On this day in history : 28th July 1866 – The birth of Beatrix Potter – the creator of much loved characters such as Peter Rabbit…. But there was so much more to this favourite children’s author….

Beatrix Potter, 1913 – Public domain

Born Helen Beatrix in South Kensington, London, she was the daughter of lawyer Rupert Potter and his wife Helen…. Beatrix had a somewhat lonely childhood; she was educated at home by governesses and hardly ever mixed with other children apart from her little brother, Walter Bertram, who arrived in 1872….

Both Beatrix and Walter loved animals and had many pets, including mice, frogs, snakes, lizards, bats, a hedgehog and rabbits….two of which were called Peter Piper and Benjamin Bouncer….

Beatrix Potter, aged 15, with her spaniel ‘Spot’ – Public domain

The family spent long holidays in the countryside each year…. During her younger years Beatrix’s parents would rent a house in Scotland for three months and then later, when she was 16, they began to rent Wray Castle, near to Ambleside in the Lake District…. It was here that Beatrix was to become acquainted with the vicar of Wray, Hardwick Rawnsley, who was to become a founding member of the National Trust…. It was his love of the countryside that was to inspire her….

Beatrix continued to study wildlife and botany – and she was invited to study fungi at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew…. With the encouragement of Scottish naturalist Charles McIntosh she became an accomplished scientific illustrator…. In 1896 Beatrix wrote a paper – ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Argaricinae’ – which was her own theory on the reproduction of fungi spores…. However, her paper was rejected by the director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, mainly because she was a woman…. But a year later a fungi expert at Kew presented her paper, on her behalf, to the Linnean Society of London…. Her work was never published but she is now accepted as being a major contributor to the research of mycology….

Beatrix Potter – ‘Reproductive System of Hygrocybe coccinea’ 1897 – Armitt Museum and Library – Public domain

Beatrix’s own personal artistic and literacy choices were influenced by her love of fantasy and fairy tales…. By her teen years she had become a regular visitor to art galleries in London…. During the 1890s she and her brother began to produce and print Christmas cards and other greetings cards…. Appealing animals such as mice and rabbits featured heavily…. Printing company Hildesheimer & Faulkner bought her illustrations of Benjamin Bunny….

The last of Beatrix’s governesses, Annie Moore, was only three years older than her and so was more of a companion – they were to become life long friends…. Annie was to have eight children and Beatrix would send them delightful illustrated letters from her holidays…. Tales about four little rabbits – Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter…. It was Annie who suggested these would make wonderful children’s books….

Peter feasts on Mr McGregor’s vegetables – Public domain

In 1900 Beatrix edited her stories and looked for a publisher – unsuccessfully…. Undeterred she had her book published at her own expense in December 1901 – she gave copies of her book, with its black and white illustrations, to family and friends as gifts…. Hardwick Rawnsley, having faith in her book, took it to the publishing houses himself…. Although previously rejected by Frederick Warne & Co. – and who had now decided they wanted to get into the children’s literature market – the book was accepted…. Beatrix added colour to her illustrations and on the 2nd of October 1902 ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ was published and became an instant success…. The next year it was followed by ‘The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin’ and ‘The Tailor of Gloucester’…. In all Beatrix wrote 23 such children’s tales….

First edition, 1902 – Public domain

With the proceeds of her books and the help of an inheritance from an aunt, in 1905 Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm near to Sawrey in the Lake District – a 17th century house with a 34 acre working farm…. The existing tenant farmer and his family agreed to carry on managing the farm whilst Beatrix learned how to raise livestock…. In the beginning she had cows, pigs and chickens….and then she added sheep….

Hill Top, near Sawrey – Image credit : Richerman – own work CC BY-SA 3.0

Beatrix then bought another neighbouring farm, ‘Castle Farm’ – using the services of a local solicitors firm – W.H. Heelis & Son…. Beatrix gained more than just a farm; on the 15th of October 1913 she and William Heelis were married in London…. They moved into the newly renovated farmhouse on Castle Farm…. ‘The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck’ and ‘The Tale of Tom Kitten’ are a reflection of this happy time in her life….

First edition – Public domain

In 1923 Beatrix bought Troutbeck Park Farm, a large sheep farm in the Troutbeck Valley…. She restored it with thousands of Herdwick sheep, a breed she had become enamoured with…. Beatrix was to become one of the main Herdwick sheep breeders in the Lake District…. In 1942 she became President-elect of the Herdwick Sheepbreeders’ Association – but sadly did not live long enough to take office….

Beatrix was to buy a total of 16 farms and was very much a ‘hands-on’ farmer herself – helping with hay making, bringing in thee sheep – or whatever else needed doing…. She continued her conservation and preservation of fell-farming work throughout the hardship years of World War 2 – but before the War had ended, on the 22nd of December 1943 she was to die from heart disease complicated by pneumonia….

Beatrix left the farms and some 4,000 acres of land, cottages, cattle and Herdwick sheep to the National Trust…. She also left to the Trust nearly all the original illustrations of her books…. Hill Top Farm was opened to the public in 1946 and her artwork was displayed there until 1985…. It was then moved to Wiliam’s former solicitor’s offices in Hawkshead – which had also been left to the National Trust…. This is now the Beatrix Potter Gallery….

Peter and Benjamin gather onions for Mrs Rabbit – Public domain
Beatrix Potter, 1912 – Public domain

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