About Beatrix Potter - 1866-1943

"Once upon a time, there were four little rabbits. And their names were, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter".

Had the then male-dominated Scientific Societies of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s not rejected Beatrix Potter's research submissions on algae and fungus, she would have chosen a research profession. Peter Rabbit, Jeremy Fisher, Jemima Puddleduck, Mrs Tiggywinkle and friends would not have been born.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866. Her wealthy parents, Rupert Potter and his wife Helen Leech appear to have been distant parental figures and delegated Beatrix's care and education to a series of governesses. She did not attend school, and without friends she became a lonely child engaged in solitary pursuits. In later years, deciphering of her secret journal revealed her notes of the London home as, “my unloved birthplace”. Did she mean “loveless”? However, the birth of a brother, Bertram, 5 years after her own offered much comfort and companionship. Unfortunately for her this was not to last. Bertram, as soon as he was of age was despatched to boarding school and Beatrix was left to continue an isolated life.

She became deeply interested in the natural sciences and devoted her energies in developing a theory of spore germination designed to demonstrate that algae and fungus were of the same family. Her uncle, the notable chemist, Sir Henry Roscoe, offered support to her endeavours. Additionally, as a gifted amateur artist, she created colourful drawings of small animals which later were to inhabit her books. She recorded in the secret diary, “it is all the same, drawing, painting ,modeling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot, I must draw however poor the result”.

Family holidays to Scotland and the Lake District provided welcome interludes and gave the opportunity to study flora and fauna of the region. It was in 1890 when staying at Wray Castle near Ambleside she gained the interest and support of the Canon Rawnsley and created 6 greeting cards. These were sent to publishers Hildesheimer and Faulkner in Germany. To her delight the cards were accepted and bought for the sum of 6 pounds with a request for more. This event can be possibly regarded as the conception of her family of small animal friends, although they had obviously lived in her mind for many lonely years.

A letter written by her with illustrated text to Noel Moore, the sick young son of a former governess, contained the first version of the story of Peter Rabbit and thus heralded the rabbits arrival on the world stage. She arranged for a book of her stories to be privately printed in 1901. These were later published by Frederick Warne and Co; who had initially rejected it.

The tiny village of Sawrey near Hawkshead had become her firm favourite during the holidays spent with her parents in the Lake District. In 1905 she was in a position to purchase Hill Top Farm which later was used as the setting for 6 of her books.

Despite parental opposition, in the same year she became engaged after a lengthy courtship to Norman Warne, a family member of the publishing group. Sadly, Norman died of leukemia one month later.

From 1905-1913 was her most prolific writing period. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail et al appeared on the scene. She humanized her animal characters, dressing them in street clothing and allowing them to suffer from the day to day human ailments.

During 1909 when buying nearby Castle Farm, she met solicitor William Heelis who acted on her behalf in the transaction. Here again, her parents strongly disapproved of the relationship and possibly as a consequence of the stress, Beatrix fell ill and contracted pneumonia. At this point, her brother Bertram reappeared on the scene to offer support. He was now living in Scotland and revealed that unknown to his parents, he had been married for 11 years. Her health improved, her parents relented, and in October 1913 she and William were married. She was aged 47 years.

From here on her writing output diminished and instead she devoted her time to buying land, property and raising Herdwick sheep. Much of this was funded by a large inheritance on the death of her father in 1923. She remained a relatively withdrawn and secretive person and it is recorded that she told William her husband little or nothing of her earlier life. She confessed in a letter to a female friend of being sorry to be the most dominant in the marriage.

Beatrix Potter, whose health had never been strong in later years died on 22 December 1943. Her Will bequeathed 4000 acres of land and 14 farms to the National Trust including the very beautiful Tarn Hows. William died 2 years later. His office is faithfully preserved in what is now the Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead, where many of Beatrixs original sketches, water colours and manuscripts are on display.

Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

Her secret diary was deciphered in 1967 by an engineer named Leslie Linder.
A posthumous apology was issued to her at a meeting in her honour by the Linnaean Society in 1997 for the treatment she received on rejection of her research into the connection between fungus and algae.

Renee Zellweger featured as lead in the film “Miss Potter”, filmed in the Lake District in the Spring of 2006.

It may be that Squirrel Nutkins and friends can still be seen on a summers evening sailing across Derwentwater toward St. Herberts Island.