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The Tales of Beatrix Potter

Rev. Elaine Bomford

Opening Words  by Beatrix Potter

    What we call the highest and the lowest in nature are both equally perfect.

    The willow bush is as beautiful as the human form, divine.

Reading from Beatrix Potter’s Journal,

The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography 

                                        by Margaret Lane 


"In the calm spacious days that seem so long ago," she wrote, a little before her death, "I loved to wander on the Troutbeck fell*.  Sometimes I had with me an old sheepdog, Nip, or Fly; more often I went alone. But never lonely. There was company of gentle sheep, and wild flowers and singing waters." 


Sometimes strange things happened in the solitary places. "Another time all by myself alone I watched a weird dance.... It was far away in that lonely wilderness behind the table-land on Troutbeck Tongue. In the midst of this waste of yellow bent-grass and stones there is a patch of green grass and a stunted thorn." 


"Round the tree - round and round in measured canter - went four of the wild fell ponies. Round and round, then checked and turned; round and round reversed; arched necks, tossing manes, tails streaming. I watched a while, crouching behind a boulder. Who had taught them? Who had learned them to "dance the heys"* in that wilderness? Oftentimes I have seen managed horses cantering round the sawdust ring under a circus tent; but these half-wild youngsters had never been handled by man...."     

Sermon: Tales of Beatrix Potter

    Beatrix Potter once wrote to an American friend: 

    “I am descended from generations of Lancashire yoemen (landowners, freemen) and weavers - obstinate, hard-headed, matter of fact folk.  As far back as I can go, they were Puritans, noncomformists, dissenters.  Your ancestors sailed to America.  Mine, at the same time, were sticking it out at home, probably rather enjoying persecution.” 

    The radical “dissenters” from whom she was descended on both sides of her family did not conform to either the Catholic or the Anglican views of religion.  These early British Unitarians were one of the branches of the Unitarian movement which came to life in the years of the Reformation and grew in continental Europe, England and the Colonies.  Plainspokenness, respect for reflective thinking and science, belief in the benefits of education, and practical work for social relief distinguished the movement. Beatrix’s grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides were, she said, “crusty eccentrics, outspoken reformers.”   

Prosperous Unitarians

    Both her mother and father were from prosperous Unitarian families who made their money through the cotton trade...cotton picked by slaves in the American south and shipped across to England, that is.  Her grandfather Potter owned factories in the North of England where fabric was imprinted with calico designs.  He was a benevolent wealthy man, an enlightened man according to the standards of his day. He built a library and reading room for his workers at his factory in Manchester. Although he employed child workers, as was common practice, he built a day school for them and for children of his adult laborers, as well as a dining room provided with wholesome farm food.  Her maternal grandfather was the main benefactor of the Stalybridge Unitarian Church, which is still going strong in Cheshire, England.

    These enlightened Victorian Unitarians were followers of Darwin and the scientific method.  They believed in the humanity of Jesus, the great moral teacher, and of the necessity of using one’s life to do good in the world.

    In spite of her family’s forward-thinking ways, a smothering conventionality pervaded Beatrix’s childhood in London.  Although her brother was sent away to school when he came of age, Beatrix was educated by tutors at home because she was a girl.  Apparently, she did not resent this seeming inequity.  Instead, she said 

“Thank goodness my education was neglected.... The reason I am glad I did not go to school - it would have rubbed off some of the originality (if I had not died of shyness or been killed with overpressure).” 

    She came to life in nature, in the garden, or in the woods.  When her family took their summer trips to the north of England and to Scotland, staying for months at a time in big country houses with vast woodlands, Beatrix blossomed.  And when she visited her grandparents’ farm estate, she wanted to take part in every aspect of farm life - she collected eggs from the hens, watched sheep sheering and other work with the animals, picked produce in the garden.

