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Sally go round the moon!

Did you know that, according to Swansea schoolchildren, ‘Sally’ was going round the moon (and the sun, and the stars) back in 1952, years before Buzz and Neil set foot on its surface? With the anniversary of the first moon landing upon us we’re catching a passing sputnik to explore some lunar lore. And through children’s contributions stored in the Archive of Iona and Peter Opie at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, we’re learning that the moon loomed large over the playground in the 1950s.

Students at Glanmor Secondary School for Girls in Swansea who submitted the words of their game to the Opies weren’t alone in singing about a mysterious Sally making visits to the moon. A pupil at Sale County Grammar School for Boys c.1951-1953 reported a similar rhyme which ran:

Sally go round the sun

Sally go round the moon

Sally go round the chimney tops

On a Sunday afternoon.

(MS Opie 1 fol. 153r).


The rhyme goes back to at least the 1880s and is known in many parts of the English-speaking world. The writer H. E. Bates heard it used by girls for swinging under lamp-posts in the 1910s.

Lunar language also made its way into the popular pastime of skipping. In response to questionnaire queries from the Opies about special skipping terminology, one child from Dovenby School near Cockermouth in around 1952 replied with a skipping game called ‘Over the moon and under the stars’ (MS. Opie 9 fol. 210r) in which players had to run through the turning rope. The game was known as ‘’Under the moony and over the girdle’ in parts of Scotland, and in some cases was turned into a rhyme:

Under the moon and over the stars

How many miles is here to Mars?

Five, ten….


The moon also had meaning that went beyond games, however, and we have been coming across examples of well-known superstitions relating to the moon during our cataloguing work. Looking at a full moon through a window was thought to bring bad luck, while a ‘circle of yellowish light’ around the moon signalled bad weather brewing. Yet the moon could also be a way to harness good luck, by turning over the silver coins in your pocket on seeing the new moon.

In 1969, the year of the moon landing, the Opies published their book on Children’s Games in Street and Playground. In it, they wrote about pretending games, in which children ‘re-present, as if they were newsreels, the more spectacular national events’. What impact did the ‘giant leap for mankind’ and the Space Race have on children’s games of the time? If your own games included the moon, stars, aliens or visits to distant galaxies, why not let us know?

The Time Telephone

One of the aims of the Playing the Archive project is to activate the extensive Opie Archive in playful interactive installations.  This has led to the development of the Time Telephone, an installation that explores new forms of tangible and multi-sensory interfaces to communicate and preserve the fragile and ephemeral cultural memories of play. 


Users are invited to step into the telephone box and use an original rotary phone to call children from around the country and hear about their play adventures. The Time Telephone explores the potentiality of the kiosk to trigger contrasting experiences among visitors: older generations will find themselves plunged into a familiar activity of the past (the use of the rotary phone) that will likely trigger childhood memories;  younger generations will discover games of the past by using (or rather playing with) an unknown interface, nowadays replaced by smartphones.


At the centre of this installation is a replica of the red telephone kiosk K6 originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott customised at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) at University College London. The lightweight replica is moveable allowing it to be installed in different locations. The kiosk K6 has become an iconic symbol of the British streetscape. Historically, the kiosks were equipped with rotary phones, which are now almost completely unknown to younger generations.  In the museum space, the kiosk becomes a tangible and multisensory interface that allows the visitors to access a selection of the archival material created by the Opies (currently stored at the British Library in “The Opie Collection of Children’s Games and Songs“) and a series of recent recordings made by the Playing the Archive research group with children at schools in London, Sheffield, Cardiff and Aberdeen.


Inside the kiosk is an original GPO 746 rotary phone fitted with a RaspberryPi B+ (a small single-board computer).  The program installed on the RaspberryPi creates a list of the audio recordings stored on an SD card and decodes the pulses from the rotary dial.  When the visitor picks up the phone a dial tone is played (historical sample recordings of the dial tone are used to provide continuity in the experience).  The visitor can then pick a number to dial from the telephone directory inside the phone booth.


If the user dials a number that matches one of the audio recordings stored in the phone, a child’s voice reads out the number that has just been dialled. The corresponding audio file is then played from the handset and from a loudspeaker on the ceiling of the phone booth, which allows more that one person to interact with the installation at a time (for example a child and parent). The sound stops playing when the user hangs up or if the user dials a new number. If the user dials a number that does not match any of the audio recordings, a recorded voice asks them to hang up and try again.


