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Arthur Ransome - double agent?
Arthur Ransome
Arthur Ransome as most people knew him - moustachioed English gentleman

His novels are considered to be great evocations of a golden era of childhood innocence and adventure.

Alongside Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome probably epitomises the pre-war wholesomeness of that era.

Best known for Swallows And Amazons, Ransome published a series of best sellers in the 1930s and 1940s.

However his reputation as the quintessential Englishman has been tarnished with accusations of being a double agent when he worked for MI6.

Early life

Arthur Ransome was born on 18 January 1884 in Hyde Park, Leeds. His father Cyril was Professor of History at the Yorkshire College (the precursor to Leeds University).

Arthur Ransome's blue plaque
Arthur Ransome's blue plaque at his birthplace, 6 Ash Grove, Hyde Park

Throughout his early years, Ransome's family spent their holidays at Coniston Water, in the Lake District, and Arthur developed a fascination for the area which would resurface in his novels for children.

After a short time being schooled in Leeds, Arthur was sent to a prep school in Windermere, where despite his fondness for the Lake District, he was not at ease. He went on to Rugby School and returned to Leeds to study science at the Yorkshire College.

However in 1902, after less than a year at the College, his desire to become a writer saw him move to London and to get a job with a publisher. His career in publishing lasted only 18 months, after which he started to earn a living by writing articles for literary magazines.

In 1904 Ransome published his first book, a collection of essays called The Souls of the Streets, followed a year later by another collection, The Stone Lady, neither of which was well received.

Other books followed and were similarly unsuccessful, with the exception of Bohemia in London, published in 1907 and generally regarded as Ransome's first 'real book'.

In 1909 Ransome got married for the first time, to Ivy Walker but the union wasn't to last for very long, although they had a daughter, Tabitha, in 1910.

More books followed, including commissioned studies of Edgar Allan Poe (1910) and Oscar Wilde (1912). The book on Wilde instigated an unsuccessful action for libel by Lord Alfred Douglas against Ransome and his publishers.

Russian adventures

In May 1913, Ransome travelled to Russia, staying in St Petersburg for three months while he learnt Russian and collected Russian folk-tales. Over the next couple of years he continued to visit Russia, and completed a book, Old Peter's Russian Tales.

Arthur Ransome in his youth
A rather more youthful Arthur Ransome

Eventually he became the Moscow correspondent for the Daily News, reporting on the Russian Revolution and its political fallout.

After the Revolution, Ransome became friendly with Lenin, his deputy Trotsky and Bolshevik head of propaganda, Karl Radek. According to recently released documents, in August 1918 Ransome was recruited by MI6 to spy on the Russian government. He was given the code name S76.

In 1917, while seeking an interview with Leon Trotsky, Ransome met Trotsky's personal secretary, Evgenia Shelepina, and a relationship developed, leading to marriage in 1925 after obtaining a divorce from Ivy.

Arthur and Evgenia set up home in the Lake District - close enough to the offices of the Manchester Guardian, who were now publishing regular articles by Ransome, chiefly about fishing.


Swallows And Amazons
The first edition cover of Swallows And Amazons

In 1929 he began work on his most famous book, Swallows And Amazons, based on the adventures of the children of friends of his, messing about in boats.

The book was published the following year to positive reviews. Ransome ceased to write for the Manchester Guardian and set about following up on the success of his first children's novel.

His next book, Swallowdale, was a sequel to Swallows and Amazons and featured the same characters, the sisters Nancy and Peggy Blackett, and John, Susan, Titty and Roger Walker - these characters reappeared in most of his subsequent books. His final book, Great Northern?, set in the Hebrides, appeared in 1947.


Arthur Ransome died in 1967, aged 83. Subsequently historians and biographers have made much of Ransome's activity in Russia during that crucial historical period.

At the time, Ransome's newspaper reports were sympathetic to the revolution and when he arrived back in England in 1919 he was arrested by the police under the Defence of the Realm Act. He was released after convincing the authorities that he was not a communist revolutionary.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky - did he use his secretary Evgenia to 'turn' Ransome?

Much has been made of Evgenia leaving the Soviet Union with an estimated two million roubles in diamonds and pearls, which it is claimed was used to fund Bolshevik propaganda across Europe.

Author and critic Adam Mars Jones has argued: "Ransome knew which side his bread was buttered on, though he may not have realised how busily it was being buttered on both sides, by British and Bolshevik agencies alike. He was nothing as complicated as a double agent, but was useful to each side only if he had some standing with the other."

Sir Cavendish-Bentinck reported to the Foreign Office: "He (Ransome) is really rather a coward and is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds."

Historian Roland Chambers' book 'The Last Englishman: the Double Life of Arthur Ransome' was published in August 2009 and is convinced Ransome played both sides off against each other:

"He was paid by the Brits, supplied reports to them, and he advised the Cheka (Russian Secret Service) on British foreign policy. That said, though, this wasn't the cold war. There's no evidence he ever passed sensitive information to the Bolsheviks, or even that he had access to it. And there's no law against publishing your views. In Ransome's eyes, he was always just a go-between who was only really ever serving his own interests."

So which is the real Arthur Ransome? The stolid writer of children's novels and fishing columns or a latterday ace of spies?



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