On this day in history….5th September 1969

On this day in history : 5th September 1969 – The death of Scottish naturalist and writer Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water….the story of the otter he brought back from Iraq and raised in Scotland….

Gavin Maxwell c.1950 – Fair use

Maxwell was born into Scottish aristocracy – at The House of Elrig, near Port William, South Western Scotland…. He was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Aymer Maxwell and Lady Mary Percy…. His maternal grandfather was the 7th Duke of Northumberland and his paternal grandfather was Sir Herbert Maxwell, 7th Baronet and a natural historian, archaeologist and politician….

The ‘House of Elrig’ – Photo credit : Les Dunford CC BY-SA 2.0

Maxwell had a public school education and from an early age had an interest in natural history…. Giving in to pressure from his family he attended Hertford College, Oxford, where he obtained a degree in estate management….

During World War 2 Maxwell was an instructor with the secret organisation ‘Special Operations Executive’ – he was invalided out in 1944 having reached the rank of Major…. After the War be bought the Isle of Soay, off of Skye and began to pursue his real passion in life, natural history….

In 1956 Maxwell travelled to Iraq, where he was to explore the reed marshes of Southern Iraq with explorer Wilfred Thesiger…. Maxwell had always had a desire to have an otter as a pet and whilst in Iraq he managed to obtain one…. However, sadly it was to die shortly after; Maxwell was devastated…. It was as he was preparing to return to England that Thesiger managed to find another one for him – a smooth coated otter, very dark in colour and about 6 weeks old…. Maxwell named him Mijbil and returned home to Scotland with him….

Maxwell and Mij settled into a new home, ‘Sandaig’, in the Glenreig Community, a remote part of mainland Scotland…. The property had originally been a small holding for the lighthouse keeper of the Sandraig Lighthouse…. It was here at Sandraig that Maxwell raised Mij – although in his books he calls his home ‘Camusfearna’ – ‘the bay of alders’….

Mij seemed different to other otters and when Maxwell presented him to the London Zoological Society they confirmed that he was a previously unknown sub-species…. And so he was named Lutrogale perspicillatra maxwell – ‘Maxwell’s otter’…. Although Maxwell was to keep several other otters Mij became the focus of his life…. The title for his book ‘Ring of Bright Water’, which was first published in 1960, came from a poem by Kathleen Raine…. In 1969 a film of the same name, based loosely on Maxwell’s book, was released starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers….

Cover of first edition – Fair use

The relationship between Maxwell and Raine was complicated…. She was infatuated with him – and was to describe him as ‘the love of her life’…. Only she was to be left frustrated by his homosexuality…. They had a close friendship – but this was to deteriorate through her indirectly causing the death of Mij…. I wont spoil the story if you have not read the book – but it was a sad state of affairs…. The best-seller is both heart warming and a tear jerker…. It is described as a literacy masterpiece but at the same time it has a dark side…. Nowadays we have a different view about keeping wild animals and raising them as pets….

In February 1962 Maxwell married Lavinia Renton but not surprisingly this marriage ended within less than a year – they divorced in 1964…. The house at Sandraig was destroyed by fire in 1968 and Maxwell moved into the lighthouse keepers’ cottages situated on an island between Skye and the mainland…. He was to die of lung cancer the following year….

Statue of Maxwell’s otter at Montreith by Penny Wheatley – Photo credit : Roger Nunn CC BY-SA 2.0

On this day in history….17th August 1945

On this day in history : 17th August 1945 – George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ – the book which tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer – is first published….

First edition cover – Public domain

Orwell was a democratic socialist and a critic of Stalin…. He claimed the story reflected the events which had led up to the Russian Revolution of 1917…. In his essay ‘Why I Write’ in 1946, he stated that Animal Farm was the first book in which he had attempted to ‘fuse political purposes and artistic purpose into one whole’….

Following his experiences during the Spanish Civil War Orwell had written ‘Homage to Catalonia’ in 1938 – but it did not sell well and he decided fiction was the best way to get his message across…. He saw Stalinism as ‘corruption of original socialist ideals’ – he wanted to expose and condemn Stalin’s methods….

George Orwell – Public domain

Animal Farm was written between November 1943 and February 1944 – at the time when the UK was in a wartime alliance with Russia against Nazi Germany…. The British held Stalin in high esteem and Orwell hated this…. His book was initially rejected by UK and US publishers – but became a success as the relationship with Russia moved towards the Cold War….

The original title had been ‘Animal Farm : A Fairy Story’ but US publishers dropped the second part of the title when they published it in 1946….

On this day in history….28th July 1866

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

On this day in history….9th July 1901

On this day in history: 9th July 1901 – The birth of English romance novelist Dame Barbara Cartland – who was also the step-grandmother of Diana, Princess of Wales….

Barbara Cartland in 1987 – Allan Warren, own work – CC BY-SA 3.0

Dame Barbara was born Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to Captain Bertram Cartland and Mary Hamilton Scobell…. She was educated at the Alice Ottley School and the Malvern Girls’ College…. At the end of World War One her father was killed and Barbara moved with her mother and two younger brothers to London – and it is then that she began to write….

Her first book ‘Jigsaw’ had been published by the time she had reached her early twenties…. In her writing career she was to write 723 books, which have been translated into some 38 languages…. She is especially known for her romance novels, particularly those set in the Victorian era – but she also wrote plays, drama, verse, magazine articles, music, operetta….and several biographies….

