Making Sense of Sickness through Play: Examples from the Opie Archive

Cath Bannister finds past examples of play informed by illness in the archived papers of folklorists Iona and Peter Opie.

In a Birmingham junior school classroom in 1953, 9-year-old David is recalling a prank he pulled on his brother a year ago. David might even be giggling at the memory as he sets out in tidy handwriting how he had told his brother Brian that they had to stay indoors, or ‘keep in’, until ‘next January’. “Why, Dave?" Brian had queried, "Because there’s a disese going on?” At this point David had called his brother out as an ‘April Fool!’. How Brian responded is not recorded - but anyone with siblings may want to guess at what happened next. Brian’s go-to guess is uncomfortably familiar to us nearly 70 years later. But why did Brian draw this conclusion back then? In December 1950 influenza began spreading across the UK, achieving epidemic proportions in the first weeks of 1951. Liverpool and the north west of England were hit hard, with the Manchester Guardian reporting in January 1951 that ‘local people say that the epidemic is the worst since 1918 or 1922’, both notorious outbreaks. The paper reports how hospitals struggled as staff succumbed and schools in one affected area extended their holiday period. Birmingham was one of the ‘Great Towns’ affected as the virus spread, according to Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in March 1951. So it seems likely that a memory of this breakout influenced Brian’s reply.

How do we know of this fleeting interaction between the brothers? David’s anecdote was documented with a purpose beyond a writing exercise. He was a contributing to the groundbreaking survey into children’s play and games, lore, language and beliefs undertaken by folklorists Iona and Peter Opie. His contribution is among thousands of examples of play shared by schoolchildren from across the UK, and is viewable on the online Opie Archive.

Disease flourishes in the young people’s responses to the Opies’ surveys. Flu is a handy match for ‘you’ in skipping rhymes, and its symptoms can be soothed by ice cream, according to one Swansea pupil. Children also practised beliefs, sincerely or habitually, to ward off sickness. ‘Touch your collar, never swallow, never get the fever’ was performed on seeing an ambulance, wrote Alfred from North Shields in 1952. Ipswich schoolchildren meanwhile advised ambulance spotters to ‘hold your collar till you see a white dog’.

One question the Opies posed to schoolchildren was if they knew of any ‘sayings or customs on the first day of the month’, a query featured in the second of their four questionnaires sent out to schools in the early 1950s. David’s example, a possible response to this, demonstrates how seemingly innocuous questions about cultural practices produced data elevating the Opies’ collection to the status of valuable social document. Also how children’s play is not always as carefree as adults can imagine. It reflects on, reacts to and makes meaning from the world around them and circumstances they find themselves living through, running the gamut from playful pranking to protective superstition and everything in between.

We’re interested to discover how the COVID-19 pandemic features in, and is having an effect on, children’s play and activities. Can you help us by responding to our survey?

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