How the 12th May Diaries can help us to understand death and grief during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Chloe Daniel – Mass Observation Archive Assistant

Content warning: this post discusses the themes of death and dying

‘After she died, I fretted that I might not have been praying hard enough or in the right way or not asking God hard enough to keep her alive and let her recover from this terrible virus, Please don’t take her yet, we’re not ready for her to go. But it didn’t work and during the first days following her death I started to feel anxious that things might have turned out differently if only I’d prayed harder.’[1]


I was not sure how to begin this post. Having not lost anyone to COVID-19, I did not think that my own words would appropriately convey the grief and anguish that people across the world are feeling right now. Consequently, I chose to start with the quote above. The words of a person who lost a loved one to the disease. The sorrow throughout the diarist’s entry is palpable and highlights just how much devastation COVID-19 has caused.

As of today, 10th April 2021, 127,040 people in the United Kingdom have died within 28 days of receiving a positive COVID-19 test. 149,968 people have died with COVID-19 on their death certificate.[2] This figure is the equivalent of a city, somewhere between the size of Oxford and Cambridge vanishing. Over 149,968 families and friends are now having to adapt to live with loss. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, I expect these numbers will have increased again.

Even for those who have not had to directly deal with the loss of a loved one this year, death has still been ever-present. It has been impossible to escape the daily announcement detailing the number of people who have died. Scenes inside intensive care units of hospitals at capacity shown on the six o’clock news have also become a distressing addition to teatime television. Many writers have detailed how they have found the news coverage so intense and traumatic that they ‘rationed’ their daily news intake or stopped watching it entirely.[3] Several writers have discussed experiencing strange dreams during the pandemic. For some, these dreams have been distressing and highlight that even sleep does not allow an escape:


‘Last night I dreamt of two of the people I worked with closely for years. It was a sad dream as they both died during the dream from the virus.’[4]


I fear that the impact the virus has on the nations mental health will be as catastrophic as the impact it has had on physical health.

Unsurprisingly, many of the entries we have received discuss death. While it is a difficult topic for many, it would be wrong to avoid talking about it. The most obvious thing to note is that the pandemic has caused many people to rethink their plans regarding their death. Other entries discuss funerals and the grieving process. Below, I will discuss what these entries tell us about how people dealt with and felt about death during this period.

The pandemic and preparing for death

According to the Office for National Statistics, a baby born in the United Kingdom between 2017 and 2019 has a life expectancy of 79.4 years if it is male and 83.1 years if it is female.[5] Improvements in modern medicine have meant that infectious diseases, which may have been a death sentence to our predecessors, can now be cured by taking a simple course of antibiotics. Consequently, in modern Britain, death does not pose the same level of threat to us in the same way that it did to our ancestors.

COVID-19 changed this. There was no cure and when there is no cure to a disease, the fear of death becomes very real. It was not until the 2nd December 2020 that the first vaccine for COVID-19 was approved for use in the United Kingdom.[6] This was 254 days after the first lockdown was introduced. For many, this eight-month period was a time of immense concern as there did not seem to be an end in sight.

Some diarists began to make preparations detailing what they wished to happen if they were to die:


‘My husband and I […] have been discussing what we would like if we became very ill with Covid 19. We would not want intensive care unless we were very likely to survive it. We would prefer to die as gently as possible, with palliative care in our own house, and be with each other. We have been writing death plans.’[7]


Others thought about the legacy that they are going to leave behind and have touchingly begun to document family stories for future generations:

‘Tonight I also have a slight cold which immediately makes me worry as to whether I have got Covid. I don’t have any underlying health issues but I do worry about dying. I have started to write family stories for my granddaughter and daughters but I can’t really bear to think about not being here for them.’[8]

‘I am spending today going through my old photo albums and removing anything that will be of no interest to anyone else but us and writing on the back telling of the occasion and who the people are in the photos.’[9]

‘Continued to stick some photos into an album – they are of my younger daughter as a baby and toddler; I get very sentimental when I look at photos of my children when they were little. At the moment I sense a great urgency to finish things I have been meaning to do for a while. The thought that I might fall ill with Covid 19 is very much on my mind. So I want to feel that I have put my affairs in order as much as possible, in case I were not to survive.’[10]


The pandemic has also highlighted fears around what will happen to those who are left behind:


I’m much more aware of my own mortality since the pandemic began. In fact, I’ve been feeling anxious that neither of us have written a will yet, and we plan to do so soon. We are unmarried and I worry that if I died suddenly, my partner would become homeless.[11]


Others have had potentially lifesaving treatment stopped due to the pandemic. The below writer who has motor neurone disease and has sadly had their medical trials paused noted that:

My husband prays each night for a miracle cure, then cries and cries and cries. His sorrow is hard to bear, but I mustn’t grumble, far worse things happen every day in the hospitals and the streets and he must bear the burden of life when I am gone. He will have to live the years I will not have, although how he will cope is a moot point.”[12]


This heightened awareness of death is something that has been experienced across the country. Interestingly, in April 2020, The Independent reported that COVID-19 had caused a ‘surge in will writing.’[13]

While the pandemic has encouraged many people to address death, it has also prevented some people from coming to terms with inevitable loss.

A school student recorded how they were struggling with being unable to visit their grandmother, who had been diagnosed with cancer and was only expected to survive for a couple of months. The diarist noted that:


‘doctors can’t really do much for her apart from making her as comfortable as possible but I think the most upsetting thing for me is that I can’t see her because only adults can see her.’ [14]


The writer later noted that they were still hoping to have the chance to visit their grandmother before she passed away.

