Tag Archives: childhood

Children’s Papers: Series 1 catalogue of Opie Archive now available

The cataloguing of the first series of the Opie Archive, which comprises children’s papers, as well as related correspondence from school teachers, has now been completed. The catalogue is available to search online here.

The material in the first 13 boxes spans most of the 1950s, during which time, Iona and Peter Opie were working on their book, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, which was published towards the end of 1959. They began by placing an advert in the Times Educational Supplement, seeking teachers willing to assist in their research. Those who responded, soon put the Opies in touch with further colleagues in other schools, until they had recruited a wide network of enthusiastic teachers across the country. In order to keep track of their dizzying number of correspondents, the Opies kept meticulous notes in a series of small address books, in which each contact was assigned a reference code. The material in the first 13 boxes is, therefore, arranged in order of the reference codes of those contacts who had sent in each batch of papers. The subsequent 20 boxes, following the publication of The Lore and Language, date mostly from 1960 onwards. From this point, the material is instead arranged alphabetically, by the area the material had come from – from Aberdeen to York.

The Opie address books, which hold the key to all their many correspondents

The papers, often accompanied by colourful illustrations, list the children’s favourite counting out and skipping rhymes, describe games such as ball games, chasing games and marbles, explain slang terms and expressions currently in use, recount the latest playground fads and crazes, and outline various traditions, superstitions and other playground lore that have been passed down to them. Some of the games described would make modern-day readers flinch, such as the popular game “Knifey”, which involves throwing a pocket knife to stick in the ground near the opponent’s leg. The children’s papers are usually prefaced by a note from their teacher, often apologising for spelling mistakes in their pupils’ work, and sometimes recalling their own childhood songs and games. The teachers’ insights are often particularly interesting, such as when one teacher observes that the few English-language songs and rhymes known to the children in their predominantly Welsh-speaking school in Ruthin, north Wales, appear to be the legacy left by children from Liverpool, who had been evacuated there during the war.

The series also includes a sub-section of material received from sources other than schools, such as from fellow researchers working in the same field as the Opies, or a collection of local rhymes and songs from across Scotland, gathered by the editors of the Aberdeen Press and Journal newspaper. This section also includes ten boxes of children’s essays submitted to the Camberwell Public Libraries Essay Competition, passed on to the Opies by Camberwell’s Chief Librarian. These competition entries provide a fascinating glimpse into the children’s thoughts and lives. The essays are very clearly rooted in their time, which is apparent not only through the 1950s and ’60s hairstyles and fashions, discernible in some of the charming, childish illustrations, but also in the children’s responses to essay topics such as “What I want to be when I leave school”, in which all the girls aspire to be nurses, dressmakers and typists, while their male counterparts seek to become firemen, policemen and train drivers. Other interesting responses were elicited by the 1955 essay title “A visit to the moon” – some children setting their stories firmly in the realm of fantasy, imagining being transported to the moon by fairies or goblins, while others wrote of rocket ships, but set their stories in the far distant year 3000, little imagining that the moon landing could become a reality in just over a decade’s time.

Shiny, new, archive boxes, all labelled up and barcoded!

To begin with, the bundles of papers were mostly still packaged in the same old, brown envelopes in which they had been stored by the Opies. Part of our task, in order to preserve the material long-term, was to remove all the harmful fasteners that could cause damage to the papers over time, such as rusty paperclips, pins and staples, as well as brittle, dried-up elastic bands. The papers could then be repackaged into standard, acid-free archive folders and boxes. In those instances where whole batches of papers had been folded or rolled up within their envelopes, the process of unfurling and flattening them to lie safely and neatly in their archive folders, was rather time-consuming.

Some of the rusty fasteners, removed from the Opie schools material

Our final task was foliation – which means physically numbering all the individual leaves (or “folios”) in each box, in pencil, so that the original order of the pages will never become muddled. The foliation process demanded sustained concentration, as it was all too easy to either miscount or accidently skip a page, especially given that the leaves in each bundle were all different sizes. Once such an error is discovered, all the subsequent numbers in the sequence are then, of course, likewise out of sync – a highly frustrating occurrence which we sought to avoid! In total, we numbered over 24 and a half thousand leaves across 46 boxes.

