Peter Opie

Peter and Iona Opie skipping

Biography

Peter Opie (1918–82) was part of a husband-wife team of folklorists (known as ‘the Opies’) specialising in childhood culture.

Peter was born in Cairo, Egypt where his father served as an army doctor. After completing his education at Eton College, Peter enrolled in the army at the start of World War Two but was invalidated. Following a series of jobs including working for the BBC and for a publisher, he became a full-time writer.

Peter developed a friendship with his future wife Iona Margaret Balfour Archibald after receiving a letter from her about his book I Want to be a Success (1939), before marrying her in 1943. The couple had three children.

After winning the Chosen Book competition with his autobiography The Case of being a Young Man (1946), Peter decided to put his proceeds towards abandoning his job and devoting his life to the study of children’s folk culture with Iona.

Together, they worked towards creating a definitive study of nursery rhymes, along with their histories and variants. This resulted in their first major work The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), which won praise for its scholarly yet humorous style. They also produced two collections for children The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (1955) and The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes (1963).

Peter went on to become president of the anthropology section of the British Association from 1962–93, and of the British Folklore Society from 1963–64.

The Opies also carried out in-depth research into children’s games and language, with a focus on contemporary fieldwork on children, rather than relying on recollections from adults. Their letter to The Sunday Times published on 6 November 1951 resulted in a deluge of teachers across England, Wales and Scotland keen to get their pupils to contribute towards their research. Between 1950–80, they were in touch with approximately 20,000 children.

Based on this data, they gradually produced their now-classic books The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) and Children’s Games in Street and Playground (1969).

The Opies were also celebrated for recording and tracing back the histories of fairy tales, most notably in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974).

Peter died of a heart attack in 1982 while they were working on a volume about singing games. Iona finished The Singing Game (1985) on her own, as well as writing several other books including Children's Games with Things (1997) and The People in the Playground (1993).

Following Peter’s death, Iona donated their extensive collection of children’s books to the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The Opie Collection of Children's Literature contains 20,000 titles – one of the richest collections of children’s literature, toys and games.

Together with his wife, Peter helped to establish children's folklore as a serious area of study and their titles are still regarded as essential reading today.

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