Therefore, it seems that in terms of preparing, the pandemic has forced people to think more deeply about death in a way that they may not have done previously. It has caused people to assess the impact that their passing would have on their loved ones both practically and emotionally and has encouraged people to open up and have more meaningful conversations regarding this subject. However, the pandemic and lockdown restrictions have also prevented many families from preparing when they know that a loved one is dying. It has fragmented the process of being able to say goodbye and having one final hug. This has been a very distressing time for many people and as I will detail below, is has not been made easier by the funeral process.

Funerals during the COVID-19 pandemic

The lockdown guidance for March 2020 also placed restrictions on funerals. This meant that funerals had to have social distancing in place and only ‘members of the deceased person’s household or close family members’ were permitted to attend. [15] At a time when a hug and a handhold is so necessary, being unable to demonstrate affection in this manner was clearly a very painful experience for many.


One writer attended the funeral of their cousin the day before sending in their entry and detailed the event in their diary:

‘I have to say the funeral was one of the most upsetting I’ve ever been to – only 10 mourners allowed and all with social distancing which meant the widow sat entirely on her own in the front pew without even her sons sitting with her. Not an experience I ever want to repeat.’[16]


Another unsettling reality of this period is that many funerals have had to take place via video link for friends and family who cannot attend in person. For those who live alone and are going through bereavement, the sense of isolation is staggering. Some chose to override the restrictions in this situation:

‘Whilst I was shopping I decided to recontact the friend I spoke to earlier to ask if she could come in person to watch the funeral together. Although this is definitely not allowed under the social distancing rules, we’ve made the call that contact around this funeral comes under the ‘care of vulnerable people’ clause. For example, the friend whose brother died came to my flat yesterday, and we finally hugged and cried together. Despite the risk of infection it was really worth it for both of us, I think.’ [17]


During this period, it can be seen that funerals have been additionally traumatic for many due to being unable to express physical affection. For many, this has removed the ability to process their grief naturally.

Coming to terms with loss

The final part of this article will think about how the pandemic has impacted people’s ability to come to terms with loss. As mentioned above, the restrictions around funerals have completely disrupted how many people deal with grief. Social distancing measures and regulations on the mixing of households have meant that the experience of loss has been amplified. This is because after the funeral, many people have had to learn to adapt to life after the death of their loved one alone. One writer who lost their wife and lives alone details the difficulty of living in an empty household:

Like the last 4 weeks since my wife died I wake up either thinking that she is still alive or knowing that she is dead. I wake up and already everything is different, not like they were in March, no one to ask me how I slept and I them, no one to ask if they would like a cup of tea. That eeriness of silence.'[18]


Usually, many people find solace from having the physical presence of their loved ones around them during this period to hold, talk to and comfort. The above writer explains how much harder this experience has become due to lockdown removing the ability to receive support in person from relatives.

Then my Mum and Dad call me, I’m very grateful for this contact. In the reality where we have to social distance, not mix etc when someone dies in the old world it is hard. But grieving for the loss of a loved one in these lock down days is (I imagine) like receiving a life sentence in prison when you didn’t do it.’ [19]


We also received an entry from the parent of the writer above who explains the heartache they felt at having to comfort their child from afar:

‘My own grief has been raw and supporting […] from a distance has been unbearably sad. Although we did manage to attend […]’s funeral, unlike some families who have not been able to do so, not being able to even hug […], only being able to watch him from a distance as he was supported by […] felt so desperate’[20]


Another writer expresses sorrow at being unable to mourn the death of her mother with her sister:

‘It’s okay, apart from how much I miss my sister now every day at the moment, because she has been my solace, and me hers. She was the person I saw outside of this house, the person I hugged tightly.’[21]


Others have reported feeling an increased sense of anxiety after losing a loved one and being unable to grieve with family:

‘My anxiety is up – perhaps, given that we’re in the middle of global pandemic, that death is very present, that my own Grandad died in hospital alone 7 weeks ago, that I couldn’t attend his funeral and that I haven’t seen friends of family for two months, that is to be expected.’ [22]


Forced isolation has added an increased burden onto the load of grief. It has made the process of coming to terms with loss harder due to the inability to receive comfort when it is most needed. It has intensified feelings of isolation. I imagine that during this period, people have not only had to come to terms with their loss but have been forced to face it relentlessly, day in, day out. The inability to have other people around, even simply as a distraction, may have caused some to overplay the horrific events they have had to experience repeatedly in their minds. Reading the diaries, it seems that for many, the pandemic has made grieving even harder as it has stripped people of their right to say goodbye as they wished and receive comfort how they desire.

References

1 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1602, 12th May 2020

2 Author Unknown, ‘Deaths in United Kingdom’ (10th April 2021) https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/deaths [Accessed 10th April 2021]

3  Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_913, 12th May 2020

4 Mass Observation Archive, MT _2020_ 989, 12th May 2020

5 Edward Morgan and Stephen Rozee ‘National life tables- life expectancy in the UK: 2017 to 2019’ (24th September 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/2017to2019 [Accessed 10th April 2020]

6 Michelle Roberts ‘Covid-19: Pfizer BioNTech vaccine judged safe for use in UK (2nd December 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-55145696 [Accessed 10th April 2021]

7 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1451, 12th May 2020

8 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1692, 12th May 2020

9 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1946, 12th May 2020

10 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_2473, 12th May 2020

11 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1149, 12th May 2020

12 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1167, 12th May 2020

13 Kate Hughes ‘Covid-19 prompts surge in will writing’ (14th April 2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/money/spend-save/wills-legal-death-coronavirus-covid-19-divorce-children-property-wishes-funeral-a9463671.html [Accessed 10th April 2021]

14 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1856, 12th May 2020

15 Public Health England ‘New advice for safe funerals after discussions with faith leaders’ (31st March 2020) https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-advice-for-safe-funerals-after-discussions-with-faith-leaders [Accessed 10th April 2021]

16 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1586, 12th May 2020

17 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1253, 12th May 2020

18 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_759, 12th May 2020

19 Mass Observation Archive, Ibid, 12th May 2020

20 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1602, 12th May 2020

21 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1033, 12th May 2020 22 Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1009, 12th May 2020

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

Collections reading group

By Richard Wragg – Collections Manager

For the last few months, the Collections Team have been meeting for a reading group. The texts we have chosen to discuss have all had a focus on decolonisation, equality and diversity.

