Bowral - the birthplace of Mary Poppins

Find out why we think Bowral is the birthplace of Mary Poppins

Bowral - the birthplace of Mary Poppins

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.

The Goff sisters – Lyndon, Moya and Biddy – in 1915 beside the flooding creek near their Holly Street home. (Berrima District Historical Society Archive)

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.

The Goff house at 45 Holly Street Bowral, still much as it was in 1907-17

Holly street home

This is the house where the Goff family lived during their 10-year residence in Bowral.

Although the street numbering has altered, it has been researched and identified by local historian, John Simons, with assistance of P.L. Travers’ personal photographs provided by Patricia Feltham, together with other archival documentation.
The house has the same essential architectural characteristics as it would have had during the time the Goffs lived there, though it has been sympathetically renovated and modernised, with an extension at the rear of the structure. The fireplace around which the genesis of the character that eventually became Mary Poppins took place is still intact and in working order.
The creek that P.L Travers’ mother, Margaret Goff, threatened to drown herself in can still be found at the rear of the property.

Birth place statue

The Mary Poppins Birthplace Statue was unveiled by local children on Sunday 8th December 2013 in the presence of the Governor of New South Wales Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO. The statue was created by sculptor Tanya Bartlett and produced at the Australian Bronze foundry under the direction of Clive Calder.
The statue was initially proposed by a 12 year old Bowral girl Melissa McShane in 2004. Together with her father Paul, and with the support of a Southern Highlands Youth Arts Council community committee chaired by Terry Oakes-Ash, a 10-year public campaign eventually saw the statue erected. The project was supported by a T-QUAL Grant from the Australian Federal Government.

Who’s been Poppin to see Mary?

2 March 2014 Unknown family meet Mary

16 February 2014 A great mate of many years Kev McGrath does his best to get airborne with Mary. Unfortunately not enough wind for either of them that day.

Grandchildren of Joan Smyth, Gabrielle (6) and Rosana (4) Smyth have an extraordinary theory to explain Mary Poppins’ switch-aroo. Photo suppied

15 January 2014 Came across this ABC radio blog which was a nice surprise. For me, as a child in the 1960s, as well as the Mary Poppins movie another big thing was The Seekers, an Australian folk group that was hugely popular here and overseas, especially in the United Kingdom. Would spend hours singing their songs as a kid and they were a mainstay for my sister and I when doing long road trips with my parents on holidays (in between bursts of the Latin Tridentine Mass from my father who had been a Catholic altar boy in the early 1940s). So to see one of The Seekers quartet Keith Potger being among the first “celebrities” to visit the Mary Poppins Birthplace Statue was a real thrill. And how about that shirt!

7 February 2014 Mat Plendl, owner of what is thought to be the largest collection of Mary Poppins memorabilia in the world paid the Mary Poppins Birthplace Statue a visit. He had already seen the statues in Maryborough and Ashfield as well as visiting Allora. See the separate blog post on his visit.

Grandchildren of Joan Smyth, Gabrielle (6) and Rosana (4) Smyth have an extraordinary theory to explain Mary Poppins’ switch-aroo. Photo suppied