Arthur Ransome

Arthur Ransome

Cover of Ransome's autobiography
Born Arthur Michell Ransome
(1884-01-18)18 January 1884
Leeds, England
Died 3 June 1967(1967-06-03) (aged 83)
Cheadle Royal Hospital, Greater Manchester
Occupation Author, journalist
Genre Children's literature
Notable works Swallows and Amazons series of books
Notable awards Carnegie Medal

Arthur Michell Ransome (18 January 1884 – 3 June 1967) was an English author and journalist. He is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children's books about the school-holiday adventures of children, mostly in the Lake District and the Norfolk Broads. Many of the books involve sailing; fishing and camping are other common subjects. The books remain popular and "Swallows and Amazons" is the basis for a tourist industry around Windermere and Coniston Water, the two lakes Ransome adapted as his fictional North Country lake.

He also wrote about the literary life of London, and about Russia before, during, and after the revolutions of 1917.

Personal life

Ransome was the son of Cyril Ransome (1851-1897) and his wife Edith. Arthur was born in Leeds;[1] the house at 6 Ash Grove, in the Hyde Park area, has a blue plaque over the door commemorating Ransome.[2] Ransome's father was professor of history at Yorkshire College, Leeds (now the University of Leeds). The family regularly holidayed at Nibthwaite in the Lake District, and he was carried up to the top of Coniston Old Man as an infant. His father's premature death in 1897 had a lasting effect on him.

Ransome was educated first in Windermere and then at Rugby School (where he lived in the same study room that had been used by Lewis Carroll) but did not entirely enjoy the experience, because of his poor eyesight, lack of athletic skill, and limited academic achievement. He attended Yorkshire College, his father's college, studying chemistry. After a year, he abandoned the college and went to London to become a writer. He took low-paying jobs as an office assistant in a publishing company and as editor of a failing magazine, Temple Bar Magazine, while writing and becoming a member of the literary scene of London.

Ransome's sister, (Marjorie Edith) Joyce (1892-1970) married Hugh Ralph Lupton (b. 1893), the son of Leeds Lord Mayor Hugh Lupton. Joyce and Hugh Ralph had four children, giving one of their sons the name Arthur Ralph Ransome Lupton (1924-2009), in honour of the boy's famous literary uncle.[3][4] Hugh's and Joyce's children shared with their extended family a love of nature and wetlands. When at home in Leeds, the children also shared a governess with their second cousin, Peter Francis Middleton (1920-2010), grandfather of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.[5][6]

Ransome married twice, first to Ivy Constance Walker in 1909 (they divorced in 1924) with whom he had a daughter Tabitha Ransome. His second marriage, in 1924, was to Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina who is buried in the same grave as Ransome.

Ransome died in 1967 in a Greater Manchester hospital. He and his wife Evgenia lie buried in the churchyard of St Paul's Church, Rusland, Cumbria, in the southern Lake District. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, was published posthumously in 1976. It covers his life only to the completion of Peter Duck in 1931.

Early writing, including life in Russia

Some of Ransome's early works were The Nature Books for Children, a series of children's books commissioned by publisher Anthony Treherne. Only three of the six planned volumes were published before the publisher went bankrupt. They are available on the All Things Ransome website.[7]

In his first important book, Bohemia in London (1907), Ransome introduced the history of London's Bohemian literary and artistic communities and some of its current representatives. A curiosity in 1903 about a visiting Japanese poet, Yone Noguchi, led to an ongoing friendship with Japanese painter (and Chelsea neighbour) Yoshio Markino, who in turn introduced him to the Bohemian circle of Pamela Colman Smith.

