Much Work, Little Play in 1950s England

I’ve posted recently on the British Religion in Numbers website about a survey dataset I have deposited with the UK Data Service. I’ve given some detail on BRIN on the study design and its coverage of religion, but also wanted to give an overview here of its secular interest.

The 1957 Youth Research Council survey of young people’s religiosity, use of free time, associational memberships, and educational and work status in England was fielded by the Young Christian Workers, a Catholic youth organisation. The survey sponsors had few resources to exploit it beyond reporting headline findings, which were not widely disseminated; however, it is now finally available for secondary analysis. It’s unusually early for a good-quality random sample social survey, and gives an insight into youth in late industrial society.

I’ve provided a detailed technical report alongside the dataset, on both the context of the original study, and the digitisation process, generously funded by the Nuffield Foundation (SGS/37651). The process of digitising responses on 5,834 paper forms has been a little involved, but very rewarding, and I’m indebted to Digital Divide Data for their collaboration.

The YRC 1957 study includes a great deal of qualitative detail via marginalia and written-in responses, and that is what I’ll pay some attention to here. People were not so inured to being surveyed then, and respondents were often thoughtful and concerned to be as precise as possible to help the interviewers — themselves young, all volunteers, and mostly working-class. Many aspects of social change are slow and generational, yet this is a world both close to us — the social landscape of our grandparents — and another world entirely. One highly enjoyable feature of the data is how different 1950s job titles now sound, almost as different as if Victorian:

Bank Clerkess
Perforator at Race Course — Betting Control Board
Part-time teaching — her own occupation

Popular cultural memory often highlights the new music and cultural offerings of the 1950s: the milk bar, the juke box, Elvis, the opening of the Cavern in 1957. Michèle Hanson, in her memoir of growing up in the late 1950s, describes the first rock’n’roll concerts she went to: ‘Buddy did his strange and thrilling dance across the stage with his guitar, almost hopping on one leg, to the thumping great rhythm and the huge waves of screaming from hundreds of girls… they were just so overcome with the excitement, rock and roll, noise and heat and sudden and entirely novel screaming opportunities. Light years away from Ruislip’.

Indeed, we do see some evidence of these changes in cultural life in the survey returns:

Jazz Club (Trad)

The respondent above clearly felt it important for the interviewer to know exactly which was his tribe.

Teddy Boy: Rock & Roll, Dominoes

In the example above, the respondent must have been unmistakable for the interviewer to have made the marginal comment. Many of the interviewers would themselves have been drawn to the fashion and music of the time: an observer’s report on a pilot of the survey in Gateshead noted that ‘[o]ne girl reminded the lads (seriously) that Teddy boy suits were “out”’.

However, for most their pursuits were much more mundane. While we remember the cultural highlights, this was also the height of the rug-making craze, as Claire Langhamer has described, when many young women made at least some of their own clothes and when mending and tinkering were what people did to make things last and to enhance their surroundings.


So the entry above probably refers to working with model kits rather than anything more fabulous. More broadly, youth was briefer then than now, and a large proportion of the sample were married, settled, and beyond youth culture.

In some cases, respondents were apparently more honest than we might expect during a time when the English were known for their reserve. Perhaps they felt comfortable with the interviewers — who were mostly young people themselves — or perhaps there was some defensive humour:

Have a row with wife

There is surprisingly little reference to drinking given English pub culture, but then many respondents were under 18, and Sunday opening hours were also tightly restricted. However, this Manchester respondent replied to the question on the previous Sunday that he ‘RECOVERED from rugger & party’. Presumably this answer was delivered in such a way to justify the capitalisation.

Rugger and party

And this answer, presumably delivered verbatim, looks very to the point.

Went boozing

With a folk memory of postwar affluence and the creation of the NHS, continuing poverty and ill-health has receded in the narrative of what the 1940s and 1950s were like, although we can see it in these data as well as in memoirs and oral histories. In this case, a young welder was asked if they were a member of any association: ‘Had TB at 17 not been able to since’. These were not the good old days.

