A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46

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Method of Inquiry

The Willesden inquiry was to serve two closely related objects. It had (i) to provide data for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning on the proportion and general characteristics of the Willesden population who would be ready to move out of London to a new town; and (ii) to provide the Willesden Borough Council with data needed for the adequate preparation of their own replanning scheme. Both interested parties, however, required not only the opinions of individuals on various aspects of town planning, but also the characteristics of the structurally separate dwelling, the household and the smaller family group. The questionnaires and their application had therefore to be so planned as to make possible the simultaneous collection of this data.

The Questionnaires

Two questionnaires were prepared. The pivot of the inquiry lay in the Housewife questionnaire (1) , one of which was completed for the chief housewife in every household where interviews took place. Other married women were interviewed on an ordinary schedule.

Since to collect the data concerning the dwelling and the whole household from every informant would have resulted in its indefinite multiplication, it was clearly necessary to restrict this to one individual only in each household. The housewife, (being, on this count, probably the best informant and the most easily interviewed) was selected as the chief informant. Thus, while both types of questionnaire dealt mainly with opinion data on town planning and migration to a new town, a large part of the Housewife's schedule was concerned with details of housing accommodation, and with an analysis of household composition. Where data which appeared only on this questionnaire was needed for the analysis of opinion questions, it was punched on the cards of all informants from a given household. Ordinary tabulations of housing and household data were, of course, obtained from counts on the Housewife cards only.

There were several special cases where the Housewife questionnaire was used. For example, where there was no chief housewife in the ordinary sense, but some other individual of either sex undertook what would ordinarily be her functions, this questionnaire was used. Similarly, an individual having a furnished room or rooms in a structurally separate dwelling, and performing his (or her) own housekeeping was a lodger , and was interviewed on a Housewife questionnaire, where he appeared as a household of one. On the other hand, a boarder, who was not related to other members of the household, but lived and took his meals with them, was treated as a member of that household, and was interviewed on an Ordinary questionnaire. For all other interviews the Ordinary questionnaire was used.


A team of interviewers, varying in size, was in the field from November 25th, 1946, until January 16th, 1947, with one short break from December 21st until December 29th. The progress of interviewing was rather slower than was hoped, for several reasons. There was the initial difficulty that, throughout the period of field work, interviewers were suffering from the excessive severity of the weather. This resulted immediately in the depletion, through illness, of the field staff available.

In addition, however, there were more serious difficulties. The

[135] Copies of the two Questionnaires, together with the Instructions, will be found in Appendix III.

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necessity to interview every adult person in the household made evening interviewing essential. The position was reached where most housewive's interviews had been completed, and interviewers were left with a considerable number of other interview to finish in the evening. Thus, although towards the end they very largely had their days free, the actual interviewing time they had available was limited, for evening interviewing could not usually begin before 6 p.m., and could not easily continue after 9.30 p.m. Moreover, many families did not welcome evening callers, and it was common for appointments with interviewers to be broken, so that much time was spent in fruitless travelling. Finally, proximity to Christmas, and the necessity for preparation for this season, meant that some housewives were impatient with the interview, or refused.

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The Sample

In preparing the sample for this inquiry, the first step was the extraction of a list of addresses . For this purpose, the Assessment List for the Borough was used, which contained a total of approximately 42,000 addresses. Of these, 3.98% were unoccupied. The total addresses, for the purposes of sampling was therefore 42,000 less 1680, or 40,320. From this total, 2,016 addresses were extracted by taking one residential assessment in twenty. In addition to the main sample arrived at by means of this ratio, a substitute sample was extracted by taking one residential assessment in eighty, In both cases lock-up shops, and shops occupying the whole of a premises, were excluded.

From the first total of 2,016, sixteen addresses were discarded to reach a round working figure of 2,000; and a further 101 addresses were used in the pilot investigation. This left a total of 1,899 addresses for use in the main inquiry. It became apparent, however, that because of interviewers’ illness and other delays, the whole of these addresses could not be used. Individual interviewers’ quotas were therefore reduced, and the total addresses that were finally contacted was 1,471 . In these, 1,448 Housewife questionnaires were completed. These 1,448 households contained 5034 individuals, of whom 1,314 were under 18 years of age. Of the remaining 3,720 persons, 1,448 were housewives, leaving 2,272 others. Interviews were attempted with all of these, but finally the total Ordinary questionnaires completed was 1,628. The remaining 644 other members of the households could not be interviewed. The age distribution of informants differed little, however, from that of the total adult population of these households, as the following table indicates:

WILLESDEN: Age distribution of informants, compared with that of the total adult population of the house-holds, whether interviewed or not

Age Group All Adults in Household All Adults interviewed in Household
No. % No. %
18 - 19 4 2
20 - 29 21 18
30 - 39 25 27
40 49 19 21
50 - 59 14 16
60 or more 15 15
No answer 2 1
TOTALS: 3,720 100 3,076 100

The children under 18, who were not interviewed, were distributed as follows:-

No. %
Under 1 year 8
1 - 4 years 26
5 - 9 years 27
10 - 14 years 24
15 - 17 years 15
TOTAL: 1,314 100

The Response of Informants

With few exceptions, the response of ‘informants to the inquiry and its purposes was very friendly. Even those who refused to be interviewed usually based their objection, not on antagonism to the inquiry, but merely on grounds of inconvenience. Consequently, the main difficulties arose from problems of definition and interpretation rather than from any absence of co-operation. It may be of interest, therefore, to mention briefly here the nature of some of these difficulties.