The reading group formed in response to the events of Summer 2020 – specifically the killing of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests and the wider conversations that developed around the role of the heritage sector in explaining contested histories. We wanted to undertake decolonisation work with our collections, but it soon became apparent that many of us lacked the knowledge that is required to make systemic changes.

I won’t write about what has been discussed in the reading group but would like to highlight some general principles to which we adhere. The first is that the group is a safe space to explore and challenge ideas. We recognise that we will make occasional missteps in both thought and language and that the reading group is an opportunity to develop our knowledge in a supportive environment without fear of criticism. Although reading groups are often a leisure activity, we also undertook to meet during work time, and to consider the reading a work activity. Finally, we all agreed that the reading group would be a catalyst for change within our working practices.

The reading group is one of a number of activities in the Library related to decolonisation. Gradually, we are developing the knowledge and confidence to approach our work and collections with fresh perspective. New consideration is being given to how our collections are acquired, catalogued and accessed. We hope to update you on this work over the coming months.

For those who would like to learn more, some of the texts we have found particularly thought-provoking include:

David Olusoga, Black and British Migration – (requires University of Sussex login)

David Osa Admadasun, Black People Don’t Go To Galleries –  

Rachael Minott, The Past is Now (requires University of Sussex login)

The Library has also developed a Decolonisation reading list

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Posted in BLDS (British Library for Development Studies), Collection Development, Collections, IDS, Legacy collection, MO (Mass Observation), Special Collections, The Keep, Uncategorised, UOSH (Unlocking Our Sound Heritage)

Not as boring as they sound – reading the history of Zimbabwean independence from airline annual reports in the BLDS Legacy Collection

By Danny Millum – BLDS metadata and discovery officer

One of the many strengths of the BLDS Legacy Collection lies in its holdings of annual reports, from both government departments and public and private companies. While obviously vital source material for business and economic historians, these might appear a little dry to others, but on closer perusal the incidental details of their production are in fact often strikingly revealing of wider social, cultural and political developments.

One example of this which struck us during cataloguing were the runs of Air Rhodesia and Air Zimbabwe annual reports which run from 1968 to 1988/89. The fact that Zimbabwe only achieved independence relatively late gives it a unique place within our collection, as while for the majority of African countries our holdings only really begin with independence, here we have material which allows us to compare and contrast pre- and post-independence publications across a wide variety of organisations.

Just dipping our toe in the water with this one example affords us a fascinating visual insight into how the airlines saw themselves. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single black Zimbabwean in any of the images from the 1968 and 1973 issues [image 1, 2 & 3], whereas the 1981 picture is decidedly multi-racial [image 4] and by 1989 the vast majority of the office staff are black [image 5] (interestingly for much of the late 70s photographs have been replaced by cartoon images – this would probably take an entirely separate blog to explore though!)

Besides the pictures, there are also snippets of text in the reports which cast light on international political developments and their local ramifications.

As we can see from the extract below from the 1968 annual report on Traffic and Sales that the tensions between Zambia and Rhodesia following the latter’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 were playing themselves out in the air industry as well, with Zambia banning air services between the two countries (and South Africa commensurately increasing its traffic).

“The new national airline of Rhodesia was born on the 1st September, 1967. Its birth was bedevilled by difficulties but it has come through the first few months of its life, not unscathed, but a great deal stronger than even the most optimistic had hoped for.

The Airline’s strength and resilience, in this important period of its life, stemmed from its predecessor’s proud heritage of service to Central Africa during the period 1946-1967… The difficulties facing the airline, and the country it serves, are by no means over; indeed the extent and degree of pressures from some quarters is increasing; however, Air Rhodesia faces the future with confidence…”

Air Rhodesia annual report 1968 – BLDS Legacy Collection

Post-independence we can see [image 6] that by 1989 routes stretched across Africa, to Europe and even to Australia.

Image of the route network of Air Zimbabwe
(Image 6) Air Zimbabwe route network – annual report 1989 – BLDS Legacy collection

Though Air Zimbabwe is still extant, mounting losses and the grounding of all flights due to the current Covid-19 pandemic mean its future is uncertain. It is unlikely that preserving its archive will be its priority, and therefore the preservation of this material by BLDS demonstrates in microcosm the importance of cataloging and conserving this type of material for histories of all kinds.

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12th May 2020 an introduction to the diaries

By Chloe Daniel – Mass Observation Archive Assistant

23 March, 2020. The country, along with life as we knew it, stopped. School’s out. Non-essential shopping is no longer permitted. Gatherings involving more than two people now prohibited. You may only leave your house for a small number of reasons and exercise outdoors is now limited to once a day. ‘Lockdown’ begins. Of course, reader, I probably do not need to explain the reasons behind this. If you are reading this in 2021, you will already know. If you are reading this in the future, this period was so momentously life changing that I imagine you would have learnt about it in school. Or maybe your grandmother or grandfather told you what it was like to live through this strange time. For the sake of clarity however, I will explain.

