Masses upon Masses of Mass Observation

I have not really engaged with Mass Observation before in my research but I have recently became engrossed in it! I am particularly looking at the Worktown Collection and I am mostly interested in 1937. This is because one of my gender passing individuals from the twentieth century Mr Colonel Barker appeared in a Luke Gannon sideshow there during this period. What I can gather is that the sideshow was more of a controversy because it was associated with Gannon than it was Colonel Barker.

Gannon was a controversial artist and one of his sideshows included The Starving Brides. This installation featured a group of women who starved themselves for period of time in the hopes of purchasing a home. This was to show the lengths that people would go to to start a family and become settled in their lives. Gannon was married to clairvoyant and Palmist Madame Kusharney and the pair were known for their outlandish ideas.


Taken from Blackpool Crime blog (click image to visit)


Barker appeared in the press initially in 1928/1929 for marrying his wife Emma Hayward and then he declared himself bankrupt which caused all matter of confusion. Essentially, he had married Emma without her knowing Colonel Barker was actually Mrs Valerie Irmas Arkell-Smith, she had been married previously to an Australian army lieutenant and was subjected to domestic abuse.

Valerie had two children – one daughter and one son – and left them with their father whilst she went on to fiction herself as Colonel Barker, who fought in the first world war. In actual fact, he had stolen his husband’s medals and passed them off as his own to continue this fictitious tale. 

Colonel Barker had a difficult life, he was imprisoned several times for concealing his biological identity, he lost all his money paying for solicitor fees, the press made a mockery of him, he was unable to see his daughter, his wife left him and sold stories to the press along with other unspeakable truths.


Image of Colonel Barker taken from Collis’s book


In Rose Collis’s biography of him (one of the best and full examples on Barker’s life) she explores how Colonel Barker was admitted to hospital on many occasions due to him having infections in his genital area where he would often use a prosthetic penis to give the aesthetic illusion of him being biologically male. I think this in itself shows the turmoil that Colonel Barker faced. Many newspapers show him reoccurring to sell and retell his story up until his death in 1960 – anything to make some money. In one article he stated that he lived as a man to provide for his son. He also stated that his looks made him too masculine to be a woman and he had no other choice. This shows the importance of physical appearance during this time as people had to look like the gender they portrayed. It also suggests that Colonel Barker may not have wanted to live as a man but that was all he knew.

Colonel Barker went by several names including the illusive John Hill, Valerie Arkell-Smith, Victor Barker and Jeffrey Norton. To me this shows his own vulnerability. Likewise, the press sought him out resulting in him having to move and change his identity again. This was similar to Harry Stokes in the 1830s when he moved around Manchester a lot never wholly settling into one area.

During the period of 1937, Colonel Barker appeared in Blackpool. His sideshow was considered to be ‘Blackpool’s most notorious and profitable sideshow’. [1] The billboards certainly enticed the readers:

On a strange honeymoon

Love calling

Colonel Barker

Admission Twopence

Colonel Barker and his or her bride

How long can a loving couple remain

under these conditions?

The tongue and cheek taglines are aimed at the reader and inevitable draw them in to see Colonel Barker, the bride and in what conditions do they have to endure?

In actual fact, the sideshow was not the most eroticised or shocking. The Blackpool Museum website on sideshows recalled what the exhibition was,

‘… view[ed] from above into a room strewn with paraphernalia – cheap paper, novelettes, cigarettes, with a cardboard cupid, two beds with a belisha beacon [and] traffic lights permanently on red between the beds’. [2]

Now, pardon the pun, but surely this seems a little pedestrian?

I have surmised the possible eroticised symbolism of the red traffic lights, the bed and the cupid and considered this could have been an example of two lovers longing to be together but the red traffic lights is symbolic of society and are not ready for such a progressive relationship. The symbolism of the red light is associated with sex and lust and obviously the pair are on beds, again symbolic of sex and love.

Image taken by myself at the National Archives at Kew Gardens showing Colonel Barker’s registration of birth


In actual fact, the Mass Observation archive revealed that on being interviewed by an observer, Gannon said that this sideshow was simply to remind young lovers to slow down. To encourage people to take their time with relationships and sexuality. 

Mass Observation was founded in 1937 and aimed to record everyday life in Britain. This monumental task was undertaken by 500 untrained volunteer Observers. They recorded their findings in diaries, open-ended questionnaires and recorded behaviour at work, on the streets and on public occasions. This was all aimed at getting a rounded view of British life. However, critics felt it was a big invasion of privacy and the atmosphere of surveillance made people act more consciously and unnatural – think when someone is videoing you and they say just act natural, the first thing you do is look them square down the lens! Likewise, the Observers were problematic because they were self-selective and favoured particular people and areas resulting in an imbalanced view of life.

Having said that, I have really enjoyed engaging with the Worktown Collection because it is the habits of real people. However, I can see why people found this type of research problematic. The more I was reading the file titled “Sex” I realised that Observers were following young men and women to see if they were having sexual relations, they were ‘picking up’ young women to see if they were willing for a sexual experience, as well as hiding behind sand dunes and watching people getting dressed and their clothing on the beach… a little too peeping Tom-ish for my liking. Nonetheless, I liked the idea of commenting on side shows, cinemas and generally peoples time on holiday is a little bit like Big Brother. Maybe it would have been more beneficial if they just asked people to join in and allow someone to make notes on them?


Mass Observation Online

Collis, R. Colonel Barker’s Monstrous Regiment, (London; Virago LTD., 2002).

[1] Cross, G. (ed.) Worktowners at Blackpool: Mass Observation and popular leisure in the 1930s, (London; Routledge, 1990), pg. 193.

[2] Taken from article on Blackpool sideshows on Blackpool Museum website


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