Arthur Ransome was born on 18th January 1884 in Leeds, the first son of Cyril and Edith Ransome. Cyril Ransome was Professor of History at the Yorkshire College (later to become Leeds University). Edith was the daughter of Edward Baker Boulton, a talented Australian landscape artist and sheep-farmer. Arthur had three younger siblings, Cecily (1885-1956), Geoffrey (1887-1918) and Joyce (1892-1970).
Arthur Ransome’s family tree has been traced back seven generations, to Richard Ransome (1649-1716), a Norfolk miller. Relatives include Robert Ransome (1753-1830), John Atkinson Ransome (Arthur Ransome’s great-grandfather), and Thomas Ransome (Arthur Ransome’s paternal grandfather). Robert founded Ransome & Rapier, the well-known East Anglian engineers and makers of agricultural implements. John a noted Manchester surgeon, attended William Huskisson at the opening of the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1830. (Huskisson died, thereby becoming the first known railway passenger fatality). Thomas, meanwhile, was a scientist and failed inventor.
Some of Arthur Ransome’s earliest and happiest memories were family holidays at Nibthwaite, a hamlet at the southern end of Coniston Water. From a very young age he developed a fascination for the area and its inhabitants. Above all, he grew to love the lake. Each summer, after arriving at Swainson’s Farm, Ransome “had a private rite to perform. Without letting the others know what I was doing, I had to dip my hand in the water, as a greeting to the beloved lake, or as a sign to myself that I had indeed come home.”
After a brief period at a day school in Leeds, Ransome went to the Old College at Windermere. This wasn’t a happy experience. Ransome failed to excel in team games, the school’s chief measure of success. The reason why only emerged when Ransome moved to Rugby. There Dr W.H.D. Rouse, his first house-master, realised that Ransome was very short-sighted. Rouse proved a blessing in other ways, as he encouraged Ransome’s desire to write.
Cyril Ransome died shortly before Arthur moved to Rugby. This was a bitter blow to Ransome, who felt that he had been a disappointment to his father. He was now denied the chance to grow closer to Cyril as an adult.
On leaving Rugby, Arthur Ransome went on to study chemistry at the Yorkshire College, now Leeds University; a choice his mother felt would provide the first stepping stone to a respectable and secure career. But Ransome’s burning ambition was to be a writer. After less than a year at the College he left to start work as an errand boy for Grant Richards, a small London publisher. His career in publishing lasted only 18 months. During it he began to earn a living as both a ghost writer and the author in his own name of articles for literary magazines. He spent every penny he earned on books, often in preference to food.
In 1903 Ransome was able to take a week’s holiday. He chose to revisit Coniston, where he stayed at what is now the Yewdale Hotel. During that week he met W G Collingwood, John Ruskin’s loyal friend and supporter, and a respected artist, archeologist and writer in his own right. Collingwood was the author of Thorstein of the Mere, one of Ransome’s favourite childhood books. It was a momentous meeting. The Collingwood family more or less adopted him and had a huge influence on his later life.
In 1903 Ransome ghost wrote half a dozen books about athletics and games. The ABC of Physical Culture, (1904) is probably one of these; why it bears Ransome’s name is unknown. He followed it with two collections of essays, The Souls of the Streets, (1904) and The Stone Lady, (1905). Neither were well received. Several other works followed before Ransome published his first “real book”, Bohemia in London, (1907).
In 1908 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 Ransomes set up home in Hampshire and in May, 1910 had a daughter, Tabitha. Ransome began to write commissioned studies of major literary figures. These included Edgar Allan Poe, (1910), Oscar Wilde, (1912) and an unfinished manuscript, Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 2011. Unfortunately Lord Alfred Douglas sued Ransome for libel over Oscar Wilde. Ransome won the resulting High Court trial, in April 1913. But the experience had stressed both his life and marriage. Ransome realised he needed a change.
Folk-tales, war and revolution
In May 1913, Ransome set off for Russia, staying in St Petersburg for three months while he learnt Russian and collected Russian folk-tales. In 1914 and 1915 he paid several more visits and completed Old Peter’s Russian Tales, (1916). November 1915 saw him return to Russia once again, this time as correspondent for the Daily News. He based himself in Moscow and spent an eventful four years reporting on the First World War, the Revolution and its aftermath. His work as a reporter brought him to the attention of British Intelligence. It also gave him contacts with many of the Bolshevik leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky and Radek.
