Arthur Ransome was born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England on January 18, 1884. His father Cyric was a history professor and a great lover of nature. As a child, Arthur spent much of his vacation in sailing, camping and exploring the countryside in England's Lake Country near Lake Coniston and Lake Windermere. His poor vision, lack of athletic skills and poor academic performance left him with some unhappy memories of his school experiences.
As a young man, Arthur Ransome began his career working at a newspaper and had a distinguished career as a journalist. In 1913 after an unsuccessful marriage, he went to Russia, where he met his future wife Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who had been Trotsky’s secretary, and he developed sympathy for the cause of Leon Trotsky and his Bolsheviks. In 1924, he gained a divorce, and was able to marry Evgenia and come back to The Lake District, living first in the Winster Valley.
But newly disclosed records have confirmed that Ransome spied on Bolshevik Russia for MI6, supplying valuable information on the Soviet leadership in the years after the revolution. Ransome was working as a foreign correspondent for The Observer and the Manchester Guardian in 1917, was always seen as a leftwinger who sympathised with Bolshevism. He even wrote a book in defence of the revolution.
In fact, despite his closeness to Lenin and Trotsky, (later even marrying Trotsky’s secretary), he was assigned the code number S76 by British intelligence. And he filed regular reports to his Secret Intelligence Service paymasters who were working to crush communism.
Ransome was recruited into MI6 by another “left-wing” journalist, Clifford Sharp, editor of the New Statesman . During the First World War he ran the British Propaganda Bureau (BPB) in Stockholm under the control of MI6, with the aim of penetrating Russian revolutionary groups.
Ransome entered Russia early in 1919 and soon became friendly with the leading Bolsheviks. His SIS controller, a Major Scale, was assistant British military attach? in Stockholm. Ransome arranged with Scale that if things became too hot for him in Russia the Foreign Office should send an officer to the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs recalling him immediately.
He returned to Britain with Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, who became his second wife in 1924, but he was still in touch with the SIS in 1922 when he sailed his yacht Racundra in the Baltic with Boyce, a voyage that he later recounted in his book, Racundra’s First Cruise.
While there, the Foreign Office described him as “very radical”, but “a conscientious and intelligent journalist”. But after falling ill on the trip he was forced to return to opt for a quieter life in Britain, moving to his beloved Lake District where he got the idea for Swallows and Amazons.
Upon his return to England, he published Old Peter’s Russian Tales, a collection of 21 folktales from Russia. In 1925 the Ransomes bought Low Ludderburn, an old farmhouse at the head of the Cartmel Fell valley with views as far as Ingleborough, in Yorkshire, and Helvellyn in the Lakes. This was by no means retirement - before long Arthur was off to China to report on the volatile political situation there. Much later, the Swallows and Amazons recorded his memories in Missee Lee, where the dragon processions are those he watched parade through the streets of Hankow.
Arthur Ransome based his book “Swallows and Amazons” on Coniston Water, and much fun may be had trying to discover the locations of the stories. There are special interest cruises on the Coniston Launch which explore the locations used by Arthur Ransome in his books. The Steam Yacht Gondola which sails around Coniston, gave the idea for Captain Flint’s houseboat, although this was eventually modelled on Esperance.
Neither Swallows and Amazons nor its follow-up, Swallowdale , was immediately successful. But in 1932 came Peter Duck, which established Ransome’s reputation with the young. He bought a large house in the Lake District called Hill Top, near Haverthwaite, with his earnings and lived there until his death in 1967 aged 83.
His interest in nature can be seen in books such as The Coot Club, published by D. R. Godine in 1990. Here Dorothy and Dick have an adventure in the English countryside and attempt with their friends to protect nesting birds from boaters.
Probably his best-known work in the United States is The Fool of the World, a Russian folktale. Uri Shulevitz, illustrator of this book, received the Caldecott Award for his illustrations.
Arthur Ransome received many awards during his lifetime. He received the first Carnegie Medal in England in 1936 for his book, Pigeon Post, published by Lippincott.
Arthur Ransome died on 3rd June 1967, and his grave is in St Paul’s Church, Rusland. His wife Evgenia (1894-1975) is also buried here.
Diane Janes, of the Arthur Ransome Society, which has branches as far afield as America and Japan, admitted that the revelations “would come as a surprise to our members who only know him as a writer of children’s stories. But he was always much more than a children’s writer. He only started writing his Swallows and Amazons books when he was approaching middle age.”
Janes thought that the latest revelation was unlikely to damage Ransome’s reputation. “I think this can only ignite more interest in him,” she said. But Stephen Dorril, author of MI6: 50 Years of Special Operations, said: “It’s good to have confirmation that Ransome was working for British intelligence because there has been widespread speculation about where his loyalties lay. Now we know for certain that he was not a traitor of any kind.”