This year all over the Lake District we’re celebrating what would have been 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born. As locals who live and work in the Lake District, we’ve been doing our own bit of exploring and getting to understand just how important Beatrix was. We’ve all so much to thank this amazing author, illustrator, businesswoman and keen conservationist for – without her, the Lake District would look very different today.
1. Beatrix Potter was born in London to a wealthy family, living in Kensington and she stayed there up until her 20’s running their household.
2. Beatrix was fascinated by nature – a keen botanist, she sketched, studied and painted animals and flowers and plants – in particular, mycology – the study of fungi including mushrooms. However, as an adult, she couldn’t get her research published because at the time, women were not accepted in the field of science and she had to get her paper published under her uncle’s name. The Institute of Mycology later apologized.
3. When she was a teenager, she wrote a journal in a hidden code no-one could read. The Journal of Beatrix Potter 1881-1897 (first published by Frederick Warne in 1966) is part of this and was transcribed by the code by Potter Scholar Leslie Linder. She kept her journal in this way until she was 30 – just for fun and to challenge herself, we believe!
4. Her first, and most famous book ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ started out as an illustrated letter she wrote to a friend’s son, who was ill, which she wrote whilst on holiday in the Lake District. The family also used to go on holiday to Scotland, but thankfully for us, she fell in love with the landscape and people of the Lake District, and this became her spiritual home. One place they used to spend months at was Wray Castle on the shores of Windermere and another was Lingholm on Derwentwater.
5. She was keen to make her own way in the world as a business woman, and managed to have some of her artworks published as greeting cards. 7 years after sending her letter-story to Noel Moore, she rewrote it, added illustrations and submitted it to several publishers. Not one of them were interested, so Beatrix funded her own and had 250 copies privately published.
Frederick Warne saw the book, and encouraged Beatrix to provide colour illustrations, published Peter Rabbit in 1902 and so began an amazing chapter in her life. She went on to write 23 of the ‘little white books’ about an array of woodland and farmyard animals.
6. Beatrix Potter was a very smart business woman. She was probably one of the first authors to introduce ‘merchandise’ around her stories – she designed and produced a Peter Rabbit doll, and gave permission for other items to be made – including board-games, tea-sets, wallpaper and figurines.
7. At the age of 39, Beatrix became betrothed to her editor, Frederick Warne, but he tragically died before they could marry. She was heartbroken.
She continued to write, and be consoled by her love of nature, and by now had bought Hilltop Farm, at Sawrey, in the Lake District – and this became her ‘spiritual home’. She did not live there full-time, because as an unmarried woman this was deemed improper. Rather, she used it as an ‘office’ where she would go to write, gain inspiration, and add to her collection of wonderful things which she loved to have around her.
In 1909 Beatrix found happiness again, when she met solicitor William Heelis, whilst buying Castle Farm, across the road from Hill Top. They married in 1913, when Beatrix was 47 years old ‘ Mrs Heelis’ thoroughly enjoyed country life, and settled into raising award-winning Herdwick sheep, – which are now the icons of the Lake District – you’ll see them everywhere, and they inspired the launch of the now legendary Herdy Company – whose founders – Spencer & Diane Hannah were inspired by the Herdwick sheep!
Beatrix was passionate about nature conservation. She became close friends with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley who set up the National Trust; and in 1943 she was elected as the first woman President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association – an honour she was thrilled to receive. Sadly she died before she could take it on.
7. Beatrix died on December 22 1943, and William Heelis died 2 years later. Ever the business woman – she had recognised the interest people had in Hill Top, and they had talked about opening Hill Top to the public before she died, charging for entry and ensuring that income raised went back into its upkeep. This year, on July 7th, Hill Top will have been open to visitors for 70 years.
8. ‘Miss Potter’ a biopic of her life was released in 2006 starring Renee Zellwegger and Ewan McGregor.
• When she died in 1943, she left the National Trust more than 4,000 acres of land in the Lake District, and 14 farms.
• She set up a Nursing Trust for villages in the Lake District.
• An example of an iconic Potter farm is Yew Tree Farm in Coniston, owned by Beatrix in 1930, and she encouraged the farmer then to open a tea-room. It’s now home to Jon Watson who farms Heritage Meats – Herdwick & Belted Galloway and Jo McGrath who is a resident animal artist – perhaps the modern day Beatrix Potter!
• Some of her favourite places were Tarn Hows near Hawkshead, and the beautiful area around Derwentwater, which inspired the Derwentwater Sketchbooks and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
Pictures by kind permission of the National Trust. Read more about Beatrix Potter and her links with the National Trust here.