“I am not Interested in the Coronation”: Similarities and Dissimilarities in Mass Observation’s 12th May Diaries from 1937 and 2023.

Reposted from the Mass Observation website

By Emily Calcraft


On 12th May 1937 a Day Survey Respondent from Oldham stated: ‘I am not interested in the Coronation and regard all the fuss as artificial and irrational’. In May 2023, the Coronation of Charles III led to a media frenzy that stirred up the ‘culture wars’, between Royalists and Republicans; the conservative Right and the ‘woke’ Left. It resolved that the Monarchy was under threat from the younger generation. An out-dated, antiquated, and increasingly irrelevant institution. But this did not encompass the entire spectrum of societal emotion. Just as the Respondent from Oldham had noted in 1937, many were simply not interested.

In 1937 Mass Observation was founded to respond to a dissatisfaction with Britain’s newspapers’ coverage of the public mood surrounding King Edward VIII’s abdication and George VI’s consequent succession. The project’s founders wanted to capture the opinion of the nation by documenting the emotions, feelings, and positions of the populace en masse. 86 years later, in 2023, the collection can serve a similar function.

This blog will explore the divergences and convergences in the 12th May Diaries from 1937 and 2023. Are they more alike than we might think? It is important to note that the 12th May 1937 was the precise date of George VI’s Coronation, whereas diarists in 2023 had a week to reflect on the ceremony. This blog will discuss the media coverage of the Coronations, the public expectation placed upon the Monarchy and the Royal Family, and the nature of local and private celebrations.

A scan of a colour photograph of a long picnic table. It is covered in a white table cloth and red, white and blue decorations. It is covered in food, forming part of a street party.
Image from a respondent to the Silver Jubilee Directive

The Coronation

One may (mistakenly) believe that most people in 1937 were ardent supporters of the Coronation. Instead, just as in 2023, the Coronation prompted deeper debates and discussions surrounding the Monarchy. A Day Survey Respondent from London in 1937 captured a conversation that she shared with a young man ‘wearing a red, white and blue rosette’ who stated that he believed ‘in the Coronation and all it stands for’. The Respondent enquired whether he thought the Coronation was good and he replied that ‘it brings people out of themselves and all true Britons think a lot of their King and Queen and their country’. To which the Respondent replied that she was ‘not against people enjoying themselves’ but ‘would like them to have the means to do it all the time and not merely for a Coronation’.

Indeed, the expense generated by the Coronation made headlines in 2023, where the Cost-of-Living Crisis shed new light on the extravagance of the proceedings. A Respondent from Brighton noted that whilst she enjoyed the Coronation, her husband ‘refused to watch as he feels strongly about certain things, e.g., the place of the royal family (and their wealth) in the current times’. Similarly, in 1937 the cost of the Coronation was shrouded in controversiality. A Respondent from Oldham noted ‘what an expense it all is: all the unemployed might have been given a stone of flour instead!’

Moreover, just as in 2023, lots of people were uninterested in entering into a conversation about the Coronation! In 1937, a Respondent from Northumberland noted that a woman ‘seemed neither interested in nor cynical about the Coronation so scarcely anything was said on the subject’. Furthermore, some in 1937 were disinterested in the Coronation whilst being supportive of the Monarchy. A Respondent from London stated that ‘the most peculiar incident was the fact that my father, who is an arch-Conservative and a Royalist to the core, remained in the garage all day tinkering with his car, and did not listen in at all.’

Despite the changing nature of technology, the media coverage of the Coronation has maintained its profound impact upon audiences. Although, one Respondent did confess to occasionally switching-off the broadcast as they found themselves ‘becoming bored’. In 1937 a young woman from Olton Warwicks stated, ‘my father seems emotionally disturbed by the broadcast’. The mode of the broadcast has changed dramatically, from entirely audio to almost entirely visual. In 1937 Mass Observers discussed ‘the fact that the King did not show much hesitation in his speech’ and ‘has a pleasing voice’. Whilst, in 2023 viewers were shocked to learn ‘that if you keep the TV on for over 5 hours it will switch itself off’. A Respondent from Northamptonshire noted that ‘watching made us feel proud to be British’ and that they ‘were glued to the set all day’.  Another Respondent stated that the ceremony was ‘a fascinating blend of superstition, codswallop, religions, and pomp’. Other respondents in 2023 felt that the coverage was misleading, with one Respondent arguing that ‘despite what everybody tells you on The BBC News nobody’s interested’.

