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Kenneth Grahame

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Kenneth Grahame
Grahame in 1910
Grahame in 1910
Born(1859-03-08)8 March 1859
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died6 July 1932(1932-07-06) (aged 73)
Pangbourne, England
Resting placeHolywell Cemetery, St Cross Church, Oxford
  • Children's author
  • Banker
Notable worksThe Wind in the Willows (1908)
Elspeth Thomson
(m. 1899)

Kenneth Grahame (/ˈɡr.əm/ GRAY-əm; 8 March 1859 – 6 July 1932) was a British writer best remembered for the classic of children's literature The Wind in the Willows (1908). Scottish by birth, he spent most of his childhood with his grandmother in England, following the death of his mother and his father's inability to look after the children. After attending St Edward's School in Oxford, his ambition to attend university was thwarted and he joined the Bank of England, where he had a successful career. Before writing The Wind in the Willows, he published three other books: Pagan Papers (1893); The Golden Age (1895); Dream Days (1898).


Grahame's birthplace in Castle Street, Edinburgh

Early life[edit]

Kenneth Grahame was born on 8 March 1859 at 32 Castle Street in Edinburgh. His parents were James Cunningham Grahame (1830–1887), advocate, and Elizabeth Ingles (1837–1864). When Grahame was a little more than a year old, his father was appointed as sheriff-substitute in Argyllshire, and the family moved to Inveraray on Loch Fyne with Grahame, his older sister, Helen, and his older brother, Thomas William (known as Willie).[1] In March 1864, Grahame's younger brother Roland was born and the following month Grahame's mother died of scarlet fever. Grahame contracted the disease and was seriously ill. Although he recovered, he was left vulnerable to chest infections for the rest of his life.[2]: 13–14 

After their mother's death, the four children were sent to live with their maternal grandmother at The Mount, a large house in extensive grounds in Cookham Dean in Berkshire, while their grieving father remained in Scotland and took to drink.[2]: 15-18  Also living at The Mount was Grahame's uncle David Ingles, who was the curate at the local church and took the children boating on the River Thames at nearby Bisham.[2]: 23  The children were supported financially by Grahame's paternal uncle, John Grahame, who was a parliamentary agent in London.[2]: 27  In the spring of 1866, after the collapse of a chimney at The Mount, the children moved with their grandmother to Fernhill Cottage in Cranbourne. Later that year, Grahame's father recalled the children to Scotland but the arrangement did not work out and the children returned to Cranbourne in 1867, while their father resigned his post in Scotland, went to live in France and had no further contact with his children.[2]: 27-30 

In 1868, when he was nine years old, Grahame became a boarder at the recently-established St Edward's School in Oxford. He was successful at school both academically and in sport, winning prizes for divinity and Latin in 1874 and the sixth form prize in 1875, captaining the rugby fifteen, and becoming head boy.[1] Holidays were spent at Cranbourne or with his naval commander uncle Jack Ingles and his children in Portsmouth and London. It was during a Christmas holiday in London in 1875 that Grahame's brother Willie died of a chest infection.[2]: 47-48 


Drawing of Grahame by John Singer Sargent

While he was at school, Grahame dreamt of attending Oxford University, but his uncle John Grahame was opposed to the idea and refused to finance it. Instead, Grahame began work as a clerk in his uncle's firm of parliamentary agents Grahame, Currie and Spens. While working in the Westminster office, he lodged with another uncle, Robert Grahame, in Fulham, joined the London Scottish Volunteers and, having met Frederick James Furnivall in a Soho restaurant, became a member of the New Shakspere Society.[2]: 49-73 

On 1 January 1879, aged nineteen, Grahame entered the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street in the City of London as a "gentleman clerk". He would stay at the Bank for nearly thirty years, working his way up to become its youngest Secretary (one of the Bank's three highest officers) at the age of thirty-nine. In the entrance examination to become a clerk, Grahame had scored the highest marks of his intake, and became the only candidate to score 100 per cent in the English Essay paper.[2]: 75 [3] To be nearer his work, Grahame took lodgings in Bloomsbury Street, which he later shared with his brother Roland, who also worked at the Bank. In 1882 he moved into a flat in Chelsea, where he lived on his own and caught the ferry to work.[2]: 86,92  In 1884, he became a volunteer at Toynbee Hall, working with impoverished youths from the East End of London.[2]: 92  Summer holidays with his sister Helen were spent in Cornwall and Italy, both places which would remain favourite destinations throughout his life.[2]: 93,95 

Grahame's work at the Bank left him time to pursue his literary interests. He had been jotting down his thoughts in prose and poetry in a bank ledger, but it was not until 1887 that he started to submit stories and essays to periodicals. His first published piece appeared in St James's Gazette in December 1888. He was then invited to become a regular contributor to the National Observer by its editor, the poet William Ernest Henley, who tried to persuade him to give up his position with the Bank and become a full-time writer. In 1893 he encouraged Grahame to send a collection of his short stories and essays to John Lane at The Bodley Head publishers. The collection was published with the title Pagan Papers and illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and was well received by critics. Grahame was now in demand as a writer, and became a regular contributor to The Bodley Head periodical, The Yellow Book.[4]: 35–41  In 1894 Grahame took out a lease on a house in the Kensington Crescent (now demolished) in Kensington, which he shared with another writer, Tom Greg, until the latter's marriage, and housekeeper Sarah Bath.[4]: 33-34 

