Katharine Briggs was born in Hampstead, London in 1898, and was the eldest of three sisters. The Briggs family, originally from Yorkshire, had built up a fortune in the 18th and 19th centuries through coal mining and owned a large colliery in Normanton, West Yorkshire. With such enormous wealth, Katharine and her family were able to live in luxury with little need to work. Briggs’s father Ernest was often unwell and divided his time between leafy Hampstead and the clear air of Scotland. He was a watercolourist and would often take his children with him when he went to paint the landscape. An imaginative storyteller, he loved to tell his children tales and legends; these would have a great impact on the young Katharine, becoming her passion in later life.
When Briggs was 12 her father had Dalbeathie House built in Perthshire and the family moved permanently to Scotland; however, tragedy struck when he died two years later. Briggs and her two sisters, Winifred and Elspeth, developed a close bond with their mother, Mary, after this – all living together for almost fifty years.
As Briggs and her sisters grew older their main passion was for amateur dramatics. They wrote and performed their own plays at their home and Briggs would pursue her interest in theatre throughout her education. After leaving school she attended Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, graduating with a BA in 1918 and an MA in 1926. She specialised in the study of traditional folk tales and 17th-century English history.
Briggs continued her studies largely as a hobby, while living with her sisters and mother in Burford, Oxfordshire. She collected together traditional stories from across the country and the wider world, but did not publish them yet. Together she and her sisters performed in plays with local amateur dramatics groups and Briggs wrote historical novels set during the Civil War (also unpublished). When the Second World War started Briggs joined the WAAF and later taught at a school for the children of Polish refugees.
After the war Briggs threw herself into her folklore studies, completing her PHD on the use of folklore in 17th-century literature. In 1954, the first Katharine Briggs book was published, titled The Personnel of Fairyland, a guide to the folklore of Great Britain. This was followed by Hobberdy Dick (1955), a children's story about a hobgoblin in Puritan England. Though these books brought a small amount of interest, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s, following the deaths of her sisters and mother, that Briggs became a renowned folklorist. In 1963 she published another children’s book, Kate Crackernuts, and became involved with the Folklore Society of the UK, later being elected as its president in 1967. Now a preeminent expert on fairy stories and folklore, she began to lecture across the country and by the 1970s she had been invited to give lectures in the United States and was regularly interviewed on television. In 1971 she published her masterpiece, the four-volume A Dictionary of Folk-Tales in the English Language. This work remains the definitive collection of British folk stories, becoming a vital resource for writers, academics and storytellers.
Katharine Briggs died suddenly at the age of 82 on 15 October 1980. At the time of her death she had been working on a memoir of her childhood days in Scotland and Hampstead, where her love of folklore began.