Iona and Peter Opie

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Iona Margaret Balfour Opie, CBE, FBA (13 October 1923 – 23 October 2017)[1] and Peter Mason Opie (25 November 1918 – 5 February 1982) were an English married team of folklorists who applied modern techniques to children's literature, summarised in their studies The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) and The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959). They were also noted anthologists, and assembled large collections of children's literature, toys, and games.

The Opies' collection of children's books and ephemera ranges from the 16th to 20th centuries and includes an extensive library of children's literature. It was posthumously donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. The “Opie Collection of Children's Games and Songs” is an archive of audiotapes donated to the British Library.


Iona Margaret Balfour Archibald was born in Colchester, Essex, England. She was a researcher and writer on folklore and children's street culture.[2] She is considered an authority on children's rhymes, street and playground games and the Mother Goose tradition. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 1998 and was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1999.[3]

Peter Opie was born in Cairo in the war-time British Protectorate or Sultanate of Egypt and was educated at Eton College. He was a specialist in children's literature and the customs of schoolchildren.[4] He was joint winner of the £1,000 Chosen Books competition, with his autobiographical discursion The Case of Being a Young Man (published in paperback, 1946).[5]

The couple met during World War II and married on 2 September 1943.[6] The couple worked together closely, from their home near Farnham, Surrey, conducting primary fieldwork, library research, and interviews of thousands of children. In pursuing the folklore of contemporary childhood they directly recorded rhymes and games in real time as they were being sung, chanted, or played. Working from their home in Alton, Hampshire they collaborated on several celebrated books and produced over 30 works. The couple were jointly awarded the Coote Lake Medal in 1960.[3] The medal is awarded by The Folklore Society "for outstanding research and scholarship".[7]

Peter Opie died on 5 February 1982 at home, Westerfield House, West Liss, Hampshire.[4]

Cathy Courtney conducted an oral-history interview (C968/139) with Iona Opie in 1989 for the Cathy Courtney Oral History Collection held by the British Library.[8]

Speaking in 2010, Iona speaks of working with her husband as being "like two of us in a very small boat and each had an oar and we were trying to row across the Atlantic." and that "[W]e would never discuss ideas verbally except very late at night."[9]

The 1959 book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren was meant to counter the argument that mass media and the entertainment industry had ruined childhood traditions.[10]

Opie Collections[edit]

The Opies' collection of children's books and ephemera covers the 16th to 20th century and is the richest library of children's literature. It was begun in 1944, amounting in the end to 20,000 pieces. During 1988, it was donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, after a two-year public appeal raised the £500,000 cost.[11] The collection is available on microfiche.[12]

The Opie Collection of Children's Games and Songs is an archive of audiotapes donated to the British Library in 1998. It contains fieldwork recordings of children's play made by Iona Opie between 1969 and 1983, as research for The Singing Game about singing games.[13] The collection was digitised and made publicly available online as part of a research collaboration with the British Library and the University of Sheffield, led by the UCL Institute of Education.

Selected works[edit]

They authored about 25 books[14] including:

  • Peter Opie, author, 1946, The Case of Being a Young Man, a discursion (Chosen Books, competition prize winner)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, collectors and editors, 1947. I Saw Esau: Traditional Rhymes of Youth (Williams & Norgate Ltd)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, editors, 1951. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1959, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Oxford University Press)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1963, The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes (Penguin/Puffin)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1969, Children's Games in Street and Playground (Oxford University Press)
  • Iona and Peter Opie, editors, 1974. The Classic Fairy Tales (Oxford University Press). Presents the texts of twenty-four familiar fairy tales as they were first published in English; summarises the history of each tale, especially from the textual point of view.
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1985. The Singing Game (Oxford University Press).
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1988. Tail Feathers of Mother Goose (Little Brown & Company).
  • Iona and Peter Opie, 1997. Children's Games with Things (Oxford University Press).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Iona Opie", The Times, 27 October 2017, retrieved 5 November 2017
  2. ^ Horwell, Veronica (26 October 2017). "Iona Opie obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 March 2020.
  3. ^ a b "OPIE, Iona Margaret Balfour". Who's Who 2015. Oxford University Press. November 2014. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  4. ^ a b "Obituary, Mr Peter Opie", The Times, p. 10, 8 February 1982
  5. ^ Peter Opie, The Case of Being a Young Man, Chosen Books, 1946.
  6. ^ "Opie, Iona (1923—) – Dictionary definition of Opie, Iona (1923—) – FREE online dictionary".
  7. ^ "The Coote Lake Medal". The Folklore Society. Retrieved 13 October 2015.
  8. ^ The British Library, 'Opie, Iona (1 of 6) Cathy Courtney Oral History Collection', The British Library Board, 1989. Retrieved 1 February 2018
  9. ^ "News and Features | Open University". Retrieved 5 August 2011.
  10. ^ Aesolomv Ilaeazih, Artford Seminary Foundation (1961). "The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Book Review)". American Anthropologist. 63 (3): 653–654. doi:10.1525/aa.1961.63.3.02a00520.
  11. ^ Waldron, Ann (20 November 1988). "Collector of Nursery Rhymes Is Closing The Book on an Era From The Glimpse of a Ladybird, A British Couple's Longtime Career Was Born". Philadelphia Daily News. H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. Retrieved 15 January 2015.
  12. ^ "The Opie Collection of Children's Literature". Archived from the original on 18 January 2015. Retrieved 15 January 2015 – via ProQuest.
  13. ^ Opie and Opie, Peter and Iona. The Singing Game. Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ "Childhoods and Play". Opie Project Group, University of Sheffield. Retrieved 15 January 2015.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gillian Avery and Julia Briggs, editors, 1989. Children and Their Books: A Celebration of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford University Press)
  • Michael Grosvenor Myer The Children's Child, an interview with Peter and Iona Opie, Folk Review magazine July 1974
  • Bishop, Julia C. The Working Papers of Iona and Peter Opie. Oral Tradition, 2013, 28:2, p. 205-216 doi=10.1353/ort.2013.0012

External links[edit]