Ransome married Ivy Constance Walker in 1909 and they had one daughter, Tabitha. It was not a happy marriage: Ransome found his wife's demands to spend less time on writing and more with her and their daughter a great strain and Ransome's biographer Hugh Brogan writes, "it was impossible to be a good husband to Ivy". They divorced in 1924.[8]

Ransome began writing books of biography and literary criticism on various authors; one on Edgar Allan Poe was published in 1910 and another on Oscar Wilde was published in 1912. But the book on Wilde embroiled him in a libel suit with Lord Alfred Douglas. His wife Ivy attended the 1913 trial, sitting in the public gallery as Ransome would not let her sit beside him. Her apparent enjoyment of the public notoriety the case attracted added to the stress on their marriage. The publisher Daniel Macmillan dined with the couple every day during the trial so that Ivy could not quarrel with Arthur.[9] Ransome won the suit, supported by Robbie Ross, the editor of De Profundis, but suppressed the contentious text from subsequent editions of the Wilde biography and refused all interviews, despite the obvious publicity value.[10]

Adding to Ransome's "wretched" thirteen months waiting for the case to come to trial was the action of his publisher, Charles Granville. Oscar Wilde, a critical study had been prepared under the guidance of publisher Martin Secker, but Granville had promised better returns and a guaranteed and steady income. Secker agreed to release the rights, and Ransome handed Poe and Wilde over to Granville. The work on Wilde was well received and successful, running to eight editions, but Ransome saw little in return; in 1912 Granville was charged with embezzlement and fled the country, leaving Ransome to struggle even to register himself as a creditor of Granville's ruined company. Furthermore, his neglect of his health (he suffered from piles and a stomach ulcer) had been exacerbated by the pressure of defending the legal action.[11]

Old Peter's Russian Tales: cover and illustrations by Dmitry Mitrohin[12]

Ransome had also been working on a similar literary biography of Robert Louis Stevenson but this was abandoned with the manuscript in the first draft and only rediscovered in 1999. It was subsequently edited and finally published almost a century later in 2011 as Arthur Ransome's Long-lost Study of Robert Louis Stevenson.

In 1913 Ransome left his wife and daughter and went to Russia to study Russian folklore. In 1915, Ransome published The Elixir of Life (published by Methuen, London), which was to be his only full-length novel apart from the Swallows and Amazons series. It is a gothic romance concerning a youth who chances upon an alchemist who has discovered the titular elixir of life, whose powers must be renewed by the spilling of human blood. He published Old Peter's Russian Tales, a collection of 21 folktales from Russia the following year.

After the start of the First World War in 1914, he became a foreign correspondent and covered the war on the Eastern Front for a radical newspaper, the Daily News. He also covered the Russian Revolutions of 1917, coming to sympathise with the Bolshevik cause and becoming personally close to a number of its leaders, including Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Karl Radek. He met the woman who would become his second wife, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who at that time worked as Trotsky's personal secretary.[13]

Ransome provided some information to British officials and the British MI5, which gave him the code name S.76 in their files. Bruce Lockhart said in his memoirs: "Ransome was a Don Quixote with a walrus moustache, a sentimentalist who could always be relied upon to champion the underdog, and a visionary whose imagination had been fired by the revolution. He was on excellent terms with the Bolsheviks and frequently brought us information of the greatest value."[14] In October 1919 Ransome met Rex Leeper of the Foreign Office's Political Intelligence Department, who threatened to reveal this unless Ransome privately submitted his articles and public speaking engagements for approval. Ransome's response was "indignant".[15] MI5, the British Security Service, was suspicious that Ransome and his fellow journalist M. Philips Price were a threat because of their opposition to the Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War.[14] On one of his visits to the United Kingdom, the authorities searched and interviewed him and threatened him with arrest.

In October 1919, as Ransome was returning to Moscow on behalf of The Manchester Guardian, the Estonian foreign minister Ants Piip entrusted him to deliver a secret armistice proposal to the Bolsheviks. At that time the Estonians were fighting their War of Independence alongside the White movement of counter-revolutionary forces. After crossing the battle lines on foot, Ransome passed the message, which to preserve secrecy had not been written down and depended for its authority only on the high personal regard in which he was held in both countries, to diplomat Maxim Litvinov in Moscow. To deliver the reply, which accepted Piip's conditions for peace, Ransome had to return by the same risky means, but this time he had Evgenia with him. Estonia withdrew from the conflict and Ransome and Evgenia set up home together in the capital Reval (Tallinn).[16]

After the Allied intervention Ransome remained in the Baltic states and built a cruising yacht, Racundra. He wrote a successful book about his experiences, Racundra's First Cruise. He joined the staff of The Manchester Guardian when he returned to Russia and the Baltic states. Following his divorce, he married Evgenia and brought her to live in England, where he continued writing for The Guardian, often on foreign affairs, and also writing the "Country Diary" column on fishing. The Racundra was sold to the yachting author Kaines Adlard Coles who cruised it with his wife and wrote a book about that cruise.

