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  • The Working Papers of Iona and Peter Opie
  • Julia C. Bishop (bio)

The names of Iona (1923-) and Peter Opie (1918-1982) will be familiar to many students of oral tradition. This husband-and-wife team of English folklorists are best known for their work on children’s folklore (Figure 1), although their scholarship also covered adult traditions of custom, belief, and folktales.1 Their joint endeavours, continued by Iona after Peter’s premature death, resulted in numerous publications, including a series of landmark books on children’s oral culture covering nursery rhymes and songs (1951), as well as school-aged children’s language, custom, and belief (1959); outdoor games (1969); musical play (1985); and outdoor games with playthings (1997). Iona Opie also published a selection of the notes she made during weekly observations of playtimes on her local school playground in Hampshire (1993). Accessibly written and thoroughly researched, these books have become classics in the field and are widely read by scholars, teachers, students, and the general public.

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Fig 1.

Iona and Peter Opie skipping (photo from

The Opies undertook extensive fieldwork—including surveys, tape-recorded interviews, and observation—as well as literary and historical research to inform their books concerning the folklore of school-aged children. They also corresponded with a host of individuals, including teachers, children, members of the public, fellow researchers, journalists, broadcasters, and publishers. The materials they amassed form an archival collection that is now distributed among the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford), the Folklore Society Archives (London), and the British Library (London). The British Library holds the sound recordings made by Iona Opie (now known as “The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs”), mainly documenting children’s singing games (Jopson et al. 2014). The “Opie Working Papers” are held by Special Collections at the Bodleian Libraries. These are housed in 247 boxes and cover most of the children’s language, games, and play material as well as other aspects of their research and personal lives:

  • • children’s papers and correspondence between the Opies and teachers (boxes 1-38)

  • • publications materials (boxes 39-69)

  • • correspondence with colleagues/contributors (boxes 70-85)

  • • personal letters/diaries/private albums (boxes 86-150)2

  • • loose-leaf files (boxes 151-247)

The Folklore Society Archives holds a further 24 boxes of the Opies’ papers, consisting of:

  • • research materials on weatherlore, and superstitions (boxes T150-154/1)

  • • research materials on calendar customs (boxes T154/2-154/3)

  • • research materials on calendar customs, beliefs, children’s games; index of counting out rhymes; personal papers; and Folklore Society correspondence (boxes T210-211, T217-T231)

The present article considers the papers at the Bodleian Libraries, specifically the Opies’ primary and secondary data relating to children’s verbal art and play. A finding aid for the Opie Working Papers was compiled in 2011,3 and the material itself is available for consultation on-site in Oxford. A project entitled “Childhoods and Play: An Archive” has recently been set up to seek funding for the full cataloging and digitization of the Opie papers and, subject to the necessary permission, to make them freely available online for academic, educational, and community purposes. The project has been granted British Academy Research Project status (2012-17) and is a collaboration between the University of Sheffield, the University of London Institute of Education, the Bodleian Libraries, the British Library, and the Folklore Society.4

Creation and Content of the Collection

Full-length biographies of Iona and Peter Opie have yet to be written, but there are several briefer accounts that indicate their lives and their research were closely, and perhaps inevitably, intertwined (Opie 1988, 1989; Avery 2004; Marsh and Bishop 2014). They met through their mutual interest in books, and later married. Their interest in folklore was piqued around 1944 when they were expecting their first child, James. Encountering a ladybird during a country walk and recalling the “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” rhyme, they were “left wondering about this rhyme we had known from childhood and had never questioned until now. What did it mean? Where did it come from? Who wrote it...

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