The Story of Beatrix Potter

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on Saturday, July 28, 1866 at 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, Middlesex in the country of England. She was the first child born to Rupert and Helen Potter; a well-to-do London couple who were heirs to a cotton fortune. Her father Rupert Potter was a prosperous lawyer. He was also an enthusiastic and skilled photographer who enjoyed not only taking photographs of his family and friends but also the ever changing scenes on the streets of London. Miss Potter’s mother, Helen Potter, was a simple country gentlewoman who became a social London lady after she married Rupert Potter. Prior to marriage she had enjoyed painting with water colors and frolicking in the countryside. As a married woman she engaged in carriage rides and afternoon tea with other socialite ladies of London and then back home to prepare herself for frequent elaborate dinner parties.

When Rupert and Helen Potter married in 1863 they lived in Upper Harley Street, a fashionable part of London at the time. When Helen became pregnant they moved to 2 Bolton Gardens in Kensington where they remained until Rupert’s death nearly fifty years later. The third floor nursery in Bolton Gardens was Beatrix Potter’s playroom, schoolroom, and eventually studio for the forty seven years following her birth.

In the time which Beatrix Potter was born it was customary for children to be cared for by either a nurse or governess. Beatrix spent much of her childhood in solitude, only seeing her parents at bedtime and on special occasions. The Potter’s hired a young woman, Nurse McKenzie, from the Highlands of Scotland, where the Potters went for their holiday every summer. Nurse McKenzie looked after and cared for Beatrix with strict and spartan attention. She fed her, dressed her, helped her to crawl and walk, taught her her first words and introduced her to fairies.

When Beatrix was almost six years old, her brother Walter Bertram was born. Now that there were two children to be looked after by Nurse McKenzie it was natural that Beatrix became more independent and learned to do things on her own. She had inherited her parents’ artistic talents and discovered the pleasure it gave her to draw and paint. She began to take more notice of the pictures in the books she was reading and continued to develop her talents. Her parents encouraged her greatly and began to increase the supply of new books in the nursery for her enjoyment.

Now that Nurse McKenzie was caring for the new baby Mr. and Mrs. Potter hired a governess to care for Beatrix. Miss Hammond came to start her education and began to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. Time was also set aside each day for painting and drawing. When Beatrix turned twelve another governess, Miss Cameron, was hired to specifically teach her drawing. Beatrix became very fond of Miss Hammond who filled the days with learning, playing and exploring. Miss Hammond encouraged young Beatrix to read, write and explore the world around her. She was very kind and full of constant praise directing Beatrix to become the best she could imagine.

When Beatrix became a teenager her parents decided that Miss Hammond had done all the teaching she could and then hired another governess, Miss Annie Carter. Miss Carter taught German and French and other language skills. More importantly, she taught Beatrix how to enjoy each day to the fullest and capture the splendor around her through writing, drawing, and painting. Miss Carter stayed on with the Potter family until Beatrix was nineteen.

From a young age, Beatrix was fascinated by nature. Her family went on annual summer holidays in Scotland and the Lake District. Her parents often rented the Dalguise House, near Dunkeld on the river Tay in Perthshire, Scotland. Beatrix had many fond memories there and even used it as the location for her story, The Tale of Jeremy Fisher. These summer holidays in the country provided a prolonged and recurring happiness that Beatrix treasured throughout her life. Mr. Potter would engage in long exploratory walks with his children during these summer holidays and it was there that Beatrix and Bertram collected animals, skeletons and fossils together. They sketched and painted pictures of the plants and animals they saw; and often went to the Natural History Museum to learn more. These holidays in the country provided Beatrix with not only hands-on experience, but also a deep love and knowledge of the countryside. She had a deep love for animals and acquired many pets in different forms. Each of her lovely pets would later serve as characters in her writings and drawings.

Although Beatrix’s childhood was abnormally secluded and lonely due in part to the fact that both her parents discouraged their children to have close friendships with others for fear of exposure to germs and bad influences, this allowed Beatrix to concentrate on her own fantasies and interests… animals, drawing, writing, nature.

Bertram was six years younger than Beatrix and she loved him dearly. She shared much with him but could not share all that she desired. Judy Taylor explains that “The substitute for human companionship for Beatrix were her pets – and a diary. To ensure that her journal was kept secret from prying eyes, particularly her mother’s, Beatrix invented a code.” (P. 34.Taylor). The code for her journal was not broken until 1958, several years after her death.

When Beatrix was in her twenties, she made a minor scientific discovery in regards to spores of moulds. Since she was basically self-taught, her work was not only under suspicion but also scrutiny by botanists at the Royal Botanic Gardens. She wrote a paper on the subject which was presented by her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe in 1897 before the Linnean Society of London. Women were not allowed to attend meetings so the paper was could not be read by Beatrix. However, her discovery and theories were eventually proved correct and many years later were recognized by the Society. In 1997, the Society issued an official apology to Miss Potter for the way she had been treated.

Beatrix loved to write and aside from her journal which she wrote in almost on a daily basis describing events and situations from her life, she also began to create drawings of her beloved pets; especially her rabbit Benjamin Bouncer. 1889 she began to submit her drawings to publishers who used them on greeting cards and in 1891 submitted several sketches to a number of publishers which were readily used in children’s books and children’s quarterlies

On September 4, 1893, Beatrix wrote a picture letter to her former governess’ son, Noel Moore. Noel was five years old and had fallen ill. Beatrix was not sure how to write to him so she proceeded to tell him a story about four little rabbits named Mopsy, Flopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. This beautifully illustrated letter was so well-received that Beatrix decided to publish it privately as The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1900. At first she was rejected by five publishers, but on December 16, 1901 it was published by Frederick Warne & Company and was a great success.

