Welcome to your digital Ministry of Information

Wednesday 4 September 2019

Researchers at the Institute of English Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, have been giving Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information the historical treatment in the very building where it was once housed, Senate House, in London.

And on 3 September, the 80th anniversary of the Ministry – inspiration for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – they unveiled MoI Digital, a web-based educational resource developed with the co-operation of The National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and King’s College London. The resource provides free access to two types of WWII social survey – the ‘Home Intelligence Reports’ and ‘Wartime Social Surveys’.

The former, which ran from 1940 to late 1944, were compiled from a wide range of sources and covered reactions to current events alongside changing attitudes towards life in the UK. Meanwhile, the more statistical Wartime Social Surveys were regarded as a form of early market research. Together they give users a unique opportunity to witness the day-to-day experiences of those on the home front during the Second World War, revealing how the Ministry of Information (MoI) assessed the British public’s mood, including its reactions to the Blitz, to the build-up of American soldiers preparing for D-Day, and to D-Day itself.  

“These reports and surveys bring us very close to the lives of our parents and grandparents who lived through, coped with, and triumphed over some of the most difficult times faced by our country in the twentieth century,” said principal investigator Simon Eliot, professor of the history of the book at the Institute of English Studies (IES). 

This research is part of the IES project, ‘A Communication History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-1946’. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research, it has already resulted in a host of public lectures and workshops, a London Rare Book School course, and various articles in scholarly journals. A book due out in November will focus on the international context of the MoI’s work.

In future, Professor Eliot and his team will add documents that illustrate the MoI’s pioneering role in monitoring and supporting the morale of the British people: “a tricky business when propaganda was often a dirty word, and when the aim was to save an open society threatened on all sides by closed and authoritarian ones,” said Professor Eliot.

Some entries cover serious worries about the government holding back news: “We want the news, even if it is bad”. “There must be many like myself cursing this country for the want of news. We could bear anything; only not to know is undermining our courage”.

Others deal with day-to-day domestic problems. “Keepers of small boarding houses are said to experience particular difficulty. The quality of towels is criticised: ‘You can read a newspaper trough towels when they have been washed once’”.

The Ministry’s mission was conducted through print, and radio broadcasts (via the BBC), photographs, films, public meetings, and static and travelling exhibitions. Additionally, it was responsible for newspaper censorship but, whenever possible, tended to use a light touch and “friendly advice over a drink” rather than overt directives.

The digitised documents point to a complex organisation which combined politicians, civil servants, and a remarkable ragbag of writers, producers, publishers, film makers, journalists, commercial artists, and advertising men. 

Few other organisations could have contained and used, effectively for the most part, such a diverse range of celebrities as Cecil Beaton, Nicholas Bentley, Sir Kenneth Clark, Nancy Cunard, Elizabeth David, Arthur Koestler, Cecil Day-Lewis, Paul Nash, Nikolaus Pevsner, Nevil Shute, Mervyn Peake, Laurence Olivier, and Dylan Thomas and John Betjeman.

“MoI Digital will eventually allow thousands of pages of original government documents and scores of contemporary photographs to be shared worldwide,” said Professor Eliot. “It will not only illustrate our research, but also provide a very rich source of primary evidence for anyone interested in the Second World War.”

Ends

  1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk.
     
  2. The Institute of English Studies (IES), founded in 1999, is an internationally renowned research centre specialising in the history of the book, manuscript and print studies, and textual scholarship. It offers postgraduate programmes and summer schools, hosts major collaborative research projects, provides essential research training in book history and palaeography, and facilitates scholarly communities in all areas of English studies. Find out more at www.ies.sas.ac.uk or follow IES on Twitter at @IES_London.
     
  3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, is the UK’snational centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled resources, facilities and academic opportunities across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. Last year SAS welcomed 892 research fellows and associates, held 1,903 events highlighting the latest research in the humanities, received 25.9 million online visits to its research resources and platforms, and hosted 173,493 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads Being Human, the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities. Find out more at www.sas.ac.uk or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.
     
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