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Beatrix Potter

Visitors looking at a copy of Two Bad Mice at Hill Top, near Sawrey, Lake District
Visitors looking at a copy of Two Bad Mice at Hill Top, Lake District | © National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Beatrix Potter is best known as the creator of Peter Rabbit and other favourite animal characters. Discover how her middle-class upbringing, fascination with animals and creative flair culminated in a successful career as an author and illustrator as well as a passion for conservation – long before conservation became popular and fashionable. She left 4,000 acres of land and 15 farms to the National Trust when she died in 1943.

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 novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, and painter John Everett Millais.

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 took up 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.

Beatrix Potter aged 15 photographed by her father in 1883 accompanied by the family spaniel, Spot at Hilltop, Sawrey
Beatrix Potter at Hilltop, Sawrey | © National Trust Images

Beatrix Potter in childhood

Beatrix Potter aged 15 photographed by her father in 1883 accompanied by the family spaniel, Spot at Hill Top, Sawrey.

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-style 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 a menagerie 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.

She 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 letter writer

As well as writing books, Beatrix was a great letter writer and wrote to family, friends and fans all over the world. You can buy a book of her published letters to adults and another of her letters to children.

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.

Manuscript of Canon Rawnsley's versification of The Tale of Peter Rabbit written in ink with rabbit drawing.
Canon Rawnsley's versification of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. | © National Trust/Robert Thrift

A small manuscript

Manuscript of Canon Rawnsley's versification of The Tale of Peter Rabbit written in ink with rabbit drawing.

Beatrix Potter and Hill Top

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, 17th-century Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey village in the Lake District. Along with the surrounding countryside it became inspiration for many of her subsequent books.

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.

Herdwick sheep at Yew Tree Farm, Coniston, Lake District, Cumbria
Herdwick sheep in the Lake District | © National Trust Images/Val Corbett

Beatrix Potter the farmer

Beatrix Potter's lifelong fascination with animals saw her turn to farming as she settling into life in the Lake District. Learning from the best shepherds she could employ, her Herdwick sheep became some of the finest in the country and her pride and joy.

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Beatrix Potter and the Lake District

Beatrix’s love of the Lake District inspired her to create some of her most famous tales, become a prominent member of the farming community and a fierce campaigner on local conservation issues.

While she was passionate about preserving a way of life, she was an astute and forward-thinking businesswoman, not afraid of making changes where necessary. Beatrix purchased a considerable amount of land in the Lake District and was advised by local solicitor William Heelis who she met in Hawkshead and 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 as she became much more focused on farming and investing in land and the local community around Near Sawrey.

Photograph of Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis by Mr Sawtry. Label on back of frame 'Beatrix Potter c.75 years, taken by Mr Sawtry, 1866-1943'.
Beatrix Potter | © National Trust Images/Sue James

Photograph of Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter, Mrs William Heelis c.75 years

Beatrix Potter and the National Trust

‘I wish there may be a sufficient representative number of the old farms in the hands of the Trust.’

– Beatrix Potter in a letter to Eleanor Rawnsley, 1934

Beatrix worked closely with the National Trust, helping it to acquire land and manage farms to ensure long-term preservation.

Since an early meeting at Wray Castle, Beatrix became a good friend of Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley – one of the three co-founders of the National Trust. When she died in 1943, she left 4,000 acres of land and countryside in our care, as well as 14 farms. Her legacy has helped ensure the survival of the Lakeland landscape.

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