Inspirations for Arthur Ransome's Characters

The main characters in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series are known to have been inspired or suggested in many cases by real people, the best known example perhaps being the Altounyan children. However as is often the case with Ransome, it generally seems that each of the characters (as with many of the locations in the Lakes novels) has been drawn from multiple sources, and the resultant mix fired by Ransome's own imagination and inspiration. Therefore with few exceptions it is very unlikely that any of the people mentioned below were the sole model for one of Ransome's characters, although we can speculate about which ones went into each of his characters, and to what extent. (In a few cases we do know the individual who was the model for a Ransome character or in a few instances appears under his or her own name; all of these were adults.)

This page attempts to document some of the most likely sources for Ransome's characters. The order is based upon the order in which we encounter Ransome's fictional characters as we read through the series.

See also Fictional Inspirations, an essay by Peter Hyland on fictional characters who also suggest Ransome characters.

The Swallows

The Altounyans

Arthur Ransome originally dedicated Swallows and Amazons "To the six for whom it was written in exchange for a pair of slippers". The "six" were the Altounyan family which had come to stay at Lanehead in 1928. The parents were old friends; Ransome got to know the children during 1928. The Altounyans returned to Syria in January of 1929 and the Ransomes subsequently visited them in Aleppo. The "six" were the four eldest children, Taqui, Susie, Mavis (known as Titty) and Roger, plus their parents.)

When Ransome knew them in 1928 their ages were 11, 9, 8, and 5 (Roger turned six in October) respectively. In understanding the degree to which the Swallows' characters were directly based on the Altounyans (or only on them) it helps to realize the actual age of the children at the time Ransome met them, the summer before he wrote Swallows and Amazons. This can also help one to gain a better feel for what the Altounyan children might have actually done at that age versus what was purely Ransome's imagination and invention.

In February, 1931, Ransome stated in an article in The Horn Book that a family he called "the Walkers", who lived in Syria, was intimately connected with the origin of Swallows and Amazons, but it was only when Taqui Altounyan published In Aleppo Once in 1969 that the "Walker" family was identified as the Altounyans.

The Altounyan children in 1928 at the time they got to know Arthur Ransome. Sketch from a 1928 snapshot; © and courtesy of Roger Wardale.
Titty and Susie Altounyan with Suzanne Rawdon-Smith (center), 1928, courtesy of Rahel Guzillian. Suzanne Rawdon-Smith and her sister Hope were cousins of Pauline and Georgina Rawdon Smith (see below).
Taqui?, Titty and Roger Altounyan in Hawkshead, 1928, courtesy of Rahel Guzillain.
Roger Altounyan in Tub, 1928, courtesy of Barbara Altounyan.

The Sumners

The Sumner family camped on the western shore of Coniston Water from just before the First World War until the early 1970s. Originally the camps were for 2-3 weeks each summer, but gradually lasted longer; in later years up to 3 months at a time with various members of the now extended family coming and going to share the experience. The camp was always in the same place. Mr Sumner rigged up piping from streams to water butts,and a large tent housed a stove/oven; these arrangements remained in place from year to year. Ransome was a visitor to their camp many times in the 1930s, and during the 1940s when he lived at The Heald. At some point in the 1930s, a member of the family came into contact with someone who worked for Bartholomew, the Scottish cartographers. It was mentioned that the family camped on the western shore of Coniston Water each year and that a small pier had been made for their boats. For one edition only just before the Second World War the half inch map covering the Lakes has Sumners Pier marked on it. ONLY this edition - it was subsequently removed from the next and later editions. Long after the camps had been established the area came under the National Trust, but the camps continued until the 1970s, only being ended when it began to cause trouble with the public who also wanted to camp in the same area.

The main family consisted of a father and mother and five children of whom the most relevant in 1928 were John (11), Nancy (9), Margaret called Peggy (4). The family had known Arthur Ransome for many years and knew all about the Swallows and Amazons books, but never thought they were models for any of the characters. However the names are significant especially when combined with the names of the Altounyan children, and it seems quite likely the Sumners played some part in the names of the Swallows and Amazons, if not their characters or adventures. It is difficult to avoid the fact that the Sumner sisters were the only girls that we know of with the right names or a commonly used name that fits. This does not mean that Ransome used them, but it does mean that we are entitled to consider them in the great mix of characters. Ransome knew this family very well and they were always there - for many weeks every summer.

