Another article from the prolific pen of Peter Trott
If you get a Peter Rabbit 50 pence commemorative coin in your change you will be holding a piece of Shepherd’s Bush history.
The story began on 28 July 1866 when Helen Potter was born at 2 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington. She was still living there with her elderly parents in 1911 and the census listed her as an authoress. Of course by then she was much better known as Beatrix Potter.
She loved pets and apparently had kept ferrets, frogs, hedgehogs, mice, newts and even her brother’s pair of long-eared bats. However rabbits were her favourite and at the age of ten she had one named Tommy. In her twenties she had another one named Benjamin H. Bouncer. But it was in 1892 that she bought Peter Piper, a Belgian Buck rabbit, for 4s 6d from a shop on the Uxbridge Road in Shepherd’s Bush. She actually recorded that it cost ‘an exorbitant amount’.
In 1893 she wrote to five year old Noel Moore, the son of her former governess, and in the eight page letter she drew pictures of rabbits named Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail. But more importantly the letter also contained her first drawing of Peter Piper, who she later renamed Peter Rabbit. Her first book ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ was published privately in 1900 and commercially in 1902. In the following year Beatrix made a Peter Rabbit doll and wisely registered the design at the Patent Office. In 1904 she wrote ‘The Tale of Benjamin Bunny’ which included the character of Peter Rabbit as Benjamin’s cousin.
Beatrix spent many holidays at Lingholm and credited The Lingholm Kitchen Garden as the inspiration for Mr McGregor’s Garden. It has been speculated that the colonnades at Brompton Cemetery inspired the wall of his garden. The Potter’s family home was very close to Brompton Cemetery and Beatrix would probably have been very familiar with the cemetery.
In 2001 the Friends of Brompton Cemetery were going through recently computerised burial records of the cemetery, which contained 250,000 names. It was then that they discovered that Beatrix may have got some of her character’s names from the memorials. The Friends discovered names including Mr. Nutkins, Mr. McGregor, Tommy Brock and Tod (with that unusual single‘d’ spelling).
James Mackay, a member of the Friends commented at the time:
‘But I became convinced that the story is genuine when I found an old edition of the Jeremy Fisher story which had the character down as Jeremiah Fisher. Then I found a gravestone in the cemetery for a Jeremiah Fisher and that’s when I thought the rumour was true’
Returning to the Shepherd’s Bush connection it is possible to speculate on the route that Beatrix took on that day in 1892. After leaving home she would have headed west and after a short distance passed the main gates of Brompton Cemetery. Immediately after the cemetery she would have turned left into West Brompton Station which was served by the West London Railway. After buying her ticket and boarding the train she would have passed the newly built Earls Court Exhibition Grounds. When the train stopped at Addison Road Station she would have been able to see the imposing new Grand Hall at Olympia.
She would have alighted at the next stop which was the Uxbridge Road Station (the original station stood very close to the current Shepherd’s Bush Overground Station). Turning right out of the station was the start of the Uxbridge Road which headed west towards Shepherd’s Bush Green. The road was lined with over fifty small shops and it was in one of those shops that she bought Peter Piper who became world famous as Peter Rabbit.
As luck would have it, a photo was taken in 1893 may have captured the very shop that Beatrix visited. On the right of the photo, taken from the Green, you can see 90 Uxbridge Road, which was an animal dealers bearing the name Mills and Lane. A Post Office Directory of 1900 lists Edward Albert Mills as a bird and live animal dealer at the address.