In 1917, Ransome met Trotsky’s personal secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, and a relationship developed. In the summer of 1919 Ransome published Six Weeks in Russia in 1919. Later that year, he returned to Russia in dangerous circumstances, using the visit partly to trade diplomatic messages between the warring Estonian and Bolshevik Governments, and partly to smuggle Evgenia out of Russia. Ransome succeeded on both fronts: Estonia secured its independence and peace, and Ransome settled with Evgenia in the Estonian capital, Reval.
Once there 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 continued to report on Russian affairs for the Manchester Guardian until 1924. While in Riga, he commissioned the first of the six yachts he owned during his life. His account of her maiden voyage, Racundra’s First Cruise (1923) is regarded as a classic cruising book.
Divorce and marriage
Arthur and Ivy Ransome divorced in 1924, after bitter negotiations. He married Evgenia a month later, in May. Ransome wanted to retain a relationship with his daughter Tabitha, but in practice it deteriorated until they became estranged. More positively for Ransome, the divorce allowed him to returned to England with his new wife. They set up home in the Winster Valley in the Lake District. This was close – but not too close – to the offices of the Manchester Guardian. Ransome continued to write regular articles for the paper, chiefly about fishing. He also acted as a foreign correspondent, visiting Russia, Egypt and China.
Swallows and Amazons…
In April 1928 W G Collingwood’s daughter Dora returned from Aleppo to Coniston. This was for an extended stay along with her husband Ernest Altounyan 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 on Windermere. He compiled a selection of his Guardian fishing articles for publication under the title Rod and Line, (1929). At the same time he began work on a lake adventure which involved Swallow and Mavis (renamed Amazon) and a group of children loosely based on the Altounyans.
Swallows and Amazons was published by Jonathan Cape in July 1930. Sales were initially slow, but the reviews were enthusiastic. Ransome felt confident enough to turn his back on journalism, dedicating himself to children’s fiction instead.
…and its sequels
Arthur and Evgenia continued to live in the Lake District until 1935. During this period Ransome wrote three more Lake Country novels: Swallowdale, (1931) Winter Holiday, (1933) and Pigeon Post, (1936). Holidays spent sailing on the Norfolk Broads also inspired Coot Club, (1935), whilst Peter Duck, (1932) was a fantasy novel involving a treasure hunt in the Caribbean, purportedly written by the Swallows and Amazons themselves. Tiring of the isolation and climate in the Lake District, the Ransomes moved in 1935 to Suffolk, to live close to the River Orwell. Ransome took the opportunity to buy his second yacht. Renamed Nancy Blackett and kept at Pin Mill, this yacht inspired We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea, (1937) and Secret Water, (1939).
The Second World War brought frequent bombing raids to Ipswich. The disturbance made writing difficult, so in 1940 the Ransome’s moved back to the Lakes, where they bought a house on the shores of Coniston Water. They remained there for four years, during which Ransome wrote a second Norfolk Broads adventure, The Big Six, (1940), a second fantasy, Missee Lee, (1941) inspired by his visit to China, and a fifth Lake Country novel, The Picts and the Martyrs, (1943).
The twelfth and final novel in the Swallows and Amazons series, Great Northern? (1947) was set in the Outer Hebrides and based upon a suggestion by Myles North. Ransome did start a thirteenth novel. It would have brought members of the Coot Club from the Norfolk Broads to the Lakes. But Ransome never finished it. Nor was he able to complete The River Comes First, a novel about “an old schoolmaster and a fisherman and a boy and a river.”
In 1948 Arthur and Evgenia moved to Lowick Hall, a large house in the Crake valley. But its upkeep proved too much for them, and in 1950 they moved to a flat in Fulham, London. They lived there quietly for 13 years. During this period Ransome’s health gradually faded. He continued to write occasional articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as work on his autobiography. He also enjoyed sailing and fishing for as long as he could, commissioning three new yachts between 1947 and 1953. But in 1954, aged 70, he was forced to accept that his sailing days were over. Lottie Blossom was sold. Six years later he caught his last fish, a 7lb salmon.
The Ransomes continued to take regular holidays in the Lake District, staying at Hilltop Cottage, Haverthwaite. In 1963 they decided to buy that property and move back north. This was to be the last of more than 25 addresses Ransome called home in England alone. In October 1965 he became seriously ill. He 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.
The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content henceforth with a single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth, unwilling as yet to accept the idea of a final resting place.