PETER RABBIT’S CREATOR – BEATRIX POTTER

Most children will have heard of Peter Rabbit, and maybe read the stories.  A film, starring Renee Zellweger was made about her in 1982, but like most films, there was a lot of artistic licence, it was perhaps not the best representation of her.  So, who was Beatrix Potter?  This is the short version.

Her full name was Helen Beatrix Potter and she was born in South Kensington in 1866.  She died in 1943.  She had a younger brother, Walter Bertram.  Beatrix was educated at home by governesses.  She and her brother kept numerous small animals to which she was devoted.  

The family spent their holidays in Perthshire until she was aged 15.  When the property there subsequently became unavailable, they spent their holidays in the Lake District where she met Hardwicke Rawnsley, a local vicar, who went onto become the founding secretary of the National Trust.  Rawnsley inspired Beatrix to her great interest in the countryside.  

Beatrix was interested in natural science and became increasingly interested in mycology – the study of fungi as she grew older.  As well as drawing them, she became interested in how they reproduced.  Although she proposed a theory of germination and submitted a paper to the Linnaean Society, she could not introduce it herself because she was female.  In fact, she withdrew the paper anyway because she believed some of her samples had been contaminated.  The paper has been rediscovered.  Her paintings of fungi are still used to help in identification.  

In September 1893, Beatrix told the story of four little rabbits to one of the sons of her former governess, Annie Carter Moore.  The rabbits were called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.  After some editorial changes, and unable to find a publisher, she self-published in December 1901, but only for her family and friends.  Eventually, on 2 October 1902, the book – The Tale of Peter Rabbit – was published by a traditional publisher and became a huge success.  The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin and The Tale of Gloucester followed the following year.  She subsequently published two or three books every year – and if you think she was slow, remember that she didn’t have a computer – totalling 23 books in total.  

Beatrix became unofficially engaged to her editor, Norman Warne, in 1905.  Unofficially because her parents did not approve.  Sadly, Warne died only a month later.  Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in the Lake District.  The tenant farmer agreed to continue to farm the land for her while she learned the trade.  

She met, and was proposed to by a local solicitor, William Heelis, whom she subsequently married on 15 October 1913 at St Mary Abbots in Kensington (that’s the one on Kensington Church Street).  

Beatrix continued to write and farm, expanding her love of sheep farming – she raised Herdwick sheep, a long-haired breed native to the region.  She became one of the major Herdwick sheep farmers in the area and won many prizes at local shows.  She was also a great supporter of the National Trust and in 1930, she and her husband went into partnership with the Trust until such time as the Trust bought a number of properties from her.  

She continued to write, mostly just for pleasure.  She died in 1943 and left most of her property to the National Trust.  When her husband died less than two years later, he left the remainder of their property to the Trust.

© Susan Shirley 2020

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