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The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter

Updated on December 25, 2015
The Tailor of Gloucester
The Tailor of Gloucester | Source

The Tailor of Gloucester - A Christmas Story

This is a story of a story; a tale within a tale about Beatrix Potter's magical Christmas book, The Tailor of Gloucester. Arguably potter's best book, the original story was decorated with Christmas carols and festive music and talking animals brought to life with wonderful pictures drawn by Beatrix Potter herself.

It was the third children's book published by Miss Potter. The first was The Tale of Peter Rabbit and the second was the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin but The Tailor of Gloucester is Beatrix Potter's only tale set at Christmas time. It was also Beatrix Potter's personal favourite.

Beatrix based the tale on the true story of a Gloucester tailor called John Prichard, but embroidered the story beautifully, adorned it in beautiful language and illustrated it with pictures that are little gems. What a shame that the country songs in the original were omitted from the later versions published by Frederick Warne & Co.

This year is the 110th anniversary of this book, so what better time to enjoy here the pictures, books and songs that really bring to life and times of the tale of The Tailor of Gloucester.

So are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin .......

The Tailor of Gloucester(Book & Tape Pack)
The Tailor of Gloucester(Book & Tape Pack)

The opening paragraph of this book must be one of the most beautiful in all the English language. It's worth buying the book just to savour those words and phrases, not to mention the beautiful illustrations.

 

The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter - Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Buy this book now The Tailor of Gloucester at Amazon.co.uk

It All Began With A Trip to The City of Gloucester

This is Gloucester, England of course

In England, quite a long time ago there lived a girl whose name was Beatrix. Beatrix Potter who had a kind and clever cousin called Caroline Hutton. Caroline's house was in the Cotswolds and she knew that Beatrix led a lonely and isolated life at home in London, and so she invited her to visit her in Stroud. I think this was around 1897 - quite a long time ago. Beatrix was thrilled. She had never been away alone before but was truly looking forward to staying in Gloucestershire - a beautiful part of rural England. It was here in Gloucester that her cousins told Beatrix the tale of the Tailor of Gloucester. The story goes something like this:

"Once upon a time there was a tiny, little tailor's shop in Westgate Street in the city of Gloucester owned by a Mister John Pritchard. Now, one Saturday night John Prichard's apprentices locked themselves up in the shop and proceeded to have rather a good time.

Suffice it to say that they became a little merry and then a little too worse for drink. Indeed, there came a point where they could not leave the shop for it would be a disgrace if they were found creeping out on the Sabbath day. So there they stayed and hid away, and for want of anything better to do these apprentices, who where clearly not altogether bad boys, took up needle and thread and proceeded to finish the suit commissioned by the new mayor.

On Monday morning, when the shop was opened up by Mister Prichard, low-and-behold there was a beautiful, waistcoat all finished and ready to wear save for one buttonhole. When he looked more closely at the suit he found a note attached which read, "No more twist".

Well, Mr Prichard was nothing if not astute and he immediately spread the word of the miraculous work that took place while the shop was closed, and he proceeded to put up a notice in the shop to say that the stitching here was done by fairies."

Beatrix loved the story but she added to it and made it better still. In the original story the mayor needed his suit for a civic visit to the Root Fruit and Grain Society show but Beatrix Potter's Tailor of Glouster was an old man with a cat named Simpkin. Instead of a fruit and vegetable show, she had the mayor preparing for his wedding day and she also added old country songs and carols to the story and her mice sewed to the recital of nursery rhymes.

See the full text here

The Tailor of Gloucester - Beatrix Potter's Favourite Tale - That little mouse tailor was Beatrix's personal favourite on BBC Radio 4

Philip Glassborow tells the tale of the mouse tailor on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 27th December 2012. In the original version of The Tailor of Gloucester, published in 1901, Beatrix Potter makes reference to many traditional songs and carols which were later cut from the story we all know today.

Beatrix Potter had paid a visit to Gloucester where she heard the true story behind the miraculous tale of grateful mice stitching the mayor's wonderful waistcoat after the tailor himself had fallen ill and there was no "no more twist".

