Beatrix Potter couldn’t possibly have imagined that the 150th anniversary of her birth would prompt the wealth of celebrations taking place this year, both at home and abroad. More to the point – would she have approved? Fame didn’t sit easily on her shoulders. Despite achieving fame as one of the most widely-read authors in the world, she brushed praise and recognition aside.
Nevertheless her twenty three “little books” have given pleasure to millions of children for over a century. They were thoughtfully designed for small hands and feature imaginative stories about mischievous animals who wear humans’ clothing and have adventures, all portrayed in sketches and stunningly beautiful watercolours.
Her love of wild creatures may have stemmed from her childhood in London where she was educated privately by a governess, at her family home 2 Bolton Gardens, Kensington. It is likely that she and her brother Bertram brought back a choice of wild life from holidays in southern England and Scotland. Later she would acquire a variety of animals from pet shops, including a lizards and a snakes, which she nurtured, sketched and painted. That focus of attention gave her a lifelong interest in the natural world and subject matter for her books.
Her first publication, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, continues to be successful and has sold around forty million copies to date. Income from its sales, combined with an inheritance, allowed her to purchase Hill Top Farm, Sawrey in 1905. It was idyllic as a bolthole from her demanding parents for she could indulge in writing, country life and tending her animals.
In 1908 she purchased nearby Castle Farm, and when she married her solicitor William Heelis, in 1913, Castle Cottage became their permanent home where they spent thirty happy years together.
Female agriculturalists were a rarity in her day but Beatrix could stand her ground. In time she would chart a course that broke through the barriers of the farming world and beyond. Her ambitious property acquisitions were amazingly successful and included Troutbeck Park estate, which she bought outright, and Monk Coniston estate which she owned jointly with the National Trust and managed on their behalf. Along with a dedication to preserve the natural world, and a fervour for conservation of the Lake District’s landscape, she left the National Trust a magnificent legacy of fifteen farms and four thousand acres of land upon her death.
On occasional afternoons, sitting in William Postlethwaite’s porch at High Green Gate Farm, Beatrix enjoyed a couple of hours’ banter with him about livestock. Both were strong-minded folk with a passion for sheep about which they frequently had different opinions and it became well known that William was fond of winding her up.
The pair had much in common with both of them being on the committee of Hawskhead Agricultural Show, and respected judges of sheep at various shows, with William also judging at sheepdog trials. How proud she must have been, when, not long before her death, Beatrix became the first woman to be named President-elect of the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association, an indigenous breed she’d fought hard to preserve.
Celia Brocklebank of Ambleside, whose mother Amanda Thistlethwaite (née Postlethwaite) died in 2001, is the granddaughter of William Postlethwaite. Amanda regaled Celia with many stories about the relationship between William and Beatrix and also co-operated with the late Bill Mitchell during the research for his admirable book Beatrix Potter Remembered published in 1987 by Dalesman.
For many years the Postlethwaites lived at Buckle Yeat where Amanda’s great grandfather Joseph Taylor was the village shoemaker and William learnt the trade from his Uncle Joseph Taylor Wright before becoming a farmer. By 1911 William and Mary Postlethwaite, with their growing family of two sons and five daughters, had moved to High Green Gate Farm on Market Street, near to Castle Cottage.
Beatrix’s name for William was “Possie” which aggravated Mary as she and Beatrix had already crossed swords. It came about on the day the Postlethwaite’s geese were found cropping Mrs Heelis’s lawn and Beatrix hammered on their door saying to Mary “Will you tell Possie to get your geese off my land?” Not long afterwards Beatrix’s ducks were trespassing on theirs and Mary, who was by nature a gentle soul, marched up to Castle Cottage demanding their removal.
Amanda herself had a pleasant relationship with Beatrix who would have noted her farming skills because at nine years of age Amanda was able to milk cows. After leaving school she worked on the farm before being employed by Taylor relatives in their village shop where she often served Beatrix.
There was far more to William Postlethwaite than met the eye. It was probably because he was such a pillar of the community, as well as them having a joint interest in farming, that Beatrix spent so much time in his company. However, it is doubtful if his involvement with Kendal Hornets, for which he was enthusiastic rugby player, would have cut any ice with her. Probably other areas of his life also caused Beatrix to bristle, such as his involvement with the fraternal Society of Freemasons, for whom he was a standard bearer and secretary at Thurston Lodge, Coniston.
In 1908 The Tale of Samuel Whiskers was published in large format as The Roly-Poly Pudding, being designed to allow more space for drawings. Republished in 1926 under the title of The Tale of Samuel Whiskers, in “little book” format, it is dedicated to the memory of “Sammy”, Beatrix’s white pet rat.
In her early days at Hill Top Beatrix had been overrun with rats, and it was obviously this experience which gave her the notion for the mischievous tale in which the young Tom Kitten gets into serious trouble. Along with his badly-behaved sisters Moppet and Mittens he is secured in a cupboard by their mother Tabitha Twitchit. Tom escapes and via a chimney he ends up under floorboards in the attic. The rats Samuel Whiskers and wife Anna Maria use stolen items from Tabitha Twitchit’s kitchen, like butter and dough, and roll him inside pastry ready for cooking. He is saved by the services of John Joiner the carpenter who, sawing through the floor, rescues Tom who ends up afraid of the rats who escape to the barn of Farmer Potatoes.
The Tale of Samuel Whiskers could have been one of Aesop’s Fables, being a story of insubordination with potentially dire consequences. Beatrix was well known for her intolerance of naughty children, probably because of her own very strict upbringing. One person who had experience of her wrath was the late Willow Taylor, whose parents were licensees at The Tower Bank Arms. Her personal recollections of living in Sawrey, and her stories about Beatrix, are told superbly in her book Through the Pages of my Life.
Celia’s own experience is also a case in point. When they were very small she and her cousin Margaret Douglas got on the wrong side of Beatrix too. Typically they had gone hunting for Peter Rabbit in her garden and were caught red-handed. “When I got older I could understand why she was annoyed about us trespassing,” laughs Celia. “The village children often did the same, either for the purpose of stealing her apples or hunting for the famous rabbit. And of course having been told not to go near the orchard we were all the more eager to visit the place.”
In 1932 Amanda married Robert Thistlethwaite at St Peter’s Church, Sawrey and Beatrix gave them a cheque for £2. Amanda often wished she’d never cashed it as the cheque itself would have been worth a great deal more with the passage of time.
Her father put his heart and soul into the community. He was a member of the parish council, Hawkshead Mechanics Club, a manager of the local school and trustee of the village institute, as well as being churchwarden at St Peter’s for seventeen years and in its choir since his schooldays. For the last nine years of his life he was a member of Ulverston Rural District Council, despite failing health. He died on the 19th February 1933 aged 65 years and a huge procession of mourners followed the hearse from Sawrey to St Peter’s church. There was standing room only and either side of the path was lined by his Masonic friends and those from the Mechanics Club.
Beatrix must have missed William Postlethwaite, but she had done him the dubious honour of immortalising him as Farmer Potatoes in The Tale of Samuel Whiskers. The photograph she took, from which she did the sketch, gives the impression he was camera-shy as he was in the process of turning away when she pressed the shutter. Actually he was determined not to pose as he’d already said that he didn’t want to be in one of her “silly little books” – although Beatrix had decided otherwise. Her story ends with the rats taking over his barn and eating his animals’ fodder. So far he has been plagued with them for more than a hundred years, and with the popularity of Beatrix’s books it doesn’t seem like they’ll be leaving any time soon.
Maggie B Dickinson – Cumbria Magazine May 2016