Disney blockbuster Mary Poppins was written in Mayfield cottage

2nd December

This week’s interesting life with a local link is author Pamela Lyndon Travers OBE who wrote the ‘Mary Poppins’ books at her home in Pound Cottage near Mayfield during the Winter of 1933/34.

Pamela as Titiana (1924) in Midsummer Night’s Dream

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Queensland, Australia in 1899 to wealthy parents, Helen was the eldest of three daughters.  Her father died of TB when she was only 7 and left the family reliant on financial support from relatives.

In her late teens, she became an actress touring Australia and New Zealand with a Shakespearean theatre company but her real talent was as a writer and she wrote short poems and pieces for the local papers, adopting the name Pamela Lyndon Travers.

In 1924, aged 24, she arrived in England and supported by a wealthy Aunt rented a flat in Bloomsbury Square, London.  Although she had a number of affairs (usually with older, men – by her own admission she was searching for a Father figure) by 1927 she was living with the daughter of the owner of the magazine ‘Punch’ – Madge Burnand – an ‘intense’ relationship which lasted 10 years.

Madge and Pamela moved to Pound Cottage near Mayfield – a pretty thatched cottage whose origins are detailed in the Domesday Book.  

In 1933, Pamela completed the first in a series of books about a magical Nanny called Mary Poppins who arrived, blown in by the East Wind, to the Banks family house at 17 Cherry Tree Lane and was ‘practically perfect in every way’.

Pound Cottage near Mayfield where Mary Poppins was written

The books were a great success and it wasn’t long before she was being approached by Walt Disney to buy the film rights, which she refused.

As she approached 40 and her relationship with Madge at an end, Pamela had given up hope of having her own family (she had fallen in love with poet and critic Francis MacNamara who she considered the love of her life but he was often distracted ‘elsewhere’). She decided to adopt an Irish baby and when presented with twin boys at an orphanage, simply chose the one she considered the most attractive and quieter and went back to Mayfield with him, leaving his twin behind.

When war broke out, Pamela considered Sussex too dangerous and took her adopted son Camillus to America.  Towards the end of the war they lived with the Navajo Indians for a couple of years as Pamela was interested in the way they lived.

When Camillus was unexpectedly tracked down by his estranged twin, he realised much of what he had been told by Pamela about his past were lies and he was unable to forgive her.  Although he had earned a place at Oxford, he never completed his education as he was expelled for illegal gambling and served time in prison for drink driving. 

Pamela secured Camillus’s financial future, however, when she finally agreed in 1961 to allow Walt Disney to make a Mary Poppins movie.  I suspect Pamela was impossible to please – reports were that she hated the sound track and animation, thought the portrail of Mary was too sweet and that actress Julie Andrews was ‘too pretty’ for the lead.  Julie went on to win an Oscar in 1964 for the role. 

It is estimated that the film grossed £90 million and Pamela received 5%.  She left her fortune in trust for Camillus, who was struggling with alcoholism, and her three Grandchildren. Pamela died aged 96 in 1996 following an epileptic seizure and is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Twickenham.

Thank you to local historian and author Nicola Walker for another fascinating article.