*

From this tale Beatrix created The Tailor of Gloucester and sent it as a gift to Freda, the daughter of her old governess. Later she published this privately, including many local songs and carols associated with the old legend: that on the stroke of midnight on Christmas eve, the animals are able to speak.

Despite the fact that her Peter Rabbit tale had been so very successful, Frederick Warne declined to publish this story. When they did finally publish it, it was without most of its music.

In the radio programme, Philip Glassborow tracks down the sources of this music and explores Potter's passion for both the music and for the traditions at the heart of the story.

Where is Gloucester? - See where the Tailor of Gloucester came from

A marker -
9 College Court, Gloucester GL1 2NJ, United Kingdom
get directions

 The Young Beatrix Potter
The Young Beatrix Potter | Source

For Beatrix Potter Christmas Was a Sad and Lonely Time

Her childhood was far from happy

Christmas was a lonely time for Beatrix Potter who lived at home with her parents until she was in her late thirties. They were Unitarians and Christmas wasn't celebrated in the house.

Beatrix didn't have many friends - she was cared for by nannies and educated at home by governesses in a home bereft of other children. To fill this lonely gap Beatrix found and befriended animals,taking comfort in keeping pets. She had a pet rabbit, who became immortalised as Peter Rabbit, and a hedgehog - Mrs Tiggy Winkle - a veritable 'secret menagerie'

Her Scottish nanny would tell her traditional stories and songs and her family's long summer breaks in Scotland were to have a lasting influence on Beatrix , inspiring both her interest in art and science but also in a love of nature and in fokelore and local customs and culture.

When Beatrix was eighteen she wrote that, "Everything was romantic in my imagination, the woods were peopled by the mysterious good folk, the Lords and Ladies of the last century walked with me along the overgrown paths of the garden."


The Language is so Evocative

The first paragraph is so rich, so beautiful

Beatrix Potter begins by telling us that the story takes place 'In the time of swords and periwigs,' that her charecters wore 'full-skirted coats with flowered lappets.' She imagined that her 'gentlemen wore ruffles, and gold-laced waistcoats of paduasoy

and taffeta.'* So rich and so sensuously visual.

Beatrix uses words as well as pictures to bring her story alive in our minds in much the same was as Shakespear paints in words the moment when Anthony first met Cleopatra, so you will not be surprised to see that a couple of lines of Shakespear from Richard III

appear in the fronticepiece of the book:

'I'll be at charges for a looking-glass; And entertain a score or two of tailors."

* (A lappet is a decorative flap or fold in a ceremonial headdress or garment, paduasoy is a A rich heavy silk fabric with a corded effect - pronounced p j - -soi - I would say 'padjooasoy', and taffeta is a crisp, smooth plain woven fabric made from silk.)

The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends - See Beatrix, Simpkins and the mice complete with songs

The Tailor of Gloucester Began Life as a Christmas Letter To A Sick Child

Just as The Tale of Peter Rabbit had before it

The Tale of the Tailor of Gloucester began life a picture (or story) letter in much the same way as the story of Peter Rabbit and the Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher had. While the story of Peter rabbit had been sent to the sick son of Beatrix's former governess, Annie Moore, the tale of the tailor was sent to her poorly daughter, Freda:

The letter began "Dear Freda", and Beatrix went on to write that it was because Freda was fond of fairy- tales, and had been ill, I she wrote a new story especially for Freda that nobody has read before. "And the queerest thing about it is..." said Beatrix, "that I heard it in Gloucester- shire, and that it is true at least about the tailor, the waistcoat, and the "no more twist!" Beatrix went on to say that ".. there ought to have been more pictures towards the end and they would have been the best ones, only Miss Potter was tired of it - which was lazy of Miss Potter. Yours affectionately,, H.B.P (Miss Helen Beatrix Potter.) (For the quotation see The Full Text of the Tailor of Gloucester)

Beatrix then went on to publish the book privately and this books was identical, word for word, to the story-letter - complete with music and songs.

Beatrix Potter - Tailor Of Gloucester - Songs From Gloucester

The Tailor of Gloucester included Christmas rhymes and songs?

Because this story was set at Christmas, Beatrix thought it would be lovely for Freda to be reminded of Christmas carols and Christmas songs. She included traditional festive songs such as 'Wassal, Wassal, To Our Town'. The happy singing throughout her original story was performed by mice, a dog, horses, sparrows, and even rats, who give a rendition of 'Uncle Rottan'.