Trips to remember

    For ten years, a round of spring trips to the seaside, summers in the north country, and winters in the third floor room of her London home ensued.  She cared for, played with, studied and drew her menagerie of creatures. She learned whole plays of Shakespeare by heart.  She learned German, Latin and French. She called her Belgian rabbit Peter Piper, whom she taught to do tricks, “An affectionate companion and a quiet friend.“  It was during this period, in the autumn of 1893, that Beatrix wrote the now-famous letter to the son of her favorite former governess, Noel Moore. “...I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter....”   

    Beatrix also spent long afternoons in the British Museum of Natural History,  studying and drawing the exhibits of insects, plants, fossils and minerals.  Her real “passion” was for fungi.  In the summers, she would “roam the woods seeking new specimens, which she represented in beautiful and scientifically accurate drawings and water colors.” [Lane]  The desire to identify, dissect, classify and comprehend the world of nature infused her culture.  If Beatrix had lived in our age, it is likely she would have followed the path of science.  But in her era, those doors were closed to her, as she painfully discovered first hand.  

    An article on her work with fungi in “The Boston Globe” called “Barred from Science” says:  

“Potter was the first person in Britain, and one of the first in the world, to recognize that lichens were composed of two organisms, a fungus and an alga. Her microscopic study of lichens led her to the conclusion that the two organisms lived in a mutually advantageous relationship: symbiosis. The alga took care of photosynthesis for the pair, converting sunlight to useful nourishment, she believed; the fungus gave the alga a safe haven, stored water, and drew minerals necessary for photosynthesis from the anchoring rock or tree trunk....

An exclusive society

    But getting anyone in the exclusively male scientific community to listen to her proved difficult. Her appearances at the Royal Botanic Gardens were met with snubs by the staff. The scientists at the Museum of Natural History at South Kensington gave her short shrift. At best, someone might make a passing comment on her bonnet. 

    `They do not seem to be half-sharp,’ she wrote of the scientists in her coded diary.”

    In 1897, at the urging of her uncle, she wrote a paper advancing her symbiosis theory in spite of the dull-witted scientists at the Museum.  It was read at a meeting of the Linnaean Society of London - by a man, as women were not allowed to attend the meetings.  After this bittersweet accomplishment, her dreams of making life and a contribution in science were set aside. 

    Beatrix suffered, she said, “odious fits of low spirits.”  During “the bad times” she drew anything that was at hand.  She even found herself “copying a swill bucket” and had to pause and laugh at herself wryly.  

    She concentrated on drawing animals again, sketching her resident toad, rat, rabbit, tortoise or dove.  Her love for her animals comes through in her drawing, as does a certain objectivity in both life and death.   

    “I will do something sooner or later”  she wrote.

    In the summer 0f 1897, Beatrix was vacationing with her parents in the place she would come to love more than anywhere else, Hill Top Farm near Sawrey, in the Lake District.  On her birthday, July 28th, she said she felt “much younger at thirty than I did at twenty, firmer in both mind and body.”

“I was very sorry to come away” she wrote....”It is as nearly perfect a little place as I ever lived in, and such nice old-fashioned people in the village....Perhaps my most sentimental leave-taking was with Don, the great farm collie.  He came up and muddied me as I was packing up Peter Rabbit at the edge of dark.  I accompanied him to the stable-gate, where he turned, holding it open with his side, and gravely shook hands.  Afterwards, putting his paws solemnly on my shoulders, he licked my face and then went away into the farm.” 

And now, the Tales of Peter Rabbit   

    Reflecting on how the Moore children loved the story of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix began to contemplate creating a book for children.  Seven years after it was sent, she recovered the original Peter Rabbit letter from Noel Moore, added color to the sketches and filled in the story.  She sent the manuscript to 6 publishers, all of whom rejected it. But Beatrix had savings in the bank and decided to use it to publish the book herself according to her own specifications - small enough to be held easily in a child’s hands, and not more than a schilling - “cheap” - so as to be affordable for “all her little friends.”  In 1901 the first run of 250 copies was accomplished and Beatrix very successfully distributed it through relations and friends, making a small profit for herself.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bought a copy, and it proved so popular that Beatrix printed another edition.  A publisher offered to produce further editions, and Beatrix Potter finally made her way into the larger world.

