Every 12 May a group called Mass Observation asks people in the UK to keep a diary. Find out why and how you can take part here.

Diaries of a Coronation

Wednesday 12 May 1937 saw British streets and village halls festooned with bunting and flags. The country was in a celebratory mood as it prepared to enjoy the pomp and ceremony of the crowning of George VI and his wife Elizabeth. This coronation was a first in many ways. Modern media opened the event to the entire population. The first to be filmed, cameras took grainy shots of the procession for cinema audiences. Radio audiences could listen to the ceremony on the wireless at home or in public buildings. Today, we can find those official films and recordings on the internet. Less well-known is that ordinary people kept a fascinating collection of public diaries.

Mass Observation at The Keep

The diaries were the brainchild of a social research group called Mass Observation. Founded in 1937, the group aimed to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. By recruiting a panel of diarists and a group of observers, Mass Observation was able to collect a huge pool of public opinion. The first day diary event looked at the Coronation.

The group produced a leaflet asking ‘Where were you on May 12th? Mass-observation wants your story’. It asked observers to record everything they did from waking up in the morning until they went to sleep at night. Also posed were questions like ‘Do you think it benefits the country to have a Coronation?’ and ‘Were your neighbours keen on the Coronation?’. Over 200 people from all walks of life took part. Each kept an hourly record of their day, and many collected press cuttings of local events.

Online collections

The diaries and resulting report are held in the Mass Observation Archive at The Keep. The Archive also includes all material generated by project, such as war diaries and responses to questionnaires on specific topics. Organised by topic, you can search the online catalogue on The Keep’s website. Once you’ve found something of interest, you can view the documents, either in their original or digitised format, by visiting the reading room. Although The Keep is temporarily closed, some of this wonderful collection is available to view online, including photographs taken in Bolton in the 1930s and 1940s.

Get involved

Over the years, the project become more focused on market research, and eventually came to an end in the 1950s. However, in 1981, Mass Observation was relaunched for social research. In tribute to its origins, the group asks members of the public to record their day each 12 May. Given current events, this year is likely to produce unusual results. If you want to contribute your thoughts, find out how to take part. The written diaries will be stored in the Archive at The Keep and be used by a wide range of people for research, teaching and learning.