More than Mary Poppins: The Archive of P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard at Cotsen Children’s Library

The below post was kindly provided by Miranda Marraccini, a Princeton University graduate student in the English department. In addition to specializing in Victorian poetry and the history of radical lady printers, Miranda works with us at Cotsen and, as you will see, lends us her more than capable scholarly and archival skills. 

More than Mary Poppins: The Archive of P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard at Cotsen Children’s Library

by Miranda Marraccini

Mary Poppins is one of the most recognizable characters in English children’s literature. Most of us who have seen the 1964 Disney film imagine her looking and sounding like Julie Andrews: holding out a spoonful of sugar, then flying off over the rooftops with the aid of her parrot-handled umbrella.  But what happens after Mary flies out of our lives? What is the consequence of her stern magic, the residue of her mysterious influence?

Well, as one collection at Cotsen shows, what happens post-Poppins is just as interesting as the familiar story of the book and film. In the 1990s, Cotsen acquired a collection of papers belonging to P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, and illustrator Mary Shepard. The collection contains personal letters, annotated drafts of stories, artist’s proofs of illustrations, legal documents, family photographs, and interesting scraps of every description.

Cotsen’s newly created Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers Archive is only a fraction of the global Travers archive.  In 1989, when she was 90 years old, Travers sold most of her papers to the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, near her birthplace (Lawson 350). Cotsen’s collection, though smaller, is still illuminating. Consisting mostly of materials from her later life, it shows the post-Poppins Travers as she was: a deep and mystical thinker, a conflicted mother, a harsh critic, and unrelenting on what she considered points of principle.


AE (George Russell) at Ilnacullin, in County Cork, Ireland, where Travers spent a holiday in 1929 (Lawson 120). (Box 7, Folder 28)


Travers and AE at Pound Cottage, Mayfield, Sussex, in August, 1933 (Lawson 129). (Box 7, Folder 28)

These photos from our collection show Travers as a young woman. She moved to England in 1924, and spent formative time in Ireland with the writer and mystic George Russell, known as AE. AE fostered what became Travers’ lifelong passion for mythology. At different periods, she studied with gurus in India, lived on a reservation in the American Southwest, and was a dedicated student of the esoteric Russian spiritual teacher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.  Travers saw commonalities in the fairy tales and ancient stories that children know around the world. She later developed her deeply personal theories in articles for Parabola Magazine, collected in What the Bee Knows: Reflections on Myth, Symbol and Story (1989).


Draft of a story for What the Bee Knows, “The Interviewer”. (Box 1 Folder 21)


Draft of a story for What the Bee Knows, “The Endless Story”. (Box 1, Folder 20)

Travers always imagined Mary Poppins as more than a children’s story. Mary herself, Travers believed, emerged from a rich tradition of female wisdom, living outside of time and somehow beyond the reach of human perspective (Lawson 155). Travers used the eight Mary Poppins books to reach a wider audience with her ideas about mythology. Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane (1982) is Travers’ most myth-infused story, and also the most well-represented book within the Cotsen collection. In this story, Mary Poppins leads the Banks children on an adventure on Midsummer’s Eve, “the most magical night of the year.” It’s a night when the laws and rules dissolve like rain in the grass, and when anything can happen, possible or impossible.

A scratchboard drawing for Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane by Mary Shepard showing Mary Poppins along with some of the other characters in the story, who are constellations: Ursa Major (the bear), Orion, and Vulpecula (the fox). Box 5, Folder 18.

A scratchboard drawing for Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane by Mary Shepard showing Mary Poppins along with some of the other characters in the story, who are constellations: Ursa Major (the bear), Orion, and Vulpecula (the fox). (Box 5, Folder 18)

In the sketches below by Poppins illustrator Mary Shepard, the Park Keeper of the story, normally a sensible man, begins to believe in the power of “Old Wives’ Tales,” which “were apt to turn out to be true.” The lovelorn Park Keeper  follows the directions of a wiser character, who advises: “… if you walk backwards on Midsummer’s Eve, after putting an herb or two under your pillow—Marjoram, Sweet Basil, no matter what—you’ll back into your own true love as sure as nuts are nuts” (27).

