Tag Archives: Iona Opie

Are you going a little ‘Brumas’? The Opie Archive opens a window onto a 1950s phenomenon

The cataloguing of the Opie Archive of school-children’s play, lore and language is yielding some fascinating examples of playground terminology. Some is familiar from our own childhoods but one contribution from Sale County Grammar School for Boys dating from the early 1950s had us puzzled. The contributor had submitted the word ‘Brumas’, translating it as ‘a little bear on top – a bald man’.  Our confusion was compounded by further information from the child’s teacher and Opie correspondent who indicated the presence of some punning word-play, ‘A bald man – Brumas (the “Bare”)’. It took some 21st-century web-surfing to shed light on this bald spot in our knowledge.

So who, or what, was Brumas? Our search for the answer opened a window onto a phenomenon of the early 1950s – the first ever polar bear cub born at London Zoo in 1949. Although a female bear cub, the press had reported that the bear was male. Given her portmanteau moniker through the combining of her keepers’ names (Bruce and Sam), Brumas was a sensation. Her presence at London Zoo boosted visitor numbers as members of the public flocked to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. A report from The Observer newspaper in April 1950 records people standing ‘in solid blocks’ around the polar bear enclosure from 9am to 7pm to catch a glimpse of ‘the baby’, as this clip shows:

The cataloguing of the Opie Archive of school-children’s play, lore and language is yielding some fascinating examples of playground terminology. Some is familiar from our own childhoods but one contribution from Sale County Grammar School for Boys dating from the early 1950s had us puzzled. The contributor had submitted the word ‘Brumas’, translating it as ‘a little bear on top – a bald man’.  Our confusion was compounded by further information from the child’s teacher and Opie correspondent who indicated the presence of some punning word-play, ‘A bald man – Brumas (the “Bare”)’. It took some 21st-century web-surfing to shed light on this bald spot in our knowledge.

So who, or what, was Brumas? Our search for the answer opened a window onto a phenomenon of the early 1950s – the first ever polar bear cub born at London Zoo in 1949. Although a female bear cub, the press had reported that the bear was male. Given her portmanteau moniker through the combining of her keepers’ names (Bruce and Sam), Brumas was a sensation. Her presence at London Zoo boosted visitor numbers as members of the public flocked to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. A report from The Observer newspaper in April 1950 records people standing ‘in solid blocks’ around the polar bear enclosure from 9am to 7pm to catch a glimpse of ‘the baby’, as this clip shows:

Not only a celebrity bear, Brumas was also a brand, with books, toys (such as this mohair model of Brumas and her mother Ivy held at the V&A Museum of Childhood), and even soap manufactured in her image. Her popularity also made her the subject of song, as this cabaret performance demonstrates. Not surprisingly, Brumas became a national phenomenon. Sir Michael Palin remarks in his 1992 account of his travels from ‘Pole to Pole’ that he is keen to see a polar bear, having been ‘brought up on Brumas’.

Equipped with this knowledge we’re now able to interpret this multi-layered archive entry. The joke rests in the use of the homophones ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ and relies on the widespread awareness of bear-of-the-moment Brumas, who came to public attention via popular media and commercial influences. Perhaps too, the widespread assumption in the media that Brumas was male affirmed the connection with male pattern baldness.

We will never know who the unfortunate ‘Brumas’ of Sale was and are as yet unclear whether the epithet was common or confined to this area. However, this data demonstrates how assemblages can act as a prompt for our own cultural responses, informed here by the ‘desire for fun’ that the Opies observed as embedded in schoolchildren’s language, with nicknames an exemplar (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959, p. 154). In this case, Brumas’ fame became a stimulus for playful use of language that now, at this historical distance, recalls an event that impacted on the national consciousness.  Brumas died in 1958, but her linguistic legacy lives on in the Opie Archive.

Not only a celebrity bear, Brumas was also a brand, with books, toys (such as this mohair model of Brumas and her mother Ivy held at the V&A Museum of Childhood), and even soap manufactured in her image. Her popularity also made her the subject of song, as this cabaret performance demonstrates. Not surprisingly, Brumas became a national phenomenon. Sir Michael Palin remarks in his 1992 account of his travels from ‘Pole to Pole’ that he is keen to see a polar bear, having been ‘brought up on Brumas’.

Teacher’s letter to the Opies (cropped). Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol. 146v

Equipped with this knowledge we’re now able to interpret this multi-layered archive entry. The joke rests in the use of the homophones ‘bear’ and ‘bare’ and relies on the widespread awareness of bear-of-the-moment Brumas, who came to public attention via popular media and commercial influences. Perhaps too, the widespread assumption in the media that Brumas was male affirmed the connection with male pattern baldness.