A scan of a typed document. It is four sentences typed on a typewriter. It reads:
'INV Did you have a Coronation party at your school? F9 No. INV You had the day off, though F9 Oh, yes'
TC 69 – ROYALTY 1942-64 (Box 8)

The Monarchy and the Royal Family

In 2023, many Respondents stressed that the importance of the Monarchy was waning following the loss of empire and imperial hegemony. One Respondent noted that she had attended the Coronation of Elizabeth II when ‘postwar Britain was lit up by the young Queen’ and that it seemed ‘a brave new world’. She remarked that ’70 years later that world is over. Nostalgia for Empire and an uncritical colonial past has brought us Brexit’. The Respondent resolved that the Coronation had lost its impact as Britain is ‘now a small inconsequential nation floating unanchored in the North Atlantic’.

Mass Observers in 2023 questioned the militaristic nature of the Coronation and the role of the Monarch as head of the armed forces. A Respondent stated that ‘mass ranks of military hardware passing invited audiences may, on the surface look impressive and threatening, but to me it just seems childish.’ Respondents also touched upon the Monarch’s responsibility over the armed forces and what should happen if that was rescinded. A Respondent recalled a conversation with friends in which one person enquired ‘do you want somebody like Trump in charge of the army?’. The Respondent felt that the Monarch’s responsibility over the armed forces was superficial or, at least, misguided. They wrote that the Queen ‘didn’t seem to have any say over her own army killing her own people in Northern Ireland’ and ‘never stopped UK involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan’.

Many Respondents in 2023 discussed the future of the Monarchy. One attended a Women’s Institute meeting, in which the prevailing opinion was that ‘inevitably, the monarchy will and should diminish and have a lesser role or maybe disappear entirely in the future’. The Respondent said that ‘there was a range of opinion as to how long that might take; and some wanted it to happen, others didn’t’. In 1937, there were far fewer responses that outright discussed the legitimacy and relevance of the Royal Family. Even though George VI had succeeded as King in (then) problematic circumstances, many were supportive of his will. One Respondent discussed George VI’s intent to visit his brother and argued ‘isn’t it reasonable for a man to go and see his brother?’ That is not to say that the events which proceeded George VI’s Coronation did not affect the opinions of Mass Observers. Indeed, one posited that the new King’s voice was ‘deeper than his brother’s denoting his sexually comfortable life’.

In 2023 the fallibility of the Monarch and Monarchy was a more persistent theme amongst responses. Observers discussed the controversies surrounding the estranged Harry and Meghan, Prince Andrew, and the new Monarch himself. A Respondent from Cambridge stressed her dislike for King Charles and stated that she ‘can’t bear to look at him when he’s on the telly’. The reason for her aversion surrounded his divorce from Diana and marriage to Camilla. She wrote: ‘I wasn’t a fan of Diana either, but was kind of preoccupied by the posh-man-using-a-young-woman’s-body-for-procreation aspect of it, that posh girls are used like that, brooding mares. Made me very angry. She was obviously so young, and so vulnerable, as a human being’.

Local Celebrations

The nature and value of local Coronation celebrations remained important to Mass Observers. For those that elected not to watch or listen to any of the coverage, the decorations and parties provided huge amounts of joviality outside of the monarchical metropole in London. In 1937, respondents highlighted the visual iconography and impact of ‘union jacks flying from the bedroom windows’. One Observer wrote about his surprise in seeing that ‘the display of decorations in one of the poorest streets was on a really large scale. Every house had a string of flags fluttering from its roof guttering across the roadway to that of the house opposite. Even the kerb-stone had been coloured red, white and blue the whole length of the road on both sides!’ Another Respondent noted that their neighbours were very patriotic but ultimately frugal as their ‘house was adorned with a few mouldy flags, survivals from Victoria’s coronation’.