The Opie cataloguing project is generously funded by the Wellcome Trust. While the catalogue of this first series has now been completed, please note that work on the remaining Opie Archive is still ongoing, and sequences of the Opie Archive will continue to become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation, cataloguing and digitisation work is being carried out. We will try to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, however, if you need to consult material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please do ensure that you contact us with as much advance notice as possible, so that we can advise on the availability of the material in question and make any necessary arrangements.

Supported by the Wellcome Trust

Nursery rhymes, childhood folklore, and play: The archive of Iona and Peter Opie

Iona and Peter Opie 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, and over more than four decades, they extended their research into many other areas of children’s culture, including children’s language, customs and beliefs, play and games. 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.

Iona and Peter Opie in the playground

The Opies were avid collectors, and over the decades amassed one of the world’s largest collections of children’s books and printed ephemara, covering children’s literature from the 16th to the 20th century. The Opie Collection of Children’s Literature – over 20,000 pieces – was donated to the Bodleian Library in 1988.
But for their research in children’s culture the Opies not only relied on books published for children. They also wanted to collect the oral traditions of childhood – the rhymes, songs and games, the language and customs of the playground – and,  quite a new approach at the time, they wanted to collect these from the children themselves.

In November 1951, the Opies placed an advert in the Sunday Times, asking for help from teachers in collecting children’s lore and language, the idea being that schoolchildren answered a set of questions about counting out rhymes, local superstitions, cheers, slang and abbreviations, and send in  the ‘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 all over the UK, often with accompanying letters by 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.

From the Opie Archive: One of 38 boxes of children’s letters

Box contents: Letters bundled by school – the Opies’ number referencing system in place.

To process and analyse their data, the Opies developed a daily work routine: Iona Opie would sort and analyse the incoming information and compile working material, adding survey responses, secondary literature and bibliographical notes. Peter Opie would then write up the results in a first draft, on which Iona would comment on the basis of her data, and so on. This produced an ever-expanding system  of sheet files – each one relating to a particular game or activity, with Iona’s rigorous approach to research data management (… this was long before databases and spreadsheets!) being crucial to keeping physical and intellectual control of the complex and extensive collection of research material.

From the c. 300 Opie working files, or as Iona Opie commented: “we have no memories, we have only filing system”.

The  original children’s papers and teachers’ correspondence, along with the working files, form the core of the Opie Archive, which has been transferred from Iona and Peter Opie’s home and ‘research headquarters’ in West Liss, Hampshire, to the Bodleian Library in various tranches since the 1990s. The archive – a total of 248 boxes – has been in use by researchers, but with only basic finding aids available it was difficult to navigate for anyone who did not know exactly what they were looking for.
Whilst the children’s papers, working files and professional correspondence are still very well organised in the original Opie filing system, other parts of the archive – materials relating to the Opies’ publications such as drafts and notes for books, and an extensive series of  personal papers and memorabilia, diaries and family correspondence – remain unsorted, uncatalogued and thus largely inaccessible to researchers.

Some of the boxes containing Peter Mason Opie’s [P.M.O.] personal papers and correspondence, as well as the manuscript of his first autobiographical book ‘I Want to be a Success’, published in 1939.

To open up the full research potential of the Opie Archive, a cataloguing project has started with the generous support of the Wellcome Trust. Over the next 16 months, we will sort and describe the archive to professional standards, consider questions of copyright and data protection, and address any conservation needs. We aim to release part-catalogues as work progresses through the series of the collection, with the final, complete catalogue becoming available in June 2018.

The first weeks of the project have flown by with stock taking and project planning, working from existing lists to get an overview of the content and structure of the archive, assessing the physical status, thinking about the future arrangement of the collection, and developing a detailed working plan.
Not least, there was a lot of background reading to do, to get an idea of the Opies’ lives and work, and provide the context of the archives material we are dealing with.

Lists and books, books and lists – it’s an archivist’s life! But not many people get to read fairy tales and playground stories for their work, so I won’t complain…

Please note that whilst we will try 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 as much advance notice as possible, so we can advise on the availability of the material in question and make the necessary arrangements.

In the meantime, we will keep you updated with further blog posts on the progress of the cataloguing work, and make sure to share some stories from the Opies’ fascinating world of childhood games and nursery rhymes.

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Supported by the Wellcome Trust