Mass Observation & Dance Halls (Occult Yorkshire 8)

CND march

“[I]t would not be too far out of line to call the twentieth century the Fabian century. One thing is certain: the direction of modern schooling for the bottom 90 percent of our society has followed a largely Fabian design—and the puzzling security and prestige enjoyed at the moment by those who speak of ‘globalism’ and ‘multiculturalism’ are a direct result of heed paid earlier to Fabian prophecies that a welfare state, followed by an intense focus on internationalism, would be the mechanism elevating corporate society over political society, and a necessary precursor to utopia. Fabian theory is the Das Kapital of financial capitalism.”
—John Taylor Gatto, Underground History of American Education

On January 2nd, 1937 (Northern Dairies birth year, again), a British surrealist poet named Charles Madge published a letter in the Fabian magazine New Statesman and Nation. With the title “Anthropology at Home,” the letter announced the formation of a group of writers, painters and filmmakers committed to social documentation. Soon after, Madge (who was married to poet Kathleen Raine) joined forces with Tom Harrisson, whose poem was “coincidentally” published on the same page as Madge’s letter.[1] Harrisson was an ornithologist-cum-anthropologist who wrote for The Observer and did intelligence work during WWII.[2] They were then joined by the filmmaker, Humphrey Jennings. Jennings had founded the Cambridge literary periodical Experiment in 1928, with two of my grandfather’s known cohorts, Jacob Bronowski and Yorkshireman William Empson (who later joined M-O). Jennings worked for Crown Film Unit, a film-making propaganda arm of the Ministry of Information, during WWII. Together, these “artists and poets” created an organization dedicated to developing what they called “a science of ourselves.” From “Mass-Observation and Britain in the 1930s:  A Brief History”:

“In its original guise, Mass Observation (M-O) was an organization dedicated to the documentation of everyday life amongst the British working classes. . . . M-O thus sought out facts and figures, through interviews and covert surveillance, which highlighted the nature of their fellow Britons’ day-to-day existence.  The range of the Mass-Observers’ interests—from the ‘behaviour of people at war memorials, the aspidistra cult, [and] anthropology of football pools’ to ‘bathroom behavior; beards, armpits and eyebrows; [and the] distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke’—was intended to form a comprehensive topography of workers’ lives, and in so doing, provide a new basis for social democracy.”[ii]


Chales Madge & Tom Harrisson

This all sounds deceptively agenda-free, but the context for this program of national research into the mores of the common man is considerably more fraught than the calm, rational, faintly caring tone of the proposal, with its suggestion of a caring benefactor doing impartial social research to “provide a new basis for social democracy.” The fraught social context, one major factor of it anyway, was that M-O came into existence in the years following the massive General Strike of 1926, a strike that “shook the British ruling class out of their thrones and showed brilliantly how collective working class action can change society.” During the height of the strike, London transport was crippled:

“On May 4, 15 out of 315 tubes ran, 300 out of 4,400 buses (by the end of the week this was down to 40), nine out of 2,000 trams operated. By the end of the first day builders, printers, dockers, iron, steel, metal, heavy chemical, transport and railway workers were out on strike. All with the TUC [Trade Union Congress] stuck like rabbits in headlights. The working class was truly in the driving seat. Nothing moved unless the workers said it could move. . . . The ruling class had spent hundreds of millions of pounds but they would have lost had it not been for the concerted campaign of sabotage carried out by the TUC. Had the workers organized themselves into independent rank and file organizations and had the same revolutionary vision as their Spanish counter-parts did ten years later, then the results may have been very different.” (ref)

The workers’ struggle was one that presented a genuine threat to capitalist interests, for obvious reasons. The ruling class needs “workers” (really, slaves) to maintain its rule and keep its industry going. The idea of “educating” the mass populace—M-O’s ostensible goal—was, in John Taylor Gatto’s view at least, Orwellian newspeak for making sure they didn’t educate and empower themselves. As Gatto writes in The Underground History of American Education:

“Forced schooling was the medicine to bring the whole continental population into conformity with these plans so that it might be regarded as a ‘human resource’ and managed as a ‘workforce.’ No more Ben Franklins or Tom Edisons could be allowed; they set a bad example. One way to manage this was to see to it that individuals were prevented from taking up their working lives until an advanced age when the ardor of youth and its insufferable self-confidence had cooled.”

