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From underwear to aircraft noise: logging 70 years of social change

Released: 02 September 2011 Download PDF

The summer of 2011 marks the seventieth anniversary of the very first Government Social Survey.

In celebration, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) pays tribute to the thousands of interviewers who have asked the public questions on everything from underwear to aircraft noise. We have delved into the archives and picked surveys from 1941, 1951, etc to mark each decade. 
As the way we live our lives has changed, the questions have changed, too. Back in 1941, surveys helped measure food shortages. Today, they help look beyond our material world to gauge our attitudes to long-term 'well-being'.

The first surveys were driven by the war effort. Amid fears of a steel shortage in 1941, one survey asked women about attitudes to underwear and wearing trousers. By 1951, as immigration increased, a survey examined attitudes to 'coloured people' from Britain's former colonies. A decade later, the growth in air travel prompted a survey into aircraft noise at Heathrow Airport. The end of the Swinging Sixties paved the way for a 1971 survey into the shape of our society - the General Household Survey. By 1981, ONS was asking women about drinking habits. Children's attitudes to smoking were being examined in 1991, and the focus on public health continued past the millennium with a 2001 survey on sexual health. This year, researchers have begun to explore ideas beyond health and economic wealth, looking at our ideas on 'well-being' and self-fulfilment.

Below, ONS looks back at seventy years of social surveys.

Survey of Foundation Garments (1941)

This study was conducted by the Wartime Social Survey Unit for the Board of Trade. It was a study of corset stocks and needs with special reference to the allocation of steel for these garments.

The survey interviewed eight occupational groups in November 1941. In excess of 5,000 interviews were conducted in ‘place of work’ or with ‘housewives’. The interview included questions on:

• Types of supporting garment worn and possessed
• Prices paid
• Difficulties with supply
• Buying habit 1941-1942
• Change in habit as a result of occupation
• Washing and mending behaviour
• Age supporting garments first worn

Key Findings

7.8% of shop assistants wore boned suspender belts compared with only 2.1% of agricultural workers

The average number of supporting garments owned by women interviewed was 1.2.
Housewives owned 0.8 supporting garments on average, compared with 1.9 by agricultural workers. On average, women owned 1.2 brassieres (housewives 0.8 and agricultural workers 1.9).

The survey also asked about the types of supporting garments the women were wearing at the time of interview - including whether they were wearing a brassiere, corset, suspenders etc.

In terms of difficulty getting any type of supporting garments, the majority either had no difficulty (37.2%), or had not tried recently (37.9%), but of those who had problems 16.7% said the type they wanted wasn't available, and 4.6% said they had coupon problems.

Wearing trousers and slacks was a growing habit amongst women:

• 34.3% of women interviewed said they wore slacks or trousers compared with 65.7% who didn't;
• 49.2% of transport workers said they wore slacks or trousers but only 20.6% of housewives did;
• Older women were less likely to wear slacks or trousers (85.7% of women over 40s said that they didn't compared with only 55% of women under 20).

The report noted: 'Government activity in many spheres requires detailed information on aspects of social life. Only with this information can the greatest efficiency in planning be secured and everything done to secure personal welfare of the populations. This is specifically so where government activity comes into close touch with the personal life of individuals. It was therefore felt that detailed information should be secured on a subject which is of interest to most women - foundation garments.'

The Social Survey - Colonial Affairs and the Public (1951) 
‘A study of public knowledge of the colonies and of attitudes towards coloured people made for the Colonial Office in June, 1951.’

The first part of the survey asked the public about their knowledge of the Colonies. The second part dealt with ‘the public’s understanding of the problems of coloured Colonials in this country and its general attitudes to working and mixing socially with coloured people.'

The survey interviewed 1,800 adults, aged 21 and over, taken from the Electoral Rolls. The term ‘coloured’ referred to people now classified as Black and Minority Ethnic (BME). The survey was one of the first of its kind into ethnicity in Britain.

Key Findings

Just over half (52 per cent) of all informants said they had come across a coloured person at some time in their lives. A third of the 52 per cent had met coloured people casually: some 14 per cent of the 52 per cent had been with them in the Forces or met them abroad. Eleven per cent of the total sample said they knew a coloured person as a personal friend.

Nearly three-quarters (74 per cent) of interviewees thought this country would be worse off without the Colonies. But only 21 per cent thought ‘we could give more help to the Colonies than we do’ which, the researchers found, 'suggests that although the majority of people appear to realise the importance of the Colonies to us, they are not on the whole prepared to shoulder the attendant responsibilities, and only a small proportion suggested that our interest should take the form of more material help.'

The majority of adults interviewed (59 per cent) failed to name a single colony. Only 16 per cent of the survey could name three or more colonies.

