Opie, Iona and Peter

Iona Opie (b. 1923) and Peter Mason Opie (1918–1982) were British collectors, publishers, and archivists of children's folklore. Peter Opie was president of the anthropology section of the British Association in 1962–1963 and of the British Folklore Society in 1963–1964. The husband-and-wife team began their research together in 1944. Their first major work was The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951; 2nd edition, 1997), a collection of more than five hundred rhymes, songs, nonsense jingles, and lullabies. For each item the known facts about origin, variants, non-English equivalents, and earlier publication are stated. In the introduction, the Opies outline a suggestion for a general categorization of children's rhymes. This volume stands out as one of the standard collections of English-language children's rhymes.

The path-breaking The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) efficiently refuted the idea that the growing impact of mass media and the entertainment industry would inevitably extinguish children's own, genuine traditions. Leaving the parent-guarded nurseries behind, this unexpurgated collection of jokes, riddles, rhymes, rituals, beliefs, and secret spells provides a vivid testimony of multitudinous children's traditions thriving in streets and school yards. The material is grouped into categories and presented together with folkloristic and historical comments, as well as international comparisons.

Unlike many of their predecessors, the Opies collected schoolchildren's lore directly from six- to fourteen-year-olds and not from adults reminiscing about their own childhood traditions. Their method of work foreshadowed a paradigm shift in folklore research in the 1960s that emphasized the study of contemporary folklore and fieldwork among representatives of a culture rather than text analyses of archival material. They conducted large-scale surveys during the 1950s and 1960s, with contributions from 135 state schools throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, and tape-recorded children in playgrounds all over Britain during the 1970s. The mass of information collected provided material for a further three books, all on children's games: Children's Games in Street and Playground (1969), The Singing Game (1985), and Children's Games with Things (1997), the last two of which Iona Opie produced after her husband's death, as well as publishing her own playground observations as The People in the Playground (1993). Aside from their work on children's folklore the Opies also dealt with FAIRY TALES, most notably in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974). The Opies' in-spiring example contributed to the emergence of children's folklore as a thriving field of research within folklore studies.

The Opie Collection of Children's Literature, housed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was originated by the Opies as a private research library in 1944. Upon Peter Opie's death in 1982, Iona Opie decided to place the collection, then amounting to twenty thousand titles, in a public institution. The transfer to the Bodleian library was made possible by a national fund-raising campaign (led by Prince Charles) and by Opie's donation of half the collection. The largest single category is made up of twelve thousand bound volumes of children's stories and nursery rhymes. Other substantial categories include primers, alphabets and other instruction books, chapbooks, comics, and children's magazines. Some eight hundred of the titles were published before 1800, including among other rare books a 1706 edition of The Arabian Nights and an early printing of Robinson Crusoe. The collection is accessible to the public in microfiche form.

See also: Children's Literature; Theories of Childhood; Theories of Play.


Opie, Iona. 1993. The People in the Playground. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. 1959. The Lore and Language of School-children. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. 1997 [1951]. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.