Had TB at 17

One example was striking in illustrating how the effect of social conservatism and poverty combined at the individual level. A young girl in a northern town lived only with her father — her mother had died when she was young — and when asked of her leisure time, reported that did nothing of note on the previous Sunday. Of a Catholic background, she no longer attended church, though said she would like to start again. What caused the change? ‘Having [her] baby unmarried’.

Having baby unmarried

In another case, the respondent reported that she spent Sundays primarily at home with her child — she worked during the week. To the question ‘have you any children?’ she replied ‘one — and another died’.

1 and another died

I’ll just place these extracts in the context of the headline data summarising what young people reported doing on Sunday, and their associational lives. The question on what young people were doing last Sunday offered a set of options and then relied on respondents recalling and reporting any other activities. It seems plausible that recall bias and non-response being the default led to under-reporting of activity. Even so, reported activity looks very low. At the advent of the consumer society, unemployment was minimal; indeed, a very high percentage of young people were in work rather than education, and Jacky Hyams has written vividly of how high wages for office work encouraged her to leave school at 15. Associational life seems quite rich, but cultural practice as we would now understand it was not, neither in terms of how time was spent, nor the types of organisation of which they were members.

The overwhelming impression is of late working class culture being one of work rather than leisure. More traditional activities such as visiting family and church attendance were quite common. Oral histories suggest that civic involvement was quite high because people organised to provide the activities they themselves wanted to experience, rather than a simple sense of duty. At this point, good-quality leisure experiences were not being provided on a mass scale by the commercial sector, and so distinct roles remained for the voluntary and religious sectors. Youth culture was perhaps so notable because it was still exceptional.

We also think of the postwar period as a high point for the trade union movement in Britain, and yet only 28 per cent of respondents who were not at school or home-makers were members. Returning to the written-in data, to the question, ‘are you a member of a Trade Union?’ one notably replies ‘I’d get the sack if I were’.

I’d get the sack if I were

Followers of the bard of Kings Road will be delighted to see that some Salford respondents were members of the Lads Club.

Salford Lads Club

This was also a time of compulsory military service, although it was drawing to an end for this cohort. Barracks were excluded from the sampling frame, and yet some who were visiting, or who had just completed service, fell into the sample. And the example below reported that he had ‘just demobbed [so] not many [social] contacts as yet’.

Just demobbed

One respondent was a member of the delightfully-named Dog Kennell Hill Youth Club, which apparently still exists.

Dog Kennell Hill Youth Club

Writers are often warned not to fall into the ‘Bakelite knob’ trap when creating period detail in a novel set in the 1950s. I was delighted, therefore, to see that this respondent was a member of the Bakelite Ltd Youth Club, in Birmingham.


One of the more unexpected responses was this associational membership: the ‘Grand Independent Order of Loyal Caledonian Corks’, which turns out to have been a Friendly Society.

Grand Independent Order of Loyal Caledonian Corks

I have a final plea. In the vast majority of cases we can decipher handwriting even where the forms have been damaged. This entry, however, has had us foiled for several months. It is something club, but what?


My hunch is that there are many similar survey resources, on paper forms, hidden in official archives and private collections. These could be valuable in re-invigorating empirical historical sociology, too long viewed as marginal to the discipline. Contemporary social surveys tell us much about the hidden in everyday life — the attitudes, values, and the practices of those otherwise invisible. I’m introducing this dataset at the Understanding Everyday Participation workshop on methods for cultural consumption and practice research next week, and will be arguing unfashionably for the use of standard quantitative methods and more legwork in unearthing and sharing sources we already have. With funding shrinking, methodologists are obviously incentivised to promote the value of new methods. This can perhaps lead to wasteful methods arms-racing: in his focus on adoption and diffusion rather than invention, David Edgerton was onto something in The Shock of the Old.

So this is a call for the integration of empirical social history and methodological sociology. While born-digital data are enormously exciting, we shouldn’t neglect the search for older treasures which help us answer puzzles both past and present.

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