Sue Young Histories

Helen Beatrix Potter 1866 – 1943

June 18, 2009

Helen Beatrix Potter 1866 – 1943 was an English author, illustrator, mycologist and conservationist who was best known for her many best selling children’s books that featured animal characters, such as Peter Rabbit.

Beatrix Potter had a brief romantic dalliance with Joseph Chamberlain, and she was engaged to her publisher Norman Dalziel Warne, before his untimely death in 1905 from pernicious anaemia (or Leukaemia?).

Norman Dalziel Warne was the grandson of homeopathic supporter William Warne. Paul Francois Curie was the Warne family homeopath, and he treated William Warne’s wife when she was suffering from a virulent form of small pox, and her recovery led to William Warne becoming a staunch advocate of homeopathy.

Beatrix Potter spent a great deal of time in the Warne household, and she knew enough about homeopathy to dose Peter Rabbit with chamomile tea. Beatrix Potter remained close to the Warne family throughout her life, and after her death, the copyright of all her works went firstly to her husband and then onto her favourite nephew, Norman Warne.

Beatrix Potter was born in South Kensington, London on 28 July 1866. Educated at home by a succession of governesses, she had little opportunity to mix with other children. Even her younger brother, Bertram, was rarely at home; he was sent as a boy to boarding school, leaving Beatrix alone with her many pets.

She had frogs, newts, ferrets and even a pet bat. She also had two rabbits — the first was Benjamin, whom she described as “an impudent, cheeky little thing”, while the second was Peter, whom she took everywhere with her on a little lead, even on the occasional outing. Potter watched the animals for hours on end, sketching them. Gradually the sketches became better and better, developing her talents from an early age.

Beatrix Potter’s father, Rupert William Potter (1832–1914), although trained as a barrister, spent his days at gentlemen’s clubs and rarely practised law. Her mother, Helen Potter née Leech (1839–1932), the daughter of a cotton merchant, spent her time visiting or receiving visitors. The family was supported by both parents’ inherited incomes.

Every summer, Rupert Potter would rent a country house; firstly Dalguise House in Perthshire, Scotland for the eleven summers of 1871 to 1881, then later one in the English Lake District. In 1882 the family met the local vicar, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, who was deeply worried about the effects of industry and tourism on the Lake District. He would later found the National Trust in 1895, to help protect the countryside.

Beatrix Potter had immediately fallen in love with the rugged mountains and dark lakes. Through Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, she learnt of the importance of trying to conserve the region, something that was to stay with her for the rest of her life.

When Potter came of age, her parents appointed her their housekeeper and discouraged any intellectual development, instead requiring her to supervise the household. From the age of 15 until she was past 30, she recorded her everyday life in journals, using her own secret code which was not decoded until 20 years after her death.

An uncle attempted to introduce her as a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because she was female. Potter was later one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae.

As, at the time, the only way to record microscopic images was by painting them, Potter made numerous drawings of lichens and fungi. As the result of her observations, she was widely respected throughout England as an expert mycologist. She also studied spore germination and life cycles of fungi. Potter’s set of detailed watercolours of fungi, numbering some 270 completed by 1901, is in the Armitt Library, Ambleside.

In 1897, her paper on the germination of spores was presented to the Linnean Society by her uncle Henry Enfield Roscoe, as women were barred from attending meetings. (In 1997, the Society issued a posthumous official apology to Potter for the way she had been treated.) The Royal Society also refused to publish at least one of her technical papers. She also lectured at the London School of Economics several times.

Much of Potter’s stories’ vocabulary and artistic practice stemmed from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories. The basis of her many projects and stories were the small animals which she smuggled into the house or observed during family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District.

When she was 27 and on one such holiday in Scotland, in a letter dated 4 September 1893 she sent a story about rabbits to Noel Moore, the five year old son of her last governess. She was encouraged by former governess Annie Moore to publish the story, so she borrowed it back in 1901 and made it into the book entitled The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor’s Garden.

She sent her slightly rewritten picture letters to six publishers, but was turned down by all of them. The primary complaint from all of them was the lack of colour pictures, which were popular at the time. In September 1901, she decided to self publish and distribute 250 copies of a renamed The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

Later that year, because the colour printing blocks were already created and other children’s books were popular, she finally attracted the publisher Frederick Warne and Co. The publishing contract was signed in June 1902 and, by the end of the year, 28,000 copies were in print. Later, the character Peter Rabbit was patented and produced as a soft toy in 1903. This makes Peter the oldest licensed character.

She followed it with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin in 1903, that was also based on an earlier letter. Such was the popularity of these and her subsequent books that she gained an independent income from their sales. She also became secretly engaged to the publisher, Norman Dalziel Warne in 1905, but her parents were set against her marrying a tradesman. Their opposition to the wedding caused a breach between Beatrix and her parents.

The wedding was not to be, for soon after the engagement, Norman Dalziel Warne fell ill of pernicious anemia and died within a few weeks. Beatrix was devastated. She wrote in a letter to his sister, Millie, “He did not live long, but he fulfilled a useful happy life. I must try to make a fresh beginning next year.”

Potter eventually wrote 23 books, all in the same small format. Part of the popularity of her books was due to the quality of her illustrations: the animal characters are portrayed as full of personality, but are deeply based in natural actions. Her writing efforts finally abated around 1920 due to poor eyesight. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was published in 1930; however, the actual manuscript was one of the first to be written and much predates this publication date. After Norman Dalziel Warne’s death, Potter purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey (then in Lancashire, now in Cumbria), in the Lake District. She loved the landscape, and visited the farm as often as she could, discussing the set up with farm manager John Cannon.

With the steady stream of royalties from her books, she began to buy pieces of land under the guidance of local solicitor William Heelis. In 1913 at the age of 47, Potter married Heelis and moved to Hill Top Farm permanently.

Some of Potter’s best-loved works show the Hill Top farmhouse and the village. While the couple had no children, the farm was constantly alive with dogs, cats and even a pet hedgehog named “Mrs. Tiggy Winkle”.

On moving to the Lake District, Potter became engrossed in breeding and showing Herdwick sheep. She became a respected farmer, a judge at local agricultural shows, and President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association. When Potter’s parents died, she used her inheritance to buy more farms and tracts of land.

After some years, Potter and Heelis moved down into the village of Sawrey, and into Castle Cottage — where the local children knew her for her grumpy demeanour, and called her “Auld Mother Heelis”. Her letters of the time reflect her increasing concerns with her sheep, preservation of farmland, and World War II.

Beatrix Potter died at Castle Cottage in Sawrey on 22 December 1943. Her body was cremated at Carleton Crematorium, Blackpool and her ashes were scattered in the countryside near Sawrey.