Jessica Scantlebury

80 years ago this year, Mass Observation (MO) was launched. This social research organisation promised to be a scientific study of human social behaviour and everyday life in Britain. “Mass Observation”, its founders declared in their first published pamphlet, “intends to work with a new method. It intends to make use not only of the trained scientific observer, but of the untrained observer, the man on the street” (Mass Observation, 1937, p.10).

This work was carried out by a team of investigators and a panel of diary and directive (open-ended questionnaire) writers who were based across the UK. The documents created by these ‘citizen anthropologists’ spans the period from 1937 to 1966 (although MO was most productive during in the Second World War) and then again through the Mass Observation Project, which was launched in 1981 and continues to this day. Since 1937, MO has captured detailed accounts of all aspects of life in the UK from behaviour in air raid shelters; political attitudes; personal grooming; mobile phones; Brexit and reading habits.

Appendix 1 (Mass Observation)
Appendix 1 (Mass Observation)

In 1949, inspired by the 1948 Kinsey study of sexual behaviour in America, Mass Observation conducted a random sample survey of sex life in the UK. This study was much smaller than its American counterpart, and came to be known as ‘Little Kinsey’. The study included around 10 archive boxes of responses to extensive questionnaires on sexual attitudes and behaviour, as well as additional literature covering birth control; “lonely hearts” organisations, sexual roles and relationships.

Throughout the Little Kinsey survey, MO was inclined to concentrate on attitudes to heterosexual acts and the dynamics and workings of ‘straight’ relationships. However, in a draft of a never published manuscript, intended to disseminate the study’s findings, there is an appendix entitled “Abnormality” (Archive Reference: SxMOA1/2/12/4/E). This is where deviance from the assumed norm is discussed: “One in five of [the] M-O Panel have experienced homosexual relations of one degree or another”. This report has been reproduced in Liz Stanley’s excellent Sex Survey, 1949-1994.

MO was able to collect a small amount of observational material to document life in what they termed “queer circles”. The most fascinating of these is recorded in the “Abnormality” report by a Mass Observer, only identified as GP, who was sent down to Brighton. It is worth noting that MO had already identified seaside towns as being places were everything, not just sexuality, was less constrained. To conduct these investigations, however, Mass Observation generally preferred Blackpool, known to be popular with the northern working classes (Archive Reference: SxMOA1/5/18).

"My God! Just look at those legs - perfect!" (Mass Observation)
“My God! just look at those legs – perfect.” (Mass Observation)

This report is exciting not only because it is a visceral account of a gay day out but also because it takes place in Brighton, a town often overlooked by Mass Observation. Subsequently the MO archive was deposited near Brighton when the University of Sussex offered it a home in the 1970s.

The author of the “Abnormality” report is fascinated by the dynamics of queer relationships, noting who is considered to be ‘active’, passive or camp and whether relationships are monogamous or not. Perplexed as he might have been the Mass Obeserver seems to have had a rather jolly time in Brighton, despite the drama at the end of the evening!

On Easter Sunday, Arthur, Michael, Peter, inv[estigator] and Frank (a rich young man of 35 with a car – a recent addition to this group) went to Brighton by Franks car. Frank is the clandestine type of homosexual and essentially an active type. He heartily disapproves of all varieties of ‘camp’ (i.e. flaunting the fact that one is queer, see below in the pub) and unless he was known as such, would never be identified as a homosexual, expect perhaps by being in the company of more overt types of homosexual.

Peter wore a white shirt and flannels and sandals. Arthur, Michael and investigator white shirts, shorts (rolled high to expose as much thigh as possible) and sandals. Michael had a powdered face, and powdered hair tightly curled which he would continually pat into shape.


Lunch was eaten on the cliff tops, east of Rottingdean, after which photographs were taken – subjects posing to expose as much of their legs and in the most photogenic manner. Toes to the ground and the pelvic girdle slipped to one side…

Early evening was spent in strolling up and down the promenade in the vicinity of the ‘Men only’ beach – which is a notorious haunt of homosexuals – and from which several were observed to leave. This strutting along the prom in white sandals, rolled up shorts, white short sleeved shirts and sunglasses was a suggestively ‘camp’ action and objected to by F. who nevertheless accompanied the others.

Michael and Peter walked along the prom from Hove to Brighton where they would meet the rest, they would not say why they were going off on their own. Arthur assured investigator that they were going with the sole intention of seeing who they could pick up or flirt with.

An hour later all met by the Palace pier and it was decided to spend the rest of the evening in a pub. Michael knew of several places where ‘queers’ congregated…

Arthur, Michael, Peter and investigator went into a small bar which was completely full of about 35 males – the vast majority of who appeared to be homosexuals. All those that subsequently entered were recognised by investigator as being queers. About half a dozen present were recognised by C. as being a ‘notorious bitch’ or a ‘prefect sod’.

Four others in two pairs were introduced to the group as old friends of Arthur and Michael – who had come to Brighton from London for the day. Both these pairs investigator later discovered were ‘married’ and living together. Another queer was recognised by Arthur and introduced to the group – he was a resident of Brighton and working in London.

Michael was rather carried away by the environment in this ‘queer’ bar and was given to draping himself over the staircase railing, smiling around the room, speaking loudly and exaggerating gestures and mannerisms. Peter got more and more annoyed at {Michael} eventually accused him of being ‘camp’ and walked out in a temper. Michael then being somewhat ‘put out’….

Transcript taken from Stanley, Liz (1995) Sex Surveyed 1949-1994, Taylor and Francis, London.

This document, along with the archive for both phases of MO’s activity, is available for consultation at The Keep: an archive centre just outside of Brighton.

This document is reproduced courtesy of the Trustees of the Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex. Request to publish or distribute this document in any format should be directed to

Mass Observation is still activity seeking writers. If you would like to join the Mass Observation Project, visit

JessicaJessica Scantlebury works at the Mass Observation Archive which is a charitable trust in the care of the University of Sussex and based at The Keep. Follow the Mass Observation Archive @MassObsArchive and Jessica on Twitter @JessScantlebury


‘Michael knew of several places where ‘queers’ congregate’: Mass Observation goes to Brighton
Tagged on:                 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: