrial channels to choose from – BBC1, BBC2, ITV and Channel 4 – and the battle for ratings was fierce. The BBC decided to show its popular soap EastEnders in two separate parts, at 5pm and 10pm, keeping viewers on tenterhooks as the marriage of Den and Angie finally disintegrated. It drew in a record 30 million viewers.

9pm At last this is where our celebrations begin. We switch off the lights except the tree lights and put the gasfire on instead of the heating. We get out the wine and chocolates, switch Agatha Christie on the telly then watch a video of Seasons Greetings and cuddle up together – this is the best part of Christmas.

Then comes another debate – about what to watch on TV… the situation has become less calamitous since the invention of the video recorder and the decision is to relegate Miss Marple to the VCR and enjoy The Importance of Being Earnest now.. Since it is shown on Channel 4 it has the advantage of intervals for advertisements which makes it possible to prepare biscuits and cheese for all of us who have only recently sworn that we would not eat again for days.

9.35pm More conversation then more TV as we were all waiting for the day’s second episode of EastEnders at 10pm. We all agreed that the Beeb had been very crafty in cornering the market by two showings of the hit soap. My sister was most indignant when I asked her if she watched the series and flatly denied doing so. Aren’t some folks narrow minded?

A phone call for John from Henry in which he fills us in on the first part of EastEnders. We laugh – but agree to watch Part 2… we watch it with much joking and laughter.

Spent the whole evening watching TV until able to make dignified exit to bed at about 10pm. Thanking Heaven that is over again for another year.

Bloated and ready for a sit-down after clearing up and washing up, we flop down in front of the TV to watch The Queen at 3 o’clock. Most of the men folk seem to think this is ‘a bind’ and want to watch something else. But I like to hear what she has to say. I wish she could relax a bit more. This year’s speech was OK, 10 minutes is too short though!

Dinner over we settled for the Queen’s speech, ten minutes later neither of could remember what she had said! What we did remember was that we found the horses distracting and that there was a group of children round her. We both agreed that we much preferred to see her sitting at home to speak to us instead of in the royal stables or wherever it was.


We were watching Only Fools and Horses and it was truly dreadful, we all decided to turn it off. (After Christmas I read a critic’s assessment of this programme who described it as ‘brilliant’. I can’t believe that he and I were watching the same programme.)

I came in from the kitchen halfway through the Queen’s Speech and was confused by the horses in the background instead of the (usual?) sitting room. Everybody thought the speech was massively anodyne and blander than usual but watched it just the same because it was Christmas…

Ate Christmas pudding with cream and sauce in lounge in front of the TV. Watched EastEnders with great glee and everybody determined to watch second half at 10pm.

Annie is addicted to EastEnders, the new BBC ‘soap’ that is so enormously popular. So that went on at 6.35pm. I don’t usually watch it and what I saw then will not lead me to do so in future.

10.20pm Watching EastEnders on TV: glad we don’t normally watch it! (And I went to bed before 11.20 because of the diabolical programme choice on television.)

Mac and I flop on sofa and watch EastEnders. Eat chocolate and watch Only Fools and Horses which none of us found particularly funny and find I am getting more and more depressed as the evening goes on.

Second part of EastEnders. We had expected that Den would break the news of divorce to Angie and that Arthur would crack up completely but not that Pauline would discover that Den was the father of Michelle’s baby. The exit of Angie and Sharon from the pub was superb.

The TV diet is unexpectedly good; first a programme about Aaron Copland’s music, which interests me, then a splendid Miss Marple whodunit, followed by the last 2 acts of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Wendy Hiller doing a restrained Miss Marple.

4.40 The film now appears to be Annie, a show I’ve never seen and as I’m not really watching I’m not getting a full idea of the story. Was anybody, I wonder? Why was it on?

Television was switched on to the Christmas Day concert from Amsterdam (BBC2), mostly to ‘warm’ the set well before the Queen’s Speech as it is 12 years old and temperamental.

I put the television on. Mine is just a small black and white portable set which I rent for £3.90 a month. Mother has her own colour set at home. A James Bond film starring Sean Connery was on called Never Say Never Again. Although I hadn’t seen it, I couldn’t be bothered to get involved in a film. EastEnders, a popular soap, was on BBC. We decided not to watch TV.

