You may not realise it but Beatrix Potter was the JK Rowling of her day. When she died on 22 December 1943, aged 77, she left £211,636, a value of about £12,600,000 in today’s money. She also bequeathed over 4000 acres of land to the National Trust, worth about £28,000,000 at today’s value. She also left 16 farms and cottages together with herds of cattle and flocks of Herdwick sheep. The copyright of all her works went firstly to her husband and then onto her favourite nephew, Norman Warne. Her legacy can be explored in her old farmhouse at Hill Top in Hawkshead through her illustrations at the Beatrix Potter Gallery or brought to life at the World of Beatrix Potter Attraction.
Beatrix Potter was born in South Kensington, Middlesex in 1866. She was aged 11 when she first visited the lakes with her family. She already had an interest in animals but it was from this visit that her interest in the Lake District began. It was during these family holidays, that the drawings she created were the inspiration for her most famous characters – Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny, Squirrel Nutkin and more – as well as many of the locations in her books.
On one of the family trips to the Lakes, they stayed at Wray Castle and did quite a bit of entertaining. Beatrix became friends with a local vicar, Cannon H. Rawnsley of Wray Church. Cannon H. Rawnsley, who had Tennyson, Ruskin and Browning within his circle of friends, would be a huge influence on Potter. It was Rawnsley, who would later encourage Beatrix to publish her first book The Tale of Peter Rabbit. He influenced Potter in other ways, later on in his life, he become one of the co-founders of the National Trust, in the battle to preserve the natural beauty of the Lake District. Although she holidayed in many other places, particularly Scotland, she remained in contact with Cannon H. Rawnsley. On returning home to London from her holidays she would make greeting cards of her pictures and eventually began making a book.
At the age of 27, Potters tried to publish The Tale of Peter Rabbit and sent it to Frederick Warne, a well-known publisher of children’s books. But it was returned by Warne and many other publishers also rejected it. In 1901 she found a printer and self-published 250 copies of the book for a total cost of £11. In 1902 it was picked up by Frederick Warne & Company who published it commercially with great success. In the next 20 years, she published a further 22 additional books, beginning with The Tailor of Gloucester (1903), The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903), and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904). The tiny books, which she designed so that even the smallest children could hold them. This was combined with simple prose, concealing dry North Country humour, with illustrations in the best English watercolour tradition.
Despite strong parental opposition, she became engaged in 1905 to Norman Warne, the son of her publisher, During the summer of 1905 and a few weeks into their engagement, he fell ill and died of leukaemia. After his sudden death, she spent much of her time alone at Hill Top, a small farm in the village of Sawrey that she had bought with the proceeds of a legacy and the royalties from her books. In 1909, with her income beginning to grow, she bought Castle Cottage, a property just across the road from Hill Top, using solicitors at the W. Heelis offices in Hawkshead which is now the National Trust’s “Beatrix Potter Gallery”.
In the 19th Century, there was no formal education for girls and Victorian values also precluded her from becoming a farmer, however, in 1913 she married her solicitor, William Heelis, and spent the last 30 years of her life extending her farm property portfolio and breeding Herdwick sheep. In 1923 she purchased Troutbeck Park Farm and the Monk Coniston Estate in 1930, which is situated a couple of miles northeast of Coniston.
Hilltop now had a farm manager who lived at one end of the property, and the part in which Beatrice lived, was left empty and her possessions remained exactly as she left them. This later became her personal museum with her possessions again, still as she left them. Beatrix was a passionate conservationist and as a farmer, she became best known for the breeding of Herdwick sheep, Lakeland’s own breed. She would talk more about the sheep than the books she wrote. She attended country shows and exhibitions showing and judging them.
Sadly, in old age, her sight deteriorated and she lost much of her vision. The last few stories she wrote were written for publication in the United States. Her critics say they did not match her earlier work in style or craftsmanship. She died from pneumonia just before Christmas in 1943. She was cremated, and her ashes were scattered by her husband William in New Sawrey at the south end of Esthwaite Water.