Helen Beatrix Potter entered this life on the 28th July 1866. She was born into a period and class which seemed to have little understanding of childhood. Her parents, Helen and Rupert Potter, were rich having inherited fortunes from the Lancashire Cotton Industry. However a generation had passed and the hard working spirit was no longer in their blood. They had become part of the moneyed and middle class gentility.
Rupert Potter did in fact have a profession as a Barrister but he had never practised and by all accounts was relieved not to have to do so. After all why should a gentleman with money have to work! He spent his days at his clubs the Athenaeum and The Reform. However he did have a hobby. Photography was in its infancy and he became very technically adept but it seems he did not have the artistic eye to produce overly good photographs.
Helen Potter had little interest in anything apart from visiting. Her children particularly were very much ignored for the majority of the time
Number two Bolton Gardens, the Potter’s home, was a very sombre place for a little girl even in Victorian times. Life was very predictable – at the same hour every morning Helen and Rupert Potter breakfasted in silence in the dining room – mid morning Mr. Potter left for his club.
At 1.00p.m. “a tray furnished with a small cutlet and a helping of rice pudding went up to the Nursery by the back stairs”(1) and at 2.00p.m. Mrs. Potter entered her carriage and was driven away to leave her card on other ladies and drink tea in the drawing rooms of London whilst her carriage awaited. Both would return for the evening meal and soon the curtains were drawn and the Nursery lamp was extinguished.
Helen Beatrix Potter, who was known as Beatrix to distinguish her from her mother, was bought up in a home that made no concessions to childhood and where almost any form of activity was frowned upon. Personal vanity was discouraged in the Potter household however Beatrix was subjected to the “starching and brushing and tying up with ribbons, the lacing of boots and the carrying of muffs,” (2) something she was later glad to escape from as part of the stagnant life of the drawing room.
Breatrix’s childhood could not be described as a happy one. Her presence was rarely requested outside the Nursery and her solitary life was lonely and restricted.Her view of the outside world apart from the brisk daily walk with her Scottish nurse was through the barred third floor windows of 2 Bolton Gardens.
She was an only child for the first five years, she was never taken anywhere and she never went to school.
When she was 5 her brother, Bertram, was born but as soon as he was old enough he was sent away to school. However her parents did not seem to notice that she was unnaturally lonely. She had no friends, she neither shared her parents life nor mixed with other children.
Yet despite all of this she was not an unhappy child. It was here, in the lonely existence of the Nursery, that Beatrix consoled herself with the company of small animals, chiefly mice and rabbits, which she loved to draw and paint “I cannot rest” she wrote, “I must draw, however poor the result” (3)
In her long captivity on the third floor of Bolton Gardens she had become more interested in the fantasy world of animals and her own interests than life in the household. These interests had first been awakened during her first Scottish holiday. To both Beatrix and Bertram, who were taken for the first time away from the streets of London “contact with fields and flowers and hedgerow animals, with the sights and smells and labours of cottages and farms came as pure revelation of what was interesting and real.” (4)
The Potters were in the habit of taking holidays first in Perthshire,Scotland and then in later years in the Lake District. These trips north were designed to give Mr. and Mrs. Potter a break. The children’s needs and amusement were not considered. Life in Bolton Gardens was, to say the least, sombre. It had been described by a relative as “A dark Victorian Mausoleum completed with Aspidistras.” (5)
While in London the Potters did not entertain, but when on holiday Mr Potter was able to persuade some visitors to call by providing shooting and fishing parties.
One such visitor was John Bright, the Quaker Orator and statesman who had been a friend of Mr. Potter’s father and as an ardent fisherman.
Mr. Bright enjoyed the company of children and Bertram and Beatrix enjoyed his company and listening to his wonderful voice as he read poetry aloud. The children would, on occasion, accompany Mr. Bright on a walk to Stewartfield, an old dower house, where he showed them a lamp that had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots and other curious objects. They even discovered an old maze.
It was here on holiday that Beatrix discovered her love of nature and animals. She enjoyed discovering frogs, wood mice, stone walls and foxgloves as well as the farmyard and the white washed cottages among the rick yards and all of this was far more real to her than stifling London. For Beatrix this was real living whilst 2 Bolton Gardens, with its formality, constant routine and endless boredom was something to be endured.
From very early childhood Beatrix had loved to draw and paint and from a very young age had painted animals and birds which she had never seen but had copied from books.
Now she and Bertram, on their summer holidays in Scotland drew everything they saw including rabbits, caterpillars, sheep, cottages, cows, leaves, and flowers. They sewed their drawings together to make little books.
The drawings were as realistic as a ten year old child could make them. Every now and again the animal drawings were embellished with bonnets, mantles and mufflers and rabbits waled upright, carrying umbrellas or skating on ice.
After the holidays, when Bertram as back at school, Beatrix continued her solitary life. She certainly had an affection for her Governess, Miss Hammond, who appeared to be a very gentlewoman who encouraged Beatrix’s interest in nature and drawing, but Miss Hammond’s stay at Bolton Gardens was short-lived. She taught Beatrix all she as able but eventually retired saying that Beatrix’s knowledge was now far beyond her own and she was not able to teach her more.
Now, apart from being taught French and German by visiting governesses Beatrix remained totally alone in the Nursery, with no companionship other than the menagerie of animals she had gathered around her.
However she was not dismayed. In later life she commented “It sometimes happens that the town child is more alive to the fresh beauty of the country than a child who is country born. My brother and I were born in London …..But our descent, our interests and our joy were in the north country” (6)
And it was here in this lonely schoolroom that she developed the love of nature that she had acquired on her holidays in the north. She continued to draw and to paint, sometimes the animals and pressed flowers that she and Bertram had bought back from their holidays and sometimes from books. She became a skilful artist and was to use this skill to great effect in later life.
She did however, because of her very lonely existence, become a very shy child and subsequently a very shy young adult.
Quotations: Margaret Lane – The Tale of Beatrix Potter
First published by Frederick Warne & Co.
Revised edition published by Frederick
Warne & Co 1985
Published in Penguin Books 1986
(1) pp 14
(2) pp 17
(3) pp 11
(4) pp 20
(5) pp 34
(6) pp 30