By the late 18th century the landscape of the Lake District had assumed an almost mythic quality as a place of solitude, peace and fabled beauty. Writers, artists, scholars, naturalists and sportsmen were drawn to the area to live and work, then, following fashion, the tourists arrived. The Lake District attracted and held some remarkable talents: William Wordsworth, Thomas de Quincey, Robert Southey, John Ruskin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Beatrix Potter, all of whom are now household names. But there were others, less well-known now, but who made a profound impact in their day: the economist Harriet Martineau, the leading pioneer of education Charlotte Mason, the gifted Arnolds, the historian G.M. Trevelyan, the politician W.E. Forster, Canon Rawnsley (co-founder of the National Trust) and the learned Armitt sisters after one of whom, Mary Louisa Armitt, Ambleside's Museum and Armitt Library is named.
The three Armitt sisters were a remarkably talented trio who devoted their lives to a wide range of intellectual pursuits. Sophia, the eldest was an artist with profound botanical knowledge. Annie, second born, was a published novelist, a poet and a writer of short stories, and Mary Louisa, the youngest, was a polymath. She studied musicology, ornithology and social history. She became a reader at the Bodleian library, Oxford and was given a scholarship for research at Trinity College, Cambridge. She wrote the definitive history of Rydal, and completed studies on Ambleside chapel. Her history of Grasmere Church was published posthumously.
The three sisters were born in Salford: Sophia in 1847, Annie in 1850, and Mary Louisa, known as Louie, in 1851. Their father was employed as an overseer for the City of Salford, but there is evidence he had some private means to supplement his salary.
Mr Armitt wanted to give his daughters a first class education, which of itself was unusual in the mid Victorian era. Sophia from an early age wanted to specialise in art and she attended the Manchester School of Art. Annie, who once wrote she could read the bible at the age of six, began her passion for writing when a school girl, and Louie attended the Manchester Mechanics Institute to study music as soon as she was eligible.
In 1866 Sophia and Annie were sent to Paris to study French, but a year later in 1867 tragedy stuck, Mr Armitt died suddenly, and the sisters faced severe financial difficulties. They decided to open a school, Sophia became the headmistress, Annie taught general subjects, and Louie, then aged 15 and younger than the oldest pupil, taught basics to the young children and music to the older ones. The school apparently thrived as the sisters continued to study, to attend lectures and to travel.
In 1877 Annie married Dr Stanford Harris, an unhappy liaison with both parties suffering ill health. But this did not deter her creative spirit and in 1878 she published her first novel 'The Garden at Monkholme'. She went on to write a series of novels, short stories and articles, and she also wrote poetry. She sent Robert Browning a few of her poems and he replied he was favourably impressed. This correspondence is now in the Armitt Collection.
In 1882 Louie and Sophia received a legacy enough to live on, and they decided to move to the Lake District where their sister Annie lived near Hawkshead. In 1894 they moved to Rydal, to be joined by Annie now widowed, and the three sisters lived there for the rest of their lives. Although their income did not allow them to keep a carriage they enjoyed a large circle of distinguished friends, and among them were the Arnolds of Fox How, the Rawnsley brothers, Charlotte Mason, and John Ruskin.
Sophia Armitt was never strong and died in 1908, followed three years later by Mary Louisa. Annie lived into old age dying in 1933. The Armitt legacy lies in the books the sisters collected, and in her will Louie left both her book collection, and her sisters book collection to form a library for students and scholars. This collection, with important gifts of books, together with the Ruskin library, given to them thirty years previously, and amalgamated with the old Ambleside Book Club of 1828, forms the nucleus of the Armitt.