An early sketch for the scene, which appears on page 31 of first American edition (Box 3, file 18).

An early sketch for the scene, which appears on page 31 of first American edition (Box 3, folder 18)

a later version, with comments by both Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers in the margins. (Box 5, file 11)

A later version, with comments by both Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers in the margins. (Box 5, folder 11)

Disappointingly, the Park Keeper backs into Mary Poppins, who is as likely to be his true love as a “gooseberry bush.” Shortly, however, he stumbles into a nighttime world of celestial magic, where constellations come down to Earth to gather herbs for their midsummer revels.  By the end of the story, the Park Keeper recovers his childhood knowledge: his belief in magic, the mystery of the universe, and the possibility of impossibility. In the familiar sunlit park, he had forgotten. “It needed the dark to show things plain” (63).

The Park Keeper bumps into Mary Poppins. (Box 5, File 10)

The Park Keeper bumps into Mary Poppins. This illustration appears on page 35 of the first American edition. (Box 5, Folder 10)

the park keeper cries in the Bird Woman’s lap while Orion looks on, (Box 5, File 8). This illustration appears on page 49.

The park keeper cries in the Bird Woman’s lap while Orion looks on. This illustration appears on page 49. (Box 5, Folder 8)











In the sketch on the right above, the Park Keeper is overwhelmed by the rediscovery of his childhood knowledge: “He had known those figures when he was a boy, and many more besides. And he had forgotten what he had known, denied it, made it a thing of naught, something to be sneered at! He put his hands up to his eyes to hide the springing tears” (60).

The visible back-and-forth between P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard (later Mary Knox) in the margins of these sketches suggests that the two collaborated very closely on the Poppins illustrations. By all accounts, this is true. Our collection includes many professional letters between Travers and Shepard, from 1935, when the partnership started with Mary Poppins, onward. There are also tender personal letters in which Travers inquires after the health of Shepard’s husband, E. V. “Evoe” Knox.

The author/illustrator collaboration was not always amicable, however. Our collection documents a particularly longstanding disagreement between author and illustrator: the issue of copyright for the Mary Poppins illustrations. Although Travers maintained strict control of the content, Mary Shepard always retained the copyright on her own illustrations. Yet after the Mary Poppins movie came out, Shepard did not receive any portion of the multimillion dollars in box office profits (Lawson 257-258). (See Box 1, File 34.)

The dispute ended in Mary Poppins’ toes. In their original discussions about the first book, Mary Shepard had suggested that Mary Poppins should stand with her feet turned out in the “fifth position” of ballet, while Travers imagined them at right angles (Ross Lipson). In the movie, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins stands with her feet in the fifth position. Shepard eventually won a small payment as compensation for this artistic contribution. The image below shows a legal decision in our collection, on the first page of which Mary Shepard explains the outcome of the case (with a sketch of Mary Poppins’s feet).

“Mr Knight [Shepard’s literary agent] succeeded by using Mary Poppins’s feet—my addition to her appearance—in the 5th position. Not mentioned here I received £1,000.” (Box 1, File 26)

“Mr Knight [Shepard’s literary agent] succeeded by using Mary Poppins’s feet—my addition to her appearance—in the 5th position. Not mentioned here I received £1,000.” (Box 1, Folder 26)

If Travers’ interactions with Mary Shepard are sometimes thorny, so were her letters to other acquaintances. Our collection includes dozens of letters that Travers wrote to schools and amateur theaters refusing their requests to stage Mary Poppins plays and musicals.

