Arthur Michell Ransome (1884-1967)
Author, War Correspondent, Journalist – and Secret Agent

Arthur RansomeYou will still find Arthur Ransome’s famous series ‘Swallows and Amazons’, written in the 1930s, among the children’s classics on bookshop shelves, and this summer the BBC plans a new film version set on Coniston Water. The stories may seem outmoded now, from a pre-war world of middle-class privilege, yet they still appeal: tales of children joyfully free to sail their boats, camp out, enjoy adventures, live an imaginative life close to nature, unfettered by grown-up concerns or modern complexities.  The Arthur Ransome Society thrives, with members all over the world who have been delighted, touched, and inspired by these books.

Arthur Ransome himself led a life of improbable adventure, though it began conventionally enough in Leeds, where he was born at 6 Ash Grove, Headingley, in 1884, the first child of Cyril and Edith Ransome. His father was Professor of History and Literature at the Yorkshire College, the forerunner of Leeds University. Home life was happy but unsettled: every few years the family moved house: to de Grey Road off Woodhouse Lane; to Balmoral Terrace in Claremont Road, Headingley; to St Chad’s Villas, Otley Road. But the long summer holidays were always spent at Coniston, in the Lake District. Arthur shared his father’s passion for fishing and sailing, and for the Lakes – more home to him, he said, than his beloved ‘smoky old Leeds’.  

At nine he was sent to prep school at Windermere, but he was desperately unhappy, hampered by severe short sight which no-one had recognised. Four years later his father suddenly died, leaving Arthur with a permanent sense of failing to live up to expectations. He did not distinguish himself at Rugby School (but did acquire spectacles!) and at 17 returned to Leeds to study science at the Yorkshire College. But writing was his real love, and in 1902, aged 18, he escaped to an office boy’s job at a publisher’s in London – and to freedom and independence.

He relished the bohemian life of London, mixing with writers and artists, making new, exciting friends, falling in love with delightful girls. He made a precarious living writing articles and reviews, essays, nature books. When he was 24, he fell for and married the volatile Ivy Walker, but it was to prove a disaster. He concentrated on his writing, publishing a book on London life, a critical biography of Poe, and then a commissioned book on Oscar Wilde – dangerous territory. He was promptly sued for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s ex-lover, in a notorious case which hit the headlines. Although Arthur was exonerated he was left exhausted, ill, and miserable. He decided to escape London – and his marriage.

He made for Russia, to work on a guide book and a collection of folk tales. His stay coincided with one of the great turning points of history: the First World War and the political upheavals leading to the 1917 Russian revolution. He was appointed the St Petersburg correspondent of the radical Daily News, and was one of the first British journalists to interview Trotsky, Lenin and other leading Bolsheviks. He wrote impassioned articles backing Bolshevik principles and achievements – he believed in the revolution as living democracy, a spontaneous rebellion against a cruel life of oppression. As one of the few foreign correspondents allowed to stay on, and friendly with the Bolshevik leaders, he was well placed, and it is now known that he was recruited by British Intelligence to report on events. Real-life adventure.

In 1917 he met and fell in love with Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary. When he left Russia in 1919 she joined him, and when his first marriage was dissolved they married. They lived in Estonia, where he reported on Russian affairs for the Manchester Guardian while pursuing his twin passions, fishing and sailing. He commissioned a boat and cruised the Baltic, publishing a log of his voyage, and he wrote a regular column on fishing. As the Guardian’s foreign correspondent, he was posted to Egypt and then China, but in 1929, tired of political journalism, he resigned. He found a house in his beloved Lakes and settled to writing the first of his long series of children’s books, ‘Swallows and Amazons’, set in the Lakes and the Norfolk Broads. The stories embody, with affection and humour, his sailing experience and boats, personalities and incidents from his childhood onwards. After a slow start they became best-sellers, the final one published in 1947.

Arthur retained his love of Leeds, and often visited his mother’s home at 28 Grove Road, Headingley, until her death in 1945. In 1952 he was awarded an honorary DLitt. by Leeds University, which now holds an outstanding collection of his papers. He and Evgenia continued their nomadic life, moving every few years to different houses in the Lakes, the Broads, and London, but they returned to the Lakes in the years before his death in 1967, and he is buried there in peaceful Rusland churchyard.

Eveleigh Bradford
September 2013