When I was a small child, a very small child, my parents took me to the library to get my first library card. It was very exciting as my big sister (2 years older) already had one so of course I wanted one too! I was allowed to borrow a couple of books and, as my Mum tells me, I was immediately drawn to the little Beatrix Potter books. They were the first books checked out on my library card.
My parents, especially my Dad, were big readers and we made weekly visits to our library. Apparently on every visit, I could be found clutching Beatrix Potter books in my hands, making my selection swiftly. To this day I love Potter’s illustrations and charming stories. So, on what would have been her 154th birthday, I thought I’d take a look back at the beloved illustrator and writer’s life.
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in Brompton in South-West London on July 28, 1866. Her father, Rupert, was a barrister and her mother, Helen, the daughter of a wealthy cotton merchant and shipbuilder. Both of Beatrix’s parents were artistic, with her father not only being creative but very clever in finance and, by the early 1890s, he has amassed great wealth for his small family.
Beatrix was educated by governesses, with the final one, Annie Moore, becoming a lifelong friend. In fact it was Moore who later suggested to Potter that the illustrations in the letters she received from her friend would be wonderful in children’s books.
The Potter family were greatly interested in nature and loved exploring the great outdoors. Many holidays were spent at an estate in Perthshire, Scotland but, when the estate was no longer available for their use, the family visited Wray Castle in the Lake District in the north-west of England. On this holiday, Potter met Hardwicke Rawnsley, the Vicar of Wray (who would later become the founding secretary of The National Trust) whose passion for nature and country living would have a lasting impact on her life.
Potter’s parents valued education for both men and women, which was not entirely common at that time. Potter was fascinated by all areas of natural science, collecting fossils and studying and illustrating fungi to aid in identification for scientists.
In the 1890s, Potter and brother Walter decided to make their own Christmas cards, using the illustrations of their many pets, especially Benjamin Bunny. The illustrations sold quickly, making Potter more determined to, one day, write and illustrate her own children’s books. In 1902 this dream came true when The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published and hugely successful.
Peter Rabbit was followed by The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, The Tailor of Gloucester and 23 other little books, each featuring those charming illustrations and delightful animal characters we all know so well.
Over the years Potter had fallen completely in love with the stunning Lake District in England. In 1905, she used some of the income from her books to purchase Hill Top Farm (now owned by The National Trust and open for tours) near Lake Windermere. A tenant farmer managed the property for her, but Potter was very hands-on, learning the techniques of fell farming and raising livestock, including a prize-winning flock of sheep. Through the purchase of the farm, she met solicitor William Heelis, whom she married in 1913.
Potter and Heelis had a happy marriage, celebrating 30 years together. Beatrix Potter died in December 1943, leaving the illustrations for her children’s books, an incredible 4000 acres of land, cottages, sixteen farms, and herds of cattle and sheep to The National Trust. Heelis died less than 2 years later, and he left the remainder of their property to The Trust.
There are many ways to get your Beatrix Potter fix, or to learn more:
- if you love the stories, watch the adaptations on DVD, including more traditional Potter fare and the new Peter Rabbit and Peter Rabbit 2 : The Runaway
- read a biography, including At Home With Beatrix Potter, Over the Hills and Far Away, and Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature
- try The Cottage Tales series by bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert. These cozy mysteries feature Potter and are set in the Lake District.
- read one of her children’s stories, original or updated
I’ve never been able to pick just one of Potter’s tales as my all-time favourite. My Mum loved Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, my sister, Benjamin Bunny, and a dear friend, The Tale of Two Bad Mice. If pressed, it would either be Squirrel Nutkin or the Flopsy Bunnies, with the beautiful illustrations of Mr McGregor’s garden.
Beatrix Potter once said “If I have done anything, even a little, to help small children enjoy honest, simple pleasures, I have done a bit of good.” I would say she accomplished more than “a bit”.
— Sandi H.