June 28, 2010


david ellis

SHE's the world's most famous super-nanny, a no-nonsense figure who floats around under an umbrella, resolving the seemingly insurmountable with little more than a spoonful of sugar.

And come next month she will have been enthralling us for exactly a century, a milestone we can reasonably presume would suggest that she was – naturally – the creation of one of the most fertile literary minds of Europe, Britain, the United States…

How wrong we can be, for in fact she was the inspiration of a 12-year old schoolgirl from the-then tiny village of Bowral in the rural Southern Highlands of NSW.

But unlike in the books of her adventures, Mary Poppins didn't blow into Bowral on an east wind in July 1910 as easily as she did into the Banks' family home at Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane – her coming-about had a much more unhappy genesis.

The mother of schoolgirl Helen Lyndon Goff moved with Helen and her two younger sisters to Bowral from Queensland in 1907 after their bank clerk dad, Travers Goff died at an early age.

Helen boarded at school in Sydney and only returned home during school holidays as her mother struggled to make ends meet raising her girls and fighting the grief of losing a husband and father.

A fond Aunt Ellie in Sydney gave financial and other support, but one bleak winter's night in mid-July 1910, the grieving mother ran out into the pouring rain and threw herself into a swollen creek at the bottom of the family's Holly Street backyard.

Bedraggled and failing in her bid to drown her herself she went back into the house and past the children into her room – and instantly to take their minds off what they had just seen, the 12 year old Helen wrapped her siblings in an eiderdown in front of the fire and began telling them the story of a magical white horse that could fly down from the heavens and perform amazing deeds on land, in the sky and under the sea.

She made the story up as she went along and until her younger sisters had fallen asleep – but in subsequent days when begged to tell more stories in front of the fire, the magical horse evolved into an equally magical nanny.

As she grew up, Helen dreamed of becoming an actor, but unable to find opportunities turned to writing instead, adopting the name Pamela Lyndon (PL) Travers (her father's first name) and writing eight Mary Poppins stories.

Walt Disney sought film rights to these as early as 1938, but remarkably was rebuffed by PL Travers who "did not believe film could do justice to her creation." She eventually relented – but only with unique script-approval rights included – and Disney's classic Mary Poppins with Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke was released in 1964.

Many researchers believe Helen Goff as PL Travers based her Mary Poppins on the benevolent Aunt Ellie who paid the rent for the Bowral home, and while living in Sydney, "always seemed to be on hand to fix things."

Now Southern Highland locals, business and civic groups are planning a week of festivities in mid-July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of when they believe Mary Poppins was first conceived as a "magical flying horse" on the night Helen Goff's mother attempted suicide.

Amongst them is 17 year old school student, Melissa McShane who has spent five years with her father Paul, a Southern Highlands businessman, researching the life and times of Helen Goff as she evolved into PL Travers.

Melissa has also been one of the driving forces to have a statue erected in Bowral in honour of the writer – and remarkably has won permission from the family of the late British sculptor Sean Crampton to use drawings he had made for a sculpture of the super-nanny in New York (and which never went ahead because of a lack of funds,) to be erected in Bowral.

It will cost around $60,000 and will be placed at the town's Bradman Oval, as coincidentally the cricketing great as a schoolboy lived just a few houses from young Helen Goff in Holly Street.

When it all comes about, it will be, as Mary Poppins would doubtless have observed herself, "practically perfect."

(See www.mary-poppins-birthplace.net



[] BOWRAL student Melissa McShane as Mary Poppins (photo courtesy Corinne Dany Photography & Design www.corinnedany.com)

[] AUTHOR PL Travers (Helen Goff) reviews the script for Disney's 1964 movie based on her Mary Poppins books

[] HELEN Goff watches her younger sisters in the creek behind their Bowral home – where Mary Poppins first evolved

[] BRITISH sculptor Sean Crampton's design for a Mary Poppins' statue for New York – now Bowral may get it after the New York venture fell through



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