After watching the BBC News it is decided we all retire to bed, after a drink of warm milk. Educating Rita, a film my wife and daughter wished to see, is put on the video recorder for watching at a later date.

During the past year, I found myself, increasingly, watching more and more rubbish on the television. It seemed to be that, because it was there, I watched it. My television licence expired yesterday and so I did not renew it. I asked the shop from whom I rented the set, to take it back, so now I am in a minority. In my new guise, I settled down and listened to a murder play on the radio until 9.30pm. It isn’t as easy to listen as it is to watch and, although I don’t particularly miss the programmes on the television, I miss Teletext.

Images from the Radio Times are taken from the Christopher Griffin-Beale Radio Times Collection, which can be consulted at The Keep.



Meet the Volunteers: Sam Allen, Beyond Boxes ‘buddy’

30 November 2017

‘When I began volunteering for the Beyond Boxes project, I did not know what to expect. However, I have since learned that it is about far more than helping service users with registering or using our services at The Keep. The Beyond Boxes project allows people to explore their own stories, histories and interests, with a helping hand nearby should they need it. As a volunteer, I feel enriched by my time spent at The Keep, not just in terms of guiding users through how to use the catalogue or interpret historical documents, but also in getting to know our users and their stories.


I believe the key to encouraging access to the collections at The Keep is getting to know our users, by exploring what they are looking for in the archives or simply by listening to their stories. Everyone who comes to The Keep has a story or is looking to fill in the blanks of one, be it of their family history or to aid academic research. In this way, I believe that the Beyond Boxes project sits hand in hand with Mass Observation. It appears that people are increasingly looking to inform their own knowledge of the past. As a matter of observation, it is interesting that people of our time are interested in looking back as the world is getting bigger through technology. As part of that process, I am more than glad to lend a hand where I can in helping people to find and record their stories, even if that simply means showing them how to access software on a computer or helping hunt around the Reference Room for a book or index.

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Buddy volunteer Sam Allen, right, with David Dent, senior IT instructor at Blind Veterans UK, in the Reference Room at The Keep

Recently we welcomed a group from Blind Veterans UK to The Keep, and their enthusiasm for our collections and resources was warming and enlightening. In a recent acquisition to meet user needs in terms of accessibility, The Keep has installed a wide range of IT equipment designed to enlarge, filter and enhance our digital resources to meet the needs of visually impaired or partially sighted users. It was exciting to hear what the Blind Veterans group thought of these new innovations, and it was also an education for the buddies and staff present. The whole day was a great experience for everyone involved, as tales of lost relatives and past experiences were shared and explored. Better still was that these endeavours were led by the Blind Veterans themselves, all of whom I hope left us with a healthy appetite for what The Keep offers (beyond the inter-session tea and cake). Many that I spoke to eagerly shared their plans to return.

My hopes as a volunteer and participant in the Beyond Boxes project is to share and reflect the excitement that our users bring with them to The Keep, particularly those who may not normally seek out our services. Often, it is in the experiences of these users that the most interesting stories are found. These contemporary voices shape our local and cultural history, and each and every one deserves to be heard, recorded and celebrated.’

If you would like the support of a ‘buddy’ volunteer to access the technology in use at The Keep, please contact us by email (thekeep@eastsussex.gov.uk) or telephone (01273 482349) to make an appointment. If you are interested in volunteering as one of our buddies, please email Suzanne Rose (Suzanne.Rose@sussex.ac.uk).



Meet the staff: Karen Watson, University of Sussex archivist

18 November 2017

University of Sussex Special Collections are pretty exciting, and I feel lucky to be their first archivist. They are a wonderful primary resource for anyone studying history, sociology, English or American studies and it’s part of my job to share their possibilities with tutors and their students. People have heard of the well-known collections, such as Mass Observation, which is so important it has its own team of archivists, and the Virginia and Leonard Woolf archives. But these high profile collections are only the tip of the iceberg. We also hold over 80 archival, manuscript and rare book collections, mainly focusing on 20th and 21st-century social, political and literary history.

‘The rare books are particularly beautiful; each of these collections is a history in itself, telling the story of the collector and what led him or her to the books they chose – perhaps the subject matter, author or their beautiful bindings. All these are unique primary sources a ten-minute walk away from the main university buildings!