How the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the United Kingdom

COVID-19 is a disease which was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Questions surrounding this illness, which seemed to attack the respiratory system, soon began circulating around the world. At first, the attitude amongst ordinary people in the United Kingdom generally seemed to be one of nonchalance (or at least from what I remember). In fact, as of 9 January 2020, health officials were still unsure if the virus even spread via ‘human-to-human transmission.’[1] As the month went on however, the cause for concern progressed. Alarming reports of a hospital in China being constructed in ten days to treat coronavirus patients began to cause anxiety.[2] If this new disease is nothing to worry about, what would be the need to panic build a hospital? On the 31 January 2020, the first two cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the United Kingdom.[3] Over the next couple of months, the number of confirmed cases in the UK continued to grow. It became clear that a serious problem was arising. On 5 March 2020, the first person to die of the coronavirus in the UK was announced.[4] Just six days after this, on 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that coronavirus was to be officially classified as a pandemic.[5] On 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared on television sets across the country.[6] 27.5 million people watched his sobering message[7] The disease was spreading quickly and taking many lives. Something needed to be done. A national lockdown was announced and together we needed to adhere to the restrictions I mentioned above, in order to control the spread of the virus.

“Mass Observation has annually been asking for people to send in a record of their day on 12th May. The diaries provide an amazing insight into the lives of ordinary people across Britain”

The (ongoing) period that ensued would be life changing for many. For some, there would be periods of immense sorrow and loss. For others, this period would bring newfound happiness in areas previously unexplored. For the majority, I think it proved to be a mixture of the two. After all, our thoughts and feelings are not linear.

The 12th May 2020 collection

How do I know about how people were feeling, you may now be asking?

A Google map showing locations of MO diarists
12th May – Map detailing diary locations (sample size: 1000 diaries)

The Mass Observation Archive sent out a call for 12th May 2020 diaries. This was not a new directive. In fact, since 1937, Mass Observation has annually been asking for people to send in a record of their day on 12th May. The diaries provide an amazing insight into the lives of ordinary people across Britain.[8] The call for 12th May 2020 diaries occurred during the first lockdown. The responses will be a fundamental resource for those who wish to learn more about life for ordinary people during the coronavirus pandemic. The response rate was astonishing. Over 5000 people sent in a diary for 12th May 2020. Entries arrived from every corner of the United Kingdom, from Aberdeen in Scotland to Marazion in Cornwall. The youngest diarist I have so far encountered was just three years old whilst the oldest was ninety-one. Responses have arrived from people of all races, religions and genders. From those living in city locations to others in the countryside. Similarly, the range of occupations of our writers is also broad, from school children and students to nurses, teachers, lawyers, administrators, architects, archivists, photographers, bakers, civil servants and engineers, just to name a few.

12thMay Pie chart detailing age groups of the diarists
12th May – pie chart detailing age groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)

As the Archive Assistant working on the 12th May 2020 collection, it is my duty to catalogue each diary and ensure that they are properly digitally preserved so that they can be made accessible. This means saving an original copy of each diary and then a second copy with any sensitive information redacted so that they can be used for research and other purposes. Of course, many diaries are deeply personal, and some writers do not wish for their submission to be used for research purposes, so these are stored separately and securely. Whilst cataloguing the diaries, I record any demographic data contained and I also record anything specifically notable about the diaries which may be of use to researchers. As you can probably imagine, almost every diary written during a pandemic has something very notable included.

Pie chart detailing gender groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)
12th May – pie chart – gender groups of the diarists (sample size: 1000 diaries)

Reading the diaries is an emotional journey. Some entries provide very raw accounts of loss and death and detail the anguish of losing a loved one, as well as the difficult grieving process which follows.[10] These can be very hard to read and highlight the dark realities of living under the threat of a deadly virus. Many diaries also discuss separation and the heartache this causes. Grandparents who can no longer see their grandchildren, students unable to return to their parents and lovers kept apart.[11] Others detail financial worries or concerns around losing employment.[12]

There are, however, those who detail happy experiences during lockdown. One set of new parents have recorded how happy they were to be working from home as it meant they could experience precious time with their new-born baby.[13] Some have used this time as a period of self-development, to start new hobbies and even look in to setting up new businesses. Others have used this period has a time to connect with nature and appreciate the natural world.[14]

Photograph of a sunflower seedling
12th May – sunflower competition – writer MT_2020_589 – for her street sunflower growing competition… she said she hoped to maintain ‘the friendliness and support from neighbours and strangers.’



Some of the diaries have made me laugh, a few have made me cry, some I can relate to and some experiences seem to be a world away from my own. Even though each lockdown story is different, this period also seems to have brought people together. Of course, there are times that it has brought out the worst in people, panic buying being one of them.[15] Yet there also seems to be a tremendous sense of community spirit which has been documented in many of the diaries. Writers discuss shopping for their isolating neighbours or volunteering at foodbanks.[16] The main thing that I have taken from the vast majority of the diaries is that this experience has put into perspective what really matters for many people. Very few entries detail materialistic things such as how important it is to have the nicest car or newest phone. Instead, they discuss the food on the table, the importance of health, contact with friends and family and the need to treat the world and those around us with kindness. Many entries finish off with the writer stating that they hope that after this is over, we focus more on these things and continue to look after our communities. I sincerely hope so too.

Over the next few months, I plan to share more information from the diaries with you. I will be writing on the different themes and trends that I notice coming from the entries. I will also be discussing the ways in which I think they may be useful to future researchers and the areas that they can provide insightful information on. These diaries provide 5000 individual stories of what it is like to live through an event that changed history. To me, the beauty of the diaries is that they are not giving us a retrospective account but instead provide an expression, sometimes even an outburst of thoughts and feelings in the actual moment. I feel very privileged to be the first person to look at many of these diaries since they were sent in by the diarists almost a year ago and I look forward to sharing my findings with you.