One or two problems were encountered in the collection of data for Part II of this report (pp.14-17) concerning population growth in Willesden. For example, interviewers reported that some informants disliked the questions dealing with their date of birth, and the date of their coming to Willesden. In regard to the last place the informant had lived in, there were some complications, as in the case of those informants who had no idea of the extent of the Borough of Willesden, and of some others who had been evacuated during the war, and gave this place in answer to the question. Interviewers’ reports, however, do not suggest that these difficulties occurred so frequently as to bias the results.

The sections of the questionnaire which referred to housing conditions were probably the most popular of the inquiry. The difficulties that did arise were problems of definition. Thus, in the case of sharing amenities (pp-29-31) it was occasionally reported that “shared” was not always understood in the same sense by all informants. One housewife, for example, said that although the bathroom was “hers”, she allowed other residents to use it. In her view (but not in ours) this was not a shared bathroom. Again, there was not always agreement between two households on whether a certain amenity should, or should not, be considered as “shared”, one household stating that it was, and the other that it was not.

Similarly, the definition of a garden ( p. 31 ) sometimes presented, for the interviewer, some difficulty, especially in the worst housing areas. One interviewer, for example, wrote:”I found some difficulty in deciding whether a patch outside the kitchen door was a garden or not. Where it was a paved piece for dustbins, and to give entry to the coal-house, etc., I did not classify it as a garden. However, there were occasions when a piece of bare earth had to be considered, and I was forced to use my own judgement. There were very few cultivated gardens in the quota I had (i.e., in Kilburn Ward).”

On the question of housing dissatisfaction (pp.32-37) there was a number of special factors which tended to result in its underestimation. On the whole, this was a very popular question with informants, who were able to increase their confidence in the interviewing situation through a forthright response to a question they immediately understood in all its implications. Some informants, however, said that they were satisfied merely because they considered themselves fortunate to have a home at all - this even in the most dilapidated and overcrowded areas. Moreover, the present housing shortage influenced replies in a number of other cases, where informants were afraid that their landlord might come to hear of it if they were to say they were dissatisfied. Another group whose replies were less reliable were the refugees, who were quite numerous in some parts of the Borough. These, 89 interviewers reported, tended to say that they were “satisfied” whatever their present conditions. Other informants said that in general they were satisfied, but mentioned certain characteristics of their present dwelling with which they were dissatisfied. It may be, therefore, that a conditional clause, such as “on the whole” would have made it easier for interviewers to cope with marginal cases.

The question referring to district and neighbourhood improvements (p.37) was less successful than had been hoped. It was foreseen that housing difficulties at the time of the inquiry would be a major preoccupation of many informants. Consequently, in order to clear the ground, the housing questions, already dealt with, were asked first, in the expectation that informants would then be able to devote their attention to wider problems of planning and of general environmental improvement. Experience in the field, however, showed that, with many informants, this did not occur. The comment of one interviewer, for example, is typical of many: Most people were unable to answer this seemingly simple question at all, or they continued to talk about housing. It was not possible to enlarge on it much without prompting, so it did not produce many definite answers.”

In addition to the restricting effect of informants’ preoccupation with housing, even those who were able to turn their thoughts to other matters at this point were frequently unable to offer any suggestion for local improvements. Of these, according to interviewers’ reports, some definitely were not interested or said that no improvement was needed, whilst the replies of others might have been more fruitful had they had more time to think about them. That this was the case is well illustrated by the interviewer who reported that “one lady stopped me in the street the day following the interview to ask me to be sure to put down her ideas on a rest and recreation room for elderly people.”

It may be said therefore that, although people are, without doubt, able and willing to give information and suggestions of planning value, their response would be better to a series of particularised questions, than to an inclusive open question.

Finally, the questions relating to social relationships with relatives (pp.42-45) had some interesting aspects. It is probable that the proportion shown to have relatives in the Borough is a minimum estimate, since it was not uncommon for informants to have difficulty in remembering who their relatives were. One interviewer, for example, mentioned a case in which the informant denied that she had any relatives in Willesden, but revealed later in the interview that her sister “lived across the road”. Even more interesting was the confusion of informants, reported by many interviewers, on the matter of relatives-in-law, Some people included these in answering the question, but many (probably the majority) deliberately omitted them. Others forgot them, mentioning them later in the interview. Within the family itself, moreover, members did not necessarily agree on this subject. A wife, for example, occasionally included her relatives-in-law, while her husband did not include his. This meant that in some cases one spouse would be recorded as having relatives in Willesden, while the other would have none.

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