Buckingham Palace with crowds on the Mall

Geoff Wicken acquired a vintage readership survey report for AMSR. It has much to tell us about a very different time…

For anyone researching specific topics, the reports in the Archive provide insight into a huge range of subject-matter. Additionally some of the documents offer fascinating portraits of Britain at given points in time. One example is the 1956 Hulton Readership Survey report, which recently appeared on eBay. (Bidding was not hotly contested.)

It’s a lovely thing – still smelling faintly of leatherette – and offers an intriguing picture of Britain at the time via its reading habits.

World War II was still a fairly recent memory in 1956; food rationing had finally concluded just two years earlier. Car ownership stood at 11%, whereas 24% of people were categorised as cyclists. TV sets were present in 42% of homes, and ITV had been launched as the first commercial channel in September 1955, but print was the major advertising medium and this survey existed to support it.

Major mid-1950s advertising categories are revealed by the list of product sectors covered: beer, spirits and wine, as well as cigarettes and pipe tobacco. Within the women’s market we see lipstick, face powder, nail varnish and beauty creams; in the household area the ownership of dogs, cats and caged birds was deemed worthy of capture.

Strikingly, the report shows print readership levels far higher than today’s: 87% of adults read morning newspapers and 92% Sunday newspapers. Evening newspapers and general weekly magazines – very much minority sectors nowadays – had reading levels of 66% and 75%.

The sponsors Hulton Press were magazine publishers whose titles included Picture Post and Lilliput. They had first commissioned the survey in 1947; this tenth year of fieldwork (conducted by the British Market Research Bureau) included over 70 publications.

Radio Times emerges as the best-read individual title, with 50% adult readership. Other surviving names high in the rank order are the People, Daily Mirror and Daily Express. Many however are long-lost. Sunday Pictorial was read by no fewer than 35%, and others achieving over 10% included the general weeklies Weekend Reveille, Hulton’s own Picture Post and John Bull.

The ‘bottom five’ included the Manchester Guardian (the word ‘Manchester’ would be dropped from its title in 1959) and the Times, both of which registered a readership of 1.3%. At the very foot of the ranking, given an asterisk to indicate a reading level of below 0.5%, sat the Daily Worker. This was the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which at the time had perhaps 40,000 members, had been supportive of Stalin and the USSR, and would split later in 1956 over how to react to the Hungarian uprising. The title’s presence on the survey must surely have been for the sake of completeness – one struggles to imagine it pitching for advertising budgets from mainstream consumer brands. In 1966 it would rebrand as the Morning Star, under which name it continues to publish today.

And in case you were wondering, caged birds were kept in no fewer than 21% of homes, which made them just as popular as dogs. The extent to which they co-existed with cats, present in 27% of households and perhaps their natural foes, was not reported.


Contributed by Geoff Wicken
Date posted: 17th November 2023


Share this