If you ever need proof that central bankers aren’t all completely useless, look to Kenneth Grahame. The author of The Wind in the Willows – one of the most beloved of children’s stories – spent almost 30 years toiling away at the Bank of England.
After joining the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street in 1879, Grahame rose up through the ranks to retire in 1908 in the senior position of company secretary. And he could count himself fortunate to do so. Back in 1903, a gunman had entered the Bank looking for the governor. As luck would have it, the governor was out, and the would-be assassin made do with Grahame. Miraculously, Grahame escaped unhurt and would live to see his riverbank tale of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad published.
Losing no time after leaving the Bank of England (which it has been said he did under a bit of a cloud), Grahame turned his thoughts to happier times spent messing about by the banks of the River Thames in Berkshire as a child.
It’s likely these fond childhood memories stood out all the more, considering Grahame had been sent away to live with his grandmother. His father in Scotland was a lapsed alcoholic, while his mother had succumbed to scarlet fever. But down by the riverbank, the young Kenneth Grahame found happiness. Later, as an adult, Grahame drew on these same memories to invent bedtime stories for his sickly young son, Alastair.
These stories evolved into The Wind in the Willows. Considering how popular the story is today, it’s hard to imagine that nobody at first wanted to publish the book. But Methuen and Co took a chance, and on 8 October 1908, The Wind in the Willows was first published, in the year of Grahame’s retirement from the Bank.
It was widely panned from the outset. One critic wrote that it would “win no credence from the best authorities on biology”, completely missing the point of Grahame’s anthropomorphic characters. But Grahame did receive one piece of fan mail from an admirer who carried an awful lot of weight – Theodore Roosevelt. The US president said he had read and re-read the book until the riverside residents were like “old friends”. He even popped over to Britain for a visit. The book soon became a huge success – so much so, in fact, that it’s never been out of print.
And if you do have an old, first edition knocking about, it could be worth as much as £10,000, according to rare book sellers, AbeBooks. That said, in 2010, a first edition dedicated to Foy Felicia Quiller Couch, the daughter of one of Grahame’s friends, thought to be the inspiration for Ratty, sold for £32,400 at Bonhams. Time to check the attic.
Also on this day
By far the tallest building in London at the time, the Post Office Tower was officially opened by Harold Wilson on this day in 1965. Read more here.