When Arthur Ransome ("AR") wrote his famous “Swallows and Amazons”, published in 1930, he decided to name his best known character, the skipper of the Amazon, Nancy Blackett. What prompted him to use the Blackett name is not known for certain and whilst there has been some speculation as to the person on whom the character was based, there has been less so on the adoption of the surname. Arthur Ransome clearly did not just dream up the word and there are a number of possibilities:
a) there was at least one family of Blacketts living in Leeds, where AR was born in 1884, and several Blackett families in the general area of Windermere and the Lake District, where AR attended school and spent much time before settling there in the 1920s. No connection between AR and any of those Blacketts has been discovered however.
b) he could have merely seen the name on the cover of one of the many books published by Hurst and Blackett (see Blacketts and literature) or come across the name of one of the eminent Blacketts of the time. One possibility is the economist Sir Basil Blackett (see A lunar Blackett), who had been made a director of the Bank of England in 1928, the year before Swallows and Amazons was written. Basil Blackett was a close acquaintance of Henry Clay (later Sir Henry Clay) another economist and fellow alumnus of University College, Oxford, who was also a close friend of AR's dating back to their days writing for the Manchester Guardian. Clay and AR remained friends for many years and AR is said by some sources to have named a character in "We Didn't Mean to go to Sea", published in 1937, after Clay's son Jim.
c) a third and interesting possibility concerns AR's sister, Cecily Ransome. The following article, passed on to us by Polly Blackett, was written by Jill Goulder for The Arthur Ransome Society:
THE BLACKETT GIRLS REMEMBER: CORRESPONDENCE WITH CAPTAIN FLINT
An energetic old lady searches among her papers for a letter. 'Miss Blackett' is the address, 1937 the date, and the postmark is a Pin Mill one. No, this is not another 'What happened to Nancy?' fairytale: Elisabeth Blackett – now in proper Amazonian style married to an Air Chief Marshal – really did get a letter from Arthur Ransome all those years ago.
Sadly the dates don't fit: Elisabeth was only 4 when SA was written, and her sister Anne only 1. But AR's sister Cecily - the link between the two – certainly knew and visited the girls' mother; did AR also know these Blacketts? and did something lead him to borrow their name? It was an unusual one in the South: the girls’ parents were the only Blacketts in the London telephone directory. Anne believes that (wherever he heard the name) AR used it because he simply liked the sound of it.
Cecily Ransome was born in 1885; when Mrs Ransome moved to London in about 1902 Cecily went with her. By about 1920 she was teaching, probably already at King Arthur's, Courtfield Gardens, in Kensington (the school moved to Bolton Gardens in the 1930s); it was a co-ed day prep school with a good reputation.
Elisabeth Blackett was born in 1925 and her sister Anne in 1928. They lived in London and their first school was King Arthur's. Elisabeth remembers arriving in 1929 or 1930 and being taught by 'Miss Ransome', who was still there when Elisabeth left in 1938. Anne followed in 1932 or 1933 but was evacuated in 1939.
Anne remembers 'Miss Ransome seemed very old but may not have been [she was in her 40s]; she lived very near the school with another teacher. They were very friendly with our mother [then in her 30s] and I remember going to tea with them. When Arthur Ransome was ill Miss Ransome asked Elisabeth to write to him to cheer him up, and she had a lovely letter back with all the little matchstick illustrations round the edge. He said he was sure that we must be cousins of the Blacketts in Swallows and Amazons, so we were thrilled to bits!' Elisabeth is now hunting for her copy of SA with its precious enclosure, but fears that it was among the majority of her possessions destroyed in floods in Lincolnshire in the 1950s.
Interestingly, Elisabeth Blackett's great-grandfather was Henry Blackett, the co-founder of Hurst and Blackett, publishers, mentioned in (b) above. Her grandfather, Herbert Walter Blackett was also a publisher. This is the only direct link between AR and the Blacketts that we have encountered but, as Jill Goulder points out above, the dates do not appear to fit.
After the success of his book, Ransome bought a sailing cutter and renamed her" Nancy Blackett".
The boat has been restored and is owned and operated by the Nancy Blackett Trust.
In June 2015 shooting of a new film of Swallows and Amazons commenced in the Lake District. The film stars Rafe Spall and Gwendoline Christie and the part of Nancy Blackett is played by Seren Hawkes. It was released in 2016.
The only Blackett reference to real-life piracy we have discovered is that in 1715 Jeremiah Higgins left Jamaica in the Blackett “to go treasure-fishing”. Higgins was captured in New York in 1717 and released in 1718 as part of the General Pardon. It is not known whether this ship was the same one referred to in 1752 by Thomas Trowell, when he made his will prior to “going on an intended voyage to South Carolina on board the Blacket”. In 1782 a ship of that name is reported to have sailed from Cowes, England to Quebec with a cargo of flour and on 28 October 1782 it was ordered from Quebec to New York. At the end of the American War of Independence in 1783 the Blacket evacuated loyalists, including former slaves, from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia and Quebec.