Was Christchurch the birthplace of Mary Poppins?

89 years ago the story of Mary Poppins and the Match-Man was published for the first time – in Christchurch’s afternoon The Sun newspaper.

But how did the story of the world’s most famous nanny find its way first into a Christchurch newspaper? To answer this we need to delve into the early life of an Edwardian Australian girl: Mary Poppins’s creator, P. L. Travers.

Helen Lyndon Goff aka Pamela Lyndon Travers

Actress Pamela Travers as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1924. [2]
Actress Pamela Travers as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1924. [1]
Pamela Lyndon Travers was, by her own making, an enigmatic figure. Born in 1899 and christened Helen Lyndon Goff – Lindy for short – she was the oldest of three daughters born to Margaret Agnes Morehead and Englishman Travers Robert Goff in the port town of Maryborough, Queensland where her father was the Bank Manager. Travers’ career had him regularly transferring around the small country towns of northern NSW and Queensland, giving the young family little chance to settle and establish roots. It is said that he developed a heavy drinking habit which likely contributed to his early death at age 43 when Lindy was just seven years old. As a small child, Lindy’s mother had also lost her father and brother within days of each other, so the passing of her husband had a profound impact upon her and she very nearly ended her own life.

Facing destitution, the family were taken in by Lindy’s great aunt, Helen Christina Morehead who influenced them to move to the small country town of Bowral, just outside of Sydney. ‘Aunt Ellie’ found Lindy a place at Normanhurst, a private girls’ school where she became immersed in literature, music and dance. She also had her first taste of stage acting, performing as Bottom in the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After finishing school Lindy gained work as a typist at the Australia Gas Light Company to support the family however a career as an actor or dancer remained in her sights.

Pamela Travers the Actress

In the early 1920s, Lindy – now calling herself Pamela Travers – gained work as an actress with the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company and it was this that brought her to New Zealand on tour in 1922. Allan Wilkie believed that “the keenest and most appreciative houses” for his work were to be experienced in Dunedin and Christchurch. It was therefore in Christchurch he choose to open his first New Zealand tour in 15 months.

On 16th September, at the Theatre Royal, the season opened with King John followed by The Merchant of Venice in which Pamela acted with “ease and daintiness” in the part of Nerissa. The weekly line up continued with Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Travers as a ‘bright, agile, vivacious Titania’, Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

At home in Christchurch

Wilkie hadn’t exaggerated; he and his troupe were meet with adulation by their Christchurch fans, and a large reception was held in their honour at the Women’s Club. Members and cast attended, and Pamela – often described as boyish rather than beautiful – stood out in a peacock blue “velour cloth coat with a fur collar, and a soft navy taffeta hat with gold and paon blue applique.”

The troupe enjoyed their time in our sleepy southern city, taking the opportunity to let their free spirits run wild. In the early hours of one particular morning, Pamela and her fellow cast members were seen running barefoot in the Square, playing leapfrog.

Cupid’s Arrow hits its mark

The first time Mary Poppins appeared in print, 13 November 1926 in Christchurch’s The Sun newspaper.
The first time Mary Poppins appeared in print, 13 November 1926 in Christchurch’s The Sun newspaper. [2] Click on image to read full story.
Pamela’s charms caught the eye of a local journalist who was so smitten he was said to have followed the troupe from town-to-town on his motorbike. The pair had a brief and passionate affair which provided inspiration for Pamela’s poem “Surrender”. One of many poems Travers would write, Surrender appeared in the literary magazine The Triad a year later in her feminist column “A Woman Hits Back”. This often featured some of her more erotic poems as well as a piece entitled On a Circle of Trees in the Christchurch Gardens.

This unnamed journalist worked for Christchurch’s afternoon newspaper The Sun, and he used his influence to encourage Travers to write and submit articles to the paper. This lead to regular features in the women’s section of The Sun, and continued when she returned to Sydney after the tour. Like all aspiring Antipodeans who wished to make a name for themselves in music, theatre and writing, Travers soon moved to London to pursue a writing and acting career. It was the income from the articles written for The Sun that sustained her during the first few years.

The Sun gives birth to Mary Poppins

In Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers, biographer Valerie Lawson chronicled three pieces written by Travers that appeared in the Sun in 1926 and later became the basis for chapters in Mary Poppins books. These include the tale of a magical encounter in Paris published on 20 March 1926 which became part of Mary Poppins Opens the Door in 1944; The Strange Story of the Dancing Cow published in the Sun on 20 March 1926 which became part of the first Mary Poppins book published in 1934; and a gossip piece about a cockney maid by the name of Mary Smithers published in the Sun in December 1926. According to Lawson: “But it was on November 13, 1926, in a short story called “Mary Poppins and the Match-Man” that Pamela gave birth to her famous nanny.” [3]

This is how a short story about the day out of a 17 year old ‘underneath nurse’ and her beau Bert, called Mary Poppins and the Match-Man, came to be published for the first time, here in Christchurch. A story of what would become the most famous nanny in the world.

  1. Photo: Family and personal photographs collected by P.L. Travers, ca 1891-1980. Source: State Library of New South Wales. Digital Order No. a1229001, Call No. PX*D 334.
  2. Source: The Sun, 13 November 1926. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, Aotearoa Section.
  3. Mary Poppins She Wrote: The true story of Australian writer PL Travers, creator of the quintessentually English Nanny By Valerie Lawson.

Addition Sources:

  • “P. L. TRAVERS, AUST. WOMAN WRITER, VIEWS AMERICA” Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser (Qld. : 1860 – 1947) 18 April 1945: 4. Web. 13 Dec 2016.
  • ALLAN WILKIE SEASON., Press, Volume LVIII, Issue 17563, 19 September 1922 on Paperspast.
  • ALLAN WILKIE SEASON, Evening Post, Volume CIV, Issue 122, 20 November 1922 on Paperspast.
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