The author of the Mary Poppins stories was P.L. Travers, (the P.L. standing for Pamela Lyndon). She wrote 8 Mary Poppins stories and elements of her early books inspired the popular Walt Disney movie in 1964.
It surprises many people to learn that P.L. Travers, the creator of these stories set in London featuring an English nanny, was actually an Australian. She was born Helen Lyndon Goff in Maryborough, Queensland, on 9th August, 1899. Her family moved to another Queensland town, Allora, when she was three.
In February 1907, her father, Travers Goff, who was a bank clerk, passed away. This event was to affect her deeply. As the family was without a breadwinner, it led to her mother, Margaret, and two sisters, Biddy and Moya, later that year moving to a cottage in Bowral NSW that was rented for them by a wealthy aunt. Lyndon was around eight years of age at the time of her arrival in Bowral and was enrolled in the local branch of the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School.
PL Travers recalled vividly on two occasions later in life – one in a letter to a friend and the other in an interview – a dramatic incident that took place when she was about 11 years old. This incident signalled a new stage of her life and also answered the question, in her own mind, as to where Mary Poppins came from. Lyndon’s mother had never really adjusted to the death of her husband and to her own reduced circumstances. One evening on a day marked by a heavy downpour of rain, her mother ran from their house in Holly Street in a tremendously anguished state, declaring that she was going to drown herself in the creek that passed near the back of the property. This naturally alarmed Lyndon and her sisters. But instead of panicking and making her younger sisters even more anxious, Lyndon did something that was a perhaps a portent to her future. To calm the anxious girls, even while fearful herself, she gathered them around the fire and told them a story of her own creation, about a magical white horse.
In the story, this horse could gallop across the sea like a shimmering comet and fly, even though it had no wings. It could dive to the bottom of the sea. Her sisters became transfixed by the story, it seemed they forgot the potential family tragedy that threatened in the nearby creek as they listened to the exploits of the magical white horse. Years later, P.L. Travers was to state her certain belief that this magic white horse ran underground and came up eventually as Mary Poppins. The magic of the story worked – not only by amusing and enthralling her sisters in the midst of a traumatic scene – but soon after her mother came back into the house, drenched to the bone but thankfully alive.
Just as the magical white flying horse appeared to enchant back to happiness and normality a family that was on the brink of breakdown, so later did Mary Poppins fly into the lives of the Banks’ family to work her magic. And the original books depict Mary Poppins as a creature capable of such transformations and fantastic travel. Remarkably, that house in Holly Street still exists today, much as it did then. Even the original fireplace – around which the birth of the storyteller we now know as P.L. Travers and the genesis of her most famous character took place -has been uncovered and found to be still working.
Valerie Lawson’s biography states Lyndon Goff attended the Normanhurst Private Girls School, a boarding school in Ashfield, a suburb of Sydney, from about the age of 13. But her family continued to live in Bowral and she returned there for the lengthy school holidays that boarding schools of that era typically scheduled. There exists a photo of Lyndon with her sisters playing in the flooded creek near their Holly St home in 1915. Lawson also describes how a number of her characters in the Mary Poppins books were drawn from real life people in Bowral, notably the sweetshop proprietor, Mrs Corry and her twin daughters, the artful Uncle Dodger and the mischievous Nellie Rubina. Bowral was the place in Australia that P.L. Travers lived with her family for the longest period and it embraced her most important formative years of childhood and adolescence, from the age of around eight until she was 17.