[1] Author unknown, ‘Wuhan pneumonia outbreak: Mystery illness ‘caused by coronavirus’ (9th January 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-51047576 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[2] Author unknown, ‘Coronavirus: 10 days of hospital building in 60 seconds’ (2nd February 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-china-51348297 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[3] Author unknown/ James Gallagher ‘Coronavirus: Two cases confirmed in UK’ (31st January 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-51325192 [Accessed 31st January 2020]

[4] Author unknown ‘Coronavirus: Woman in 70s becomes first virus fatality in UK’ (5th March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51759602 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[5] Author unknown/ Philippa Roxby, ‘Coronavirus confirmed as pandemic by World Health Organisation’ (11th March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-51839944 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[6] UK government/ speech by the Prime Minister (Coronavirus: Boris Johnson’s address to the nation in full) (23rd March 2020) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52011928 [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[7] Conrad Duncan ‘ Boris Johnson speech becomes one of the most-watched TV broadcasts in history’ (11th May 2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/boris-johnson-speech-statement-tv-broadcast-viewers-lockdown-coronavirus-a9509156.html [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[8] Author unknown, ‘Wednesday 12th May 2021: Would you like to keep a one- day diary for Mass Observation? (n.d) http://www.massobs.org.uk/write-for-us/12th-may [Accessed 20th February 2021]

[9] Google Maps, Map data 2021 GeoBasis-DE/BKG 2009, Google, Inst. Geogr. Nacional

[10] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_759, 12th May 2020.

[11] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1016 and MT_2020_858, 12th May 2020

[12] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_834 and MT_2020_901, 12th May 2020

[13]  Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1060, 12th May 2020 [1] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_856, 12th May 2020

[14] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_856, 12th May 2020

[15] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1235, 12th May 2020

[16] Mass Observation Archive, MT_2020_1208, 12th May 2020

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

House bound

By Lisa Towner – Collection Development Library Assistant (and bookbinder extraordinaire)

Pile of bound notebooks with small mug
Bound books – Lisa Towner

When bookmaking during lockdown I think about a book by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Mindfulness a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Making books has given me moments of peace and distraction from all that has been happening outside of my home. I have a tendency to over think and bookmaking has been the ideal remedy for me. I get lost in the act of doing and create a handmade item with purpose as a result of my endeavours.

Book binding tools
Book binding tools – Lisa Towner

Making a book involves quite a few techniques. Folding, cutting, stitching, measuring, gluing and pressing are all part of the therapeutic process the craft gives me. I can lose myself for an hour folding and cutting paper and then return at another time to mindfully stitch the pages together. Choosing paper for the cover and thread for the stitches always causes me some enjoyable deliberation. I marble paper for some of the book covers, or make paste patterns. The paste gives the paint a thicker consistency to enable you to print or mark with it.

Marble paper covered notebook
Marble paper cover – Lisa Towner
2 turquoise paste patterned covered notebooks
Paste patterned covers – Lisa Towner

A Coptic stitch method of binding allows the book to lay completely flat when open and the stitching is visible, ideal for sketch books. The stitching is decorative with Japanese Stab Binding but the book will not fully open. Case Binding is the traditional way to produce a hard backed book with a covered spine.

Coptic stitch bound notebooks upright on shelf, shelved among books
Coptic stitch – Lisa Towner
2 Japanese stab bound books 1 A4 landscape 1 A5 Portrait
Japanese stab binding – Lisa Towner
Pile of case bound hardback books
Case binding – Lisa Towner

Spending so much time at home over the past months has resulted in me being very productive. Friends and family have been gifted a selection of books, the latest batch are pocket sized sketchbooks. My stock resulted in an online stall at a Christmas Market Place run by Community Base in Brighton. I am preparing more books for another online sale in May.

Photo of 3 pocket sized sketchbooks
Pocket sized sketchbooks – Lisa Towner

Tea and biscuits, coffee and cake, a nice evening meal and bookbinding have all played an important part in my day whilst being housebound.

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Posted in Collection Development, Uncategorised

Telling the time and temporal rhythms

Evidence from the MOA Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

By Clare Holdsworth, Keele University

Writing a one-day diary is a key activity of being a MOA correspondent. One-day diaries are often used in directives, including the annual request for 12th May diaries. These diaries can provide an intriguing glimpse into telling the time by analysing references to clock time included in a sub-set of diaries. This includes how clock time is recorded by MOA correspondents and daily rhythms in noting time. This analysis showcases the varied ways in which researchers can interpret the data collected in MOA diaries and their contribution to the illusive and fascinating study of time.

The Autumn 2017 directive used the one-day diary format to collect accounts of time pressure. Correspondents were asked to write about a day when either they or their partner was at work. If no one in the household was in work correspondents were asked to choose any day This directive specifically asked correspondents to recall clock times, particularly those associated with time squeeze. These dairies are particularly suitable to analyse how correspondents tell the time throughout the day.

Writing a Diary

Before we examine how MOA correspondents tell the time in the diaries it is interesting to look at how MOA correspondents write their diaries. One of the fascinating, and equally frustrating, qualities of MOA diaries is the variety of responses received. There is no standard format for submitting a MOA response. There are 137 responses to the Autumn 2017 directive, though three correspondents did not submit a diary. Of the 134 diaries, one quarter of the diaries are handwritten, and one diary is a cartoon.  The diaries vary in length from half a page to 15 pages and the modal length is 3 pages. 31 correspondents include images, all photographs except for the cartoon and one correspondent who provides two sketches. The choice of day is evenly distributed throughout the working week (10 correspondents write about a weekend, mostly Sunday), though there is a slight bias towards the start of the week, with Monday the most popular day (28 responses) and Friday the least common (20 diaries).

There is not a set way of writing a MOA one-day diary, though most correspondents adopt one of two style formats. The first format is to use a time-structured approach: the diarist divides the day into specific time points detailing activities at each time. Some of these time-structured diaries use a table format and all confirm to a stylistic devise of noting the time on the left-hand side of the page. The second format is to write a time-narrated diary in which the narrative of the day is dictated by activities rather than temporal structure. These diaries usually take the form of a long essay, though some might identify key time points in the margin. References to clock time include deterministic (activities happen because of the time, such as leaving the house to go to work) and incidental (activities happen at certain times, such as a meeting starting or finishing). A few time-narrated diaries have no specific mentions of clock time.

