A Brief Biography of Arthur Ransome

(revised February 2013)

Peter Hyland

Arthur Michell Ransome was born on the 18th of January 1884 in Leeds. His father Cyril (1851-1897), born in Manchester, was the eldest son of Thomas Ransome, a chemist. Cyril read history at Oxford and was to become Professor of History at the Yorkshire College (later to become Leeds University). Arthur Ransome's mother Edith was a daughter of the artist Edward Baker Boulton, who spent much of his life sheep-farming in Australia. Arthur was the eldest child, having a brother, Geoffrey and two sisters, Cicely and Joyce.

Arthur Ransome's ancestors were East Anglian, and had founded the firm of Ransome & Rapier, engineers and makers of agricultural implements. His great-grandfather John Atkinson Ransome moved to Manchester, where he became a noted surgeon, being one of the team summoned to aid the MP William Huskisson after he suffered a serious, and ultimately fatal, injury at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in September 1830. Arthur's paternal grandfather Thomas was a scientist and failed inventor, who left debts to the family when he died.

The Ransome family frequently took their holidays at Coniston Water, in the English Lake District, where at a very young age Arthur developed a fascination for the area and its inhabitants. Above all, he grew to love the lake, and it became a private rite for him on arrival to run down to the water and dip his hand in, as a greeting.

After a brief period at a day school in Leeds, Arthur was sent to the Old College at Windermere, a preparatory school, where he was not happy. The school had few books, and Arthur compensated by reading voraciously during the holidays. Although he was not a brilliant scholar, he went on to Rugby School where he was much happier and came under the wing of sympathetic teachers. Shortly before Arthur moved to Rugby, his father died from a bone infection which even the amputation of a leg had failed to prevent. Cyril Ransome's death at the age of only 46 was a bitter personal loss for Arthur, as he felt that he had been a disappointment to his father and had lost the chance to grow closer to him as an adult, but he did inherit his father's love of fishing.

Early Adulthood

On leaving Rugby in 1901, Arthur Ransome went on to study science at the Yorkshire College, but after less than a year there he managed to get a job with a London publisher and move south in pursuance of a burning ambition to be a writer. His career in publishing lasted only 18 months, after which he started to earn a living by writing articles for literary magazines. All this time he was reading as many books as he could find. In 1903 Ransome revisited Coniston, where he met the artist and writer W. G. Collingwood, whom Ransome remembered as author of Thorstein of the Mere, which he had read as a child. Collingwood was to be a huge influence on Ransome, and the Collingwood family more or less adopted him. In 1904 Ransome published his first book, a collection of essays called The Souls of the Streets, followed in 1905 by another collection, The Stone Lady, neither of which was well received. Other books followed and were similarly unsuccessful, with the exception of Bohemia in London, published in 1907 and generally regarded as Ransome's first 'real book'.

In 1908 Arthur Ransome met Ivy Constance Walker and immediately fell in love with her. They married in March 1909, but the union was never to be a happy one. The couple set up home in Hampshire, near Petersfield, where Ransome completed his new book History of Story-Telling, which was better received. In May 1910 Ivy gave birth to a daughter, Tabitha, who was to be their only child. More books followed, including commissioned studies of Edgar Allan Poe (1910) and Oscar Wilde (1912). The book on Wilde instigated an unsuccessful action for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas against Arthur Ransome and his publishers, the case being heard in the High Court in April 1913.

Russia and China

A month later, in May 1913, Ransome set off for Russia, staying in St. Petersburg for three months while he learnt Russian to conversational level and collected Russian folk-tales. On his return to England, he published a rhyming version of Aladdin and the story Blue Treacle. In 1914 and 1915 Ransome paid several more visits to Russia, and completed Old Peter's Russian Tales, a collection of Russian folk-stories. In November 1915 he returned once again to Russia, this time as correspondent for the Daily News, basing himself in Moscow where he spent an eventful four years reporting on the Revolution and its aftermath. His presence in Russia was also known to British Intelligence, to whom Ransome is thought to have passed on information, but it seems that his independence of mind did not make him acceptable as an agent.

In 1917, while seeking an interview with Leon Trotsky, Ransome met Trotsky's personal secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, and an affectionate relationship developed between them. In the summer of 1919 Ransome returned to England and published Six Weeks in Russia in 1919. Later that year, he brought Evgenia out of Russia in dangerous circumstances, the couple reaching safety in Reval, Estonia. On arrival, Ransome suffered from a bout of serious gastric illness, a problem which was to plague him throughout his life. Based in Reval and later in Riga in Latvia, Ransome reported on Russian affairs for the Manchester Guardian until 1924. While in Riga, he had a 30-foot sailing boat built, Racundra, in which he made a Baltic voyage, an account of which was published in 1923 under the title Racundra's First Cruise.

After bitter negotiations, Arthur and Ivy Ransome were divorced in 1924, and he married Evgenia on the 8th of May of that year at the British Consulate in Reval. Although Ransome tried to keep in contact with his daughter Tabitha, the relationship between them deteriorated after the divorce and they became estranged. In February 1925 Arthur and Evgenia Ransome returned to England and set up home in the Lake District within convenient distance from the offices of the Manchester Guardian, for which Ransome continued to write regular articles, chiefly about fishing. However he also accepted overseas assignments, revisiting Russia and making a memorable trip to China in 1927-28.