‘I hold a degree in American Studies and qualified as an archivist in 2010 but I’ve only recently got a professional archivist job. It’s good to be using my qualification in this role as there are always cataloguing tasks. However, the majority of my time is spent teaching and talking; teaching undergraduate and MA students how to access and use the Special Collections, and talking to lecturers and researchers about the resource. It’s a drip, drip, drip approach…!

Karen at work with a group of students at The Keep

Karen at work with a group of students at The Keep

‘We’re trying to expand the knowledge and use of the Special Collections all the time as there are so many disciplines where they could be used. Recently, for example, I ran a photography seminar for art history students using Special Collections and the archives of the Brighton and Hove Camera Club, which is an East Sussex Record Office collection. This really shows the benefits of being at The Keep. At these introductory sessions, we show the short video we made recently about the store itself, and all the shelving and boxes behind the scenes. This helps to demystify the whole process of engaging with primary sources, as well as helping to familiarise people with The Keep building itself. I love showing people around and seeing their eyes widen when I open the door to the first storeroom.

‘Today, I’ve got a Library Assistant from the University of Malta shadowing me, joining me in a tutors’ meeting and then a staff meeting. She’s finding out how we run the Special Collections and also how our staffing structure fits into that of the University Library as a whole. As the Keep building isn’t on campus, it’s important for Special Collections staff to be represented at library events and in library groups. Today I’ve been in contact with with a former Vice-Chancellor who is going to contribute to one of our largest and most interesting collections, the institutional archive of the University of Sussex itself. Actually, former Sussex students regularly offer us their personal academic collections and we are very pleased to accept them if they complement the research needs of the University or its development as an institution.

‘I like people. That’s the attraction of the job – and sometimes one of its challenges! It’s so rewarding to be able to give visitors access to our collections and I sometimes forget just how unique our archives are. I’ve seen an individual become quite emotional on first reading the hand-written diaries and reports about life during the Second World War from the Mass Observation Archive, for example, or the original letters of Virginia Woolf. Researchers don’t usually engage on such an emotional level with their work, but one can’t fail to be moved by documents that are of such an immediate and personal nature.

‘But I also love reading about the University in the 1960s and 70s, and its development as a new institution. Perhaps not surprisingly, staff members were concerned by the issues which preoccupy them today, namely the provision and cost of food in the staff canteen. And I had to smile when I saw the 1971 invitation to the University’s Open Day. It stated that there would be a rail replacement bus service from Brighton to Falmer. That’s continuity!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman



A galaxy far, far away? The challenges of archive access in the here and now

14 September 2017

By Eleanor King

I am a graduate archive intern working for the University of Sussex’s Special Collections held here at The Keep, and until a few years ago, I had never visited an archive. Looking back, I am not sure what preconceived ideas I had about what might go on in a building like this. Whilst I had no doubt as to the intellectual and cultural value of the collections stored here, I don’t think I had any real idea of the range of material, or the variety of ways it can be used or interpreted. I must admit, though, that my lack of knowledge of archives, or how to navigate an archival catalogue had, in the past, made me apprehensive about engaging with archival material. But then I had never been to The Keep!

Since joining the team here, I have been inspired by the variety of work that goes on, and the range and depth of skills and knowledge possessed by the people who work here. As I consider furthering my career in the archive sector, I am now in a better position to recognise there are many challenges that the sector, and therefore the individuals working within it, face and of one these is user access.

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Archive intern Eleanor King working to promote access to material held at The Keep

Last Christmas, like all sensible people, I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and, following repeated viewings, it got me thinking about archival access and the challenges, or perceived challenges, people might face when trying to engage with archival material.

But how can a science fiction film, set in a galaxy far, far away, inspire thinking about contemporary archive access? In the final third of the film the crew of Rogue One, a group of rebels endeavouring to destroy the Imperial super weapon, land on the planet Scarif, home to…the Imperial Archive! Here, the rebels hope to infiltrate the intimidating Citadel housing the archive, navigate the extensive catalogue, locate the plans to the super weapon and then transmit them to the rebel fleet orbiting the planet.

What occurred to me on watching Rogue One, admittedly an unlikely source of inspiration when thinking about archives, was the similarities between the rebel struggle to access valuable data, and the perceived struggle many feel they will encounter on visiting an archive for the first time. From the remote location of the archive building, to the vast, undecipherable catalogue, the perception that archives are secret, locked away places, with the contents confusing and difficult to interpret, is a common one. It is not by accident, I would argue, that the makers of Rogue One placed the Imperial Archive in a citadel. For centuries, places of worship were the home to records and manuscripts, only accessible to the initiated and the educated, and there is still a perception that if you are neither, your access will be denied. At The Keep, however, and in archives across the country, there is work going on to challenge the common misconceptions surrounding archives and their use, and importantly, their users.

Although at The Keep we have many ‘regulars’ (and we couldn’t exist without them), work is also being done to broaden our reach and encourage archive use by members of the community who may not have considered using an archive before, or for whom an archive is out of reach. Beyond Boxes is one such project that aims to break down the barriers some marginalised groups might face when accessing archival material. This two-year, HLF-funded, project led by the Mass Observation Archive is working in partnership with Brighton Housing Trust, Blind Veterans UK and Lewes Prison to address access issues these groups face. How can you use a service that requires fixed personal details, such as an address, for registration? How can a person with a visual impairment ‘read’ a document? And how can you engage with an archive if you can’t physically get there, or freely access the material?

As a result of this project, The Keep has received new technology to enable visually impaired users to access our material and a ‘buddy’ scheme has been introduced this summer to assist service users with specific needs or access issues. The project has also worked with both Lewes Prison and Brighton Housing Trust to shape the Mass Observation directives for this year, and both groups have contributed to the 12th May Day Diary for the archive.

There is also extensive work being done daily behind the scenes here to engage with a variety of users including school groups, the LGBTQ community and students. I recently assisted in a teaching session led by Mass Observation Outreach Officer Suzanne Rose, working with a group of year nine students who had never been to an archive before. Our subject was World War 2 and we were instructed it was ‘not to feel like a lesson’. Using material from Mass Observation’s World War II collection, we encouraged the students to assess the material and interpret it back to the group using one of several methods including rap, song, a drama sketch, a news report etc. It is a daunting task trying to get 30 14-year-olds excited about archival material but they really embraced the chance to be creative with the material we had given them. Feedback from the session included comments like ‘I did not expect to enjoy this, but it was really fun and I learnt something new’. By engaging young people in working with archival material, we can start to break down perceived barriers, and give them the confidence to access material that is held for them. I wish such opportunities had been open to me earlier. Certainly, our rebel friends would have a much easier time of it had they been better prepared.

Sadly, the arts and heritage sector are facing uncertain times and places such as The Keep are having to continually justify their existence as council budgets are squeezed ever tighter. If we cannot prove our worth as a place of value to the whole community, not just the privileged few, then we risk facing redundancy, and material meant to be used by everyone, will return to being used only by the few. I have had the great pleasure to have spent the last 18 months cataloguing the archive of Lord Richard Attenborough, former Chancellor of the University of Sussex, film maker, charity worker, businessman (I could go on, he did!) and some words of his have never been far from my mind since starting here. In his maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1994, Attenborough stated ‘the arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our well-being, to our very existence, as eating and breathing. Access to them should not be restricted to the privileged few. Nor are they the playground of the intelligentsia. The arts are for everyone – and failure to include everyone diminishes us all’. Attenborough delivered this speech 23 years ago, but for those of us working in the sector today, they seem perhaps more pertinent now than they ever have. I am proud to be working in such a fascinating and important institution that is constantly striving to improve access, reach out and engage across the community from the regular visitor to the apprehensive student, to those who never knew we were here at all, let alone here for them. The collections held here at The Keep belong to all of us, and although much of it represents our past, they are kept for our future.

My work placement at The Keep

29 June 2017

‘We have to educate ourselves on the past in order to move on into the future’

‘My name is Rachel Wooley, and I recently completed a placement at The Keep. I study History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, and my placement was part of a module my course offers me in which the students can undertake a placement at any of a number of museums and archives across East Sussex. I was particularly pleased that I was granted the placement at The Keep because I am passionate about the way that The Keep stores, protects, and disseminates its material, and the mission of the archive.

