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04.07.2019

Meet the man behind Swallow & Amazons

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Arthur Ransome was born on 18th January 1884 in Leeds, the first son of Cyril and Edith Ransome. He had a brother, Geoffrey, and two sisters, Cicely and Joyce.

Arthur Ransome aged approx 5 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

Arthur Ransome aged approx 5 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

Ransome spent many childhood holidays with his family at Coniston Water in the Lake District. It was here that Arthur developed a fascination for the area and its inhabitants. He grew to love the lake. Each summer, he “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.

On leaving Rugby, Ransome studied Chemistry at the Yorkshire College but by then his burning ambition was to be a writer. In 1902, after less than a year at the College, he managed to get a job with a London publisher and moved south. 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.

Arthur Ransome in his Russian Press Corps Uniform c1916 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

Arthur Ransome in his Russian Press Corps Uniform c1916 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

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’.

An interest in folklore, together with a desire to escape an unhappy first marriage, led Ransome to St Petersburg in Russia, where he reported on the Revolution. He knew many of the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin, Radek and Trotsky. These contacts eventually led both to his recruitment by MI6, and MI5’s unsubstantiated fear that he might be a Bolshevik agent.

In 1917, while seeking an interview with Leon Trotsky, Ransome met Trotsky’s personal secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, and a relationship developed. 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. Thankfully, the couple reached safety in Reval, Estonia. Ransome reported on Russian affairs for the Manchester Guardian until 1924. While living in Riga, Latvia, Ransome had a 30-foot sailing boat built, the Racundra, in which he made a Baltic voyage, an account of which was published in 1923 under the title Racundra’s First Cruise.

Ransome married Evgenia and returned to England in 1924 and settled in the Lake District.
In April 1928 W G Collingwood’s daughter Dora returned from Aleppo to Coniston for an extended stay along with her husband Ernest Altounyan and their five children. Ransome 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, all the while working on a lake adventure which involved Swallow and Mavis (renamed Amazon) and a group of children loosely based on the Altounyans.

Arthur Ransome sailing Swallow on Windermere 1930 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

Arthur Ransome sailing Swallow on Windermere 1930 (c) Arthur Ransome Literary Estate

Swallows and Amazons was published in Britain in July 1930 and was published in America later that year. From that time onwards, Ransome 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, which reappeared in most of the subsequent books.

Today, Ransome is best known for his Swallows and Amazons series of novels. All remain in print and have translated into many different languages. In total he wrote over forty books, contributed to many more and wrote extensively for newspapers.

Arthur Ransome died in June 1967 and is buried at Rusland in the Lake District.

To find out more about Arthur Ransome, visit the Arthur Ransome Trust (ART) website.

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Swallows & Amazons