The Swallows and Amazons books

In April 1928 W. G. Collingwood's daughter Dora returned from Aleppo to Coniston for an extended stay along with her husband Ernest Altounyan, an Armenian doctor, and their five children. Ransome renewed the friendship, and he and Ernest provided two small boats, Swallow and Mavis, for the children to sail. After the Altounyans returned to Aleppo, Arthur continued to sail Swallow, and compiled a selection of his fishing articles for publication under the title Rod and Line. At the same time he worked on a lake adventure which involved Swallow and Mavis (renamed Amazon) and their child crews, some of whom were clearly based on the Altounyan children.

In the spring of 1929, Arthur Ransome submitted a synopsis and 50 pages of the story Swallows and Amazons to the publishers Jonathan Cape, who responded favourably. The book was published in July 1930, received enthusiastic reviews and was published in America later that year. From that time Ransome ceased to write for the Manchester Guardian and dedicated himself to writing adventure stories for children. His next book, Swallowdale, published in October 1931, was a sequel to Swallows and Amazons and featured the same characters, the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett, born and bred in the Lake District, and the visiting Walker children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, these characters reappearing in most of the subsequent books. Of these, Nancy Blackett, the girl-pirate, is Ransome's most powerful creation and has become one of the classic characters in British literature. Although adults appear in the stories, they are kept largely in the background, with the exception of the Blacketts' kindly bachelor Uncle Jim, known as 'Captain Flint'. In October 1932, the next story, Peter Duck, appeared – a 'Treasure Island' type of fantasy, set in the Caribbean. This was followed a year later by Winter Holiday, published in November 1933. This marked a change in approach by Ransome, as the story is set in mid-winter amid a frozen landscape, and two fresh characters are introduced – Dick and Dorothea Callum, city-dwellers from London. Ransome also rang the changes in his next book, Coot Club, published in November 1934, which is set on the Norfolk Broads and features the Callums and a range of local children, including three sons of boatbuilders.

In 1935 Arthur and Evgenia moved to Pin Mill on the Suffolk coast, an event which delayed for a year the completion of his next book, Pigeon Post, a gold-prospecting story set in the Lake District and involving all eight of his principal child characters. The skill with which Ransome held them together, amid complex plot lines, earned the book the Carnegie Medal for best children's book of the year in 1937. Soon after the move to Suffolk, Ransome bought a seven-ton cutter and promptly renamed her Nancy Blackett. His experiences aboard Nancy prompted the writing of his next book, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, published in November 1937, a North Sea adventure featuring the four Walker children aboard Nancy (renamed Goblin in the story). (Ransome owned a number of boats during his life. Nancy Blackett still exists and is now owned and sailed by the Nancy Blackett Trust.)

In November 1939 Secret Water was published, a story set among the islands and inlets of Hamford Water, on the Essex coast. Ransome returned to the Broads for his next book, The Big Six, published in November 1940, a detective story featuring the Callums and a full local cast, including one of Ransome's classic 'villains', George Owdon. A year later Missee Lee was published, an adventure clearly based on memories of Ransome's 1927 China visit and including vignettes of an old China which was rapidly disappearing. Here, the Walker and the Blackett children encountered 'Missee Lee' – an adult female pirate based on the real-life Madame Sun Yat Sen, a prominent figure in the Chinese Revolution.

By 1940 the Ransomes had moved back to the Lake District, and The Picts and the Martyrs, published in June 1943, featured the familiar lake setting and many of the characters from the earlier books, including Ransome's most feared adult character, the Great Aunt. His final book, Great Northern?, set in the Hebrides and based on a suggestion by Myles North involving the protection of a rare bird-nesting site, appeared in August 1947.

Final Years

In 1948 Arthur and Evgenia, ever restless, moved to Lowick Hall, a large house in the Crake valley, but its upkeep proved too much for them and in 1950 they settled for a flat in Fulham, London, where they lived quietly for 13 years. However, they still took regular holidays in the Lake District, at Hilltop Cottage, Haverthwaite, leading to a decision in 1963 to buy that property and move north. This was to be their last move, as in October 1965 Arthur Ransome became seriously ill and was moved to Cheadle Royal Hospital, Manchester, where he died on 3rd June 1967, aged 83. His wife Evgenia died eight years later in 1975, and both Arthur and Evgenia are buried in Rusland Churchyard, not far from Haverthwaite.

During his life Arthur Ransome also wrote many short stories and two uncompleted works, The River Comes First and Coots in the North. These have now been published. The twelve 'Swallows and Amazons' books have been published world-wide, in hard-back and paper-back format, and in many languages, and they have never been out of print. They are regarded as classics of children's literature. Arthur Ransome's obituary in The Guardian, his old employer, described him as "a man built for happiness".

This article is ©2013 by Peter Hyland, and posted on All Things Ransome with permission.

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