Tag Archives: folklore

Opie Archive: Working papers and publications material now available

The catalogues of two further series of the Opie Archive have now been completed and are available to search online here. Series B comprises the Opies’ working papers and research materials, while Series C consists of material relating to the Opies’ publications.

The first part of the working papers series contains a collection of 239 subject files, stored in 105 boxes (MSS. Opie 47-151). Compiled by Iona Opie, in the days before Excel spreadsheets, this series of subject files represents a large, analogue database of all the Opies’ research materials, which formed the basis of their published works. The files cover a range of topics, such as nursery rhymes, children’s songs, games and playground lore, as well as their historical, literary, sociological and geographical context. They contain research notes and drafts, extracts of material written by children in response to the Opies’ school surveys, newspaper cuttings, journal articles, letters from the Opies’ many correspondents, photographs, postcards and other ephemera. The subject files were added to over a number of years, largely from the 1940s to the 1980s and -’90s, although several files also include older collected material, such as extracts of material on children’s games gathered by A.S. Macmillan in 1922 and sent to the Opies by his daughter.

The Opie working files are housed in their original ‘Loxonian’ binders from circa the 1940s-1950s, which will be of interest to any connoisseurs of vintage stationary. These ingenious hardcover binders come with laces, much like shoe laces, which hold the sheets in place, and are then fastened at the front with metal spiral clips.

As far as possible, the arrangement of the files aims to reflect the Opies’ own original file order, based on their numbered or alphabetical file titles; otherwise the files are arranged chronologically, according to the publication date of the various Opie books to which the files relate. However, not all of the material collected by the Opies made it into their published books. For instance, some of the collected songs, rhymes and jokes contained in the ‘Improper’ files in MS. Opie 61, are surprisingly bawdy, and certainly could not have been included in a book like The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren back in 1959. Nevertheless, even those relatively innocent verses that did make it into this book, were too strong for some; a few amusing newspaper clippings from 1966, contained in MS. Opie 75, tell of a substitute teacher who was reprimanded after scandalised parents complained about the ‘saucy’ verses he had read aloud from the Opies’ Lore and Language book to a class of 13-year-old pupils.

Some unexpected items found inside some of the subject files included a Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut cereal box from the 1990s with a Humpty Dumpty ‘spot the differences’ puzzle on the back, contained in a file on nursery rhymes, a ring tab from a tin can in a section on ‘projectiles’ within a file on children’s activities, various football and baseball trading cards, some 1970s crisp packets, a 1980s ‘friendship pin’ created using a safety pin and colourful beads, to be worn attached to one’s shoe laces or lapel, and even some samples of grasses, from the 1960s, which children used to bind together in clusters to create miniature trees. The grass samples, which were stuck down under a sheet of cellophane, were duly examined by our Conservation department, but were fortunately pronounced safe, in archive preservation terms.

[1960s grass samples, and a 1980s ‘friendship pin’ – two unexpected items found in file ‘Activities D-G’, MS. Opie 145]

Additional material, also relating to the Opies’ work and research, which did not originally belong to their pre-existing collection of subject files, was added onto the end of the Working Papers series, but in a separate sub-series (MSS Opie 152-168). This includes material on children’s books, further research notes, scrapbooks, newspaper cuttings files, and even the Opies’ library tickets and bibliographical notes, which show the vast number of books they consulted in the course of their research.

The fruits of all this research can be seen in Series C of the Opie Archive, which contains material relating to the Opies’ publications. This material shows how Peter and Iona’s published works took shape, including manuscripts, corrections, paste-ups, and proof copies, as well as correspondence with publishers, concerning the process of planning and producing their books. The reception of these books, once they were finally released into the world, is documented in the press cuttings of book reviews, carefully saved up (one imagines, with some pride) by the Opies. Aside from their books, other Opie productions are likewise included in this series, such as various articles, lectures, exhibitions and broadcasts. Moreover, any Opie enthusiasts will be particularly interested in the tantalising glimpse of further Opie works which might have been, offered by papers relating to book proposals and publishing projects which were never realised.


Please be aware that work on the remaining Opie Archive is still ongoing, and parts of the archive will continue to become temporarily unavailable whilst preservation and cataloguing work is being carried out. We aim to accommodate urgent researchers’ requests for access wherever possible, however, if you do need to consult uncatalogued material from the Opie Archive before June 2018, please 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.


The Opie cataloguing project is generously funded 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.

Wellcome Trust logo

Supported by the Wellcome Trust

Oxfordshire folklore

A hedgehog

A very lean hedgehog, by erinac@eus – own work, Public Domain

Did you know that the fat of a hedgehog can cure deafness? Or that killing a black beetle brings on rain? Or that you should spit on the ground if you pass a pair of grey horses? Or that you can cure cramp by tucking some brimstone under your pilow?

So say the people of Oxfordshire, as recorded by Percy Manning, an antiquarian and archaeologist, in the early twentieth century.

These charms against illness and bad luck are from a series of folklore notes  which cover topics ranging from animals to ghosts, omens, weather maxims and witches, altogether a wonderful compendium of wit, wisdom, magical thinking and superstitions in Oxfordshire.

If you’d like to read them for yourself, they can be found in the Percy Manning archive at the Bodleian Library at MSS. Top. Oxon. d. 190-192.

This blog post is written as part of our project to increase the accessibility of the Bodleian's Percy Manning holdings in the run up to the centenary of Manning's death in 2017. We are grateful to the Marc Fitch Fund for its generous support of this project.