20th Century

Reading Robin Hood in World War Two (1939–45): Data from Mass Observation

Before the twentieth century, Robin Hood was a literary figure: he is the main protagonist in a number of important literary works such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450); Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98); Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Many fine scholarly studies have been conducted which have studied the production and dissemination of these texts.[i] In the twentieth century, the principal means through which the outlaw’s story was disseminated became films and, as domestic television ownership increased, serialised shows. Added to this we can, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, add videogames.[ii] Thus, in the twentieth century, Robin Hood became a visual rather than a literary hero.

While the late-Victorian period witnessed a number of new Robin Hood children’s books being written and published, there were noticeably fewer in the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the emergence of film technology. Robin Hood scholarship that focuses on twentieth-century sources likewise tends to privilege cinematic portrayals of the outlaw rather than the literature which appeared. Yet people were still reading Robin Hood, as we know from Mass Observation records.

Britain by Mass Observation

First edition of Madge’s Mass Observation Book.

Mass Observation was a project started by the philanthropists and filmmakers, including Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrisson, and Charles Madge, in 1937. Their aim was a simple one: to create a record of everyday life in Britain by having volunteers write about what they had done on a given day and submit it to the archive.[iii] The first major project was to chronicle people’s thoughts about the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1938. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War (1939–45) and was occasionally used by the wartime government as a means of collection information on public morale.

Sarah Hawks Sterling’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1928) was one of the most popular books requested by children at Fulham Library.[iv] This was surprising for me as a researcher because I assumed that, when Robin Hood books were read by children in the twentieth century, it was generally the American Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Indeed, when Penguin Books decided to publish a Robin Hood story as part of their Classics range, it was Pyle’s story that they chose for the collection, rather than any English author.

In Mass Observation records, we also see the continuing popularity of Scott’s Ivanhoe amongst children in London, in particular the Penguin Books 6d. edition.[v] The same record also records that nineteenth-century school editions of Ivanhoe remain in circulation and are popular among youths.

We see another unnamed child opting for Sterling’s book in 1942. In Marylebone, a Mass Observation worker saw a child carrying four books on their way home: Sterling’s Robin Hood, and some anonymous works The War of the Wireless, Shadow of the Swastika, and The First Quarter. More importantly, the child also gives the reasons why they have chosen these books: because they liked adventure books; because the books had been recommended by a friend; and they were similar to other books that they had read. They even told the interviewer that it generally takes them half a week to read through a full book.[vi]

Mass Observation did not focus merely upon children, however, for the investigators also interviewed adults. What is interesting are the Variety shows which were held on evenings. On 14 November 1942, a show was held in Bournemouth to raise money for civilians in USSR (the Soviet Union was part of the Allied Forces at this point). The theme of the show was “Merrie England”, Three Robin Hood songs were sung at this event. None of them were of the traditional ballad type, however, and the finale was a song that I have not yet identified, entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood.[vii] There is a Scottish ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John, as recorded in J. M. Gutch’s ballad anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847),[viii] but it is a minor ballad and certainly not worthy a spectacular finale, so it may have been a completely new song composed for the event.

What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. Such a big set-piece movie, released at the time Mass Observation was initiated, I assumed would have featured in some of the records, but there are none that I have found thus far. Perhaps this should prompt future Robin Hood scholars to reassess the reach and reception of Flynn’s ground-breaking movie, and perhaps it indicates that the ‘prose’ Robin Hood persisted in popularity much longer than previously thought.


[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[ii] See Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, pp. 150-210. On videogames see Thomas Rowland, ‘“And Now Begins Our Game”: Revitalizing the Ludic Robin Hood’, in Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. by Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 175-188.

[iii] See David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (London: W & N, 2015).

[iv] Mass Observation, Topic Collection-59_1413, p. 2.

[v] Mass Observation, File Report-1332_127, p. 116.

[vi] Mass Observation, Marylebone, Library QQM15C, R.C.C. 8. 4. 42, Topic Collection-20_2595.

[vii] Mass Observation, Bourneville Works Musical Society, Topic Collection-16_3753.

[viii] Anon., ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 389-91.

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