Examining the ‘extent of antipathy’ to coloured people, the survey found that 16 per cent would dislike working with a coloured person, 27 per cent would dislike inviting one home, and 41 per cent said they would dislike letting a room to a coloured person if they had one to let.

The survey found that the older a person was, the more ‘antipathetic’ to coloured people was he or she likely to be. This was particularly true of those over 65.

The report found that 'antipathy to coloured people in this country is probably considerable amongst at least one third of the population. The reactions of at least another third might be uncertain or unfavourable.'

The report recommended prejudice be tackled by ‘a carefully thought out programme of education to start in the schools.’

 Aircraft Noise Annoyance around London (1961)

The survey was commissioned by the Wilson Committee on the Problem of Noise. Approximately 2,000 adults living within 10 miles of Heathrow airport were interviewed and noise measures were also recorded.

It was found 'that at the highest levels of noise exposure, in the immediate vicinity of the airport, the nuisance caused by aircraft becomes clearly dominant over all other sources or dissatisfaction with local living conditions.'

Key findings

• 78% said that aircraft noise from planes at Heathrow made their house vibrate
• 78% said aircraft noise from Heathrow made their TV flicker
• 69% said it interrupted their sleep
• 82% said that it interfered with listening to the TV/Radio

The survey also found that:

• the most important effect of aircraft noise is the annoyance it causes;
• other indirect effects of aircraft noise are the fear it causes and the opinion of some informants that it affects their health.
• aircraft annoyance was not related to income, social status or home ownership: the survey noted noise annoys everyone equally.

The General Household Survey (1971)

The General Household Survey (GHS), launched in 1971, was welcomed by the media:
'A welcome attempt to provide an integrated portrait of the country and a basis for comparing changes in it year by year' - Evening Standard

'The publication of the first GHS is an event of some importance in British Social research. It provides a wider range of information with greater speed that the official Census could hope to do and is therefore a valuable contribution both to a clearer understanding of the kind of society we are and to national policy making' – The Times

The GHS was the first continuous household sample survey in Great Britain. Just under 16,000 adults were sampled and there was an 85% response rate.

Key findings

• 35% of adults aged 80 or above lived alone
• 80% of men were recorded as head of household
• 91.3% of families with at least one child were married or cohabiting
• 7.6% of families with at least one child were lone mother households
• 49.2% of adults were owner occupiers of the house they were interviewed in

The survey noted a clear social gradient in type of school children attended - 9.9% of children whose father earned less than £500 PA went to a grammar school compared with 23.7% of children whose father earned £2-3K.

In terms of health, 21% of adults reported chronic or acute sickness: 16% were chronically ill to such an extent that it limited their daily activities.

There was also a clear trend in the experience of chronic illness by socio-economic status:
34.5% of semi-skilled and unskilled workers had suffered from bronchitis compared with only 20.3% of professional and managerial workers.

Women and Drinking: An Enquiry on Behalf of the Department of Health and Social Security (1981)

'Women and Drinking' surveyed just under 2,000 women.

Concern about alcohol misuse by women was on the increase. The survey writes that ‘in 1971, for every admission of a woman to a mental illness hospital for alcohol-induced illness, there were three admissions for men, but by 1981, the ratio was one female admission to two male admissions.’ There was also a narrowing of the gap for convictions for female drunkenness. In the early 70s, for each woman convicted of drunkenness there were 14 or 15 men: by 1981 the ratio was one woman to twelve men. The ratios fell most notably among women under 29. The research followed publication of the 1981 Department of Health and Social Security Survey, Drinking Sensibly, as the Government tried to encourage people to adopt ‘sensible attitudes’ to alcohol. 

Key Findings

Whilst nearly all women (92 per cent) drank sometimes, just over 70 per cent of women drank less than five units a week. Around eight per cent were teetotal, 27 had nothing during the measured week, and 36 per cent had drunk between one and five units during the measured week.

Average consumption by unmarried drinkers aged 18 to 24 was 8.32 units, that for unmarried drinkers aged 25 to 29 was similar, but all married drinkers and older unmarried ones had averages between 4.5 and 5.5 units a week

• 15 per cent of women had five to10 units
• 7 per cent had 10 to 15 units
• 3 per cent had 15 to 20 units
• 4 per cent had 20 to 35 units
• Under 1 per cent had over 35 units.

Smoking among secondary school children: carried out on behalf of the Department of Health by Deborah Lader and Jil Matheson (1991)

The survey was published by the Office for Population, Censuses and Surveys.

Overall, 16 per cent of the 8,813 children surveyed in England, Wales and Scotland between the ages of 11 and 15 said they smoked. Ten per cent said they smoked regularly (one or more cigarettes a week). Of the children aged 12 to 15, 12 per cent smoked regularly.