One Time Telephone was installed at the Site Gallery in Sheffield for the Children’s Media Conference and Sense of Play event at the end of June.  The other is in place in the entrance hall of the V&A Museum of Childhood where it has been since the 15th of April.  It has proved a very popular installation with an average of about 60 calls being made per day.  This, of course, does not include the equally important (but less easily quantifiable) calls being made by our younger visitors to imaginary friends and family!


The Time Telephone will be open for calls during the Festival of Play at the V&A Museum of Childhood this weekend.

A Sense of Play

Join the Playing the Archive team from 11am to 4pm on Saturday 29 June at ‘A Sense of Play’ – a fun day of classic and new games for families at a temporary outdoor playground in Sheffield city centre.

Site Gallery

Site Square in Sheffield (Photo: Alison Somerset-Ward)

Site Square, opposite contemporary art space Site Gallery, will host a packed day of traditional and brand new games like Spiders Revenge, Dodgeball Rush and Master Spinner, created by Sheffield schoolchildren and Paperfinch Theatre.

Inspired by the work of the Opies, ‘A Sense of Play’ will be a day of experimentation and play that invites people of all ages to help us turn Site Square into an outdoor playground.

Site Gallery 2

Photo: Alison Somerset-Ward

Badge making

Badge designed by Alison Somerset-Ward (Photo: Catherine Bannister)

Visitors will be able to drop in and join the hunt for special symbols across the square, using their phones to unlock secret stories and myths.  We will also be inviting people to share stories of play at a Memory Station and to use their imaginations to invent new games.  Players will take home a pack of special playing cards developed by the Playing the Archive team which feature secret messages left by children from the past.

Time telephone Sheffield

The Time Telephone (Photo: Valerio Signorelli)


Alison Somerset-Ward has designed a series of badges featuring children’s language from the Opie archive, which people will be able to make on the day.  The event will also host one of Playing the Archive’s Time Telephones, an installation which invites visitors to step inside and call the past to hear stories, games and rhymes from children around the country!


Archive films featuring children’s play from the 1950s will be screened inside the Site Gallery’s Project Space with Kollective Coffee and Kitchen at Site Gallery serving hot and cold refreshments throughout the day.Accessible toilets and baby changing facilities are also available inside Site Gallery.  Pay and display parking is available nearby on Brown Street and Sidney Street, and multi-storey car parks on Arundal Gate and the Moor.


Please share this event with anyone who may be interested, it is free and open to all!

Playing the Archive begins Motion Capture work

The Playing the Archive team have been busy working on sound recording and motion capture for the interactive elements of the project. Children from schools in London, Sheffield, and Aberdeen were recorded reading out children’s descriptions of games from the Opie archive.

These descriptions will be used as part of an interactive ‘Time Telephone’ that will be displayed at the V&A Museum of Childhood and other locations around the UK. The CASA team also used motion capture equipment with the children to create a virtual avatar which will be used as part of our interactive Clapping Hero game, where users will be able to hone their clapping skills with the avatar.

Playing the Archive team present their work

On October 26 at the British Academy, the Playing the Archive team held its first interim conference, with a number of members of the Advisory Board in attendance.

Courtesy of @dylanyamadarice

After an introductory presentation by Andrew Burn, who talked about the project’s emerging themes of memory, nostalgia, continuity and change, and the structures of time and space, Julia Bishop and Cath Bannister offered an introduction to Iona and Peter Opie’s historical archive. Their presentation focused in particular on the Opies’ surveys as a means of better understanding their research methods. Afterwards, Cath and Alison Somerset-Ward offered an inventive account of the archive as an interactive ‘box of delights’, whose many-faceted exploration of the archive fascinated our attendees. Steve Roud then rounded off the morning session with a discussion of the challenges of creating a classification scheme for the Opie archive.

Box of Delights. Photo courtesy of @shelleuk

In the afternoon Jackie Marsh looked at the palimpsests of play across two projects conducted at a nine-year interval, drawing on social anthropology and new materialism to illustrate the mutually reinforcing relationship between children and their playground environments. This was followed by a fascinating presentation by John Potter and Kate Cowan, who looked at how children remediate popular culture (in particular YouTube), and how the use of GoPro cameras, 360 degree video and iPads offer a variety of perspectives for researchers of children’s play. John introduced us to the ways that the VAR technology showcased during the 2018 World Cup has made its way into playground games of football, and how ‘Neymar’ has now become a synonym for unconvincing play acting.