Beatrix loved to collect and to preserve the songs and traditions of the countryside. She found them in the books she read, nursery rhymes or books of country songs. She might have heard them sung as there was a growing interest in the preservation of country songs and carols. She helped to preserve the old rymes and songs in the same way that she preserved over 4,000 acres of land in the Lake District which she gifted to the National Trust.

But, alas, these songs are no longer in the book of the Tale of the Tailor of Gloucester - thanks to the wicked uncle Frederick Warne (&Co). The wicked uncle delt Beatrix the cruelest cuts of all!

Beatrix had great success with her first book, Peter Rabbit, published by Frederick Warne & Co but when she took it to Norman Warne of Frederick Warne & Co they said it was too long. Imagine that! Beatrix was just in time for Christmas 1902 and Norman Warne accepted the book but made Beatrix, as she had anticipated, take out the the songs and rhymes along with a section of the story where Simpkin takes a turn around the streets of Gloucester.

This video shows the original cover for The Tailor of Gloucester

Christmas Carols Make the Festive Season Special - All children should know and love the Christmas story though music

Whether you come from a Christian family or not you can enjoy the magic, the stories and the music of Christmas. So many of the songs and traditions come from before Christianity that I think it's fair to say that this is cultural as much as religious, and the songs and music of Christmas carols are so lovely - why not share them?

Listen to Cambric Shirt - Related to the Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight

Variations of this ballad often go under the title "Scarborough Fair" and the story centers around three impossible tasks. It has been thought to be about the Great Plague of London in the late Middle Ages. The lyrics seem to originate in a Scottish ballad, The Elfin Knight which has been found to go back at least as far as 1670: an elf threatens to take a young woman as his lover unless she can complete these task; instead she suggests a task that he should carry out first.

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In On Christmas Day in the Morning - A traditional and much loved English Christmas carol

This lovely carol is sung to a variant of the tune of "Greensleeves", and the song first appeared in print in the 17th century. It was published by William B. Sandys in 1833. The ships are said to be sailing into Bethlehem, although the Dead Sea is about twenty miles away - poetic licence! The three ships are said to be the ships that carried the relics of the magi to the Cathedral in Cologne in the twefth century. There could be a reference is to Wenceslaus II, who was a King of Bohemia, and whose coat of arms consisted of 'Azure three galleys argent'.

The Wassail Song - What is Wassail? What are Wassailers?

'Wassail' is a cry 'Waes Hail!' and also a hot mulled cider traditionally served as part of wassailing. So what is wassailing exactly?

Wassailers went around the countryside farms on the Twelfth Night of Christmas (January 6 or January 5th) with a wassail bowl singing traditional songs that would have local variations.

The wassailers would wish the famers a prosperous New Year and in return the farmers whould fill their bowl with cider. Some wassailers would visit the house and we would now call them carol singers; others visited the apple orchards to recite incantations and sing to the trees in apple orchards to promote a good harvest in cider-producing regions of England.

The wassail bowls themselves are 'objects of desire'. They're ofte made from wood, ash or sycamore, were beautifully carved, decorated with silver and decorated with ribbons.

Beatrix Potter and the Speaking Beasts

If only beasts could talk - what would they say?

Now the tailor's cat, Simpkin, you may recall, went out into Gloucester and visited the empty market stalls looking for scraps when suddenly the air became infused with the chiming of the cathedral clock striking midnight and a chorus of tiny voices arose: for it's said that at midnight, between Christmas Eve and Christmas day, the animals speak. As so often in life, most people are deaf to the sound of their voices. Where did Beatrix get this idea from?

It seems that Beatrix Potter heard of this legend, perhaps an old Scandinavian or Norwegian tale from pagan times, and stitched it into the tale of the Tailor of Gloucester. An interesting 'twist' is that apparently the Bretons considered it unlucky to overhear them.

There's a lovely story that the bees would waken from their winter sleep and sing praise before the break of day on Christmas morning.

