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

Episode01 Title Card

Over the next 5 weeks we will be publishing 'A Taste of History' on the Mass Observation Archive's YouTube channel. A Taste of History is a short YouTube series exploring the history of food using the Mass Observation Archive. The videos have been created by Dr Stella Sims. Dr Stella Sims is a cultural historian, researcher and history documentary producer with a love of museums, archives and vintage recipe books. You can read more about her inspiration to create the series below. 

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 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.

I did a PhD at Sussex University some time ago, and I’ve used the incredible collection at Mass Observation for my academic work in the past – 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.

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.

Still of Stella tryIng food

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 Claridges. 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.

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.

'A Taste of History' on the Mass Observation Archive's YouTube channel.

Temporary closure of The Keep from 5th November

Following Government advice, and to ensure the safety of staff and visitors, The Keep, where the Mass Observation Archive is based,  will be closed from Thursday 5th November 2020.

Staff at The Keep will still be responding to phone and email enquiries, but please be aware there might be a delay to their usual response times.

The research and reprographics service will still be running. To access The Keep services online, visit

Details of The Keep’s reprographics services are available at

The research service is at

If you have any questions about The Keep's services please contact them on: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. If your question relates directly to the Mass Observation Archive please contact us on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

Blitz Spirit: Voices of Britain Living Through Crisis, 1939-1945

BlitzSpirit'What extraordinary voices of Britain living through crisis! A brilliant testament to resilience.' Anne Glenconner

'A stirring and evocative account of life on the home front. Full of surprises that bring a fascinating perspective on the blitz spirit.' - Deborah Cadbury, author of Chocolate Wars and Princes at War

In Blitz Spirit, Becky Brown presents a collection of entries from the diaries ordinary British people sent in to Mass Observation during the Second World War. This new collection tell the human story of the Second World War, of the individuals grappling with a world turned upside down. From panic-buying and competitively digging for victory to extraordinary acts of bravery, Blitz Spirit is a remarkable collection of real wartime experiences that represent the best and worst of human nature in the face of adversity. Find out more about the book here

Observing the 1980s now on JSTOR

Observing the 1980s brings together, for the first time, ‘voices’ from both the Mass Observation Collections and the British Library Oral History Collections. This material offers a unique and inspiring insight into the lives and opinions of British people from all social classes and regions during the 1980s. This material is now available on JSTOR’s Open Community Collections.

JSTOR’s Open Community Collections is an initiative resource aimed at unlocking the potential of special collections archival collections by making them freely available on the platform for all to use.

You can access the Observing the 1980s collection here.

The Keep Opening Hours Consultation

The Keep is  asking for views on proposed changes to public opening hours. The Keep is an archive centre that offers free public access to the collections of the East Sussex & Brighton & Hove Record Office, Brighton and Hove Local History Collections, the University of Sussex Special Collections including Mass Observation Archive

The Keep is run in partnership between East Sussex County Council, Brighton and Hove City Council and the University of Sussex.

Why They Are Consulting

Funding for local government is reducing significantly. As a result, East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council are having to make choices about how services are run across all their departments. They are considering ways to cut the costs of running The Keep by £125,000 a year, including a proposal to reduce The Keep’s opening hours. Find out more here.

The Keep will re-open on 28th July 2020

keep logo goldThe Keep, the home of the Mass Observation Archive, will reopen to the public on Tuesday 28 July on an appointment-only system. The team at The Keep have been working hard to ensure that the building complies with Covid Secure regulations and that visitors and staff can safely work in the building.

You can find out more about visiting The Keep by clicking here

Life-Writing of Immeasurable Events at The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing

The Mass Observation Archive has partnered with The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on their Life-Writing of Immeasurable Events project during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each week they will be sending creative prompt, which people will be free to interpret as they wish and submit a response to the Centre. More details can be found on The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing's website here

Homecoming by Colin Grant

Homecoming - image of book cover
'Prickles with beautiful, comic and brutal details'  - Observer
** A BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week**

Homecoming draws on over a hundred first-hand interviews, archival recordings (including the Mass Observation Archive) and memoirs by the women and men who came to Britain from the West Indies between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. In their own words, we witness the transition from the optimism of the first post-war arrivals to the race riots of the late 1950s. We hear from nurses in Manchester; bus drivers in Bristol; seamstresses in Birmingham; teachers in Croydon; dockers in Cardiff; inter-racial lovers in High Wycombe, and Carnival Queens in Leeds. These are stories of hope and regret, of triumphs and challenges, brimming with humour, anger and wisdom. Homecoming by Colin Grant they reveal a rich tapestry of Caribbean British lives.

100 Voices that Made the BBC

On 3 September 1939 Britain went to war with Hitler’s Germany. In the fight against fascism, broadcasting played a starring role: as informant, morale-booster, propaganda weapon. Eighty years on, the BBC has opened up its the archives to shed new light on how the BBC shaped the experience of war – and how the war transformed the BBC in return.

'The 100 Voices that Made the BBC' is part of the Connected Histories of the BBC project. This project is led by the University of Sussex, in partnership with the BBC, Mass Observation, the Science Museum Group and the British Entertainment History Project. The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The material in this edition is curated and written by David Hendy and Alban Webb from the University of Sussex, with additional material from John Escolme (BBC).

For more information visit the 100 voices that made the BBC website.  

The Summer 2019 edition of the Mass Observation Bulletin

You can now download the 2019 edition of the Mass Observation Bulletin here