I consider myself to be a community-conscious individual, and try to maintain an outward-looking, open-minded approach to all aspects of society. I value projects that attempt to help marginalised groups, and make a difference in the local community. The Keep, in these respects, is absolutely perfect. There are several projects and processes in which the staff engage consistently to help the archive be accessible to everyone, with no exceptions. Often I found staff going to prisons and community groups in order to continue their outreach programmes, and I also found myself engaging in school sessions. There are many facilities and practices throughout The Keep that maintain this incredibly inclusive, accessible approach that is so valuable to those who use the facilities.

Historical objects and documents are so vital to our success as an on-going, progressive community, because we have to educate ourselves on the past in order to move on into the future. They can inspire a passion for history through the reality of touching and seeing real-life artefacts, and can bring new dimensions not only to our research, but also to our imaginations. I was lucky enough to meet two authors (Bethan Roberts and Allie Rogers), who had undertaken research in order to set their novels in a past – set in Brighton – rooted in fact. For me, this cemented the idea that research, especially in archives like The Keep, can be absolutely vital to whatever work it is that you’re producing. The artist in me was continually inspired by the drawings in many of the diaries for Mass Observation, by the beautiful and hilarious descriptions of daily events in the 12th of May day diaries, by the posters and leaflets created for LGBT activism in Brighton’s history, and by the work that others had created with direct inspiration from material at The Keep.

As a student, I often find myself writing essays and seminar papers that need to be centred on original sources, and The Keep offers a plethora of these. There is such an unbelievable amount of material kept at The Keep that it’s extremely difficult to find a topic or word that can’t be found within their massive collection. If you are conducting research on any subject, it is more than likely that you will find something within the archive that will help you. With a dissertation looming on the horizon, I am thankful to know that The Keep has my back; I can use the facilities for free in order to further my research and produce a piece of work that is educated by my contact with original material.

If you are someone who is considering using The Keep, I have some advice for you: go. Go and conduct some research, even if it doesn’t amount to anything. Even if it just involves you looking at some artefacts you find interesting, but don’t intend to do anything with, it is my personal opinion that you should do it anyway. If you want to go but you have no idea what to look at, I would recommend looking at the Mass Observation directive on Eurovision. And if you are someone who works at The Keep, or actively uses the facilities, “Keep” up the good work.’


Meet the volunteers: Monica Birchall, volunteer for Mass Observation

1 June 2017

‘Volunteering provides a wonderful opportunity to mix’

‘I’ve volunteered in many situations and until recently, I was a volunteer with CAB, the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, counselling people on debt. But that was very stressful. This is different; it keeps my mind going and has put my life in perspective.

‘When my husband died I decided to do a part-time degree which then turned into a Master’s in Life History and Oral History. My primary research resource was the material in Mass Observation (MO) at the University of Sussex; I was overwhelmed by its depth and range. I fell in love with it! So much of the general history we read deals with the “great and the good” but these were the words of ordinary people, describing their lives and giving their views.

‘That was over six years ago. After finishing my MA, it seemed natural to apply as a volunteer for Mass Observation and I’ve been driving here from my home in Crowborough once a week ever since. The work? Well, I could be doing something as basic as helping with mailouts, or sorting through recently donated archives, removing paperclips and staples, or wrapping photographs.

‘Most of my day, however, is spent at the computer. When we receive replies to directives or special reports, it’s my job to input the basic data into the catalogue, such as titles, keywords and writers’ numbers, so researchers can see at a glance which directives specific writers have responded to. It’s not too technical and you don’t need an academic background to do it; however, you do need to have computer skills. Like many people, I found, when I returned to the workplace – albeit as a volunteer – that I needed to do a basic computer course! When I started here I thought that the older MO writers would be sending in handwritten responses while the under fifties would send emails, but no. There are writers in their nineties who prefer computers, and some in their twenties who use pen and ink. Maybe they sit at a screen for work all day and this is a form of light relief! I enjoy reading the handwritten responses, though; it gives a further layer of personality to the writer.

‘Volunteering provides a wonderful opportunity to mix, and at The Keep there’s a large staff working on a diverse range of projects. I’m always chatting to younger people, to academics, or simply to other volunteers with an interest in social history. Feeling needed is always a good feeling, and when you’re over a certain age, it’s even better!’

Interview by Lindsey Tydeman