Barbara Cartland in 1925 – Public domain

Becoming known on London’s social scene as one of the ‘Bright Young People’ Barbara was the hostess of some of the most glamorous parties…. It is said she had over 50 proposals of marriage before finally settling for Captain Alexander McCorquodale – ‘Sachie’….a British army officer from Scotland – who was heir to a fortune in the shape of the family printing business…. The couple married on the 23rd of April 1927 and in the September of 1929 she gave birth to a daughter, Raine…. However, the marriage was not set to last and ended in divorce in 1933….

It was during the late 1920s and the 1930s that Barbara was to develop an interest in gliding…. In 1931 she came up with the idea of a ‘long distance tow’ – and she herself undertook a 200 mile tow in a 2-seater glider…. Her idea led to a troop-carrying glider – and later, in 1984, she was awarded the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for her contribution to aviation…. During the 1920s and 30s she could often be found at the Brooklands Airfield and Motor Racing Circuit….

On the 28th of December 1936 she married her former husband’s cousin, Hugh McCorquodale – and went on to have two sons, Ian in 1937 and Glen in 1939…. At the outbreak of World War Two she took her young family to Canada to escape the war but found she was unable to settle and so returned to England…. Once back on home soil she became Chief Lady Welfare Officer to the Services and immersed herself in the war effort and at the same time became involved in politics…. She also served with the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade…. In 1955 she was elected Conservative Councillor for Hertfordshire – and she campaigned for reforms to nursing homes, better pay for midwives and education for traveller children…. She was to serve as Councillor for 9 years – it was during this time that her husband passed away….

During the 1970s her writing success continued to grow – she even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific author alive…. It was also in this decade that she released an album of love songs with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra….

1981 saw the marriage of her step-granddaughter, Diana and Prince Charles…. However, Barbara was not invited to the wedding…. Although Barbara and Diana had always got on – Diana was a keen reader of her step-grandmother’s books, who would often send copies to her – a rift had now developed between them…. Barbara was publicly critical of Charles and Diana’s divorce – but the two had made their peace shortly before Diana’s death in 1997….

Barbara was made a Dame in 1991 for almost 70 years of literacy, political and social contributions…. In her later years she was always a popular figure with the media and made many television appearances, including ‘This is Your Life’….twice! Instantly recognisable by her love of pink, blonde wig and heavy makeup, she was iconic, if not also a little formidable….

Image : Pinterest

Dame Barbara carried on writing into her 90s and since her death – peacefully at home on the 21st of May 2000 – many of her 160 unpublished manuscripts have been published posthumously….

Dame Barbara Cartland, aged 98 – Public domain

On this day in history….12th June 1819

On this day in history : 12th June 1819 – The birth of English clergyman, university lecturer, historian, social reformer, novelist and poet Charles Kingsley – author of the classic ‘The Water Babies’….

Charles Kingsley – photograph by Charles Watkins – Credit : Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

Kingsley was born in Holne, Devon, the eldest son of the Reverend Charles Kingsley and Mary Lucas Kingsley…. His younger brother, Henry and sister, Charlotte were also to become writers…. His childhood was spent in Clovelly and then Barnack, Northamptonshire…. He was to develop a keen interest in geology and nature…. He attended grammar school before King’s College, London and then entering Cambridge University in 1838…. Upon graduating in 1842 he decided on a life in the Church and became Rector of Eversley, Hampshire in 1844….

St Mary’s, Eversley – Photo credit : Elisa Rolle, own work CC BY-SA 4.0

Influenced by the work of theologian Frederick Denison Maurice it was in 1848 that Kingsley became the founding member of the Christian Socialist Movement…. It was the Movement’s aim to seek ways of combatting the evils of industrialisation through Christian ethics….

In 1851 Kingsley’s first novel ‘Yeast’ was published – although it had been serialised in Fraser’s Magazine three years before…. It dealt with the social issues between the poor and the gentry…. The previous year his second novel ‘Alton Locke’ had been published – the story of a tailor, who was also a poet and who becomes a leader of the Chartist Movement in the fight against enforced long working hours and poor working conditions….

Kingsley was a great advocate of adult education…. He believed in the growth of the co-operative movement and he fought for improved sanitation and living conditions….

Charles Kingsley – photo by Cundall & Downes – Credit : Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0

By the mid 1850s he had begun to write popular novels with ‘Hypatia’ being published in 1853 with a setting in early Christian Europe and ‘Westward Ho’ in 1854 and set in the Elizabethan period….

In 1859 Kingsley became Chaplain to Queen Victoria and was made Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University the following year…. In 1861 he became private tutor to the Prince of Wales…. Then in 1870 he was made Canon of Chester Cathedral where he served until 1873 – before being made Canon of Westminster Abbey….

He continued to pursue his other interests; he formed the Chester Society for National Science in 1872 – he had been one of the first to champion Charles Darwin’s ‘On Origin of Species’…. He remained highly critical of Roman Catholicism, which had controversially led to a public spat in print with theologian and poet Cardinal John Henry Newman…. Kingsley was a family man, he and wife Frances Eliza Grenfell had four children….

He continued to write throughout his life…. ‘Hereward the Wake’ was published in 1866 and was set in Anglo Saxon England at the time of the Norman Conquest…. But his most famous book, the children’s fantasy tale about a boy chimney sweep, ‘The Water Babies, A Fairy Tale For A Land Baby’ was published in 1863…. It is a story that combined so many elements of Kingsley’s life…. His interest in nature and his own theory on evolution, to his concerns on welfare reforms and the need for better sanitation….

1885 cover of The Water-Babies – Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library CC BY 2.0

Kingsley died in Eversley on the 23rd of January 1875….