The Golden Age, published in 1895, was a collection of stories about four children being brought up by aunts and uncles referred to as the Olympians. Some of the chapters had already been published in Pagan Papers while most had appeared in the National Observer and other periodicals. The book made Grahame famous and established him as a leading authority on childhood. The poet Algernon Swinburne said the book was "well-nigh too praiseworthy for praise".[4]: 42  A sequel, Dream Days followed in 1898, the year that Grahame was appointed Secretary to the Bank of England. Dream Days included stories published in periodicals over the past four years; a new story was The Reluctant Dragon.[4]: 44 

In 1897 Grahame met Elspeth (Elsie) Thomson, the daughter of Robert William Thomson and sister of Courtauld Thomson. Elsie had written a novel, plays and poems. Having lost both her parents, she was living in Onslow Square with her step-father John Fletcher Moulton who was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament.[4]: 48-57  Grahame and Elsie married on 22 July 1899, at the Church of St Fimbarrus, Fowey, Cornwall. Grahame had been recovering from pneumonia with his friend Arthur Quiller Couch and family in Fowey. Best man at the wedding was Grahame's cousin, the writer Anthony Hope. Grahame's sister Helen disapproved of the marriage, thinking the couple were temperamentally unsuited to each other, and the brother and sister became estranged.[1][4]: 62  The couple set up home in Durham Villas (now Phillimore Place) in Kensington, where their only child, Alastair (nicknamed Mouse) was born prematurely in 1900 with a congenital cataract that left him blind in one eye.[1][4]: 87  Grahame told his son bed-time stories about a mole, beaver and water-rat and letters he wrote when Alastair was holidaying with his nanny in Littlehampton in 1907 while his parents were in Falmouth, Cornwall, included stories about a toad.[4]: 103-105  These stories about animals have been seen as the source for The Wind in the Willows.[1]

In 1903, Grahame had a narrow escape when a man entered the Bank of England and took three shots at him with a revolver, missing each time. The man, George Frederick Robinson, was overpowered and arrested. After a trial at the Old Bailey in which he was found guilty but insane, he was sent to Broadmoor Hospital. Grahame never completely recovered from the trauma and it may have contributed to his early retirement from the Bank.[3][4]: 96-99 

Retirement and later life[edit]

Grahame retired from the Bank in 1908, aged forty-nine, ostensibly on the grounds of ill-health. An alternative explanation is that he had quarrelled with Walter Cunliffe, one of the bank's directors, who would later become Governor of the Bank of England. He was awarded an annual pension of £400, although he could have expected to receive £710.[3] In 1906, Grahame had taken out a lease on a house called Mayfield (later Herries Preparatory School) in Cookham Dean, close to where he grew up.[2]: 102 [5]

The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908, four months after the author's resignation from the Bank. Rejected at first by Everybody's Magazine in the United States and by Grahame's usual publishers Bodley Head, the book was eventually published in the United Kingdom by Methuen, with an American edition released by Scribner. Reviews were generally unfavourable; a reviewer in The Times wrote: "Grown-up readers will find it monstruous and elusive, children will hope, in vain, for more fun". A rare positive review appeared in Vanity Fair where Richard Middleton wrote that it was "the best book ever written for children and one of the best written for adults". The book sold well and continued to sell well, reaching 100 editions in the United Kingdom in 1951.[4]: 126-134  In 1910, the Grahames moved from Cookham Dean to a farmhouse, Boham's, in the village of Blewbury near Oxford.[4]: 135-136 

Grahame's son Alastair flourished at The Old Malthouse School but went on to have brief, and less happy, experiences at Rugby School and Eton College before having lessons with a private tutor to prepare for the University of Oxford.[4]: 152-160  During World War I, Grahame did war work in the village, setting up a factory for surgical supplies, while Alastair was rejected for active service, probably on account of his poor eyesight, and went up to Christ Church, Oxford in 1918.[4]: 161-162  On 7 May 1920, Alastair's body was found on the railway line near a level crossing in Oxford. The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death; rumours of suicide persisted. He was buried in Holywell Cemetery in Oxford on 12 May 1920, his twentieth birthday.[4]: 163-166 

Following the death of their son, Grahame and Elsie went to Italy and spent several years travelling. When they returned to England, they settled at Church Cottage in the village of Pangbourne, where Grahame died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 6 July 1932. He was buried at the Church of St James the Less in Pangbourne, with his body later being removed to Holywell cemetery to be buried with Alastair. Grahame's cousin Anthony Hope wrote his epitaph: "To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on the 6th of July, 1932, leaving childhood and literature through him the more blest for all time." Elsie survived him by fourteen years.[1] Grahame bequeathed the royalties from his works to the Bodleian Library, which also holds his archive.[1][6]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Grahame, Kenneth (1859–1932)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2011. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/33511. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Green, Peter (1959). Kenneth Grahame 1859-1932: a study of his life, work and times. London: John Murray.
  3. ^ a b c "Bank of England Museum". Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 3 April 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Galvin, Elizabeth (2021). The Real Kenneth Grahame: the tragedy behind The Wind in the Willows. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books. ISBN 978-1-52674-880-5.
  5. ^ Robin & Valerie Bootle (1990). The Story of Cookham. private, Cookham. p. 188. ISBN 0-9516276-0-0.
  6. ^ "Archive of Kenneth Grahame". Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts. Retrieved 22 March 2024.

Further reading[edit]

  • Alison Prince: Kenneth Grahame: An Innocent in the Wild Wood, London: Allison & Busby, 1994, ISBN 0-85031-829-7
  • Jackie Wullschläger: Inventing Wonderland: The Lives of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A. A. Milne, London: Methuen, 2001, ISBN 978-0-413-70330-9

External links[edit]