Of the 134 diaries collated in the 2017 Autumn directive I classify 36% as time-structured and 64% as time-narrated. There is no significant difference by gender, however age and occupation status are related to diary format (see figure 1). Older and retired correspondents are more likely to write a time-structured diary, while younger diarists and those in paid work tend towards the time-narrated method.

Figure 1 image of table showing MOA One Day Diary Format by Gender, Age, and Employment Status of Diarist
Figure 1 MOA One Day Diary Format by Gender, Age, and Employment Status of Diarist
i P value for pearson chi-square test is .61 i.e. not significant
ii P value for pearson chi-square test is 0.05 i.e. significant at 95% confidence level
iii P value for pearson chi-square test is 0.01 i.e. significant at 95% confidence level
Source: Authors’ analysis of diary format: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

Telling the Time

While the use of clock time to demarcate the day varies between the diaries there is a discernible pattern to how correspondents tell the time. In order to explore this I have extracted all references to clock time in the diaries and collated these in a database. There are 2052 clock times in the 134 diaries (an average of 15 clock times per diary). Most clock time references refer to specific times (e.g. 08.00) even if the activities written about are not necessarily happening at this precise time. Some are vague (e.g. a diarist may write ‘at about 9 o’clock’). These approximate times have been recorded as the exact time in the database. Temporal references can also be for a time period (e.g. a diarist may write between 8 and 9am) and for these both clock times (i.e. 08.00 and 09.00) are returned in the database of clock times.  Times noted more than once in the diaries were only recorded once in the database

These 2052 clock times are dominated by the 12 points of clock time (see figure 2). 96% (1970) refer to one of the 12 clock points. Of these over half, 36% and 25%, are for the hour (12) and half hour respectively (6). However the dominance of 12 and 6 for clock time is not the only pattern that emerges from this data, and the symmetry of clock time references is also striking. After 12 and 6, the next most popular clock points are 3 and 9, and these have almost identical frequencies in the database. These are followed in frequency by the remaining even clock points, 2,4,8 and 10, which all have similar frequencies, though there is a slight bias towards 10.  Finally, the least popular clock points are 5,11, 7 and 1 in declining frequency. Despite the heterogenous quality of the dataset and the different approaches that correspondents take to writing a one-day diary, it is possible to extract a symmetry in how MOA correspondents tell the time.

Figure 2 - Image of pie chart - Distribution of clock points in MOA time database
Figure 2 – Distribution of clock points in MOA time database Source: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

Diurnal rhythms

The symmetrical recording of clock time is not the only pattern that can be identified in the dataset. It is also possible to discern a linear rhythm in the distribution of recorded time over the day. In order to analyse this, I have counted the number of discrete clock times in the database for each hour. The distribution of time points over the day is illustrated in figure 3. This analysis finds, not surprisingly that the most intensely referenced hours are 07.00, 08.00 and 09.00 respectively. This is followed by a slight lull in noting time in mid-morning (11.00), an increase around lunchtime followed by a second lull in the afternoon. More references to time points are made in the late afternoon and early evening, though this does not match the intensity of the morning rush. Evening (19.00 onwards) are distinguished by a gradual decline in time references, though there are slightly more temporal references between 22.00 and 22.59 compared to 21.00 to 21.59 because the former is the modal hour for going to bed. Further analysis of the rhythm of  time references shows that diarists not in work record a more even distribution of time during the day, while for those in work the morning peak and mid-morning lull are more discernible.

Figure 3 Image of line graph showing percentage distribution of time references in each hour period in MOA time database
Figure 3 Percentage distribution of time references in each hour period in MOA time database
Source: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

Conclusion

MOA diaries are very heterogenous and correspondents write their diary according to how they interpret their day. For some timing matters, for others it is more incidental. While diarists use different formats to write their diaries, there is more uniformity in how they tell the time. The symmetry of time references is striking, and it follows a temporal order: hour, half-hour, quarter to/past, ten to/past, twenty to/past, five to/past, twenty-five to/past. Mornings are more temporally referenced than other times of the day. This is partly because morning routines are more predictable and easier to recall, as well as diary writing fatigue during the day. The intensity of time references in the morning also reflects how activities at this time have to be coordinated with other household members (including pets). The MOA diaries illustrate how time pressure, and thus references to time, are a collective experience.

Clare Holdsworth is Professor of Social Geography at Keele University. Her latest book, The Social Life of Busyness, will be published by Emerald in September 2021. If you would like to learn more about her research, Clare can be contacted at c.m.holdsworth@keele.ac.uk.

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

Our treasure trove of printed journals

By Chloe Dobson – Collection Development Librarian

Did you know that we have a basement area in The Library which is full of printed journals from all subject areas?

Image of the rolling stacks in the basement of The Library
Rolling stacks of print journals

We provide access to tens of thousands of journals online, which is a fantastic way to reach a world of research at your fingertips. But there are benefits from looking at print journals too. Some journals are only available in print, so we keep them for that reason alone and many will be current, where we still receive a new issue regularly. For example we have current subscriptions to the Spectator (from 1928 onwards at AP 4 SPE) and Sight and Sound (from 1967 onwards at PN 1993 SIG)

Image of the journal Magazine of art, open to show pages of journal
Magazine of art (1878-1903)

Some are only partially online, so we retain print to enable access to the whole archive. Other titles have the same availability online as well as in print.. but we still hold the printed issues for areas such as the Visual Arts, Art History, Photography. Many titles are historical and consulting them can bring many benefits, as described by Thomas Elliot, one of our Doctoral Researchers in Art History:

“Print journals are a rich and important resource. They provide a privileged glimpse into the visual and written culture of the past in a very unique way. The very nature of the printed page can in itself be illuminating; what do the articles surrounding my source tell me about the topic? Where is my source placed in relation to other items? Is it a cover story or hidden away at the back? What images, adverts, reviews or op-eds accompany it? All of these considerations can provide us as researchers with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our area of study – even if they don’t make it into our final project!”