By 1937, MI5 appeared satisfied of Ransome's loyalty to Britain. However, evidence uncovered in the KGB files following the break-up of the Soviet Union seems to indicate that Evgenia Ransome, at least, was involved in smuggling diamonds from the Soviet Union to Paris to help fund the Comintern.[17] The topic is discussed in a 2009 book by Roland Chambers, The Last Englishman: the Double Life of Arthur Ransome, published by David R. Godine, Publisher.[18]

Ransome's yachts

After the sale of Racundra in 1925 (in Coles' ownership she became Annette II), Ransome went on (in addition to the occasional charter, loan or trial sail) to own five further cruising yachts. His next yacht was the Hillyard-built Nancy Blackett, which he owned from 1935 to 1938. She was originally named Spindrift when launched in 1931.[19]

After this came Selina King, a 35 ft 12 ton cutter with a canoe stern, designed by Frederick Shepherd and built at Harry Kings Yard in Pin Mill in 1938.[20] She was laid up during the war and (on medical advice) they sold her in 1946.[19]

After the war, he commissioned a ketch from Laurent Giles, again built in Pin Mill by Harry King: Peter Duck. He owned her from 1947 to 1949; her design was the basis for a class of which over 40 were built.[19][21]

In July, 1951, he saw Norvad, a Hillyard five-and-a-half ton centre-cockpit yacht. With Evgenia, he had a trial sail in Norvad the following month in a hard offshore wind. They decided to get one, which he had decided should bear the name Lottie Blossom, and put in an order for that year’s Boat Show model. With a list of things they wanted done to modify the boat below decks from the standard production model, the boat was launched on April 1, 1952. Ransome's health problems delayed their first sail to 15 April.[19][22]

In December 1952, he sold Lottie Blossom to Sir William Paul Mallinson on condition that he (Ransome) retained the name.[19]

Lottie Blossom II followed early the next year, using the same design of hull, but with aft cockpit and tiller steering. They had two very happy seasons in her, sailing her comfortably on their own, including two voyages to Cherbourg. The second voyage, in 1954, at the age of 70, was to be Ransome’s last long passage.[19][22]

Swallows and Amazons series

Ransome settled in the Lake District. He decided not to accept a position as a full-time foreign correspondent with the Guardian and instead wrote Swallows and Amazons in 1929—the first of the series that made his reputation as one of the best[23][24] English writers of children's books.

Ransome apparently based the Walker children (the "Swallows") in the book in part on the Altounyan family: he had a long-standing friendship with the mother and Collingwood grandparents of the Altounyans. Later he denied the connection, claiming he only gave the Altounyans' names to his own characters; it appears to have upset him that people did not regard the characters as original creations.

Ransome's writing is noted for his detailed descriptions of activities. Although he used many actual features from the Lake District landscape, he invented his own geography, mixing descriptions of different places to create his own juxtapositions. His move to East Anglia brought a change of location for four of the books; and Ransome started using the real landscape and geography of East Anglia, so that one can use the maps printed in the books as a guide to the real area. Ransome's own interest in sailing and his need to provide an accurate description caused him to undertake a voyage across the North Sea to Flushing. His book We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea reflects this, and he based the fictional Goblin on his own boat Nancy Blackett (which in turn took its name from a character in the series).

Two or three of the Swallows and Amazons books have less realistic plots. The original concept of Peter Duck was a story made up by the children themselves, and Peter Duck had appeared in the preceding volume Swallowdale as a character whom the children created, but Ransome dropped the foreword of explanation from Peter Duck before it was published. Although relatively straightforward, the story, together with its equally unrealistic ostensible sequel Missee Lee,[25] is much more fantastic than the rest of the series. A trip to China as a foreign correspondent provided Ransome with the imaginative springboard for Missee Lee, in which readers find the Swallows and the Amazons sailing around the world in the schooner Wild Cat from Peter Duck. Together with Captain Flint (the Amazons' uncle Jim Turner), they become the captives of Chinese pirates.