    Over the next 16 years, Beatrix produced the children’s stories with their luminous drawings.  She became friendly with her publisher, Frederick Warne, and his family.  The Warnes were an artistic, gregarious, embracing tribe, and Beatrix warmed in their company.  Her shyness began to melt and her confidence grew.  So did her bank account - and she liked having money.  Increasingly, it would provide her with a means for living according to her own choices and passions.

    In 1905, with the money she made from The Tale of Peter Rabbit and her next books, Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm in Sawrey, where she had spent such a happy birthday years before.  She was sinking down roots in a place where she felt she could connect with her north country, shrewd, salty, nonconformist heritage.  She made the choice to become a farmer, to work and live with animals of all descriptions, and with the people who care for them.  Given all her gifts, and the opportunities open to her because of her independent means of living, she chose to immerse herself in the rural life.   

    The same summer she bought Hill Top Farm, Beatrix became engaged to a son in the Warne family, Norman.  For the first time in her life, she openly defied her parents, who were against the marriage.  Publishers, according to her parents, were not of the same class.  They may have been Unitarians, but that didn’t stop them from being snobs.  However, Beatrix’s engagement lasted less than a month; sadly, Norman died of leukemia. 

A busy woman

    So Beatrix, on her own, divided her time between creating her books, renovating and maintaining Hilltop Farm, and caring for her aging parents.  

    Historian Margaret Lane writes “Hill Top Farm started to expand quite quickly.  Late in the summer the farmer [caretaker] had bought some sheep....They were Herdwick sheep, native to the Lake District, a hardy breed that thrives on the high fells and with wool prized for its hard wearing and waterproof qualities.”  These sheep do not need fencing - they are said to know their own “heaf” or area, and they do not stray.   These wild wiry sheep would become Beatrix’s great pride and love.  She would eventually become the first woman president of the Herdwick Sheepherder's Association.   

     Beatrix continued to acquire land.  With every book she published, she would buy another piece of property.  She became quite fond of the local real estate lawyer who handled these transactions, and in 1913, when she was age 47, she married him.  From this time on, Beatrix Potter wanted to be known only as Mrs. William Heelis, Sheep farmer of Sawrey.  She and Mr. Heelis moved into a larger farm adjoining Hill Top in Sawrey, with views looking out to the high peaks, and nearer in, the rolling green fields dotted with sheep and criss-crossed with stone walls.  Increasingly, living and working on the farm became her primary focus.  Her eyesight began to fade, and along with it, her interest in doing the fine drawings and illustrations of former years.  However, she was perhaps the first to appreciate the marketing power of a “brand” based upon fictional characters in her books -- Beatrix sewed, patented and promoted a Peter Rabbit doll, a board game, painted figurines, wallpaper, painting books,  stationary and other merchandise.  In short, she pioneered a business empire.

    At home, Beatrix immersed herself in her gardens, grew flowers, planned and executed the planting of stands of trees on far hills, planted and harvested vegetables, tended to fruit trees and bushes.  She devoted herself to acquiring and preserving more land, and enjoyed her life with her husband, of whom she was dearly fond.  

    She was recognized and respected as a woman to be reckoned with by the locals.  A BBC interview with a villager who was a boy at the time gives us this picture of Beatrix in Sawrey:

    “The youngsters from the area used to wait for 'Auld Mother Heelis' - As she was known locally, to pass over a rickety old bridge, on her way to visit one of her farms. When she got onto the bridge, in the words of one of the boys: We used t' jump ower t' wall, run ower t' middle o bridge and when she'd get on, we'd grap t' top rail and shake t' bridge.   The result showed a completely different side to Beatrix Potter:   She'd either kick yer arse or use 'er walking stick on yer' said the young boy, many years later, still laughing. 

