A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46
What are the Reports?
The reports presented here were part of the British government’s attempt to understand the public during the war. In doing so, it hoped to develop better material for its information campaigns, to discover what parts of wartime life were most troublesome for people, and to improve things where possible.
The scale at which the Ministry of Information collected this material was unprecedented. Before the war began, public opinion was something that ministers and other parts of government learned from the newspapers and MPs. But the war marked the beginning of an attempt to incorporate something close to a science of public opinion into government policy making.
There are two different sets of reports. The first set, the Home Intelligence reports, attempted to show what people were thinking, and why they were thinking it. They were compiled from a wide range of sources and covered reactions to current events alongside attitudes towards life on the Home Front. The reports were produced daily from 18 May to 26 September 1940, and weekly from 9 October 1940 to 27 December 1944. They were distributed throughout government with the purpose of getting a better sense of the mood of the country, and so help to improve the government’s work.
The second set, from the Wartime Social Survey, are statistical and were regarded as a form of market research. These reports were normally commissioned by other parts of the government, and give a breakdown of subjects in which the sponsor was specifically interested. They continued after the end of the war, and were the beginnings of what would eventually become the Office for National Statistics.
What can the reports tell us?
The files give a rich, detailed account of people’s concerns over the course of the war. They are among the most valuable records of wartime social history, and have been used by historians since they were made available to view in the early 1970s. But do they really reflect the thoughts of British people at the time, and were these opinions based on facts?
These are important and tricky questions to answer, and staff at the Ministry were very aware of them. Beginning on 31 April 1941, each report carried the following note:
"In reading this report, it is important to bear in mind that it does not set out to record facts, except in so far as public opinion is itself a fact. It is a record and reflection of the public's views and feelings about the war in general. Therefore, on matters on which public opinion is ill-informed, prejudiced or inconsistent, the report does not imply any endorsement of the views which are expressed in it."
As the Ministry was keen to make clear, opinions are not facts in themselves. They could be formed from a mix of experience, news, gossip, rumour, and the existing prejudices of the population. The reports tried to represent what people thought and felt, but they may not always have reflected what was actually happening. As with any document from the past, they show what people believed – or thought they knew – to be true at the time. The reality, as subsequent research sometimes suggests, may have been rather different.
It is also worth bearing in mind that these reports express the values and prejudices of the time. As a result, readers may consider the language or approach used in some of the reports to be offensive.
We hope that by publishing these reports, users will be able to see for themselves the kinds of material that was available to the wartime government, and the thoughts and feelings of the British people during the war.
What were the sources for the reports?
The Ministry of Information distilled an enormous range of material to produce these reports. The earliest drew on three main sources of information. The general comments were based on investigations undertaken by the social research organisation Mass Observation, which was employed by the Ministry during 1940-1941. These comments were supplemented with reports from the Ministry’s regional offices, which were usually based on impressionistic conversations with the Ministry’s own staff. The process worked differently in London, where the Ministry assembled a group of volunteer observers to cross-reference its other sources.
Over time, Mass Observation material became less important as the Ministry’s network of volunteer observers expanded to cover the whole of the United Kingdom. From autumn 1940, the Ministry also began to indicate its sources by using a numbering system within the reports. The lists of references can usually be found at the end of a report. They show that information from the Ministry’s own intelligence gathering network was supplemented by, among others, the reports of postal and telephone censorship, listener reports from the BBC, reports from Police duty rooms, and questionnaires issued from the newsagent WH Smith. A short essay from April 1942 describes the process of making the report.
The Wartime Social Survey used a very different set of sources. Most of its reports were based on surveys conducted by paid investigators. The investigators used statistical techniques to identify representative samples of people, who were asked a series of standardised questions. Most of the Wartime Social Survey reports contain a copy of the questionnaire and a note on the methodology alongside the results.
How to search the reports
You can browse through all of the Home Intelligence and Wartime Social Survey reports, and also search them for specific words. The reports are arranged by their file reference, and are presented in date order. When reading a report, you can navigate to other reports by using the drop-down menu at the top of the page.
The search function allows you to look for key words within the reports. You can narrow your search by using the ‘Any’, ‘All’ or ‘Phrase’ options. For example, if you enter “fuel rationing” in the search box, the ‘Any’ option will display reports containing either of the two words, the ‘All’ option will limit this to reports containing both words, and the ‘Phrase’ option will only show reports where the precise term is used.
You can also narrow your searches by year. This can be selected from the tab, or else entered as 1940, 1942, etc. If you want to search for results from just one year, enter the same number in both boxes.
The toggle function allows you to narrow your results further by limiting your search to either the Home Intelligence or the Wartime Social Survey reports.
Using the files
The files are presented free to access under the Open Government Licence, and may be distributed and re-published for education and for public use. They were digitised from the original holdings of the National Archives, and have been proofread and edited. If you quote them in your own work, please acknowledge your source as ‘MoI Digital and TNA’.
Users who wish to view the xml files of the reports will soon be able to download them from Kings Digital Laboratory. Please note that these versions are in their original uncorrected form, and may contain errors and artefacts from the digitisation process.The project would like to thank Valerie Fairbrass, Pauline Schol, Mark Dunton, and Scan Data Experts for their help in getting the files digitised and edited.