Similarly, local celebrations and decorations were central to Mass Observer accounts in 2023. A Respondent noted that they had put flags ‘at the entrance to our house and also at a turning into the lane where we live’ and that their ‘village had a street party and “The Best Dressed house” competition’. One Respondent from Flackwell Heath was left displeased as one week after the Coronation there was ‘still no news’ of what had happened to her ‘missing bunting’. Celebrations and gatherings were more prominent amongst those Mass Observers that lived in rural areas and villages. One Respondent in Northamptonshire reported that their ‘village hall did afternoon tea with a town crier announcing the new king and more cake than we could eat was donated’.

Certainly, in 1937 Observers maintained that the Coronation provided an opportunity to gather people and instil unity. A Respondent in Scotland noted that there were ‘about 1,000 people waiting for the procession’ but that he ‘did not hear the King and Queen mentioned’. It was suggested that the temporal distance from London was accompanied by an ideological distance, in that the crowd focussed on their own celebrations rather than the new King. In a similar vein, an Observer in Warwickshire recounted the cheerfulness of the crowd that he had been a part of when witnessing a procession. He said that ‘a woman in the crowd near us called out to a soldier: “Oo-oo Bert” and other people in the crowd took it up, shouting & waving to imaginary Berts. Occassionally a soldier whose name perhaps was Bert turned his head & looked hard at the crowd. The shouting was redoubled then and caused a lot of amusement.’

A further commonality between Mass Observer Responses in 1937 and 2023 surrounds the food and drink consumed on the 12th of May. In 2023, a Respondent noted that they were ‘still eating up the coronation leftovers’ that consisted of ‘egg mayonnaise, cooked salmon, lettuce, tomatoes, potato salad, then some cheese and biscuits’. Another noted that they had made an afternoon tea for the Coronation and ‘attempted a union jack cake, the design marked out with raspberries and blueberries’. Rather predictably, tea was also important to Mass Observers in 1937. One Respondent noted that whilst he sat in bed his mother brought him ‘cups of tea’. Some Observers in 1937 mentioned another British staple- fish and chips! One Observer went to a shop in Camden Town that ‘looked bright and cheerful inside, masses of decorations and union jacks for tablecloths and there is a radio booming forth’ but was ‘rather disappointed that the people feeding there do not seem to have the “coronation” spirit’.

The “Coronation Spirit” was not the only spirit consumed on 12th May 1937 as respondents recounted alcohol-fuelled escapades that they had partaken in or been witness to. One stated that on the London underground there was ‘a group of girls, evidently a little drunk’ who were ‘making jokes and laughing uproariously’. Another Respondent in Birmingham was at the pub when George VI made his speech but recounted that ‘no one was listening’. The Respondent’s wife had also witnessed ‘two young men & a girl sitting at a table’ but ‘the girl was silent and the young men took no notice of her; they sang to each other & after each song leaned across the table and kissed’.

The 2023 celebrations may seem tame compared to those of 1937, but it is important to remember that the demography of Mass Observation has changed. In 1937 many Observers were in their twenties and thirties, whereas in 2023 most responses came from retired people. Nonetheless, comparing diaries from 1937 and 2023 alludes to the great commonalities in public responses to the Coronation. Many doubted the expense and relevance of the proceedings, others relished the day and everything it symbolised, and many Observers just enjoyed their local celebrations or frequentations of the pub. 86 years after its foundation, the 12th of May project can still perform its original intent to hint at the wider tapestry of societal opinion.

This year the Mass Observation Archive is calling for diaries written on 12th May 2024. Please consider helping the Archive document the dayFor more information on how to take part, visit the Mass Observation Archive website.

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Posted in Collections, MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

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