Peter Mason Opie (1918 - 1982) and Iona Archibald Opie (1923 - )
New! Listen to Iona Opie, A Lifetime in the Playground
(Inaugural address to ‘The State of Play Conference’, University of Sheffield, 14 April 1998, introduced by Professor John Widdowson)
Download a verbatim transcription of the address (pdf file)
The names of the husband-and-wife team Iona and Peter Opie - 'the Opies' - are synonymous with the collection and study of children's folklore. Their work covers both the traditions of the nursery passed from adult to child and those of older children passed primarily among themselves. The Opies' books were widely read by the general public and by academics. They helped to establish childhood culture as a serious area of study and are still regarded as essential reading today. Iona describes Peter and herself as'children of Empire'. Peter was born in Egypt where his father was serving as an army doctor. Educated at Eton College, Peter joined the army at the start of World War Two but was invalided out in 1941. After a number of jobs, including working for the BBC and for a publisher, he became a full-time writer. Iona was born in Colchester, Essex, the daughter of an expert in tropical diseases who worked in Africa. She went to Sandecotes School, Parkstone, and later joined the meterological section of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. Iona and Peter got married in 1943 and had their first child, James, the following year. Soon after, the family were evacuated to Bedfordshire where, during a walk, as Iona has written, 'our future was decided by a ladybird': :
Idly one of us picked it up, put it on his finger...and said to it: 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,/Your house is on fire and your children all gone.' The ladybird obeyed, as they always do - and yet it always seems like magic; and we were left wondering about this rhyme we had known since childhood and had never questioned until now. What did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it?' (Iona Opie, 1988: 208)
Their search for answers to these questions led them on 'a treasure hunt which was to last forty years'. Peter had been writing since he was a child, his first book being the autobiographical I Want to be a Success. A later autobiographical work, The Case of Being a Young Man won the Chosen Book competition, won a literary award and the prize money allowed Peter to devote himself to writing. Iona juggled childcare with assisting Peter in the research. The first fruits of their labour was I Saw Esau (1947), a 'pocketbook' of school children's chants and rhymes.
Meanwhile, they were involved in compiling a definitive dictionary of nursery rhymes which traced their histories and described the variant forms in which they had been found. At work in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, they were noticed by Richard Hunt, the Keeper of Western Manuscripts. Through him, they were introduced to Oxford University Press who went on to publish all of the Opies' major works, beginning with the The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) and The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes (1963). The Opies turned in earnest to children's own lore and play following the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. A letter to the Sunday Times in 1951 sking for information produced a deluge of responses. They established a network of friends, family (including, as time went on, their own children, James, Robert and Letitia), and correspondents. Realising the importance of gathering information directly from children with active knowledge and experience of these traditions, the Opies worked with an ‘army’ of teachers in England, Wales and Scotland to get children to contribute to the study. Iona later estimated that they received information from 20,000 children over some thirty years (c.1950 - 1980). Iona also did fieldwork. She made tape recordings of children from around the country performing songs and singing games, and talking about their play. She also made regular visits to the primary school in Liss, Hampshire, where the Opie family had settled. Here she made notes on her observations over some years.
The Opies compiled, compared and annotated this data at their home as part of an almost monastic lifestyle. Gradually they produced their now classic books, beginning with The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren in 1959. This was followed by Children’s Games in Street and Playground in 1969. While they were working on the third volume, concerning singing games, Peter's health began to fail and he died of a heart attack in 1982. Iona brought The Singing Game to completion in 1985 and continued to work on the final volume they had planned, Children's Games with Things (1997). She also wrote The People in the Playground, based on her notes taken in the school playground at Liss.
The Opies were also keen collectors of childhood objects, including books, toys and games. Over time, they amassed one of the most important collections of children's books in private hands. Following Peter's death, it was given to the Bodleian Library by Iona. A public appeal, led by Prince Charles, raised monies to fund the acquisition. The Opie Collection of Children''s Literature contains 20,000 titles including books of stories and nursery rhymes, chapbooks, comics and magazines, and educational texts such as primers and alphabets. These are currently accessible in microfiche form.
The Opies'; pioneering and influential work has been recognised in a number of honours. These include the Royal Society of Arts' silver medal awarded to Peter Opie in 1953, the Folklore Society's Coote Lake Medal, awarded to the couple jointly in 1960, and the Chicago Folklore Prize in 1970. Iona and Peter were both made honorary MAs of Oxford University in 1962.
The Opies also researched into fairy tales (The Classic Fairy Tales, 1974), and folk belief (A Dictionary of Superstitions, with Moira Tatem, 1989). Peter was also President of the anthropology section of the British Association in 1962 - 63, and President of the Folklore Society in 1963 - 64, as well as serving on the council of the Folklore Society during the years 1951 - 69.
Iona now feels that she has finished working on children's folklore, though she retains an interest in the work of others. She continues to live in Hampshire.