Beatrix Potter: One of the Most Remarkable Women of All Time

Beatrix potter300pxHelen Beatrix Potter was born in London on July 28, 1866 and died in Near Sawrey, in the Lake District of England December 22, 1943 at the age of 77. Over her lifetime Beatrix had many passions that included her pets, science, illustration and writing. In her later years, she became an astute businesswoman, farmer, sheep breeder and conservationist.

In her day, during Victorian England, girls were not given an education, however, being from a wealthy, upper-class family, she was educated by her governesses. Growing up, she had numerous pets and even kept mice under her bed which she trained to eat out of her hand. Holidays were spent in Scotland and the English Lake District where she developed her love for nature; drawing and painting the flora and fauna she found in woodlands and in the landscape. She began to study fungi and became adept at producing detailed watercolour illustrations.

The Science of Mycology – the study of fungi; genetic and biochemical properties:
In the 1890’s, after meeting Charles McIntosh, a naturalist and amateur mycologist during a summer holiday in Dunkeld, Scotland her passion for mycology grew and her interest centred on how fungi reproduced. Using her talent for illustration and watercolour and consulting with chemists and botanists at Kew, she produced a paper on her theory of reproduction. However, because of her gender and amateur status, she was not permitted to present the paper herself to the Linnean Society and so she withdrew it.

This paper has only recently been rediscovered and properly evaluated. In 1997, the Linnean Society issued a posthumous apology to her for the sexism used in handling her research. Today, her works on mycology are displayed at the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside in the Lake District where mycologist still refer to them for identification of species. There is also a collection of her works at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Perth, Scotland.

As a child, Beatrix spent many hours drawing and creating figures and animals, many based on the small animals she and her brother Bertram kept as pets. At 23, Beatrix was creating cards and paintings of animals dressed in human clothing which she sold. On September 4th, 1893 while on holiday in Dunkeld, Scotland, Beatrix wrote a letter to a small boy who was ill, the child of one of her governesses. Using her pet rabbit for inspiration, she told him a story about four little rabbits; Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. She would later use this as a springboard for her many children’s books, starting with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

She sent her first manuscript to six different publishers, and each one turned her down. Unthwarted, she took matters into her own hands and using her own money, she published her book. After much success with it, she sent her manuscript to a 7th publisher, Frederick Warne & Co., who agreed to publish her books.

Through her publisher, Beatrix met his brother Norman whom she worked very closely with during the production of her books. They eventually became engaged and made plans to be married, much to the disapproval of her parents. In order to dissuade Beatrix, her parents moved her out of London to Wales but unfortunately, very shortly after, Norman became ill and died of Leukemia at the age of 37.

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It was time for a change; Beatrix found a new home in the Lake District that she loved. Using her income from her books, she purchased Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey. This beloved home soon became the subject of many of her subsequent books.

Farmer and Sheep Breeder:
Beatrix took great interest in the farmland around her home and after three years, in 1909, she had her own flock of sheep. She was especially interested in the Herdwick breed and became a prize-winning breeder and prosperous farmer. She was instrumental in helping to form the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association.

In time, Beatrix started buying farmland in the area around Hill Top Farm and beyond through the assistance of her lawyer William Heelis. Over time, their friendship grew and eventually, they married quietly in London in 1913. They moved into Castle Farm and enjoyed many happy years together and from here she would embark on her greatest endeavour; the conservation of the Lake District.

Since childhood, Beatrix had developed a great love for the Lake District and she felt very strongly about preserving the way of life there. This included saving the Herdwick breed of sheep and so as she purchased farms in the area, her tenants agreed to raise this breed and thereby ensuring that they would be sustained as an important breed of the area.

Beatrix became involved in a local group which eventually became known as The National Trust as she was interested in preserving as much property in the Lake District as possible.

Her Legacy:
Preserved in the archives of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, England are a collection of her childhood drawings. Her mycological and scientific drawings reside at the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside. Mycologists still to this day, refer to them in identifying fungi. A collection of her fungi paintings also resides at the Perth Museum and Art Gallery in Perth, Scotland.

Jemima puddleduck300pxIn all, she wrote and published 30 books, 23 of which made up the series of children’s books; her most famous being The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Today, one of her books is sold every 15 minutes.

She was instrumental in preserving the Herdwick breed of sheep in the Lake District and helped to form the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association, still operating today.

At her death in 1943, she bequeathed most of her land, some 4,000 acres and properties to the National Trust with more to follow at her husband’s death. By far, it would be the largest ever to be left to the National Trust which secured their position, not only in the Lake District, but nationally as well. In fact, the National Trust Headquarters is named Heelis House in her honour.

She was the stuff of which true heroines are made!

You may also be interested in our blog: Land of Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter.


by Doris Power, 

Tour Leader,

Today's Woman Traveller 








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