Archive of Iona and Peter Opie
The Opie Archive ['Opie Working Papers'] comprises:
- Children's papers: Questionnaires, letters and short essays by schoolchildren, c.1947-1989, describing rhymes, games, school and playground lore and activities. Arranged by school/location and often accompanied by covering letters and background information sent by the teachers.
- Working files: Working material for research and publications, compiled by the Opies from survey responses and other correspondence, secondary literature, press articles, notes, references, photographs, and ephemera, c.1930s-1990s, arranged in subject files. Also includes other papers kept by the Opies for their research, including bibliographical material, mainly on children's books; notebooks and scrapbooks; newspaper cuttings; photocopies of research material.
- Publications: Material relating to the Opies' publications, such as notes and drafts for books and articles, manuscripts and typescripts, illustrations, proof copies and corrections, reviews, and correspondence with publishers, mainly for the books the Opies worked on jointly before Peter Opie's death in 1982. Also includes material relating to lectures, broadcasts and exhibitions, and to biographical pieces and interviews with the Opies.
- Professional correspondence: Correspondence with 'informants' and contributors to the Opies' work, with researchers, collectors, publishers, authors, cultural and heritage institutions, and with societies and associations, c.1946-1990s.
- Personal papers: Personal correspondence, diaries, scrapbooks, family papers and memorabilia, mostly by, or relating to, Peter Opie, mainly 1930s-1970s. Also includes material relating to Peter Opie's early autobiographical books, unpublished short stories, verse and other writings by Peter Opie, c.1936-1948.
- Collected material and miscellaneous: material relating to book collecting; manuscript material and other 17th-20th century childhood and children's book ephemera as collected by the Opies; press cuttings and printed material; and (biographical) papers obtained from other collectors.
- Creation: 1665-2011
54.5 Linear metres (363 physical shelfmarks)
Language of Materials
Conditions Governing Access
Some material is closed.
Oxford, Bodleian Libraries [followed by shelfmark and folio or page reference, where available, e.g. MS. Opie 1, fols. 1-2, or else followed by shelfmark and file or folder number, e.g. MS. Opie 47, folder 1].
Full range of shelfmarks:
MSS. Opie 1-363
Collection ID (for staff)
CMD ID 6095, 11367, 11368, 12337
Working papers of Iona Opie (1923-2017) and Peter Opie (1918-1982), folklorists and book collectors, with some personal and family papers and collected material.
Biographical / Historical
Iona Opie (1923-2017) 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 of 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 their counting out rhymes, local superstitions, cheers, slang and abbreviations, and the teachers would then send the replies to the Opies. Over the years this method evolved into encouraging the children to freely describe their games and playground activities, hobbies and preferences. 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 clippings 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 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, activity or custom. 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. Amongst many other honours and awards recognizing their work, Iona and Peter Opie both received honorary MAs from the University of Oxford in 1962.
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.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The bulk of the archive was donated by Iona Opie in various tranches between 1991 and 2006. Some additional manuscript material and ephemera were transferred to the archive from the Opie Collection of Children's Literature at the Bodleian Library in 2017.
- Catalogue of the archive of Iona and Peter Opie, c.1930-1999
- Svenja Kunze and Sarah Thiel
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Catalogued with the generous support of the Wellcome Trust
- Edition statement
- This is the third and final edition of the catalogue.