We will never know who the unfortunate ‘Brumas’ of Sale was and are as yet unclear whether the epithet was common or confined to this area. However, this data demonstrates how assemblages can act as a prompt for our own cultural responses, informed here by the ‘desire for fun’ that the Opies observed as embedded in schoolchildren’s language, with nicknames an exemplar (The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, 1959, p. 154). In this case, Brumas’ fame became a stimulus for playful use of language that now, at this historical distance, recalls an event that impacted on the national consciousness.  Brumas died in 1958, but her linguistic legacy lives on in the Opie Archive.

 

Header image: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, MS. Opie 1 fol.143r

Playing the Archive Visits the Bodleian Library

The newly-appointed cataloguers joining the Sheffield team, Alison Somerset-Ward and Cath Bannister, accompanied by Helen Woolley, Julia Bishop and Steve Roud, recently got a taste of the task ahead during a visit to the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library to view documents from the Opie archive.

Helen Woolley with Sarah Thiel from the Bodleian Library

The team members were warmly welcomed by Bodleian project archivists Svenja Kunze and Sarah Thiel, creators of the Opie archive finding aid funded by the Wellcome Trust. Svenja and Sarah shared their own experiences of cataloguing the material and their growing sense of familiarity with Iona and Peter Opie’s distinct characters as their work progressed.

The Sheffield team were delighted to be able to view the original materials, which included some of the children’s papers, teacher correspondence, and the Opies’ working files on an array of subjects – from ‘pavement lore’ and the consequences of treading on cracks, to rhymes romantic and otherwise for Valentines’ cards, including light-hearted instructions to the postman. Of particular interest were the Opies’ questionnaire templates which were a key means of data collection.

The visit helped make the team more aware of the human stories behind the Opies’ remarkable collection, their contributions, all in different handwriting, bringing alive the variety of people who were involved.

Banner image: Archive of Iona and Peter Opie, Bodleian Libraries, MS. Opie 90.

Iona Opie (1923-2017)

A great many of us ‘met’ Iona first through the numerous books she published, both jointly with Peter, and on her own part. They were a highly readable and vivid reminder of our own personal childhoods, as well as works of meticulous scholarship and new insights.

These pioneering works cover nursery rhymes, children’s literature, and the cultural traditions of childhood, especially those of play. They had a huge sphere of influence, inspiring and informing practitioners such as teachers, playworkers, architects and librarians, academics of many disciplines, and general audiences.

Iona came to the University of Sheffield in 1998 as guest of honour at The State of Play conference, organised by the National Centre for English Cultural Tradition. She had just published the last of the joint books, Children’s Games with Things, and was at the end of a career lasting over 50 years as a researcher into the worlds of young people. No wonder her talk was entitled ‘A Lifetime in the Playground’. (Click here to hear a recording or to read the transcript.)

Iona Opie in 1997 © Norman McBeath

Iona made a distinctive contribution to the work of ‘the Opies’, even as she juggled being a wife and a mother, maintaining her integrity throughout. She was also a correspondent par excellence. Her letters evidence the generous support which she extended to fellow researchers, her enthusiasm for the fine detail, and her fundamental humanity.

Iona leaves the immense legacy of her work and the inspiration of her life.

The ‘Playing the Archive’ project research team are honoured to be working on the Opie archival collection. We look forward to understanding more about the Opies’ work and building on the field that Iona and Peter did so much to establish.

 

Obituaries

The Guardian, 25 October 2017  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/25/iona-opie-obituary

The Telegraph, 26 October 2017  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2017/10/26/iona-opie-investigated-lore-language-games-schoolchildren-obituary/

The Times, 27 October 2017 https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/iona-opie-obituary-r3mn9qgtq

The Independent, 29 October 2017 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/iona-opie-amateur-scholar-behind-the-oxford-dictionary-of-nursery-rhymes-a8021231.html

The New York Times, 30 October 2017  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/iona-opie-amateur-scholar-behind-the-oxford-dictionary-of-nursery-rhymes-a8021231.html

The Wall Street Journal, 3 November 2017 https://www.wsj.com/articles/iona-opie-devoted-her-life-to-exploring-childrens-games-and-rhymes-1509719401

The Washington Post, 4 November 2017 https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/iona-opie-scholarly-explorer-of-the-lore-and-customs-of-childhood-dies-at-94/2017/11/04/29373164-c173-11e7-959c-fe2b598d8c00_story.html?utm_term=.82f754169168

 

Select Bibliography

Bishop, J. ‘The Lives and Legacies of Iona and Peter Opie’, International Journal of Play, 3 (2014), 205–23.

Boyes, G. 1995. ‘The Legacy of the Work of Iona and Peter Opie: The Lore and Language of Today’s Children’, In Rhyme, Reason and Writing. Ed. by Roger Beard. London: Hodder and Stoughton, pp. 131-46.

Jopson, L., A. Burn, and J. Robinson. 2014. The Opie Recordings: What’s Left to be Heard? In Children’s Games in the New Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. Ed. by Andrew Burn and Chris Richards. Farnham: Ashgate.