Mass Observation on juvenile drinking, 1944

The cover of the Mass Observation report.

Mass Observation was a social research firm that made its name observing the habits of British people before and during World War II. In 1944, it published a report on a particularly interesting subject: to what extent did ‘juveniles’ consume alcohol? If so, what did they drink? And where?

The Mass Observation team set about their study during 1943. Here’s a chunk of the preamble to the report:

The object of this survey was to establish how, when and where young people consumed alcoholic drinks, how the habit of drinking and pub-going is established, and, at the higher age levels, how juveniles and youth behave in pubs. Two London areas were made the main subject of the survey, one in the South West, the other in the East End. Check studies were made in a South Coast port, Worktown and a Devonshire village, with some subsidiary observations on behaviour among the older age groups, in a docks area, the neighbourhood of a London Railway terminus and one of the London markets. Direct interviewing methods of the familiar questionnaire type were only used in certain parts of this survey. In obtaining children’s own accounts of their drinking experiences the subject was brought up in the course of conversation, on different topics, and introduced naturally into the context in a friendly manner. 200 verbatim statements were obtained in this way from children aged 7 to 18, individually engaged in conversation.

A quick note: Worktown is the name Mass Observation gave Bolton in Lancashire during its groundbreaking study into pubs in the late 1930s.

The report has some interesting pondering on whether children can really be believed – won’t they naturally want to tell adults what they want to hear? And won’t they – boys especially – want to boast about their naughtiness? The authors of the report consider all that and conclude that, on balance, they believe their findings to be accurate:

All the indications found in this survey were that this tendency to boast about drinking is very much less important than it appears to the middle class adult. Though at the higher age levels a few children had the attitude that they would be ‘sissies’ if they hadn’t drunk beer, this attitude was seldom implied by those under fourteen. Further, there was no marked tendency for children to say they liked beer if they had drunk it and very many expressed an emphatic distaste.

The first section that really grabs the attention is about what proportion of children have tasted alcoholic drinks. In London, the survey’s footsoldiers found, most working class children had, except “three girls in Stepney”. There’s a rather grim detail from Wales, though, where a young teacher was encouraged to talk about drinks in general with a class of 8 and 9 year old boys:

The verbatim comments of the fifty boys were recorded. These show that: 68% had tasted beer at some time, 32% had never tasted it. In the great majority of cases the taste appears to have been a small one or a slightly larger one on some festive occasion. In one case, however: “I has some every night. My mam gives me a glass every night. Our father brings it home.” The teacher comments on this: “He looks as if he drinks – heavy red face and eyes – he cannot read or write.”

There are numerous quotes from children themselves describing their own experiences of drinking, such as this from a 12-year-old girl from Fulham:

Yes, I’ve tasted beer lots of times. I went down to B—ley with my sister. She’s 20 and just got engaged to a Canadian. His name is G_____ F_____ We went in the Saloon Bar and I had a glass. It’s so bitter. Sometimes they ask us our age, but they let us go in. Two weeks ago we were celebrating my sister’s engagement and F_____ brought home ever so many bottles, quarts of Barclay’s Ale, and Brown Ale, and Guinness and we all had some. My sister is 8 and F_____ gave her a whole pint, she loves it. She sits under the table so my Mammy won’t see. But she drinks beer galore, she wants to be like a grown up!

London children generally tended to drink more and more often, M.O. found – “By the age of 14 or so it is rather exceptional for a London child to dislike beer.”

In Devon, children tended to drink more cider, and to prefer it to beer. There’s something almost painfully nostalgic about the suggestion that some boys “had first been given cider when they took along the mid-day meal to their fathers in the field”.

Up in Bolton, things were really interesting, as a strong temperance movement along with lots of heavy-drinking dads meant children – and girls especially – tended to be anti-beer. Still, though, children in Bolton were more likely to drink than those in Devon.

A subject we’ve often touched on here is the difficulty of acquiring a taste for beer. The Mass Observation report backs this up, listing a whole slew of comments from children disgusted by beer: “Ugh. It’s rotten. I had some Christmas time. It’s like too strong tea.” (Pretty good tasting note, that.) And, the report’s authors point out, children who said they liked beer tended just to describe it as “nice” or “alright”, without much enthusiasm.

