Swallows, Amazons, the Anarchist and the Russian Revolution, by Chris Nickson

Think you know about Arthur Ransome? This month Chris Nickson tells us about the Leeds born author’s secret and sometimes dangerous life.


Image courtesy of Wikipedia

We often believe we understand a writer through his or her work. But the art is not the artist, and there can be a world of difference between the words on the page and the life that’s lived.

Arthur Ransome was the J.K. Rowling of his day, a children’s writer whose books have enchanted generations and built up a love of the Lake District even in those who’d never seen the area. But the man behind Swallows and Amazons had a much more intriguing tale that he never told.

Arthur Michell Ransome was born in Ash Grove, off Victoria Road in Hyde Park, Leeds in 1884, now commemorated with a blue plaque. His father was Professor of History at the fledgling Yorkshire College, which would eventually become Leeds University; as an aside, the Ethiopian Prince, Alemayehu Tedoworo contracted pleurisy and died while staying with the Ransomes a few years before Arthur was born (my thanks to Tess Hornsby Smith for that snippet).

The Ransomes knew Leeds suffragist Isabella Ford, and when Arthur was 12 and visiting Miss Ford’s home in Adel, he was taught to ice skate on Tile Lane Ponds by a guest in her house – Prince Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist.

Perhaps that began Ransome’s fascination with Russia. He went there in 1913 after winning a libel suit about his biography of Oscar Wilde, and stayed for several years. With the start of the First World War, he covered the Eastern Front as a correspondent for the radical Daily News, and published a collection of Russian folktales.

Ransome also reported on both the Russian Revolutions in 1917 (although he wasn’t there in October), and became a part of the Bolshevik inner circle, seemingly very sympathetic to the cause, and a friend of both Lenin and Trotsky. In 1924 he married Trotsky’s former personal secretary, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina after a divorce from his first wife, Ivy.

He was an apologist for the Bolsheviks, even after the terrors began, and was perhaps a little politically naïve, and maybe somewhat flattered to be so close to the leading figures in Russia. He also met with senior servants and politicians when back in England. He urged Britain not to intervene in the Russian Civil War on behalf of the Whites, but to no avail.

But, he was also passing information about Russia to the British government, even as he produced Bolshevik propaganda. MI5 had a code name for him – S76. Yet, shortly after the war, they started to suspect he might have become a Russian agent, as he opposed the Allies intervening in the Russian Civil War. Some in power in Britain found him reliable; others weren’t too sure. He did, however, convince the head of Special Branch when he was interviewed.

In October 1919, now writing for the Manchester Guardian, Ransome was trusted to deliver an armistice proposal to the Bolsheviks by the Estonian Foreign Minister. Delivering it meant crossing battle lines between the Reds and the Whites. After that, Ransome and Evgenia lived together in Tallinn, the Estonian capital before moving to Riga, in Latvia. They eventually returned to England and settled in the Lake District, where he’d enjoyed many childhood holidays. Soon he began to write Swallows and Amazons, the first of his 13 bestselling books for children.

As to his spying activities, a release of material by the National Archives included this note: “[Ransome is] not a Bolshevik…his association with the Bolsheviks was begun, and has been continued throughout, at the direct request of responsible British Authorities. He was first asked to get into the closest possible touch with them by Mr Lindley when he was Chargé d’Affaires.”

It just shows you though, go behind the magic, and sometimes there are secrets to be discovered.

Arthur Ransome died in 1967. Many of his manuscripts, notebooks, letters and photographs are held in Special Collections  at the University of Leeds.

If you’d like to find out more about Arthur Ransome, there’s a free lunchtime talk by Ann Farr of the Arthur Ransome Society at the Treasures of the Brotherton Library on Friday 24 November. Please reserve your place here.

Chris Nickson is the author of several historical crime novels set in Leeds. Free From All Danger is the long awaited eighth novel in the Richard Nottingham series.

Leeds, 1736. Lured out of retirement to serve as Constable once again, Richard Nottingham discovers that he’s dealing with a new kind of criminal: someone who believes he’s beyond the law; someone willing to brutally destroy anyone who opposes him. To stop him, Nottingham must seek help from some very unlikely sources.

Free From All Danger will be published on 31 October by Severn House. You can pre-order your copy here.

There’s a free book launch on Thursday 9th November, 7pm at the Leeds Library (Commercial Street) with live music! Please register your attendance here.




Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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