Was the famous flying supernanny based on a real person, and named after a London street? Tony Barrell investigates
Mary Poppins was the original supernanny, the mystic lady who brought order and wonder to No 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The huge popularity of Poppins meant that her creator, the Australian writer PL (Pamela Lyndon) Travers, was continually asked about her during her lifetime. Was she based on a real person? Were the stories autobiographical?
Poppins has been likened to the Virgin Mary and pagan deities
The fact that Travers was rarely candid about herself or her work – “I don’t let people dig around in my life,” she said – only intensified the curiosity. It was just like that brisk line from Julie Andrews in the 1964 film version: “I never explain anything.”
Mary Poppins has been taken extremely seriously by intellectuals: she has been regarded as a Zen figure, as well as being variously likened to the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and pagan mother deities. But PL Travers’s biographer Valerie Lawson has found a more down-to-earth prototype: Travers’s great-aunt Helen Christina Morehead, affectionately known as Aunt Ellie. Ellie was a brisk, independent and highly organised woman who, when young Travers’s father died, insisted that the family leave Queensland and come to live with her at her home outside Sydney. Like Mary Poppins, who blew in on the East Wind and out on the West Wind in the original 1934 book, Ellie was a great traveller, coming all the way to Britain by sea in her nineties.
The Irish maid had an unusual possession that the young writer admired: an umbrella with a parrot-head handle
However, Travers seems to have borrowed some of her character’s traits from another woman: a secretive Irish maid who worked at the author’s childhood home. Like Mary Poppins, the maid would occasionally disappear for mysterious adventures (which were likely to have been romantic trysts), and she had an unusual possession that the young writer admired: an umbrella with a parrot-head handle, now an iconic object associated with the fictional nanny.
Just off Fleet Street is a lane called Poppin’s Court, which didn’t have an apostrophe back in the 1920s
PL Travers came to Britain in 1924, where she settled near Fleet Street in London and worked as a freelance journalist. And it is curious that just off Fleet Street is a lane called Poppin’s Court, which didn’t have an apostrophe back in the 1920s. The name of this lane has been suggested as a possible origin – conscious or unconscious – for the surname of the writer’s most famous character. What makes Poppins Court even more intriguing is the fact that it was connected with a pub that used to stand nearby, called the Poppinjay – which is an old-fashioned name for the kind of parrot that might adorn a magic umbrella.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Poppinjay inn belonged to the Abbots of Cirencester, who used it when they came to London from the Cotswolds on religious business. The Abbots named the inn after the bird that appears in their official crest. It seems that the inn had a lovely garden attached to it, occupying the land where Poppin’s Court is now. Indeed, on a wrinkly old 1520 map, the court is marked as “Popyngay Alley”.
Back in Travers’s time, you could still see an old carved popinjay in the alley, and it’s just possible that the image reminded the writer of the Irish maid’s funny umbrella. But sadly, the theory that Travers took the name of Poppins Court for her character is contradicted by an interview she gave in 1977, in which she recalled that she was writing “Poppins” stories as a girl for her sisters, years before she came to London. The name might have simply popped into her little head.
Nevertheless, Poppins Court was certainly noticed by another famous writer. It appeared in 1891 in the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Red-Headed League’, renamed to protect its innocence by Arthur Conan Doyle as “Pope’s Court, Fleet Street”. ♦
© 2016 Tony Barrell