Not only were working class people rising up against working conditions, they were also protesting forced schooling—first implemented in Prussia in the 1700s expressly as a means to control human behavior and curb independent thinking, and steadily introduced in the UK and the US in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Nonetheless, the avowed aim of M-O (and no doubt many of its implementers believed it) was:

to empower Britons with information about themselves and their country such that they could make informed political choices, take political action when necessary, or pick adequate political representation; properly interpret current events; and consequently, not become victims of baseless rumor or suggestion (particularly related to the situation in Europe) spread by mass media and the government.  Yet these publications were not merely intended to pass information laterally, but also upward, such that the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Members of Parliament could be informed of the ‘real’ concerns of the nation. . . . Surveillance was an effective way of collecting information, if only because the individuals surveyed were unaware of that fact and thus presented themselves in a relatively natural state.  Yet, once this method of research had been publicized, it likewise bred a form of popular paranoia.” (ref)

Other cultural movers and shakers who joined the M-O movement were the painter Julian Trevelyan, Tom Driberg, and, as ever lurking behind the scenes, Sir Richard Acland. In a book called The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949, James Hinto describes how Tom Harrisson briefed Acland on the aims of M-O and how Acland spoke in favor of M-O, while drawing “a sharp line—over-generous in the circumstances—between the WSS [Wartime Social Survey], whose findings provided the state with a secret weapon for the manipulation of public opinion, and the MO, who published its results for all to see.”[2]


One of the aims of M-O was to popularize science and so introduce increased rationality into the public debate. Harrisson came up with a plan to provide the major newspapers with written reports of the latest scientific research. In 1940 he presented “Memorandum on Propaganda for Science” to Solly Zuckerman’s scientific dining club, Tots and Quots, whose members included Julian Huxley. Popularizing scientific research was meant to combat

“‘the sway of superstition in the midst of science.’ Another was to tackle the problem from the other end, by working directly with these ‘large new groups of semi-intellectuals and semi creative persons’ employed in commercial entertainment, whose work played a role in encouraging superstitions and escapist modes of thinking among the masses. [This included pop music and dance clubs:] Richard Acland had responded enthusiastically to Harrisson’s suggestion of a meeting with ‘some people in the dance music world . . . I wonder if it would be worth trying to convert any of these to our ideas and try to get them to express them in dance tunes. I can imagine for example an immense popularity for something with the refrain of “When are they going to let us build a better world?”

M-O’s interest in dance clubs was so extensive that a 375-page study of dance culture “On with the Dance: Nation, Culture, and Popular Dancing in Britain, 1918-1945,” cites M-O’s findings 85 times. A brief perusal of this document makes clear that, not only were dance clubs of great interest to M-O as venues for observing British citizens and learning about their behaviors and interests, but dance music, and by extension dance halls, were an intrinsic part of an ongoing effort to shape public behavior and interests. Specifically, the study cites the plethora of dances that were contrived as a means to instill people with patriotic feelings during wartime! Like M-O itself, this is an aspect of history that seems to have gone mostly unremarked upon, but which very clearly shows how popular culture can be directed—and even created—to serve sociopolitical ends. Mick Jagger and LSE comes to mind once again.

“The British public also embraced this notion that the Lambeth Walk, and dancing in general, were symbolic of democracy and the national spirit. Mass Observation’s Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge justified their inclusion of an entire chapter about the dance in a book about the national reaction to the Munich Crisis by noting, ‘we may learn something about the future of democracy if we take a closer look at the Lambeth Walk.’. . . This was a crucial time period, in which Britain moved closer to war, and ideas about national identity transitioned accordingly. . . . Some people seemed to have seen through the commercialization of the nation represented in the dance, and to have viewed the content as exploitative. Alec Hughes speculated in his report for Mass Observation that the timing of the dance was designed to coincide with the institution of conscription in the summer of 1939 . . .”