A mixed group of uniformed men and a barmaid.
Allied soldiers in a London pub, 1940. © IWM (D 1725)

On pubs, there’s an excellent, really evocative description of a pub famous for serving under-age drinkers:

The Saloon Bar is packed with young people some 60—100 strong. To order drinks people just elbow their way to the counter. Nobody minds the pushing and shoving. Lots of young girls, very well-dressed and heavily made up, come into the pub unescorted. Soldiers and Sailors are present, but it is mostly a young civilian crowd. 17—18 age group, although a small percentage of older people (not more than 30-40 years) are present. The room is hot and the fat man at the piano looks hotter still. The room is too packed for dancing, but girls hum the melodies the fat man plays. A girl says to another girl and a boy (all about 18) “…he’s home on leave soon. We’ll have to arrange a ding dong somewhere.” “Everybody seems to be drinking beer, half and pint glasses, although a few girls are drinking gin and whisky. On the whole the girls seem to be moderate drinkers.” “Two fellows (one a sailor) and two young girls laughing and joking. Bits of the conversation: Boy: “I don’t know what else she does, except read love stories. I’ve been up there twice and each time she’s larking about or reading.” Girl: (pouting) “Well, what else is there to do? If they want me to work, they’d better give it to me, I’m not asking for it.” The sailor wants to re-order drinks, but the girl says they’ve still some left… The people working in the bar are rushed off their feet. In fairness it must be stated that working as they do under pressure they can scarcely cope with the orders, let alone stop to weigh up whether the person is under age or not.

There was a plan to give young people a different colour of identity card to make it easier for bar staff to check their ages before serving them but it didn’t come to anything.

As is often the case in these sociological studies, there’s some brilliantly earnest stuff about how “sensual” some pubs are, without there being anything in particular going on. In other words, the observer could just tell everyone was horny and, indeed, may have been getting a bit hot under the collar themselves.

In fact, at this point, the report veers quite sharply away from children drinking and into a study of young women out on the town trying to pick up Allied servicemen, especially Canadians, or at least get their drinks paid for all evening:

The saloon bar is packed with people some 60—80 strong. The barmaid has a busy time going to and fro with her order. The crowd is well mixed with soldiers, naval ratings and A.T.S. girls, and there are a few young, well-dressed girls unescorted (age group 16-18). They order chiefly gin and lime and sit at tables with other people of ages ranging from 30-60, including Service men and women. Two of them sit with their legs crossed and keep glancing at the Service men. The room is stifling, and a woman sits at the piano and sings popular melodies which most of the people sing lustily. “Sitting close to these girls is a group of six people, three men and three women (age 40-60). Investigator overhears one of the men say to the women: ‘Look at these bloody little bitches over there, they want their bloody arses smacked, don’t know what things are coming to, they drink like fish, and they take the sailors, asking for trouble, and when they’re left in the cart they wail about it, serves them bloody well right if they’re left to stew in their own juice.’”

Here’s more from another, rougher pub:

Two girls offer [some naval ratings] seats at their table and they drink port, beer and whisky and listen to the songs of the ‘well-known local nightingale.’ Investigator has previously talked to the girls and discovered that they were 17 years old… Quite audibly they asked the ratings where they were staying and if they were allowed to take anyone home for the night. The ratings ordered whisky for themselves and gin and lime for the girls. The piano was played by a burly man who had the piano top loaded with half-pint glasses which he drank in the course of the evening, and led the company singing songs vulgar and otherwise, which they all seemed to enjoy. By this time the ratings and girls were quite drunk and they sat with their arms round each other, kissing and talking fervently. Inv. heard the following conversation: Girl: “It’s nice to have met you darling, how much leave have you got?” N.R.: “Fourteen days” (broken English). Girl: “Would you like to come and stay with me for the night? I’ll be a good little wife to you and you can have it hot and strong.”

It’s funny to think that Britain has been in a state of permanent moral panic about young drinkers for, what, a hundred years or so? When in fact, even if it’s not always healthy, it might just be normal for teenagers to go through a phase where they’re bad at judging risk, like to get wasted, and sometimes get in trouble.

As ever, we’ve just picked out some of the bits that most grabbed our attention. If you want a glimpse into life during wartime, it’s worth clicking through and digging about in the original text.

You might also be interested in David Gutzke’s 2014 book Women Drinking Out in Britain Since the Early Twentieth Century which uses this report as one among many other sources.