How do we know which titles are in the Basement?

All our print journals are discoverable on Library Search. You can search by keyword and then limit your results by Availability, and then by Available in the Library to show available print titles only.

Screenshot of availability facet menu on Library search, highlighting 'Available in the Library'
Screenshot of Library Search – showing availability

Journals are arranged A-Z by shelfmark and follow the same classification system as our books, so if your subject area is usually in the PNs, target this area in the Basement.

Some examples of titles available in our fabulous print journal collection;

  • The Radio Times: Broadcasting listings, news, interviews covering 1990-2018, found at AP 4 RAD
  • Punch: The satirical magazine, packed with illustrations and cartoons, from 1841-1963, found at AP 4 PUN
  • Stuff: Guide to gadgets, technology and electronics, 2015-2020, found at TK 9900 STU
Image of the journal Conisseur, open to show pages of journal
Connoisseur (1901-1963)

At the moment there is a collection service running for titles in the Basement but once access is resumed it is a wonderful space to browse and find something new.

If you would like any further information on our print journal collections, or any of our Library collections don’t hesitate to get in touch, library.collectiondevelopment@sussex.ac.uk

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Posted in Collection Development, The Library

Plans… remember those? A look at the architectural plans of the University of Sussex

By Karen Watson – Special Collections Archivist

Plans. It’s a bit tricky to make any at the moment. Luckily that wasn’t the case when the University of Sussex was commissioning new buildings and renovating student residences over the past 50 or so years. In October last year, I was contacted by the Estates team who had a large cabinet of architectural plans in their offices which they thought should be looked after long term at The Keep. That’s exactly what I thought. There are lots of architectural plans already in the University of Sussex Collection dating from the 1960s and they have been used extensively by lots of researchers. Recently they were consulted by 3rd year Drama students researching the history of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts (ACCA), formally the Gardner Arts Centre.

Image of an architectural plan for a University of Sussex building
EP wing east side – to be added to the collection SxUOS1 when catalogued

I hoped that the plans in the cabinet were for buildings constructed later than the 1960s and possibly for buildings that no longer exist on campus (does anyone remember Arts E?) When the plans were delivered to The Keep, the first thing I realised was that my archive accessioning skills had got rusty whilst working from home for many months. I knew it was one cabinet of plans but I hadn’t asked how many plans were inside. The answer? Lots.

Image of an architectural plan for a University of Sussex building
Essex houseto be added to the collection SxUOS1 when catalogued

Now that the plans are safely at The Keep, I’ve been able to have a look through them. There are approximately 200 campus plans including building elevations, perspectives, heating and fire layouts, renovations. I was super please to see that the campus building plans include ones for Arts 4(D) and 5(E) which is where the Jubilee building is now. A lovely surprise is the over 80 plans for buildings off campus including student residences in Falmer village, Windlesham Road in Hove and Victoria Road in Brighton. The date span is from the late 1960s to 1990s and the plans get really big from around 1994, maybe the architectural firm got a new printer. The largest ones are 1085x820mm, the smallest around 880x590mm. These plans have been hanging up so are not creased or rolled and it would be nice to keep them that way. Storage solutions for these are on my list when I can work on site at The Keep.

Image of an architectural plan for a University of Sussex building
Windlesham road – full plan – to be added to the collection SxUOS1 when catalogued

I find architectural plans endless fascinating. They are often beautifully rendered and as you can see below, have figures in them for scale which have their own narrative.

Image of an architectural plan for a University of Sussex building
Windlesham road – close up – to be added to the collection SxUOS1 when catalogued

I also spend a lot of time working out what perspective they are from, especially ones that set the building in the landscape. The plans are not listed on the catalogue yet and there is a bit of work to do before they are available for researchers, but they are an excellent addition to the University’s own archive.

Anyone interested in consulting the wonderful collection of architectural plans available when The Keep is back open, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with the Special Collections team – specialcollections.supervisor@sussex.ac.uk 

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Posted in Special Collections, The Keep

A Taste of History – Travelling back in time through recipes and Mass Observation

By Dr Stella Sims

In this video project I recreate recipes taken from, or inspired by 1941 food diaries held at the Mass Observation Archive, going back in time to a moment in history to cook and taste what someone said they were eating on a particular day.  Earlier in the summer of this very strange year, during the 1st Covid lockdown and many subsequent weeks spent indoors, I was able to travel vicariously through food.  I’ve rediscovered recipe books that had gathered dust on the shelf for too long, trying new recipes, and recreating meals that reminded me of comfortable memories, family and foreign holidays.  Like smell, taste can conjure up a memory and give us a sensory leap back to a past moment in our lives.  This project expands this idea to take an imaginative journey back in time where we join a specific person on a specific day in the past to cook and eat what they ate.  With more time this year to cook and to think, the idea for ‘A Taste Of History’ arose as a perfect way to combine the pleasure of cooking with my love of bringing history to life. 

Image of Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen
Dr Stella Sims in her kitchen

I did a PhD at the University of Sussex some time ago, and I’ve used the incredible collection at Mass Observation for my academic work – I could spend hours poring over these vivid fragments and insights into everyday lives.  In more recent years I have worked in the media researching and producing history documentaries and series such as BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are?  One of the things I find unique about Mass Observation material is the personal and detailed nature of much of their collection, comprising as it does of diaries, overheard conversations, personal anecdotes and daily minutiae sent in by ordinary people.  The collection often features very idiosyncratic voices – I’ve often been pleasantly diverted off topic while reading the diary, report or comments of a particularly funny or opinionated person. 

