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Iona Opie (b. 1923) and Peter Opie (1918-1982) were a husband-and-wife team researching childhood folklore. They started their work in the 1940s, when the birth of their first child sparked off their interest in nursery rhymes. Over more than four decades, they extended their research into many other areas of children’s culture, including children's literature, play and games, children’s language, customs, beliefs and superstitions.
The Opies were avid collectors, and over the decades amassed one of the world’s largest collections of children’s books and printed ephemera, covering children’s literature from the 16th to the 20th century. The Opies' collection of children’s literature – over 20,000 pieces – was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1988.
However, in researching children’s culture, the Opies not only relied on books published for children. Instead, they also wanted to collect the oral traditions of childhood – the rhymes, songs and games, the language and customs the playground – and in doing so, they took the approach of the collecting these from the children themselves.
In November 1951, the Opies placed an advert in the Sunday Times, seeking help from teachers in collecting children’s lore and language - the idea being that schoolchildren would answer a set of questions about counting out rhymes, local superstitions, cheers, slang and abbreviations, and return these ‘suggestionaires’, as the Opies called their survey sheets, via their teachers. Over the years the method evolved into asking open questions, or encouraging the children to freely describe their games and playground activities, hobbies and preferences. The teachers were instructed not to direct or aid the children when writing these papers, and even to leave the spelling unchecked. From the 1950s through to the 1990s, the Opies received thousands of replies from children from schools all over the UK, often with accompanying letters from the teachers describing the local playground culture from their perspective, and sending in school journals, photographs, newspaper clipping and other background information. With some of their correspondents, the Opies stayed in touch over years, allowing them to trace the development of games and playground crazes at a particular school or in a particular area over time.
To process and analyse their data, the Opies developed a daily work routine at their home in West Liss, Hampshire: Iona Opie would sort and analyse the incoming information and compile working materials, adding survey responses, secondary literature and bibliographical notes. Peter Opie would then write up the results in a first draft, on which Iona Opie would comment on the basis of her data, and so on. This produced an ever-expanding system of working files, each one relating to a particular game or activity. Iona Opie's meticulous approach to data management was crucial to keeping physical and intellectual control of the complex and extensive collection of research material.
Neither of the Opies had an academic background, as they were very much private researchers and authors, not associated with any academic institution. However, the Opies published more than 20 books – anthologies of traditional nursery rhymes, songs and fairy tales, as well as observations and analysis of children’s play and games in the street and in the playground, and the lore and language of schoolchildren - which were critically acclaimed for their contribution to folklore and childhood research, as well as being popular with non-academic readers.
After Peter Opie's death in 1982, Iona Opie continued to work on the many books that were still projected, before retiring in the 1990s from more than 50 years of childlore research.
cf. Opie, Peter Mason (1918-1982) in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
The Opie Archive ['Opie Working Papers'] currently comprises:
The Opie Archive is currently being catalogued, with work scheduled to finish in June 2018.
Please note that whilst we are trying to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, sequences of the Opie Archive will become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation and cataloguing work is being carried out. If you need to consult material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please contact us with generous advance notice so we can advise on the availability of the material in question and make the necessary arrangements.
The Opie Collection of Children's Literature (16th to 20th century children's books and printed ephemera) is held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The British Library, London, holds the Opie Collection of Children's Games and Songs (sound recordings made by Iona Opie during her field research).
The bulk of the archive was donated by Iona Opie in various tranches between 1991 and 2006.
Opie, Iona Archibald | née Balfour Archibald | b. 1923 | book collector and historian of the lore of childhood
Opie, Peter Mason | 1918-1982 | book collector and historian of the lore of childhood
Folklore and children