Beatrix Potter’s early life and books

Two Bad Mice book at Hill Top, near Sawrey, Cumbria

Beatrix Potter was a woman ahead of her time. Not only was she an accomplished children's author and illustrator, she was a passionate and knowledgeable farmer and conservationist - long before conservation became popular and fashionable.

Beatrix Potter left 4,000 acres of land and 14 farms to the National Trust when she died in 1943. Here we take a look at this talented and accomplished woman’s early life and books.

A Londoner at birth

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.

A creative flair

Rupert Potter was a qualified barrister who chose not to practise 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.

A life apart

Typical of many middle-class 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.

A love affair begins

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.

The birth of Peter Rabbit

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.

A sad passing

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.

A link with pottery

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 of slippers, handkerchiefs and china tea sets was designed and by the 1940s Wedgwood and Royal Doulton had begun to create pottery with scenes from the tales.