A potted biography of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter and her husband William, Beatrix at Hill Top © Rupert Potter & National Trust

Beatrix Potter and her husband William, Beatrix at Hill Top

Beatrix Potter was born in London on 28 July 1866 - as Helen Beatrix Potter. She lived with her mother Helen, her father Rupert, and her younger brother Bertram.

The families of both her parents had their origins in the industrialised North of England. The money inherited from the Lancashire cotton industry enabled the Potters to live comfortably in Bolton Gardens, an elegant square in Kensington, London.

Rupert Potter was a qualified barrister who chose not to practice his profession but to pursue his passion for art and photography. As a young child, Beatrix showed signs of having inherited the artistic talent of her parents and was frequently treated to gallery trips or visits to her father’s notable friends: William Gaskell, husband of Elizabeth Gaskell the novelist, and John Everett Millais, the painter.

Typical of many middleclass young girls in the Victorian period, Beatrix had little real contact with her parents. Her childhood was rather lonely, with few friends and only a governess for company. Her fascination for painting and drawing occupied most of her spare time outside lessons and she loved to sketch plants and animals. This interest would later become the inspiration for her stories.

The Potters took long holidays each year to the countryside in Scotland and the Lake District, where Beatrix indulged in her interest in nature, spending hours exploring and sketching the wildlife. Her first visit to the Lake District was in 1882 when she visited Wray Castle, a Victorian gothic mansion. They also stayed in Lingholm, Fawe Park, Holehird, and Lakefield (now Ees Wyke).

Beatrix frequently returned from holiday with animals such as mice, rabbits, newts, caterpillars and birds which formed an entire menagerie that lived in the schoolroom.


The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the first children’s books

Beatrix had been painting for her own amusement for many years but in 1890 she had her first commercial success with rabbit pictures she sold as Christmas card designs to Hildesheimer & Faulkener.

Beatrix had become close friends with her former governess, Annie Moore. She was particularly fond of Annie’s young children, regularly writing amusing picture letters for them about the many pets she kept.

Several years later Beatrix turned one of the tales into a picture book. It was rejected by several publishers, so she privately printed 250 copies of it herself. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was a great success with family and friends.

In 1902, Frederick Warne & Co agreed to publish an initial quantity of 8,000. They sold out instantly and Beatrix’s career as a storyteller was launched.

By 1905, Warne had published six of Beatrix Potter’s books, including The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. She used the profits to buy her first farm, Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey village in the Lake District.

In the summer of that year, Norman Warne proposed marriage and she accepted. But tragically, Norman fell ill and died four weeks later. Beatrix threw herself into the running of her farm whilst working on more ‘little books’. The Tale of Tom Kitten and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck were both set in and around Hill Top.

In 1903 Beatrix Potter designed and patented a Peter Rabbit doll – making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed character.

With her approval a range slippers, handkerchiefs and china tea sets were designed and by the 1940s Wedgwood and Royal Doulton had begun to create pottery with scenes from the tales.


Beatrix and the Lake District

Beatrix loved life in the Lake District and as a prominent member of the farming community she won prizes for breeding sheep, especially the Herdwick breed. She did much to promote the breed and was the first woman to be elected president of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association (although she died before she took up the chair). She also became a fierce campaigner on local conservation issues. She was passionate about preserving a way of life, but she was an astute and forward thinking business woman, not afraid of making changes where necessary.

During the next few years Beatrix purchased a considerable amount of land in the Lake District and was advised by local solicitor William Heelis who she later married. She and William lived in Castle Cottage, Near Sawrey, from 1913 until her death. Only a few books were produced for Frederick Warne after their marriage.


Beatrix and the National Trust

She worked closely with the National Trust, helping it to acquire land and manage farms with a view to long-term preservation. In one of her letters to Eleanor Rawnsley in 1934, she wrote 'I wish there may be a sufficient representative number of the old farms in the hands of the Trust.'

Beatrix was a friend of Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley – one of the three founder members of the National Trust. When she died in 1943, she left 4000 acres of land and countryside to the National Trust, as well as 14 farms. 

All of these farms are still working farms managed by tenant farmers, in accordance with her wishes, and we continue her conservation work in the Lake District to this day.