A good match

    In 1927 she asked Tom Storey, a shepherd, if he would move to Hill Top farm to manage the farm and help her to breed her Herdwick Sheep.  He said this about Mrs. Heelis:

     “We worked well together. I used to take the milk in to her every morning and tell her the day’s work plan.  She very seldom asked me to change it.  We won prizes for Herdwicks that very first year at Hawkshead Show and she was as pleased as a dog with two tails.  I went to nearly every show with Mrs. Heelis.  We were unbeaten with ewes  from 1930 to 1939.  She won all sorts of prizes, like silver teapots...and tankards -  she used to give me all the tankards.  We got on well and I stayed for 20 years, but then I knew her.  If you met Mrs. Heelis with her head down you just walked past.  If she had her head up you said,“Good Morning.”  

... “You’d never have thought she was a lady, the way she dressed,” he said.  “She had an old herringbone tweed costume down to her ankles.  A shy woman in a way, though she could be pretty stern.  A bonny woman, too; upper class.” 

    When Mrs. William Heelis died, aged 77, she left 14 farms comprising over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust, to be kept open for the British people and (more importantly) the Herdwick Sheep.   

    Beatrix Potter’s legacy has indeed done much good in the world -- 

    She made a scientific discovery concerning symbiosis.

    She became a beloved artist and storyteller, creating characters from the many creatures she naturally befriended and keenly observed -- characters that are mischievous, whimsical, brave, fearful, curious, and favored by readers  worldwide. 

A Legacy

    She was an accomplished naturalist and gardener.  Her garden at Hill Top house still thrives and brings pleasure to the thousands of people who now visit every year.  Her illustrations of flowers, plants and trees continue to teach us to look closely, and inspire us to pay more attention to the harmony and detail in Nature.

    She was a formidable businesswoman, a pioneering entrepreneur in the world of marketing, and a sheep breeder who won the respect of her fellow farmers.  She was an independent woman who made her way despite discrimination and limitations imposed upon her by society. 

    She preserved huge tracts of woods and farmlands, and was a pioneer in the whole concept of acquiring land to save it from development.  By doing so she saved that land for the enjoyment of future generations, and supported the local people who still work to keep alive traditional ways of farming and breeding sheep.  Not to mention all the squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs, foxes, ducks, mice, frogs and other creatures whose habitat she happily preserved. 

    In her last years, Beatrix was often seen walking amongst her sheep and in the hills, wearing wooden clogs, her three layers of tweed, watching, collecting, looking, surveying the domain, seeing worlds of beauty.

    “It does not do to be sentimental on a farm,” she counseled.

    But one can love.                                

Closing Words    by Beatrix Potter

    Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good,

    behave yourself

    and never mind the rest.             AMEN



*fell - a high hill

**"dance the heys"  Morris dancing pattern


References and Further Reading


BBC Radio  “Cumbria, A Sense of Place:  The Truth About Sheep”     


Lane, Margaret  The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter, 

    Frederick Warne & Co., London, 1978


Lane, Margaret  The Tale of Beatrix Potter,  1946

    Audiobook, Read by Penelope Dellaporta


Mather, Geoffrey  “Ashes to ashes - but where?”  2001


McDowell, Marta  Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life

    Timber Press, Inc., 2013


Potter, Beatrix  The Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter, 

    Frederick Warne & Co., London, 1989


Potter, Beatrix  The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897, 

    Transcribed from her code writings by Leslie Linder, 

    Frederick Warne & Co.,  London, 1966


Raymo, Chet  “Barred from Science”  

    The Boston Globe Archives, January 25, 1999


Taylor, Judy   Beatrix Potter:  Artist, Storyteller and Countrywoman,             Frederick Warne & Co., London 1986

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