31/05/2018Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers honoured with English Heritage Blue Plaque
- Author of beloved children’s books celebrated
- Plaque announced on London History Day (31 May)
P. L. Travers (1899-1996), author of Mary Poppins, has been commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque, the charity announced today (31 May) on London History Day. The plaque was installed at 50 Smith Street in Chelsea, the house where Travers lived for seventeen years and which inspired the depiction of the Banks’s family home in the Disney film.
Best remembered as the creator of ‘the world’s best known nanny’, P. L. Travers was an Australian-born writer who spent much of her life in England where she imagined her most beloved character, Mary Poppins, in 1934. Centring on the magical English nanny who is blown by the East wind into the Banks' family household to care for their children, the series of eight books proved incredibly popular, but it was the 1964 Disney film that skyrocketed Mary Poppins, and an unwilling Travers, to international fame.
Stern, vain and surprisingly spiritual, Travers’s Mary Poppins was worlds away from the ‘spoon full of sugar’ portrayal of the nanny by Julie Andrews, and Travers made no secret of expressing her disapproval to Walt Disney after attending the film’s premiere in Hollywood (having had to request an invitation). Despite Travers’s reservations, the film was a huge success and the popularity of her magical character is far from waning, evident by the release of Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, in which the pair’s fraught tussles over the character are brought to life, and Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns, released later this year starring Emily Blunt, which is sure to draw in a whole new audience enraptured by the nanny ‘practically perfect in every way.’
Frances Travers, P. L. Travers’s Daughter-in-Law, said: “Mimoo as we called her, lived in Smith Street before any of the Kings Road commercial frenzy had begun. She always wore a soft grey coat that swung from the shoulders, I think it was called a duster coat, and little dresses of many blue and grey checks just to mid-calf underneath. In her little green Ford she was able to be independent and that is how I like to remember her, with Crocus the tortoiseshell cat and Pompey the beloved dachshund!
"I am so glad that a plaque has been put on this house as memories of those days are so dear to me. That’s when I arrived in London aged about 16, spellbound by the knowledge of what wonderful people had lived in the streets all around. No wonder she loved to live there too!”
Howard Spencer, Senior Historian for English Heritage Blue Plaques, said: “The enduring popularity of Mary Poppins is testament to P. L. Travers’s boundless imagination. Although she disapproved of the Disney film, both the magic and portrayal of English domestic life are elements which remained true to her book and really resonated with audiences. We’re pleased to be able to recognise her achievements with a blue plaque on the home where she lived during the negotiations with Disney and which was in her mind’s eye when she told him how the Banks’s family home should look.”
Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia in 1899, Travers experienced a childhood marred by the loss of her father, Travers Robert Goff, in 1907. Goff instilled in her a love of myth and poetry, but ultimately left her, her siblings and their mother destitute. Displaying a flair for acting and directing in her teenage years, Travers also began publishing articles and poems, and eventually overcame her family’s objections to become an actress, taking on the stage name Pamela Travers. After falling in love with a journalist from New Zealand, she gave up acting to write for a number of newspapers in the country which in turn allowed her to maintain her income when she sailed to England in 1924.
Enthused by her ambitions as a poet, she continued writing, this time under the name of Pamela Lyndon Travers, eventually shortened to P. L. Travers, and was introduced to W. B. Yeats and Bernard Shaw. In 1934, she wrote Mary Poppins – her first literary success – which was followed by Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), and the books and series that developed were an immediate and enduring success. Late in 1939 Travers adopted an Irish baby, John Camillus Hone, a twin who was the grandson of a friend of Yeats. To escape the Second World War, she took the infant to America, travelling until returning to England in 1945. In early 1959, Disney made the ultimately successful offer to produce a film of Mary Poppins, and two years later Travers attended pre-production meetings about the film in Los Angeles, championing points such as the Edwardian setting of the movie, bringing along a photograph of her own home at 50 Smith Street ‘so they could see the Banks house was quite like hers, except with more to the garden’. She was sidelined by Disney, and although the star Julie Andrews reassured her during filming, Travers had to actively request an invitation to the premiere. The film, with which Travers was dissatisfied, won five Oscars and launched a decade of fame, in which she lost her prized anonymity. Travers continued to write into her old age, but as her arthritis took hold, her creative output lessened and she died at home on 23 April 1996.
The English Heritage Blue Plaque to P. L. Travers is at 50 Smith Street in Chelsea where she lived after returning from America in 1945. It was here that she raised her son, Camillus, and where she resided during the film negotiations with Disney.
Other people prominent in literature who have been recognised under the London Blue Plaques Scheme include J. M. Barrie in Bayswater, Herman Melville in Charing Cross, A. A. Milne in Chelsea, Kenneth Grahame in Kensington and Frances Hodgson Burnett in Marylebone.
The English Heritage London Blue Plaques scheme is generously supported by David Pearl and members of the public.