150 years ago on 28th July 1866 at No. 2, Bolton Gardens, Kensington, Beatrix Potter, one of the UK’s most celebrated children’s story tellers and illustrators, was born.
Beatrix’s Victorian family were shunned by much of London’s society as they were Unitarians. This meant Beatrix spent most of her childhood looked after her nanny. Once Beatrix was old enough, she was given a governess, who taught her alone.
Beatrix had a brother called Bertram, who was six years younger than her. They shared a mutual love of animals, and had many pets, including rabbits, mice, frogs, lizards, snakes, snails and a bat. Her pet rabbits, especially Benjamin Bouncer, were the inspiration behind many of the drawings and stories Beatrix wrote in later life, such as that of the mischievous Benjamin Bunny.
Every year, Beatrix’s father rented a large house in Scotland for three months. The entire household, including the dogs, servants, and any other small pets the children could sneak along, travelled north. They regularly stayed at a house called Dalguise, on the River Tay in Perthshire, where Beatrix and her brother had their only taste of freedom all year, and would roam the countryside. It was during these periods that Beatrix learnt to observe plants and insects with an artist’s eye.
When Beatrix was sixteen her family rented a property in the Lake District. Beatrix instantly fell in love with the region. While in the Lakes her artistic skills and imagination drew her to a fascination with fungi, and as she grew older she was encouraged to draw scientific, botanic illustrations, at which she excelled.
As an adult, it was her drive to become financially independent in a world dominated by men earning the money that made Beatrix turn from botanical drawing to children’s story books. In 1902, the publisher Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co. risked publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Four more best-selling little books followed, including her favourite, The Tailor of Gloucester. In time, income from her books enabled Beatrix to invest in farmland in her beloved Lake District, including Hill Top Farm, which would become a feature in many of her tales.
It was during her land investments in the Lake District that Beatrix developed a relationship with William Heelis, a local property solicitor. William proposed to Beatrix in 1912, and they were married in London the following year. They lived together at Castle Cottage until Beatrix’s death in 1943.
During her lifetime, Beatrix Potter was a great supporter of The National Trust, and this institution- amongst many others- is celebrating her achievements this year with a number of commemorative events- http://www.peterrabbit.com/
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.