The Opening Paragraph is So Beautiful

Images: The Project Gutenberg text reproduced under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License www.gutenberg.net

Woman's Embroidered Skirt Front (Petticoat) attributed to Philippe de Lasalle (France, 1723-1805) in the public domain because it has been released by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art www.lacma.org

The Illustrations are Wonderfully Charming

Images: The Project Gutenberg reproduced under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License www.gutenberg.net

Mice sewing, illustration from The Tailor of Gloucester 1903
Mice sewing, illustration from The Tailor of Gloucester 1903 | Source

The Illustrations of Beatrix Potter are so Charming

But they are also meticulously well researched and accurate

Beatrix took such pains to get her illustrations just right, so much so that while in Gloucester, she persuaded the son of a stable hand to sit crossed-legged on a bench as her model for the book. According to Philip Glassborow, she even pulled a button off her own clothes and took it to a tailor to be sewn on - so that she could watch exactly how the tailor sewed it back on so that she could catch the exact pose.

Beatrix also did considerable research in the South Kensington Museum, London. Here she found wonderful eighteenth century clothes that the curators would bring from their glass cases so that Beatrix could study and draw them.

But far from being pleased with this wonderful book, Beatrix was doubtful and full of self-crticism: she said of the book that "It is the best of them, but not as good as it ought to be". In a letter to Norman Warne she also said of the illustrations that the colours look better by gas light. She would have liked to have taken out some of the illustrations and included more of the cat. Beatrix Potter was nothing if not a perfectionist.

Reviewed by "The Tailor and Cutter" Christmas Eve 1903

Or the tale of the 'Tailor and Cutter'

There are so many charming stories within stories here. This is the story of Beatrix Potter's own tailor and a wonderful Christmas Eve review:

When the little book was published, Beatrix Potter thought it would be good idea to give a copy of the book to her Chelsea tailor. The Chelsea tailor read it and loved it so much that he showed it to a man who worked for the trade journal of all tailors: The Tailor & Cutter. The men at The Tailor and Cutter journal read the book and they liked it very much too - they wrote a wonderful Christmas Eve review in their magazine and it went like this:

"They thought it was ' ...by far the prettiest story connected with tailoring we have ever read.... ', that it was full of the '... spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men', they even confessed that it brought tears to their eyes and smiles to their faces and they loved the writing style and the illustrations.

(Quoted in Lear, Linda (2007). Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature. New York: St. Martin's Griffin 165)

The Tale of the Tailor was Beatrix's Personal Favourite

We continue to love this Christmas story

On December 23rd 1919 Beatrix sent Lady Warren a coopy of the tale and she said in the accompanying letter that 'it has always been my own favourite - it is by far the best ...'

We all love the story too and we keep watching it in new and updated adaptations:

In 1988, Rabbit Ears Productions produced a storyteller version in which the story is told by Meryl Streep with drawings by David Jorgensen. The music is provided by The Chieftains.

In a TV adaptation in 1989 featured Thora Hird, Ian Holm played the tailor and Jude Law was the Mayor's stableboy.

In 1993, the tale was adapted to animation for the BBC. In The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends, Derek Griffiths provided the voice of Simpkin and Ian Holm was the old tailor.

The Tailor of Gloucester Was Beatrix Potter's Favourite Tale - Is it your favourite tale too?

Have You Read The Tailor of Gloucester?

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© 2012 Barbara Walton

What Do You Think About Beatrix Potter and The Tailor of Gloucester? - I'd love to hear from you

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      Samuel 2 years ago

      It’s actually a nice and uesful piece of information. I am glad that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

    • Gloriousconfusion profile image

      Diana Grant 3 years ago from United Kingdom

      Very enjoyable. I've linked it to my lens Beswick/Royal Albert Figurines - Beatrix Potter Collectables

    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 4 years ago from Rome, Italy

      amazing research! will now check out miss potter's work!

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 4 years ago from New York

      Outstanding! Blessed and featured on "Still Wing-ing it on Squidoo"

    • JJGJJG profile image

      JJGJJG 4 years ago

      Nice lense, and I understand her love of the Lake District, it is beautiful.

    • bushaex profile image

      Stephen Bush 4 years ago from Ohio

      Thoroughly enjoyable and informative! SquidAngel Blessings.