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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The Peterloo Massacre & Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)

I have written many times about Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) on this website. It is perhaps the greatest of all Robin Hood novels. Scholars have often been puzzled, however, as to why Scott, a Tory politician, chose to give Robin the relatively humble social position of a yeomen, and effectively linked him with the local body of militia that existed in most towns. Furthermore, this went against the grain of many preceding interpretations of the Robin Hood legend which depicted the outlaw as a member of the aristocracy. One likely answer to this is the fact that Scott, an historian, was simply being faithful to medieval texts such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) in which Robin is also named as a yeoman.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

But perhaps there is another reason for this depiction of Robin Hood as a commoner hero that was connected to an event in Manchester in the same year that the novel was published.

On 16 August 1819 a great crowd of people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt speak upon the subject of political reform. This was a time when neither the middle nor the working classes had the vote. These people had other grievances such as the Corn Laws: protectionist tariffs upon imported grain which kept the price of bread artificially high. The gathering itself was peaceful. But the magistrates of the town of Manchester, fearing a riot, ordered them to disperse by having the Riot Act read out loud. In a crowd of what was between sixty and eighty thousand people, it is unsurprising that the majority of people in attendance did not hear it being read. The magistrates then ordered the local Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to disperse the crowd. The soldiers charged at the protestors and in the process killed fifteen people and wounding up to seven hundred more (although historians have debated the actual numbers). This is the description of one of the eye witnesses:

On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain.[1]

Among the numbers of the killed and wounded were several veterans of Waterloo – men who had fought and defended their country in that famous battle just four years previously. Thus the event became christened as ‘Peterloo’.

peterlooimage2
Red Plaque Commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester City Centre

The event horrified Scott. [2] There was outrage against the authorities in many sections of both the provincial and national press. And the yeomanry came in for harsh criticism. This is one poem that appeared the magazine The Free-Thinking Englishman:

He [The Magistrate] took the advice, and, to make all things sure,
Read the riot act o’er, on the step of his door;
When the Yeomanry Butchers all gallop’d away,
To do some great exploit on Saint Ethelstone’s Day.
They hack’d off the breasts of the women, and then,
They cut off the ears and the noses of men;
In every direction they slaughtered away,
‘Till drunken with blood on Saint Ethelstone’s Day. [3]

The Yeomanry receive a similarly bad press in another political satire entitled The Bloody Field of Peterloo:

Methinks I see the crimson flood,
And mark well the aim’d fatal blow,
The yeoman’s sabre dy’d in blood,
Reeking on far fam’d Peterloo!
Wives, mothers, children on the plain,
In one promiscuous heap, I view;
The husband, son, and father slain,
Stretch’d on the field of Peterloo!
But Yeomen’s hearts are form’d of steel,
Ardent to fields of blood they go;
Their gallant souls disdain to feel,
Whilst dealing death at Peterloo! [4]

Other satires such as William Hone’s important and influential The Political House that Jack Built (1819) depicted the soldiery of England as the tools of the elites’ oppression of the working man:

political-house-image
William Hone,  The Political House that Jack Built (London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819) (c) NCCO.

England was a divided society when Scott was writing in 1819. The end of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) has brought economic depression, unemployment, and clamours for political reform.

Why, then, did Scott choose to depict Robin Hood, a people’s hero, as a yeoman at a time when the yeomanry of England were being almost universally excoriated?

Scott’s novel was a plea for national unity: he turned to the medieval period in order to find a harmonious ordering of society. In Scott’s vision of society, the feudal ordering of society in the Middle Ages was a model that could be adapted to solve social and political divisions in nineteenth-century Britain. In the words of Alice Chandler, Scott’s vision of a feudal ordering of society ran thus:

The serf should be willing to die for his master, and the master willing to die for the man he considers his sovereign.[5]

So why do I argue that Scott specifically wants the band of outlaws in Ivanhoe to be associated with the military? (They are rarely called outlaws in the text). There is a definite hierarchical structure to their set up: Locksley is called the ‘Captain’ of the yeoman on several occasions (and rarely is Robin himself referred to as an outlaw twice in the whole novel). This Captain Locksley has underneath him several ‘Lieutenants’. They are not a motley crew of undisciplined brutes but a well-ordered militia. Furthermore, Robin Hood in Ivanhoe, or Locksley as he is called, is a man who is unwaveringly loyal to the King. He works with Richard the Lionheart to help him regain his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and the Norman Templars. Robin the yeoman worse for the nation and for the King. He bridges social divides and effectively restores trust in a much-maligned body of soldiers.

Thus the above may be one reason why Scott chose to cast Robin as a yeoman, in defiance of what had become a convention in writing about Robin Hood where the outlaw, as we have seen, was usually being cast as an Earl at this point. He wants to reclaim the yeomen of England as servants of both the nation and the King. The important thing is that all classes and members of society must work together.


[1] Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (London: T. Unwin, 1893), p.152.
[2] Simon J. White, ‘Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and the Pentridge Rising’ Nineteenth-Century Contexts 31: 3 (2009), 209-224 (p.212).
[3] Anon. ‘To the Editor of the Theological and Political Comet’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 16 (1819), p.125.
[4] Anon. ‘The Bloody Field of Peterloo’ The Theological Comet; or, Free-Thinking Englishman 1: 11 (1819), 85-86 (p.86).
[5] Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 314-332 (p.324).
[6] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Ballantyne, 1819; repr. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1875), pp.125-126