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Helen Beatrix Heelis (Potter)

Also Known As: "Beatrix Potter", "Beatrix Heelis"
Birthplace: 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, England, London, United Kingdom
Death: December 22, 1943 (77)
Castle Cottage, Sawrey, Cumbria, England, United Kingdom (Complications of pneumonia and heart disease)
Place of Burial: Sawrey, Cumbria, England
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Rupert Potter and Helen Leech Potter
Wife of William Heelis
Fiancée of Norman Dalziel Warne
Sister of Walter Bertram Potter

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:

About Beatrix Potter

Helen Beatrix Potter (28 July 1866 – 22 December 1943) was an English author, illustrator, mycologist and conservationist best known for children's books featuring anthropomorphic characters such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit which celebrated the British landscape and rural lifestyle. Between 1902 and 1918 she published over twenty popular children’s books. With the proceeds from the books and a small legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village in the English Lake District near Ambleside. Over the next several decades, she purchased additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913 at the age of 47 she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead. They had no children; Potter died of pneumonia at the age of 77; Heelis survived her by less than two years.

Biographical Summary

Born into a privileged household, Potter, along with her younger brother, Walter Bertram, grew up with few friends outside their large extended family. As children they had numerous pets and spent holidays in the south of England, in Scotland, and in the English Lake District. There she developed a love of the natural world which she closely observed and painted from an early age. Her parents were artistic and interested in nature and the out of doors. While Beatrix was happily never sent off to boarding school, her education in languages, literature, science and history was broad and she was an eager student. Although she was provided with private art lessons, Beatrix preferred to develop her own style, particularly favoring watercolor. In her twenties, she concentrated on the study of fungi mycology, of ancient artifacts archeology, and of geology, and achieved a measure of respect from the scientific establishment for her reproduction of fungi spores and her scientific illustrations. In her thirties, Potter wrote and illustrated the highly successful children’s book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which she privately published. Then in 1902 it was published as a small, three-color illustrated book by Frederick Warne & Co. Between 1902 and 1918 she published over twenty popular children’s books.

With the proceeds from the books and a small legacy from an aunt, Potter bought Hill Top Farm in Near Sawrey, a tiny village in the English Lake District near Ambleside. Over the next several decades, she purchased additional farms to preserve the unique hill country landscape. In 1913 at the age of 47 she married William Heelis, a respected local solicitor from Hawkshead.

Potter became a prize-winning breeder of Herdwick sheep and a prosperous farmer keenly interested in land preservation. She continued to write and illustrate children's’ books for Warne after her marriage until diminishing eyesight and the duties of land management made it difficult to continue. Beatrix Potter published over thirty books; the best are those written between 1902 and 1918. Potter died on 22 December 1943 at Castle Cottage, Near Sawrey, leaving almost all of her property to National Trust. She is credited with preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Early Life

Potter's paternal ancestors were Unitarians from Glossop in Derbyshire. Her father, Rupert William Potter (1832–1914), son of industrialist and Member of Parliament, Edmund Potter, was educated in Manchester and trained as a barrister in London. He married Helen Leech (1839–1932), the daughter of a cotton merchant, at Gee Cross on 8 August 1863. The couple settled in London, living on inherited wealth. They bought a home in Bolton Gardens South Kensington, where Helen Beatrix was born on 28 July 1866.

Beatrix was educated at home by several private governesses with occasional excursions to public gardens, markets, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Her brother, Walter Bertram, was born in 1871. On childhood holidays in rural Scotland and the north of England, she sketched and kept small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians as pets. Potter matured into a spinsterish young woman whose parents groomed her to be a permanent resident and housekeeper in their home.

Scientific Aspirations and Mycology

Potter's parents discouraged her higher education, but Potter longed to lead a life independent of her parents and considered mycology as career, inspired perhaps by her acquaintance with Charles McIntosh, a Scottish mycologist she met while summering in Perthshire. Her uncle tried to introduce her as a student at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because she was a woman. Potter was later one of the first to suggest that lichens were a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae. At the time, the only way to record microscopic images was by painting them, so Potter made numerous drawings of lichens and fungi. As the result of her observations, she was widely respected throughout England as an expert mycologist. She also studied spore germination and life cycles of fungi. Potter's set of detailed watercolours of fungi, numbering some 270 completed by 1901, is in the Armitt Library, Ambleside.

In 1897, her paper "On the Germination of Spores of Agaricineae" was presented to the Linnean Society by her uncle Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe, as women were barred from attending meetings. (In 1997, the Society issued a posthumous official apology to Potter for the way she had been treated). The Royal Society also declined to publish at least one of her technical papers. She lectured at the London School of Economics several times.