Ted Alexander researched the Sumners extensively and corresponded with members of the family, who have graciously given permission to use the picture of their camp.

The Sumner camp on Coniston Water in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Sumner Senior is standing by the fire; John Sumner is sitting down. Courtesy of The John Sumner Estate.
The Sumner family setting off, 1933/34. John is holding the tiller; Sumner Senior is sitting next to him. Geoff Sumner is pushing off; Nancy is standing by the mast; George is pushing off from the shore. Grandmother Sumner is looking at the camera; Margaret is pushing off with the port oar. This picture was taken off the Torver side of Coniston Water, adjacent to their camp. Courtesy of the John Sumner Estate.

See also The Swallows in Hyland's "Fictional Inspirations".

The Amazons

The Amazons are more difficult, and almost the only real clue we have is Ransome's comment about seeing a couple of girls playing on the lakeshore and using them as the model for the Amazons. However Ransome never wrote anything further about the two girls (and he didn't actually mention red knitted caps).

It is very possible that the names "Nancy" and "Margaret (Peggy)" were suggested to Ransome by the Sumners daughters, as mentioned above (see "The Sumners" under "The Swallows").

It also seems quite possible that Taqui Altounyan's character might have something to do with Nancy's. Taqui's childhood letters from Syria were very Nancylike; for example from a letter from Taqui after the Altounyans returned to Syria: "So hurry up and make Swallow snug for the winter, fill a hundred coconuts with food for the birds, put a notice on Low Ludderburn gate saying "TO LET FOR A YEAR" and jump from an express train into an express steamer...".

Regardless, the character of Nancy Blackett, whether or not suggested from some one or multiple children Ransome knew, was Ransome's own invention, and to quote Roger Wardale, "the maturing teenage tomboy that has fascinated millions of readers is the result of AR's creative genius".

The Rawdon Smiths

Pauline Rawdon Smith believed that she and her sister Georgina were the models for the Amazons, and actually published a pamphlet, "Where It All Began" in 1991 putting forth her case. It does not appear that her argument was taken very seriously. Her father certainly knew Arthur Ransome; they were at Rugby together some 30 years before, although separated by about 20 months. Ransome was visiting Dr. Rawdon Smith at Bank Ground Cottage several months after Swallows and Amazons was published, when he met Pauline for the first time for about five minutes, so the claim that the Rawdon Smith girls were the Amazons seems tenuous.

Pauline and Geordie Rawdon Smith, who would have been about 11 and 14 in 1928. Courtesy of Mrs. Pauline Marshall.

Peter Duck

The model for Peter Duck was Carl Sehmel, as noted in Hugh Brogan's The Biography of Arthur Ransome. Carl Sehmel, who was called "The Ancient Mariner" in Ransome's Racundra's First Cruise, had sailed in the Thermopylae (as had Peter Duck) and had raced in her against the Cutty Sark. Ransome met Sehmel even before Racundra was finished, and he begged Ransome to join his planned voyage to England.

See also Peter Duck in Hyland's "Fictional Inspirations".

The D's (Dick and Dorothea)

The D's seem to be products of Ransome's own development rather than modelled on children he knew or might have known. Hugh Brogan, Ransome's biographer, suggested they are two facets of Ransome's personality, which could well be the case. It has also been suggested that Dick, at least, might owe something to Ted Scott's son Dick who went sailing with Ransome. (Ted Scott was Ransome's great friend and editor at the Manchester Guardian, who died in a sailing accident for which Ransome felt somewhat responsible as he had introduced them to sailing. Ted's son, who was sailing with him when the accident occurred, survived.)

Dick Kelsall has also been suggested but apparently was always "Richard" in Ransome's diary which might or might not make that less likely. Dick and Des Kelsall were neighbors and knew Ransome because their father fished with him and established the semaphore telegraph system subsequently used in Winter Holiday to communicate on a day to day basis, the households being too far apart for easy communication and there being no telephone at that time. Ransome also used the Kelsall children in his "Hollywoods", posed photographs he took sketches from for his book illustrations. Additionally, when writing Pigeon Post Ransome asked Dick, 12 at the time, if he could come up with some way that a pigeon could signal its arrival, and Dick created the mechanism which appears in the book.