Entertaining the masses to keep them distracted has worked at least since Roman times (bread and circuses); add to that a loosening of sexual mores means more women getting pregnant sooner, which is one way to ensure men are sufficiently motivated to keep their jobs and not to want to strike.

Allegedly Jimmy Savile started playing records in dance halls also in the early 1940s (when he was also supposedly working down a coal mine). This is difficult to corroborate, but according to his autobiography at least, he was the first to use two turntables and a microphone at the Grand Records Ball, in the Guardbridge Hotel, in 1947. If so, it’s perhaps not unthinkable that he was cutting his teeth as a teenager in local dance clubs at exactly the same time Acland, Harrisson, et al. were working out how best to incorporate the dance club scene into social research and “progressive” movements.


Oscar (Jimmy) Savile, date unknown

The evidence provided by the Mass Observation material indicates that the world of pop music and dance halls was of crucial interest to the ruling class and, in fact, that it was being used to implement long-term social goals. Before attaining prominence as the leading scion of pop music in the 1960s, Savile (as well as the Kray twins) would run his own clubs in the 1950s, a period when wartime dance halls steadily morphed into gangster-run venues for drugs and prostitution. And not only did the budding new dance culture overlap with the crime underworld populated by the Kray twins and Jimmy Boyle (and possibly Ian Brady, Myra Hindley, and Savile’s pal Yorkshire “Ripper” Peter Sutcliff), it also intersected with the interests of members of parliament, from social reformers like Acland to occult-dabblers like Driberg and known pedophiles like Lord Boothby. Is it a leap to suppose that Savile’s involvement with the world of dance music was part and parcel with his connection to, or employment by, governmental agencies?

While this is entirely speculative (a theory that hints of conspiracy, no less), it does provide a meaningful context—coherence—to some strange and irrefutable fact. It might also explain why the same names continue to pop up, again and again, as I explore the shadowy backdrop to my own family history.


[1] “Harrisson found Madge’s letter because it was printed on the same page as Harrisson’s first and only published poem (called ‘Coconut Moon: A Philosophy of Cannibalism in the New Hebrides’) in the New Statesman and Nation.”

[2] Harrisson was attached to Z Special Unit (also known as Z Force), part of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD), a branch of the combined Allied Intelligence Bureau in the South West Pacific theatre (Wikipedia).

[3] After Acland published his book, Unser Kampf (Our Struggle), he commissioned M-O to pre-test his “Manifesto of the Common Man.”






5 thoughts on “Mass Observation & Dance Halls (Occult Yorkshire 8)

  1. Humphrey Jennings made A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY right after WW2 which I got hold of through Vancouver Public Library in 2006, after considerable searching. Jennings’ films are considered pioneering documentaries and part of the film studies curriculum in North America but it was hard to find any copies in libraries or online. A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY is a portrait of post-war Britain and some scenes feature Peter Roper, then a 25 yr old wounded RAF veteran who is shown dancing with a woman in one of those dance halls you mention, and they talk about the importance of dancing and bringing people together in civilian life.

    Peter Roper went on to become a psychiatrist and moved to Canada where he became Dr
    Cameron’s “most enthusiastic disciple” later described by ex-colleagues as a “sociopath”. I think he’s still alive in his 90s. His son Mark Roper is part of a globalist group that heads the megahospital of McGill, exposed for deep corruption — if you google “MUHC Arthur Porter Ari Ben Menache” you should find plenty on mines in Africa and the arms trade and where all this is leading.

    Dancing Peter Roper is the psychiatrist who electoshocked my father at the Allan Memorial in 1962.

  2. The McGill megahospital has a creepy, massive statue of a teddy bear outside its Shriners’ children’s wing. The names of corporate donors are on the building in massive lettering including Rio Tinto Alcan (Rothschilds) among other predictable names.

  3. Enter the creepy Mr. Savile. Here in the US culture is driven by the music, of course it would be in Britain as well, thanks for connecting some dots. Enjoying this series, brilliant, thank you.

  4. Pingback: Le Yorkshire occulte (1) | systèmophobe

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