Literary Career

When she was 27 and on holiday in Scotland, in a letter dated 4 September 1893 she sent a picture and story about rabbits to Noel Moore, the five-year-old son of her last governess, Annie Carter Moore. Moore was the first to recognize the literary and commercial value of Potter's work and encouraged her to publish the story] She borrowed back the letter in 1901, developed and expanded the tale, and made it into the book titled The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mr. McGregor's Garden. She sent her tale to six publishers, but was rejected by all of them because of the lack of colour pictures, which were popular at the time. In September 1901, she decided to self-publish and distribute 250 copies of a renamed The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Later that year she finally attracted the publisher Frederick Warne & Co. The publishing contract was signed in June 1902 and, by the end of the year, 28,000 copies were in print. In 1903, Beatrix Potter registered her Peter Rabbit doll at the Patent Office.

She followed Peter Rabbit with The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin in 1903, also based on a letter to one of the Moore children. Such was the popularity of these and subsequent books that she earned an independent income.

Beatrix Potter and her publisher, Norman Warne, became secretly engaged in 1905, but her parents were set against her marrying a tradesman. This caused a breach between Beatrix and her parents. Shortly after the engagement, Warne died of pernicious anemia. Of his death she wrote in a letter to his sister, Millie, "He did not live long, but he fulfilled a useful happy life. I must try to make a fresh beginning next year."

In total, Potter wrote 23 small format children's books. Part of their popularity was due to the quality of her illustrations: the animal characters are full of personality, but are deeply based in natural behaviors of the animals. Her artistic efforts declined around 1920 because of poor eyesight. The Tale of Little Pig Robinson was published in 1930; however, the actual manuscript was one of the first to be written and much predates this publication date.

Later life: The Lake District and Conservation

In July 1905, Potter purchased Hill Top Farm in the village of Sawrey in Lancashire, (now Cumbria), in the Lake District. She loved the landscape, and visited the farm as often as she could, working closely with farm manager John Cannon. She purchased more land in the area, through which she met solicitor William Heelis, six years her junior, whom she married in 1913, and she went on to become a sheep breeder. Her letters of the time reflect her increasing concerns with her sheep, preservation of farmland, and World War I.

An Enduring Legacy

  • Upon her death in 1943, almost all of her property was left to the National Trust – 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land, cottages, and fifteen farms. The legacy has helped ensure that the Lake District and the practice of fell farming remain unspoiled. Her properties now lie within the Lake District National Park. The Trust's 2005 Swindon headquarters are named "Heelis" in her honour.
  • Hilltop was opened to visitors in 1946, and displayed her original artwork there until 1985. She left the original illustrations for almost all of her books to the National Trust; Peter Rabbit is owned by Frederick Warne & Co., The Tailor of Gloucester is owned by the Tate Gallery, and The Flopsy Bunnies is owned by the British Museum.
  • In 1947, Frederick Warne & Co. granted Beswick Pottery of Longton, Staffordshire "rights and licences to produce" the Potter characters in porcelain.
  • Beatrix Potter Gallery, a gallery run by the National Trust and situated in a 17th-century Lake District townhouse (once the office of William Heelis) in Hawkshead, Cumbria, England, now displays her work.
  • Potter’s books continue to sell throughout the world, in multiple languages. Her stories have been retold in song, film, ballet and animation.


  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902)
  • The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903)
  • The Tailor of Gloucester (1903)
  • The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (1904)
  • The Tale of Two Bad Mice (1904)
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (1905)
  • The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan (1905)
  • The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906)
  • The Story of A Fierce Bad Rabbit (1906)
  • The Story of Miss Moppet (1906)
  • The Tale of Tom Kitten (1907)
  • The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck (1908)
  • The Tale of Samuel Whiskers or, The Roly-Poly Pudding (1908)
  • The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (1909)
  • The Tale of Ginger and Pickles (1909)
  • The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910)
  • The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911)
  • Peter Rabbit's Painting Book (1911)
  • The Tale of Mr. Tod (1912)
  • The Tale of Pigling Bland (1913)
  • Appley Dapply's Nursery Rhymes (1917)
  • Tom Kitten's Painting Book (1917)
  • The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse (1918)
  • Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes (1922)
  • Jemima Puddle-Duck's Painting Book (1925)
  • Peter Rabbit's Almanac for 1929 (1928)
  • The Fairy Caravan (1929)
  • The Tale of Little Pig Robinson (1930)
  • Sister Anne (illustrated by Katharine Sturges) (1932)
  • Wag-by-Wall (decorations by J. J. Lankes) (1944)
  • The Tale of the Faithful Dove (illustrated by Marie Angel) (1955, 1970)
  • The Sly Old Cat (written 1906; first published 1971)

Adaptations and Fictionalisations

  • In 1936, Walt Disney wanted to make a film about Peter Rabbit, but Potter refused. Her works remained in print only, almost until the copyright was due to expire, decades after Potter's death.
  • In 1971, The Tales of Beatrix Potter, a musical directed by Reginald Mills was staged. Several of the Tales were set to music, with choreography by Frederick Ashton and it featured dancers from the Royal Ballet, London, dancing in animal costumes to the musical score of John Lanchbery performed by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.
  • In 1982, the BBC produced The Tale of Beatrix Potter. This dramatisation of her life was written by John Hawkesworth and directed by Bill Hayes. It starred Holly Aird and Penelope Wilton as the young and adult Beatrix respectively.
  • Miss Potter, a biographical film starring Renée Zellweger was released in 2006.
  • Mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert has published an eight-volume series featuring a fictionalised Beatrix Potter in "The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter" focusing on the period of her life she lived in the Lake District.