Squashy Hat (Timothy Stedding)

Timothy Stedding (Squashy Hat) was based on Oscar Gnosspelius, an old friend of Ransome who had married Barbara Collingwood (to whom Ransome had previously proposed). Oscar Gnosspelius owned a mine (see next entry), and was a man of many parts; among others, he was involved in the early development of seaplanes in the United Kingdom. Ransome wrote to his mother about basing Squashy Hat on Oscar Gnosspelius, and the connection is mentioned in Christina Hardyment's Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk.

Slater Bob

Slater Bob was based on John William (Willie) Shaw, who worked the original of Slater Bob's mine (Penny Rigg Quarry) for Oscar Gnosspelius, who owned the mining rights; see above.

Miss Powell

Annie Powell really did run a tea room at Alma Cottage in Pin Mill, where the Swallows stayed in We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea as revealed in Ransome's draft for his autobiography. She appears in the book under her own name, and Alma Cottage, which remains to this day, appeared as Alma Cottage.

Frank the boatman

Frank Adams was the rigger at Kings, the boat builders that built Selina King; he was mentioned in Ransome's unpublished autobiographical draft and he appears simply as Frank the boatman in We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea.

Jim Brading

Jim Brading is skipper of the Goblin in We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. A possible candidate for him is Jim Clay, as proposed by Christina Hardyment in Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk. Arthur Ransome first met Jim Clay in 1935 at Pin Mill, when he (Jim Clay) was about to go to Oxford. His father was an economist on the Manchester Guardian's staff, and he and Jim sailed their yacht Firefly. We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea is dedicated to Mrs. Henry Clay, Jim's mother, perhaps for borrowing her son.

The Eels

About the Eels there is no doubt, as the Lapwing was a real yacht belonging to Major and Mrs. Busk and their three children, good friends of the Ransomes from the time they moved to East Anglia. Yet the characters of Daisy, Dum and Dee show how much Ransome's characters owe to his own imagination, regardless of their origins.

The Busks

The Busk children were John aged 14 when Ransome wrote Secret Water, and Gillian (Jill) 13 and Michael 11, and there is no particular correlation between the story characters and the Busk children, although their activities in Secret Water certainly contributed to the plot.

On one trip with the Ransomes, the children each had a small sailing dinghy. They camped on Swallow Island, not Flint Island, although they played cricket there and they did a certain amount of map-making. Even the Busk's yacht, Lapwing, features in Secret Water under her own name, and one of the children's three dinghies was named Wizard.

In actual fact Gillian was not at all skinny, and was not amused when Ransome directed some questioning children to her saying "There's Daisy; you go and ask her!" (This happened after World War II in Pin Mill, and Gillian was just out of ATS uniform.)

Secret Water is dedicated to the Busk family.

Gillian (Jill) Busk at the helm of Lapwing with her brother John. Courtesy of Roger Wardale.
Three boats explore: Michael Busk with his mother leading in Zip, John Busk in Wizard, and Jill Busk in Jo bringing up the rear. Courtesy of Roger Wardale.
Arthur Ransome and Gillian Busk on the shores of Coniston Water about 1943. Courtesy of Roger Wardale.

Miss Lee

Miss (Missee) Lee was based on Madame Sun Yat Sen, as noted in Brogan's Biography of Arthur Ransome, and with whom Ransome became acquainted in 1927 during his visit to China. Miss Lee, or at any rate her environment and adventures, may also have been informed by the account of Lai Choi San, a "female sea robber" described in I Sailed With Chinese Pirates by Aleko E. Lilius; Ransome owned a copy of the book, published originally in 1930.

Other major characters

So far we (All Things Ransome) have no other suppositions about others, such as the Mastodon, the Death and Glories, and so forth, nor have we any suggestions about how George and Josephine Russell (obvious candidates) might have provided inspiration for other Ransome characters. We welcome any suggestions, information, or suppositions that readers might have.

All Things Ransome would like to express our appreciation to Ted Alexander and Roger Wardale for their assistance in compiling the information on this page, for many of the pictures, and helping to arrange permissions to use other pictures.

We have not attempted to provide a comprehensive set of references for the material on this page. However we have generally been able to cite the sources from which we prepared this material, and invite additional information from researchers into Arthur Ransome and his books.

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