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Bombed buildings on Lower Donegall Street.

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Moya Woodside studied the effects of the Belfast blitz.


Who's Who: Moya Woodside

The wife of a Belfast surgeon, Moya Woodside became one of the many people throughout the UK who took part in the Mass Observation surveys. Mass Observation was a UK-wide social research organisation that was founded in 1937. (It was re-formed in the 1980s and still operates today.) Anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings were the principal architects of the scheme which sought to record everyday life in the UK through a panel of about 500 volunteer observers. Although untrained these volunteers kept diaries or completed open-ended questionnaires. In addition to the volunteers there were also some paid investigators whose task was to record people’s behaviour and conversation at work and in the street; they were also asked to provide similar records of public events such as meetings and religious services.

Moya Woodside’s record of wartime life in Belfast was especially interesting. She was involved in the administration of social services in Belfast and her observations often contrast with the official story circulated by government at the time. In October 1940, while Craigavon’s government was talking about Ulster’s support for the war effort, she was noting that outdoor relief (public work schemes for the unemployed) was being refused to single men. Although no reason was being given for this policy, she felt that it was an attempt on the part of the government to get young men to join the forces as the levels of recruitment had fallen to less than 1,000 per month.

Her comments and observations are not restricted to Belfast. She also noted the contrast between Dublin, where there was no blackout, and Belfast. In the former she recorded that the city appeared to be ‘as brilliant as ever’ with shop windows illuminated and cars travelling along the streets. This changed as the war progressed with street lighting dimmed and even air raid shelters appearing on O’Connell Street while there were some shortages; but the contrast with Northern Ireland remained strong.

In the summer of 1941 Moya Woodside visited Donegal where she found that many of the wealthier citizens of Belfast were also to be found in the county’s hotels. This was only months after the Belfast blitz and the middle-class Belfast holidaymakers were indulging themselves in a range of activities that included golf and bridge while they were also able to enjoy excellent meals. Six-course dinners were normal at tables that groaned with food while the diners wore evening wear, the ladies bedecked with jewellery.

As well as her social service and Mass Observation work, Moya Woodside was also a member of a committee for the welfare of enemy aliens, whose experience she also recorded. As early as 1940 she wrote that there was not a single refugee in Northern Ireland who had not, at some time, been accused of being a Nazi spy, even though no proof existed to substantiate the allegations. There were then between 400 and 500 refugees. Many of these people had been in employment before being interned and they found that, on release, their employers were often reluctant to re-employ them because of the suspicion aroused by their detention. Many suffered psychiatric problems as a result while others deteriorated physically.

Moya Woodside made an invaluable record of the Belfast blitz and its aftermath, noting the level of damage, the panic evacuation that followed, the state of the refugees and their physical condition. The levels of poverty and deprivation, especially in housing, are recorded faithfully. She also noted that the bombing had made nationalist opinion ‘if not pro-British, at least much less pro-German’.

In spite of the conditions in which they lived, Moya Woodside noted that it was the poorer people of Northern Ireland who made the greater contribution to initiatives such as the ‘Spitfire Fund’ whereby individuals and communities were invited to contribute to the cost of providing Spitfire fighters for the RAF. In her view the fund ‘caught the imagination’ of those in working class streets and towns from whom ‘astonishing sums’ were raised while the middle and upper-class districts’ contributions were ‘meagre in comparison’.

After the war Moya Woodside continued to show a strong social conscience and became involved in many health and welfare matters, especially regarding women. Her Mass Observation diary is held in the University of Sussex, Brighton.                 

By Richard Doherty