Iona Opie

Iona Opie
© Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Biography

Iona Opie (1923–present) was part of a husband-wife team of folklorists (known as ‘the Opies’) specialising in childhood culture.

Iona was born in Colchester, Essex. She attended Sandecotes School, Parkstone, and later joined the meterological section of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

She met her future husband Peter Opie after writing to him following reading his autobiography I Want to be a Success (1939). They exchanged correspondence, became friends and finally married in 1943. After the birth of their first child, James, the family were evacuated to Bedfordshire where their love for childhood folklore was sparked.

While out on a walk, a ladybird landed on their son’s finger and the couple sang a rhyme Ladybird, ladybird. According to Iona, their pondering of the meaning behind the rhyme led to a ‘treasure hunt which was to last for 40 years’ (Opie, 1988: 208).[1]

Their first major work The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951) was a collection of over 500 rhymes, songs, jingles and lullabies, together with their histories and variants. The publication won widespread acclaim for its humorous yet scholarly approach. This was followed by The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) and The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes (1963), intended for children.

The Opies conducted extensive research into contemporary children’s lore and play. Rather than turning to adults for data, they went directly to children, taking on the role of empirical researchers, as well as historical and comparative ones. Their appeal for information in a letter to The Sunday Times published on 6 November 1951, resulted in an ‘army’ of teachers across England, Wales and Scotland, who were keen to get children from their own schools involved in their study. Iona later estimated that over a period of 30 years (1950–80), they interviewed about 20,000 children.

The Opies compiled this data at their home and gradually produced their iconic titles The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959), an unrivalled collection of children’s jokes, riddles, rhymes, rituals, beliefs, and secret spells, and Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969).

In 1982 Peter died of a heart attack. Iona completed The Singing Game (1985) on her own and continued to work on the final volume they had planned, Children's Games with Things (1997). She also wrote The People in the Playground (1993), based on her fieldwork in a school in Liss, Hampshire, as well as making tape recordings of children from around the country performing songs and singing games.

Aside from their work on children's folklore, the Opies also recorded and traced back the histories of fairy tales, most notably in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974).

Throughout their lives, the couple amassed what became the largest privately-held collection of children’s books. Following Peter’s death, Iona donated the collection to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The acquisition was funded through a public appeal led by Prince Charles. The Opie Collection of Children's Literature contains 20,000 titles including books of stories and nursery rhymes, chapbooks, comics and magazines, and educational texts. These are currently accessible in microfiche form.

The Opies’ method of work signalled a shift in folklore research in the 1960s that focused on contemporary culture and fieldwork, rather than archived material. Their legacy of work on childhood culture is still considered essential reading today.

 

[1] 'Iona Opie, 1923–' Something About the Author, Autobiography, Series volume 6 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1988), pp. 203–217.

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