Hundreds of Britons Volunteered for a Diary-Keeping Project in 1937. They Left an Invaluable Record of World War IIBreaking News
tags: British history, World War 2
On the eve of the war that would cost the lives of more than one million British military personnel, change the path of the empire, and reshape the skylines of cities from London to Glasgow, people across the U.K. opened up their diaries and sat down to write.
Founded in January 1937 as an “anthropology of ourselves,” the project known as Mass Observation was meant to record the mundane details of British life across every level of class and location. The three founders recruited low-paid researchers through a letter announcing the project in the New Statesman. These observers were tasked with recording the public’s behavior in places like pubs and war memorials, as well as people’s attitudes about topics as varied as football pools, eating and facial hair.
The founders of Mass Observation couldn’t have known when they started the project that they’d soon be uniquely positioned to capture the hopes and fears of a nation at war. By the end of the summer of 1939, however, it was clear that Britain was on the brink of war with Germany. World War II wasn’t only fought on the battlefields of Europe, but also on the Home Front, and the stories of those who stayed behind in Britain live on in vivid detail thanks to the diaries produced as part of Mass Observation.
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