Annotated Reading List

  • Aldis, Dorothy, and Richard Cuffari. Nothing Is Impossible; the Story of Beatrix Potter. New York: Atheneum, 1969. Print. Juvenile non-fiction; biography.
  • Buchan, Elizabeth. Beatrix Potter: The Story of the Creator of Peter Rabbit. London: Frederick Warne, 1998. Print. Juvenile non-fiction; biography.
  • Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. Print.
  • Chandler, Katherine R. "Thoroughly Post-Victorian, Pre-Modern Beatrix." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 32.4 (Winter 2007): 287-307. Print. Potter, unlike most Victorian writers of children's books, wrote original stories based on the realism of animal behaviour. Chandler notes that "Potter avoids moralizing in her tales, and that Potter's anthropomorphized animals are in fact slightly naughty, yet... punishment is never the moral of the tale."
  • Denyer, Susan. Beatrix Potter: At Home in the Lake District. London: Frances Lincoln, 2000. Print. Biographical, plus photography of Potter's Lake District.
  • Goldthwaite, John. "Chapter 7: Sis Beatrix, The Fable in the Nursery." The Natural History of Make-believe: A Guide to the Principal Works of Britain, Europe, and America. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. 287-317. Print.
  • Hobbs, Anne Stevenson., and Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter's Art. London: Frederick Warne, 1989. Print.
  • Jay, Eileen, Mary Noble, and Anne Stevenson. Hobbs. A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter's Drawings from the Armitt Collection. London: F. Warne, 1992. Print.
  • Johnson, Jane. My Dear Noel: The Story of a Letter from Beatrix Potter. New York: Dial for Young Readers, 1999. Print.
  • Lane, Margaret, and Beatrix Potter. The Magic Years of Beatrix Potter. London: F. Warne, 1978. Print.
  • Lane, Margaret. The Tale of Beatrix Potter: A Biography. London: Frederick Warne, 1968. Print.
  • Lear, Linda J. Beatrix Potter, a Life in Nature. New York: St. Martin's, 2007. Print. The definitive work.
  • Lear, Linda J. Beatrix Potter: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.
  • MacDonald, Ruth K. Beatrix Potter. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Print.
  • Mitchell, W. R. Beatrix Potter: Her Lakeland Years. Ilkley: Great Northern, 2010. Print.
  • Potter, Beatrix, and Anne Stevenson. Hobbs. Beatrix Potter: Artist and Illustrator. London: Frederick Warne, 2005. Print. A catalogue of the Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition of 2005, including 200 of Potter's paintings.
  • Potter, Beatrix, and Jane Crowell-Morse. Beatrix Potter's Americans: Selected Letters. Boston, MA: Horn Book, 1982. Print.
  • Potter, Beatrix. Beatrix Potter's Letters: A Selection. Ed. Judy Taylor. London: Frederick Warne, 1989. Print.
  • Potter, Beatrix. The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881-1897;. Ed. Leslie Linder. London: F. Warne, 1966. Print. Linder first deciphered Potter's code in 1958.
  • Potter, Beatrix, Judy Taylor, Joyce Irene. Whalley, Hobbs Anne. Stevenson, and Elizabeth M. Battrick. Beatrix Potter: 1866-1943 : The Artist and Her World. London: National Trust, 1987. Print. A companion to the Tate Gallery Exhibition.
  • Potter, Beatrix. Letters to Children from Beatrix Potter. Ed. Judy Taylor. London: Warne, 1992. Print.
  • Speaker-Yuan, Margaret. Beatrix Potter. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2006. Print. Juvenile non-fiction; biography; with extensive reference sections.
  • Squire, Shelagh J. "Landscapes, Places and Geographic Spaces: Texts of Beatrix Potter as Cultural Communication." GeoJournal 38.1 (1996): n. pag. Print.
  • Taylor, Judy. Beatrix Potter: Artist, Storyteller, and Countrywoman. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: F. Warne, 1986. Print.
  • Taylor, Judy. That Naughty Rabbit: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. London: F. Warne, 1987. Print.


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Beatrix Potter's Timeline

July 28, 1866
2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, England, London, United Kingdom
December 22, 1943
Age 77
Castle Cottage, Sawrey, Cumbria, England, United Kingdom
December 1943
Age 77
Cremated; ashes scattered at Esthwaite Water, Sawrey, Cumbria, England (United Kingdom)