The city of Gloucester, laid out on wide, logical lines, might seem at first glance like any hard hit Costa/McDonalds town but it’s not. Look only a fraction longer and history stares straight back at you. It catches you at every turn.
Most obvious is the city’s cathedral, once St Peter’s Abbey – home to the sacred and witness to life. A king has been crowned here; a king buried; a bishop martyred; and, more recently, a wizard filmed – the children’s wizard, Harry Potter.
Gloucester Cathedral has also been the backdrop to a story by a more sedate Potter – Beatrix Potter. It is her fictional character for children, the frail tailor of the city, who today lays claim to his own ‘House’ by the ancient arch of St Michael’s Gate.
The Tailor of Gloucester was the third of Beatrix Potter’s children’s stories to be published by Frederick Warne & Co. Their version of the book, probably the best known version, celebrates its 110th anniversary this year. In 1916 Beatrix Potter wrote in a presentation copy of The Tailor of Gloucester: “This is my own favourite amongst my little books”.
The tailor and his cat Simpkin had their first outing in 1901. It was Christmas and Beatrix Potter sent them in an exercise book to a young girl called Freda who was ill in bed. This is the only tale in the Peter Rabbit series with a true story at its core – that of Gloucester tailor John Prichard, ‘whose waistcoats were finished at night by the fairies’.
The author, staying with friends near Gloucester in 1894, heard that a waistcoat in Prichard’s shop had been mysteriously completed while the tailor was away over the weekend. When Prichard came back all he found on the finished waistcoat was the note ‘no more twist’ pinned to a buttonhole. By the time his apprentices confessed to the magic the fairies had done their work.
Beatrix Potter took this tale, added her own twist but kept the story in Gloucester. She chose 9 College Street, by the old entrance to the lay Abbey graveyard, as her tailor’s home.
In the story the Mayor of Gloucester, who is to marry on Christmas day, has asked an elderly tailor to make his wedding waistcoat. The tailor cuts out the coat but is not well enough to complete it. He goes home to sit by the fire where he rescues some trapped mice and then collapses, fretting, on to his bed.
The mice hear the tailor’s worries about the waistcoat and decide to repay his kindness by finishing off the work in secret. The cat Simpkin sees the happy ‘snippeting’ mice tailoring away and is shamed into returning the thread – the twist – he had hidden earlier from the tailor to punish him for setting free the mice he, Simpkin, had carefully caught.
In the book’s illustrations the arch and the shop front are so similar to the view today that you pause, like Simpkin, to look. This level of detail and care are everywhere through the story. The waistcoat itself is based on designs Beatrix Potter had copied from fabrics in what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Frederick Warne (Publishers) Ltd purchased The House of the Tailor of Gloucester, 9 College Street, in 1979. The shop and museum, run by volunteers, is now a small and perfect home for the tailor. A reminder of the gentle power of imagination in a city founded by Rome, fought over by Anglo-Saxons, fortified against the Vikings … and famous for its pins.
With the thanks to the volunteers in The House of the Tailor of Gloucester for their time and to Mr Colin Nyland of the Gloucester Civic Trust for being so generous with his knowledge of his home city and of the part it played in Beatrix Potter’s life.