Image of Stella cutting into a Woolton pie
Stella’s Woolton pie

I wondered what kind of research had been done on food, and if Mass Observation writers had shared any recipes in their diaries, or other interesting insights to do with food.  Of course, I discovered Mass Observation had an absolute abundance of writing related to food, spanning both the earlier project as well as the newer correspondence since the 1980s.  As I browsed through various topic collections I found there was an awful lot to distract a greedy historian.  In the end, I decided to focus on a huge collection of food diaries sent in by individuals during the early years of the Second World War.  A short history series was never going to cover everything in this fascinating collection, but I managed to narrow down my focus to five peoples’ menus.  I selected these based on the fact that they were particularly interesting writers or menus which illustrated certain broader points of historical interest on food during the war: the rationing of key foods like meat, butter and sugar; the role of the Ministry of Food; famous wartime recipes like ‘Woolton Pie’ and meat-free substitutes; import problems; and campaigns such as Dig For Victory.  But what I love most about this project is how it puts the ordinary men and women at the centre of these big moments in history and shines a spotlight on these ‘unofficial histories’, particularly women’s stories.  The voices that come through are opinionated, quirky and very human, their experiences vary according to place, income and class.  In particular I enjoyed discovering the occasional very emotional response to taste, such as the woman who wrote with joy in October 1941 that she was served “two awfully good cakes with cream and jam, light, scrunchy pastry!”  These rare treats were few and far between during wartime.

Image of macaroni pudding and chocolate mould
Anyone for macaroni pudding or chocolate mould?

I was grateful for the excellent archive help from Mass Observation’s Senior Archive Assistant, Jessica Scantlebury, who provided me with a wealth of primary documents.  I’ve not only used diaries in the project: almost every document you see in the videos is held in the wartime collections at Mass Observation.  This is just a snapshot of a rich collection of wartime ephemera including newspaper clippings, advertisements, Ministry of Food pamphlets, posters for  wartime cookery classes, food catalogues from posh stores like Harrods and Selfridges, and sample menus from all sorts of places from provincial hotels to Claridge’s.  In some ways this was an ideal ‘lockdown project’ – just me in my kitchen experimenting with food.  Fortunately, I’ve got a huge collection of old recipe books and books about food history, so I was able to do plenty of research in the confines of my own home.  A lot of the time, the 1941 food diaries just mentioned a meal, not a recipe, so I was able to research or adapt authentic recipes from the time to create an approximation of what they would have eaten.  The simplicity that was forced on the filming was in some ways a plus – it meant less faffing or worrying about perfection and more just getting on with it; I was lucky to be living with a partner who valiantly (and patiently) assisted on camera and sound.  I’m certainly more used to being behind the camera, but hopefully people enjoy watching me having a go at cooking 1940s-style, and finding out if these recipes were a success or failure when they are recreated in the here and now.

Image of Stella tucking into a salad inspired by an MO recipe
A stellar salad – based on the recipe of Mrs Clayton of South London

To me, the history of cooking illustrates a very social history: seeing what ingredients were available at what time; what expectations people had about food; who does the cooking; and what methods were open to them.  During Covid, Britain has again faced food supply challenges: queues at supermarkets, supply issues, stockpiling and pressure on incomes meaning people are having to do more with less.  Politically, myths of the Second World War are often called upon to serve the present – the ‘Blitz spirit’ and so on, which often go too far and miss the specific context and huge differences between ‘then’ and ‘now’.  Even during this pandemic, 21st century Britain is a land of plenty compared to Britain in 1941.  However, there are still surprising and useful lessons we can learn from those wartime days of rationing such as not to waste food, how to make the most of what you have, and the nutritious possibilities of a meat-free diet.  It’s been brilliant to take a trip back in time to see how creative people were with food during the war, though one thing I’ve definitely learned is that I think Woolton Pie should probably remain in the history books.

Watch all 5 videos of Taste of history on the Mass Observation YouTube channel

Dr Stella Sims is a cultural historian, researcher and history documentary producer with a love of museums, archives and vintage recipe books.  She can be reached on Twitter @stellastar80 or via stellasims@gmail.com.

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

‘For security reasons it may not be prudent to unfold where I am’ – Ghana’s 1978 electoral commissioner’s letter from hiding surfaces in the BLDS Legacy collection

By Danny Millum – BLDS Metadata and Discovery Officer

Cataloguing on the BLDS Legacy Collection project has now reached Ghana, and we’ve just unearthed a fascinating letter from a dramatic time in that country’s political history.

On 30 March 1978 the country’s Supreme Military Council, led by Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, held a referendum on system of government, and whether Ghana should become a non-party state (from the perspective of the UK in 2021 that does have some appeal…). The referendum was controversial, as many saw UNIGOV (as it was known) to be a ploy by Acheampong to retain power and suspected military interference. Things got so heated that the electoral commissioner himself, I. K. Abban, was forced to go into hiding, from where he wrote the letter below which has just turned up in Box 204 of our Ghana materials.

Image of letter written on a typewriter from I.K. Abban to I.K Acheampong
Letter from Electoral Commissioner I.K. Abban to I.K Acheampong

The message is addressed to Acheampong, explaining that following previous threats from the military (which would end in ‘several deaths including me’) his office was now under siege. He diplomatically shies clear of directly accusing the Head of State of being responsible, but he certainly doesn’t sound full of trust for his boss: ‘For security reasons it may not be prudent to unfold where I am but I am safe’. Readers worried about Abban’s fate can breathe easy – he escaped and eventually became Chief Justice (again not without controversy). Acheampong on the other hand only lasted until July when he was arrested and deposed…

Anyone interested in this item, Ghanaian government publications or the BLDS Legacy Collection in general can drop us a line at bldslegacy@sussex.ac.uk

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Posted in BLDS (British Library for Development Studies), IDS