Rawnsley! Thou shouldst be living at this hour

It was the veal calf demonstrations that reminded Hunter Davies about Canon Rawnsley and his deeds. The veal calves and the M11 and, oddly enough, Natural Born Killers ...

Canon Rawnsley was one of the most remarkable men you've never heard of. I first came across his name when I was 14 and my violin teacher entered me for the Rawnsley Prize at the Carlisle Music Festival, an honour in itself. I came fourth out of four, being rubbish on the violin. There was also some Rawnsley Shield when I was in the Boy Scouts, but I can't remember what for. Knots or woggles, probably. Then I grew up and forgot the name Rawnsley.

Five years ago, after writing several books about railways and Lakeland, and about Beatrix Potter and Wordsworth, in which Rawnsley kept appearing as a minor, walk-on character, I tried to persuade several London publishers to let me do his biography. They all yawned, saying it must be time for lunch. No, but, he was amazing man, I said. An unknown Victorian vicar, they said, who lived in some obscure part of the provinces? Who wants a book about him? Ah, but he was a founder of the National Trust, and its centenary comes up in 1995.Very boring subject, the National Trust, they said. So I tried the Beatrix Potter angle, how Rawnsley played a vital part in her life. That got a bit more interest. But no.

They were probably right. Nobody else this year has done his biog. Not even the National Trust. But the other week, watching demonstrations on TV against veal calves, or was it the anti-fox-hunting thing, or the march over the Queen's private paths at Windsor, perhaps even Bel Mooney throwing herself at that bypass, Canon Rawnsley came back into my mind. He did all that stuff, about a hundred years ago. Listening to the arguments raging and hearing all that stuff about Natural Born Killers, I thought: Canon Rawnsley, you should be here. A provincial vicar he was, who became a Canon of Carlisle Cathedral, but his background and education gave him some smart and useful connections when it came to agitation.

He was born Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley in Shiplake, near Henley, in 1851. His father, a vicar, was a close friend of Tennyson, and had officiated at his wedding. The young Hardwicke decided he wanted to be a poet when he grew up. On his mother's side, he was related to Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer and great Victorian hero, so when he wasn't dreaming about poetry, he was imagining himself as a great explorer.

He went to Uppingham School, and Balliol College, Oxford, where he rowed and ran and wrote poetry. He became a friend of Ruskin, Slade Professor of Fine Art, and Jowett, the Master of Balliol. Jowett discouraged Rawnsley's passion for poetry, saying he should settle down and "get rid off his excitable ways".

In 1877, he became vicar of Wray, on the shores of Windermere. It is not quite clear why an energetic and muscular cleric was moved at such a young age to a remote rural parish, but while doing missionary work in Soho he appears to have had some sort of breakdown. Or perhaps his excitable ways had made him enemies.

He married a local girl, Edith Fletcher from Ambleside, and threw himself into every aspect of Lakeland life. He often visited Ruskin, who by then was living at Brantwood on Coniston. He set himself the task of recording memories of local people who had known Wordsworth. In 1881, he had his own book of Lake District sonnets published, mostly soppy, some religious.

In 1882, Beatrix Potter, then aged 16, came to spend a long holiday in his parish when her well-off parents rented Wray Castle for the summer. He became great friends with her parents and with her, praising her little drawings and paintings, encouraging her interest in animals and plants.

Early in 1883, Rawnsley became involved in his first big campaign. There was a proposal for a railway from Buttermere to Keswick, primarily to carry slate from Honister, which he said would ruin some beautiful landscape. He wrote storming letters to the national press, organised petitions and action groups - and by April he had the Bill thrown out.

His first campaign - and his first victory. Not an easy one, because the country was in the grip of railway mania.

That year, at the annual meeting of the Wordsworth Society, presided over by Matthew Arnold, Rawnsleyproposed the formation of a Lake District Defence Society. Within a year, there were 600 members (only 10 per cent of whom actually lived in the Lake District), including Tennyson, Browning and the Duke of Westminster. Their first fight was against a proposed railway in Ennerdale - which was also won.

In 1883, the Bishop of Carlisle offered Rawnsley the living of Crosthwaite, Keswick, a more important parish, more at the centre of Lakeland life. Robert Southey, poet laureate before Wordsworth, is buried in the churchyard. For the next 25 years, Canon Rawnsley (as he became in 1893) was based in Keswick - but the whole of England was really his parish.

On a local level, he created the Keswick School of Industrial Art, which started as a series of evening classes in his parish hall, teaching local lads and lasses wood-carving, metalwork, drawing and painting. He served for many years as a Cumberland county councillor, campaigning for the poor and the homeless. He was the first president of the Cumberland Nature Club, which took children on nature walks.

His interests and campaigns expanded to a national level, and many of them now seemastoundingly modern: against pollution in streams; pro- organic farming; up with pure milk; down with white bread.

He believed that the new fashion for bleached bread was "starving the nation, robbing it of bone for the body, enamel for the teeth and proteins for the tissue". So active was he in this campaign that a bread manufacturer threatened libel action.

