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Arthur Ransome (1884-1967)

Arthur Ransome

Yorkshire College student, 1901

Honorary DLitt, 1952

Arthur Ransome, born in Headingley, was an unwilling student at the Yorkshire College, which became the University of Leeds in 1904. An academic failure at boarding school, he agreed to study science at the college to please his father Cyril Ransome, who was its Professor of History and English.

A chance event in the college library decided Ransome's whole future. Searching the shelves for a book on magnetism, he was attracted instead by a biography of the writer and artist William Morris. He was so inspired by what he read, he decided there and then to become a writer and, despite his father's worries, left for London in 1901. The actual book that changed his life, The life of William Morris by J W Mackail, is still in the University Library.

Ransome survived as a bohemian journalist and writer for 12 years, developing an interest in folk stories. In 1913 he left an unhappy marriage to go to Russia to gather folk tales, learning the language to translate them. This led to his appointment as a Russian correspondent for the Daily News in the lead up to the Russian Revolution. He got to know the leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin, and fell in love with Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky's secretary.

As the work of an Englishman, Ransome's newspaper reports and other writings were unusually sympathetic to the Revolution. However, around 80 years later it was revealed that he had secretly been acting as a British intelligence agent, indirectly supporting opposition to the Revolution.

In the 1920s, Ransome grew tired of travelling and returned to England with Evgenia, determined to write a book for children and enjoy his sailing and fishing. Settled in a Lake District cottage, he wrote Swallows and Amazons, the book which made his reputation. It has never been out of print since publication in 1930 and is the first of a dozen hugely successful novels featuring four children and their sailing adventures.

Ransome received many honours for his writing, including an honorary doctorate in 1952 from the University of Leeds, which he'd left without a degree. He wrote in his diary: "Every man has a lurking wish to be thought considerable in his native place."

Ransome's archive was presented to Leeds University Library in the 1970s. It gives unique insights into Edwardian literary London, the Russian Revolution, Ransome's sailing and fishing exploits, and some of the best loved of all children's books.