The basis of Miss Potter’s many stories were the small animals that she smuggled into the house or observed during family holidays in Scotland and the Lake District. The characters she chose correlated with people and places that touched her life on a daily basis. These beautifully crafted stories described the adventures of Benjamin Bunny (Peter’s Cousin), Pig Robinson, Squirrel Nutkin and many more of Miss Potter’s delightful little ‘friends’. Each story was unique in its own and was full of sketches, descriptions of animals that Miss Potter loved, and descriptions of holidays by the seaside, and in Wales, Scotland, and other places that she enjoyed. She truly encompassed all aspects of the life around her into the stories she wove.

As she was preparing to have another book published, Miss Potter began to correspond with Norman Warne, the son of the founder of the publishing company which she was now employed by. Norman was the one person whom Miss Potter turned for support and he always gave her the most encouragement. Their friendship grew stronger with each passing day and in the summer of 1905 Norman proposed marriage.

Miss Potter was overjoyed by Norman’s proposal but knew that receiving consent from her parents, particularly her mother, would be a big obstacle to overcome. As expected, her parents were not pleased with the proposal because Norman’s family was not part of the London elite but rather a family of trade. However, her parents agreed there could be a wedding but only if Beatrix and Norman waited one full year before announcing their engagement. This way if either changed their mind there would be no embarrassment to the family. Margaret Lane writes, “Her (Beatrix) mind nevertheless was made up and the struggle carried on in unhappy silence. No announcement was made and almost nobody told, but Beatrix now firmly considered herself betrothed and wore her engagement ring.” (p. 137.) However, the wedding was not to be, for soon after the proposal, on August 25, 1905 Norman fell ill and died. Beatrix was devastated.

Happiness did not come very easily in the weeks that followed and the summer of 1905 was difficult and full of struggle. Beatrix buried herself in her work and continued to write the stories she had been sharing and planning with Norman. She spent her time at the property she had purchased in the Lake District with the royalties from The Tales of Peter Rabbit. As the months of autumn approached she began to feel very ill but she struggled on and continued to write another book.

When the opportunity to purchase another property came available Miss Potter acted quickly. She purchased a working farm in Near Sawrey called Hill Top. She started out with a few pigs and soon acquired sixteen Herdwick sheep, native to the Lake District. Herdwick sheep were a hardy breed that had wool which was prized for its hardwearing and waterproof qualities, especially for clothing and carpets. After just two years, Hill Top Farm had over thirty Herdwicks, ten cows, fourteen pigs, several ducks and many hens. There were also several dogs.

Beatrix enjoyed her farm and even though it began to take up more of her attention, “she continued to work on her little books and used her animals and property to the full as models and as source material.” (p. 111. Taylor.) The Tale of Tom Kitten, published in 1907, was set in the house and garden of Hill Top Farm and in the village of Sawrey. In the pictures she drew the garden of Hill Top is in full bloom like a flower show. The interior of the little house is exactly as the house was when Beatrix moved in. Tom Kitten’s mother was named after the cat in the house where Beatrix stayed.

Likewise, The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duck, published in 1908, was also set on the farm at Hill Top and the surrounding village. Jemima was a special duck who often amused Beatrix with her maternal problems of attempting to create a nest for her eggs. Jemima would journey throughout the farm looking for that secret place to care for her eggs and Beatrix would follow her and sketch the area which she trekked. Interestingly enough, the field which Jemima journeyed across would eventually be, thirty six years later, Beatrix Potter’s resting place. Her ashes were scattered in the field at the edge of Jemima’s woods, looking back to Sawrey.

Beatrix spent more and more time at Sawrey and in 1909 she bought another farm there. Castle Farm had a small house facing her Hill Top Farm and gave her a grand view of the property she owned. She had farm hands that cared for her properties but she was also very much involved with both. By 1912, Beatrix owned a considerable amount of land in and around Sawrey. In all her property dealings she had taken advice from a local firm and was looked after by William Heelis. He informed her of properties which were coming available to the market, attended sales on her behalf, and took care of the contracts. Beatrix and William had developed a keen friendship and by the end of 1912 William had proposed to Beatrix and she accepted. On October 14, 1913 Beatrix Potter and William Heelis were married in London.

After her marriage, Beatrix was able to settle in to the Lake District permanently where she took on an active role in caring for her farms. She loved her animals and enjoyed all the time she could with them. For several more years she turned all her energy toward farming and in 1924 she bought a spectacular hill farm in the Lake District named Troutbeck Park Farm. It had a stone farmhouse with over 2,000 acres supporting hundreds of sheep, the majority being the Herdwicks. Beatrix became a respected farmer, a judge at agricultural shows, and President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association.

Beatrix Potter died on December 22, 1943. She was more than an author of little books for children. She was an amazing artist, a farmer and landowner, a breeder, and a philanthropist. She is remembered both through her lovely books, which continue to be cherished by children today, and through the lovely Lake District in England, which she helped to preserve even at her death by bequeathing Hill Top Farm and over 4,000 acres to the National Trust.

Cumulative bibliography:

Aldis, Dorothy. Nothing is impossible: The story of Beatrix Potter. Peter Smith Publ. 1988
Lane, Margaret. The magic years of Beatrix Potter. Frederick Warne & Co. 1978.
Linder, Leslie. A history of the writings of Beatrix Potter, Warne 1971.
Potter, Beatrix The Tale of Jeremy Fisher Warne 2001
Potter, Beatrix The Tale of Benjamin Bunny Warne 2002
Potter, Beatrix The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck Warne 2002
Potter, Beatrix The tale of Peter Rabbit. Warne 2007.
Potter, Beatrix The Tale of Tom Kitten Warne 2002
Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: artist, storyteller and countrywoman. Warne 1986