The team from CASA, Duncan Hay, Valerio Signorelli and Andy Hudson-Smith then presented their experiments in re-purposing old or obsolete technology as a means of engaging the public with the Opies’ work, and asked how these evocative, sensorially-rich technologies might constitute an ‘interface’ to memory. Finally, Helen Woolley drew on the Opies’ The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959) to look at the calendar of play, and the distinct temporalities of time (daily, weekly, seasonal) that they revealed. In a tasty conclusion to the event, she offered the attendees a home-baked ‘soul cake’, a small cake made to remember the dead on All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. It provided a tasty conclusion to a wonderful day of discussion. Thank you to the Advisory Board for all their useful and far-reaching comments!

Mathias Poulsen, an advisory board member, has written a blog post with his comments, which you can read here.

Cataloguing by the Book

The Sheffield cataloguing team are currently constructing the Place Name Authority in their catalogue of the Iona and Peter Opie Archive. The authority establishes a consistent way for these places to be referenced in the archive. Once created, it will allow end users of the digital archive to search for information by place and enable the mapping of items of children’s folklore. Those familiar with the Opies’ books will recall the engaging maps they contain charting the distribution of such specifics as ‘spitting death’ and truce terms.

Cover of Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles

In order to include the locations of the schools from which the Opies drew much of their data, we have needed to hit the books this week, to ensure that future users will be able to search for games and rhymes in places whose locations have altered – on paper at least – since the Opies first began collecting.  Legislative changes to county boundaries since the Opies began their survey will impact on users of the digital archive searching for the childlore of a perhaps now obsolete area, or alternatively searching in a county incorporating places which were historically ‘elsewhere’. To address this, the digital archive will contain details of a place’s current county, and its county around the time data was collected.

The weighty volume pictured is Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles, a topographical dictionary first published in the 1800s and regularly updated, and which features condensed but detailed information on the cities, towns and villages of Britain and Ireland. The edition currently proving its worth to the cataloguing team is a 1966 reprint of the 1943 edition, including additional amendments and entries from the year of its publication. While it’s second nature to turn to web for information these days, this compendium, contemporaneous with the period when the Opies were collecting, is helping us to identify the relevant counties. It’s the kind of reference book that we’re sure would also have been on the Opies’ bookshelf!

We are turning to the web to include longitude and latitude for each of the cities, towns and villages represented in the archive. These will amplify access to the rich and varied data gathered by the Opies and their ‘army’ of correspondents and collaborators.

A further task currently underway is the establishing of controlled vocabularies for defining attributes of the documents and the children’s folklore items contained within them.  Joining the team last week in Sheffield was project consultant Steve Roud, a respected folklorist, writer and creator of the Roud Folk Song Index and author of The Lore of the Playground (2010). Drawing on his knowledge and expertise, he is creating a thesaurus by which we will index the items in the archive.

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.

New cataloguers appointed

We are pleased to announce the appointment of two new cataloguers, Alison Somerset-Ward and Catherine Bannister, who will work with Julia Bishop and Steve Roud to catalogue and index the first part of the collection, comprising the children’s responses to the Opie’s oral lore of schoolchildren surveys of the 1950s and 1960s. Their work will result in a freely available website, enabling public access to the digitised materials.

Catherine and Alison looking at the Opie Collection

It will also allow the thousands of individual items contributed, such as a game or rhyme, to be searched according to associated features, such as place and date played, type of game, setting in which played, and first line of text, facilitating historical research into play for all.

Opie Archive Series B and C catalogues now online

Two further catalogues of material from the Opie Archive have been completed and can now be searched online. The series B catalogue comprises a large database of the Opies’ materials that was at the centre of their published output. They include 239 subject files which contain research materials, drafts, notes, press cuttings and other ephemera. The series C catalogue contains manuscripts and proofs, as well as correspondence with publishers and reviews of their work, as well as materials relating to their articles, lectures, exhibitions and broadcasts.

These catalogues are in addition to the catalogue for series A, which went live in September.

Sarah Thiel has written a dedicated blog post on the Bodleian Library archives and manuscripts blog.

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