The same survey also asked about alcohol consumption. Thirteen per cent of 11 to 15 year olds in England, 15 per cent in Wales and 9 per cent of 12-15 year olds in Scotland said they usually drank alcohol at least once a week.

Among 15 year olds, almost a third (30 per cent) of boys in England and a quarter (25 per cent) of girls said they usually drank at least once a week. In Scotland, 23 per cent of 15 year old boys and 16 per cent of 15 year old girls usually drank weekly. In Wales, 37 per cent of 15 year old boys and 28 per cent of 15 year old girls did so. Beer, lager or cider were the most popular choice for those who had drunk in the week before the interview.

National Statistics Omnibus Survey of Contraception and Sexual Health (2001)

In 2001, findings from the National Statistics Omnibus Survey of contraception and sexual health were published. The survey interviewed just under 5,000 women aged 16 to 50 years, and they were all able to answer these questions using a self-completion method to save any potential embarrassment.

Key Findings

The most common forms of contraception used by women aged under 50 years were:

• contraceptive pill (28%)
• male condom (21%)
• 10% of women had been sterilised
• 12% of women had a partner who had been sterilised

Three-fifths of women (60%) aged 16 to 49 were 'at risk' of pregnancy - that is, they were in a heterosexual relationship but were neither pregnant nor protected by their own or their partner's sterilisation. However the vast majority of these 'at risk' women were taking the contraceptive pill.
In 2001, 7% of women aged 16-49 said that they had used the ‘morning after’ pill at least once in the year prior to interview - women aged under 20 years of age were twice as likely as those aged 20 and above to have used the morning after pill in the previous year. The most popular source of the morning afterpill was women's own GP or practice nurse (43%) - a third (31%) had obtained the morning after pill from a family planning clinic and 20% from a pharmacy. Other findings were:

• 13% of men aged 16-69 and 9% of women aged 16-49 had had more than one sexual partner in the year prior to being interviewed;
• Over three-fifths of men and women (65% and 62% respectively) said that their behaviour had not been affected by their knowledge of HIV/AIDS;
• Three in ten men aged 16-69 and women aged 16-49 said that they used a condom more often that they used to (29% and 30% respectively);
• Just under three-quarters of women (73%) and less than half of men (45%) identified Chlamydia as a sexually transmitted disease. 

Measuring National Well-being (2011)

Around 200,000 people have been asked to rate their ‘life satisfaction’ on a scale of nought to ten in the UK’s biggest household survey as part of the Office for National Statistics’ programme to measure the nation’s well-being.

The questions form part of the National Statistician’s programme to measure national well-being, which aims to provide a fuller picture of ‘how society is doing’ than is given by economic indicators such as GDP alone, including ‘quality of life’ indicators and the impact progress has on the environment when assessing national well-being.

From April 2011, ONS has included subjective well-being monitoring questions on the Integrated Household Survey (IHS) to capture what people think and feel about their own well-being.

The questions are:

• Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
• Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?
• Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

National Statistician Jil Matheson said, "New survey questions would be a powerful way to understand the well-being of people across the country and for different places, different age groups, whether people are in work or not, and for other groups. We need to show a wider picture, such as the environment, key statistics on health, levels of education and inequality in income."

Survey Comparisons – Then and Now

In the 1971 General Household Survey, 92 per cent of families with dependent children were married or cohabiting couple families. By 2009, this percentage had fallen to 77 per cent.

In the 1981 survey of Women and Drinking, 2,000 women were asked about their drinking habits. Only 8% of them never drank. In 2009, 18 per cent of women had not drank in the past year. In 1981, one per cent of women drank more than 35 units a week. In 2009, the figure was 4 per cent

The 1991 survey into smoking among secondary school children showed that 16% of 11 to 15 year olds smoked. In 2010 it was 5 per cent.

The sexual health survey of 2001 showed that over three-fifths of men and women said their behaviour had not been affected by the threat of HIV/Aids. The most recent figure for 2009 shows it is 60 per cent for men and women.

In 2011, the ONS surveyed - for the first time - national "wellbeing". The national debate was launched in November last year and generated over 34,000 responses. The first indicators will be published in the autumn. For details, go to the well-being publications page: 

NOTE: ONS published a comprehensive history of the social survey in 2001. Whilst it did not examine questions and responses, it did provide an overview of surveys during each decade.

Background notes

  1. A handful of dedicated ONS field force staff have worked on social surveys for nearly 40 years. If you would like to interview a member of staff, please contact Heath Jeffries using the details below.
  2. Media contact: Heath Jeffries: 01633 456289 / 07789 924241 E-mail Emergency on-call    07867 906553 Media Relations: Statistical contact: Tel Ian O’Sullivan    01633 455729 / 07958 913735 E-mail ian.o’ Website Address:  
  3. Details of the policy governing the release of new data are available by visiting or from the Media Relations Office email:

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