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Beatrix Potter: Beloved Author, Natural Scientist, Conservationist & Farmer

Beatrix Potter was best known as a children's author but she had several other enduring skills and interests. Learn more about her here.

Beatrix Potter with her pet springer spaniel Spot

Beatrix Potter with her pet springer spaniel Spot

Helen Beatrix Potter: Natural Scientist With Imagination

Helen Beatrix Potter was born on the 28th July 1866 in Kensington, London. She is best remembered for her stories about captivating characters including Jemima Puddle-Duck, Peter Rabbit and Mrs. Tiggywinkle.

There's a lot more to learn about Beatrix. She was a keen natural scientist and mycologist, a fungi expert, conservationist, prizewinning sheep breeder, farmer, landowner and wife.

Beatrix Potter was born to affluent cotton printing trade heir and stock market investor Rupert Potter and his wife Helen who had a family tree that boasted a Baron Ashton. He was not only a relation of Beatrix's but an ancestor of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, our future queen.

Her younger brother Walter Bertram, known as Bertram, was almost 6 years younger than her. She was educated by governesses at home, 2 Bolton Gardens, West Brompton in London and she was often left alone with her pets and imagination.

From the age of 14 she kept a diary which she wrote in code so no one else could read it. She enjoyed lengthy holidays in Scotland and the Lake District in northwest England, an area that she later called home.

Potter's Fascination with Fungi

Long before Beatrix embarked on her writing career she was absorbed by natural science and mycology, the study of fungi. She was a friend of the noted naturalist and amateur mycologist Charles McIntosh who she first met in 1892.

She illustrated countless fungi specimens and worked with the team at Kew Gardens, although she met with sexism there. She wrote confidently about spore germination and had her paper read at the Linnean Society in 1897. It was read on her behalf because women were not permitted to be members or to attend society meetings. The rejection of women in science greatly frustrated Beatrix.

Throughout her scientific endeavours the artistically gifted Beatrix and Bertram created unique greetings cards, particularly Christmas cards, and her illustrations of sweet creatures were bought and used in numerous publications. Bertram specialised in photography.

Arguably Beatrix Potter's best known character Peter Rabbit, here he's helping himself to Mr. McGregor's carrots.

Arguably Beatrix Potter's best known character Peter Rabbit, here he's helping himself to Mr. McGregor's carrots.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

When she was 27 years old (1893) Beatrix wrote and illustrated a story in a letter to Noel Moore, the sick child of one of her past governesses Annie Moore. Flopsy, Peter, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail Rabbits worked their magic and Annie told Beatrix that her story was be good enough to publish.

She finally decided to have the story privately published in 1901 under the title The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year the publishers Frederick Warne & Co. released the book to great commercial acclaim. Beatrix Potter wrote 30 books, 23 of them were her beloved children's stories to which she added irresistible merchandise from figures to board games.

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Hill Top Farm in the Lake District

In 1905 Beatrix became engaged to Norman Warne, son of Frederick Warne. Sadly, he passed away a few months later. Beatrix retreated to the Lake District, purchasing Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey using her book royalties and inherited money.

Beatrix Potter was a quick learner and she became a capable farmer at Hill Top Farm. She and her farm manager bred cows, chickens, pigs and sheep. Beatrix worked with the farming community, championed advances in agriculture and husbandry and she established a local nursing association.

She contacted the local legal firm W.H. Heelis & Co. to purchase more pastureland and in 1909 she became the owner of Castle Farm which was opposite Hill Top Farm. She married William Heelis in October 1913. His legal practice survives to this day.

The couple lived at Castle Cottage on Castle Farm. Tenants were installed at Hill Top Farm and Beatrix maintained her office and studio at Hill Top.

Beatrix Potter lived at Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, England. Today the property is managed by the National Trust.

Beatrix Potter lived at Hill Top Farm in the Lake District, England. Today the property is managed by the National Trust.

Beatrix Potter: Renowned Sheep Breeder

Beatrix's father passed away in 1914 and at the outbreak of World War 1 Helen, her mother moved closer residing in Bowness by Lake Windermere. She died in 1932.

Beatrix's brother Bertram married and took up farming in Scotland in1902 but he kept this from his parents for over a decade. When he learned of the marriage Rupert Potter was so horrified by his son's choice of bride, former mill worker Mary Welsh Scott that he wrote him out of his will. Bertram died in June 1918 aged 46 after suffering a stroke. Beatrix and Mary were close.

In the 1920s Beatrix became renowned for her Herdwick sheep breeding at another farm she purchased, Troutbeck Park Farm. Her herds won prizes at shows. She was soon a highly renowned judge of the breed at country shows.

In 1942 Beatrix Potter was appointed as the first ever female President Elect of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders Association. Tragically, she died before she could take on the work.

Remembering Potter in Drawn to Nature

The world lost Beatrix to pneumonia and heart disease on the 22nd December 1943 at Castle Cottage. Her work lives on in all her spheres of interest. William Heelis remained at Castle Cottage but he survived her by just 20 months.

She gifted Hill Top Farm and her other land purchases totalling over 4000 acres to the Natural Trust in her will. It was their largest ever donation at that time and preserved much of the Lake District National Park. The trust opened Hill Top Farm to the public in 1946 and continue to maintain the land and properties. The headquarters of the National Trust are named Heelis in her honour.

In 2022 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the trust have an exhibition Beatrix Potter: Drawn to Nature. You can learn more about it here:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle

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