There were also some fairly eccentric, not to say dopey passions, such as bonfires. In 1887, for Queen Victoria's Jubilee, he was put in charge of Lakeland's celebratory bonfires. He led an excursion of 400 people up Skiddaw, where they were able to admire 148 different bonfires, glowing all over Lakeland, which he had organised.

In 1901, he got very steamed about a new and terrible evil - penny-in- the-slot machines on railway stations, concerned that impressionable young men were being corrupted by "indecent and degrading pictures". He managed to have them removed from every station platform.

He also wrote to chief constables in his campaign against rude picture postcards, the sort sold at Blackpool, and alerted the nation to the harm that could be done by another innovation - the cinema. He proposed the censorship of films showing sex or violence before they could be shown to children.

I have this image of him, big, bearded and burly, a hyperactive Terry Waite, forever bustling round the countryside, stirring things up. I've made up his bigness - the only book about him, written by his widow and published in 1923, doesn't give his size, or many other personal details. I know he was a good public speaker and had appalling handwriting. I sense that as he got older he grew bossier, like many do-gooders whose hearts are in the right place. He missed the London train once, leaving from Keswick, but ordered the station master to summon another for him.

In 1898, he received a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury asking whether he would like to be Bishop of Madagascar. A strange offer, and not, I suspect, from a wellwisher, but his friends and fellow campaigners persuaded him to stay. His real work was at home.

Rawnsley's greatest work, for which we must all be grateful, was the National Trust. The origins, for him, went back to 1885 and a local dispute concerning public footpaths along Derwentwater and over Latrigg. Two landowners had closed the paths with barriers. He wrote letters of complaint, which the landowners ignored on the grounds that no one was really interested, that Rawnsley was one of just two or three agitators stirring things up. Rawnsley led a deputation of 400 to the home of one of the landowners, and then a public march of 2,000 along the footpath that had been closed. Next he held protest meetings in London, Oxford, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. Finally, he took the campaign to court, to the Carlisle assizes, where the case was won and the footpaths kept open.

In 1893, Rawnsley was alarmed when the Lodore Falls and the island in the middle of Grasmere came up for sale. He felt that such sites should always be available to the public, yet there was no existing organisation capable of buying and caring for them.

Many years earlier, Wordsworth had suggested that there should be some body to protect the Lakes. John Ruskin had mouthed much the same. But it was the bold, energetic and practical Canon Rawnsley who put these noble ideals into practice.

He contacted two other notable campaigners, with whom he had worked defending footpaths and other causes, both of them old friends: Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter. The three met at the Duke of Westminster's house in London for a preliminary meeting - and from this the National Trust was formed, attaining legal status in 1895. The Duke was made president and Rawnsley was the first secretary, a position he held for the next 25 years, till his death in 1920. The first life member was Rupert Potter, Beatrix's father.

Which brings us to Rawnsley's second great achievement. Young Beatrix, at that time, was getting nowhere with her little drawings, as Rawnsley knew. After that first summer on Windermere, the Potters had visited Lakeland many times and he had remained a close friend. By 1900, she'd had 10 years of rejections from publishers.

Rawnsley suggested that shewrite and illustrate her own book. She sat down at once and wrote a story about a rabbit called Peter. Rawnsley, by then a published author himself, drew up a list of six publishers she should try. He knew the publishing business well, so he boasted. All turned her down.

But you don't get to be a successful campaigner by giving up. Rawnsley suggested she publish the book herself, using her own money, doing it in black and white to keep it cheap.

She printed 250 copies price 1/2 d each, most of which she gave away. (Recently, one of these sold for £50,000.)

Rawnsley was still keen for Beatrix to a find proper publisher, and offered to rewrite the Peter Rabbit story himself, in his own verse. The publisher Frederick Warne accepted the book, but fortunately declined Rawnsley's rewrite. Their edition, in colour, came out in 1902 - and the rest is children's history.

It is also National Trust history - for thanks to Rawnsley, Beatrix Potter became the Trust's biggest benefactor. On her death, she left them money and 15 farms - around 4,000 acres.

Were they in love? If I'd done his biography, l would certainly have investigated this.

In that 1923 book, written by his second wife, Eleanor, whom he married in 1918 after the death of his first wife, there is no mention of his connection with Beatrix Potter. It is believed in the family that Eleanor was a little jealous.

If his first wife had died earlier, before Beatrix herself married, rather late in life, they might possibly have married each other. So I might at least have hinted at some wild Lakeland passions lurking in the bosom of the Great Campaigner.

I might even have sold the film rights. Michael Douglas, in a beard, I think; he'd jump at a right-on-but-muscular part right now. Elizabeth Hurley as Beatrix, Meryl Streep as Mrs Rawnsley. I don't think she's done a Cumbrian accent yet.

No film or book, but on 15 May Hunter Davies presents a BBC Radio 4 programme about Canon Rawnsley's work, called `My Kind of Trust'.

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