The final book Ransome completed in the series, Great Northern? (1947) was set in Scotland, and while the plot and action appear realistic, the internal chronology does not fit the usual run of school holiday adventures. Myles North, an admirer of Ransome, provided much of the basic plot of the book.

Swallows and Amazons was so popular that it inspired a number of other authors to write in a similar vein: most notably two schoolchildren, Pamela Whitlock and Katharine Hull, wrote The Far-Distant Oxus, an adventure story set on Exmoor. Whitlock sent the manuscript to Ransome in March 1937; he persuaded his publisher Jonathan Cape to produce it, characterising it as "the best children's book of 1937".[26]

Awards and appreciation

Ransome won the inaugural Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, recognising Pigeon Post in the Swallows and Amazons series as the year's best children's book by a British subject.[27] He was appointed CBE in 1953.[28] Durham University made him an honorary Master of Arts (which he told Cape to ignore) and Leeds University made him an honorary Doctor of Letters.

Translations of his books have been published in several languages and he became popular in many countries. Thriving Ransome appreciation societies exist in the Czech Republic, and in Japan where the Arthur Ransome Club was founded in 1987. Czech astronomer Antonín Mrkos named an asteroid after the author (6440 Ransome). The Arthur Ransome Society founded in 1990 in the U.K. now has a worldwide membership.


Published posthumously:

"Swallows and Amazons"

Books about Ransome


  1. The Last Englishman: the Double Life of Arthur Ransome by Roland Chambers: review
  2. "Arthur Ransome – double agent?". BBC Local: Leeds. Leeds, England: BBC News. 1 December 2009. Retrieved 28 March 2010.
  3. Foxcroft, T.H. "Arthur Ralph Ransome Lupton". North Craven Heritage Trust - Journal 2010. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  4. Ghael, Penny. "The Descendants of Thomas Ransome" (PDF). Page 10 - 2013, Charles E. G. Pease. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  5. Joseph, Claudia. "The intriguing story of the woman who gave Kate her looks - and family wealth". Daily Mail UK, November 21, 2010. Retrieved November 2, 2014. Olive (Middleton, daughter of Francis Martineau Lupton) was ...related by marriage to Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome, the gentleman spy and author of the children’s classic Swallows And Amazons
  6. Joseph, Claudia. Kate - The Making of a Princess. Mainstream Publishing Company, 2009, Chapter 8 - Noel Middleton and Olive Lupton. Retrieved November 2, 2014.
  7. Nature Books for Children PDFs
  8. Brogan (1984), pp 84; 281
  9. Brogan (1984, p 90
  10. Chambers, Roland (2009). The Last Englishman: the Double Life of Arthur Ransome. Faber & Faber. pp. 67–69.
  11. Brogan (1984), pp 77; 84
  12. Staff (2004). Annual Bibliography of the History of the Printed Book. 30. Den Haag: National Library of the Netherlands. p. 130.
  13. Brogan (1984), p 153
  14. 1 2 Pallister, David (1 March 2005). "Still an enigma, our Petrograd correspondent". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 January 2010.
  15. Kettle, Michael (1992). Churchill and the Archangel Fiasco: November 1918 – July 1919. London: Routledge. pp. 225–228. ISBN 0-415-08286-2.
  16. Brogan (1984), pp 242–248
  17. Chambers, Roland (10 March 2005). "Whose side was he on?". The Guardian. London.
  18. Henley, Jon (13 August 2009). "I spy Arthur Ransome". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 April 2010.
  19. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Ted Evans article "On AR and Hillyards" at
  20. Selina King at
  21. Article about Peter Duck at
  22. 1 2 Article about Lottie Blossom at Chichester Harbour Conservancy
  23. Strong, Leonard (1953). "Serials: Books for the young reader". The Writer's Trade. London: Methuen. p. 133. OCLC 503823758.
  24. Quoted from Walpole, Hugh (1934). British Books. 139. p. 248.
  25. Wardale (1991:170)
  26. Brogan (1984), 353.
  27. Carnegie Winner 1936. Living Archive: Celebrating the Carnegie and Greenaway Winners. CILIP. Retrieved 23 July 2012.
  28. Avery, Gillian (2004). "Ransome, Arthur Michell (1884–1967)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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