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By Linda Batchelor.
‘The harbour is certainly a great attraction at Falmouth’.
Beatrix Potter made this entry in her journal whilst on holiday in Falmouth in the spring of 1892. Beatrix kept the journal from the age of 15 until she was 30 written in a code which was not broken until the 1960s by Leslie Linder.
Beatrix also wrote about her stay in Falmouth in a letter to four-year-old Noel Moore written from there on 11 March 1892. Beatrix and her parents were taking a spring holiday in Falmouth, staying at the Falmouth Hotel. The letter designed to amuse and captivate her young friend was illustrated by Beatrix with sketches of the train in which she travelled, the harbour with its ships and the fishermen. It was the first of several such letters she wrote to the children of her former governess Annie Moore, and which ultimately led to the development of her children’s books.
Helen Beatrix Potter
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 at 2 Bolton Gardens in West Brompton, London at the home of her parents Rupert Potter, a barrister, and Helen Leech Potter. Beatrix was joined by a brother, Bertram, born in 1872. Both her parents came from wealthy Unitarian families with manufacturing backgrounds around the Manchester area and led a comfortable upper middle class lifestyle in London. With her brother away at school Beatrix led a somewhat more restricted life at home developing her artistic talent and keeping a number of animal companions, often the subject of her drawings and travelled with her on family journeys. She was educated at home by governesses and specialist tutors. The last of Beatrix’s three governesses was Annie Carter who was only three years older than her pupil. They remained friends after Annie left the Potter household to marry Edwin Moore, an engineer, and Annie and her children (there were eight eventually) were the recipients of visits and illustrated letters from Miss Potter.
As a child Beatrix developed a fascination with natural history which she shared with her brother Bertram. Rupert Potter was an amateur photographer of considerable note, and both her parents encouraged her early artistic talent and the development of her skills. From the age of eight Beatrix kept sketch books and at 15 she was awarded her Art Student’s Certificate from the National Art Training School in Kensington where she took classes in drawing. Her interest in the natural world led her to spending much time in private study and drawing at the Natural History Museum. She also learned to use a microscope to draw and prepare specimens.
She was first attracted to the study of fungi as a subject for her paintings and produced many detailed and botanically correct drawings. By the 1890s, influenced by the Scottish naturalist Charles Macintosh, she had also developed a scientific interest in mycology and presented a paper to the Linnean Society although at the time however as a woman she was unable to present the paper personally.
At the same time as developing her scientific and botanical studies she continued with her illustrative work. In 1890 she sold some of her drawings for the first time to Hildesheimer & Faulkner of London to be used as greetings cards and subsequently she sold other drawings to the publishers Ernest Nister as illustrations in their children’s annuals.
The Potter family had frequent holidays away from London during the spring and summer. Summer holidays were lengthy when Rupert Potter would take a large country house for the season. Initially this would be in Scotland and then later in the Lake District, which eventually was to become Beatrix’s permanent home and the setting for many of her books. Spring holidays were usually shorter somewhere on the south coast of England and this was often in the West Country including Ilfracombe, Lyme Regis, Teignmouth and Falmouth.
In 1892 the destination for the Potter’s spring holiday was Falmouth, staying at the Falmouth Hotel ‘a big house by the sea’ according to the letter Beatrix sent to Noel Moore.
The hotel had been opened in 1863 on the headland overlooking Falmouth Bay and many visitors arrived at the nearby station on the Great Western Railway.
Cornwall had been linked to the main rail system in May 1859 by the opening of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar at Saltash. Originally the GWR was a broad-gauge railway but by May 1892 the entire line between London and Cornwall had been converted from broad to narrow(standard) gauge. The Potters journey was by broad -gauge steam train, ‘a puff-puff’ in Beatrix’s letter, which raised comment from Beatrix in her journal together with the information that the gauge was to change in May. The London terminus of the GWR was at Paddington station where Beatrix noted they had started out at 10.15 am. The train had stopped twice at Swindon and Taunton before reaching Exeter and the travellers ‘got in at 6’ to Falmouth and soon after at the Hotel.
Beatrix noted how the Spring was much more advanced in the West Country than in London and how the weather was much warmer. Of the twelve days the Potters spent in and around Falmouth only two of those days were cloudy. The family took a number of excursions on land and sea to places, some close to Falmouth such as Mylor and St Mawes and others further afield such as the Lizard.
Letters from Falmouth
Holidays often provided Beatrix with plenty of material for sketches and were the source of some of her illustrations. In the first letter sent to Noel from Falmouth Beatrix described the town where ‘everything has a nautical flavour’. She also described the fishermen, the weather and family activities such as visiting Miss Fox, a well-known and important figure in Falmouth society, and her nephew Robert at their home of Penjerrick. These descriptions were accompanied by illustrations.
In 1893 Beatrix wrote another letter from her London home to cheer Noel up when he was unwell and she included an illustrated story about four young rabbits called Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. It was Annie Moore who first suggested the idea of publication to Beatrix and in 1902 this became the book published by Warnes as ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’, the first of which was to be followed by many more stories.
The Potters took another holiday in Falmouth in March 1894 at the Pendennis Hotel which had opened the previous year overlooking Falmouth Bay.
Once again Beatrix wrote from Falmouth to her young friends but this time the letter was addressed to Eric Moore, Noel’s younger brother. The letter, part of the collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was on loan for an exhibition at Falmouth Art Gallery in 2021.
In the letter Beatrix told how one day in the harbour at Falmouth she had seen a ship ’The Pearl of Falmouth’, being repaired after being holed by a rock. Whilst looking at the ship she had heard ‘something grunting’ and then saw ‘a white pig with a curly’ tail walking about on the deck. She explained to Eric that the ship often sailed to Newfoundland and that the sailors always took a pig with them. She believed the pig ‘enjoys the voyage but when the sailors get hungry they eat it’.
The letter then tells Eric that Beatrix thinks that instead of the pig’s demise the story should tell of how the pig escaped down a rope into a small boat, followed by another boat manned by the captain, the boatswain and the cook. They all wanted to catch the pig ‘to turn him into sausages’ but he made it safely to Robinson Crusoe Island where he was able to keep out a watch and elude his pursuers. The real and imaginative story are delightfully illustrated throughout the letter. It was to be the basis which, together with her fascination with the stories of the ‘Owl and the Pussycat’ and ‘Robinson Crusoe’, was to be the inspiration many years later for the last of her books ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson’.
Beatrix had begun writing the tale after her visit to Falmouth and her encounter with the pig on board ‘The Pearl of Falmouth’ using drawings from her journal as illustrations. However, the story was rejected at the time by Warnes, her publishers, as being too long and without coloured illustrations. It was not until 1929 when Warnes were encouraging Beatrix to release a new book that she reappraised the story inspired by her letter to Eric. She revised the manuscript and the illustrations and based many of these around her visits to Falmouth, Lyme Regis, Sidmouth and other coastal towns where she had spent holidays in her youth. The new book of eight short chapters and with many coloured illustrations was published in 1930.
The letters sent from her holidays in Falmouth by Beatrix to the Moore children not only inspired both the first and last of Beatrix’s ‘little books’ but also contributed to her literary legacy.
The Bartlett Blog is written and produced by the volunteers who staff The Bartlett Maritime Research Centre and Library of National Maritime Museum Cornwall. Beatrix Potter Visits Falmouth was written by Linda Batchelor.
The Bartlett Library holds a Collection of over 20,000 volumes and offers access to one of the finest collections of maritime reference books, periodicals and archival material. The Bartlett Blog reflects the diversity of material available in The Bartlett Library.