Travers refuses permission to adapt Mary Poppins into a play. She writes “You cannot mix two media without failing to do justice to both. It doesn’t work”. (Box 1, File 5)

Travers refuses permission to adapt Mary Poppins into a play. She writes “You cannot mix two media without failing to do justice to both. It doesn’t work”. (Box 1, Folder 5)

At crux of this refusal was the Mary Poppins film. Travers feared that any musical or play might mix elements from her books with popular elements from the film (for instance, the songs). For her this fusion was an unacceptable compromise. Since Travers held the rights to the story, Disney referred all requests to her. And she turned them all down, firmly. Travers’ relationship with Disney was chronicled in the recent film Saving Mr. Banks (2013).

Business correspondence like this makes up about half of our collection. Some documents in the collection, however, are intensely personal. P. L. Travers was always close-lipped about her private life, believing that her stories spoke for themselves. She once told an interviewer that her favorite author was “anonymous.”  In Cotsen’s documents Travers emerges in slips and scraps, on hotel stationery and in ragged journals.

Image from Travers dream journal. (Box 2, Folder 34)

Image from Travers dream journal. (Box 2, Folder 34)

In her typewritten dream journal Travers records the nocturnal presence of important people in her life: her family, left behind long ago in Australia, as well as mystics Gurdjieff and AE. But she also dreams about “minced meat” and the Prince of Wales. One of her dreams (above) has an “erotic overtone.”

Overtones aside, Travers seems to have been involved in romantic relationships with women and men (Lawson 117). She was very close to, and lived with, her friend Madge Burnand. Among the houses they shared was Pamela’s idyllic Pound Cottage in Mayfield, Sussex.


Madge signs this photo of herself “Yours sincerely,” and Pamela labels it “a present.” (Box 7, Folder 29)


Madge and Pamela lived together at Pound Cottage before World War II. (Box 7, Folder 29)









Our archive contains other records of P. L. Travers’ family life. In 1939, months after war had been declared, Travers adopted a son, Camillus, from a family she had known in Ireland. The baby’s grandfather, Joseph Hone, had been an important publisher and biographer working with Ireland’s most illustrious literary figures, including AE (Lawson 189). Travers consulted an astrologer in California who told her Camillus was a better match for her than his twin brother. She took Camillus back to England. Some of the pictures below are from the war period, when Travers and her son were evacuated to New York.


All 4 pictures depict Camillus Travers as a young child. (Box 7, folder 31)

5 7








Our archive compiles evidence of what was at times a complicated relationship between Camillus and his mother. It includes dozens of letters that Camillus wrote home from school, telling his mother about his grades and his classes, his little worries and triumphs. It includes a document Travers signed, releasing Camillus from jail where he was held on a drunk driving charge as a young man. And it includes a letter to Camillus that Travers wrote in the last year of her life, in the loose, unspooled writing of very advanced age. She begs Camillus to come see her, reminding “I will be 96 in August—not long!”


Letter from a teenage Camillus Travers at school to his mother. He writes “My Darling Mother, Please forgive me for not writing before—I have had another attack of torpidity.” (Box 2, File 22)


Record of Camillus Travers’ arrest and release on a drunk driving charge or “moving offence”. (Box 2, Folder 22)












Letter from Pamela Travers to her son, Camillus. “Darling Camillus, Do come & see me. I used to talk to you. I will be 96 in August—not long! Your faithful & loving M.” (Box 2, Folder 22)

Travers felt that young Camillus connected her with the world of fairy tale, which lives on in the imaginations of children, through generations. As a character in Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane explains: “Didn’t your grandmother tell you nothing? Mine told it to me and hers told her. And her grandmother told it to her, and away and away, right back to Adam” (28).

In Cherry Tree Lane, “night changes the world and makes the known unknown” (75). Our archive makes us rethink the familiar, brightly colored world of Mary Poppins, shadowing it with the obscurities of myth and symbol that absorbed Travers all her life.



Lawson, Valerie. Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Ross Lipson, Eden. “Mary Shepard Dies at 90; ‘Mary Poppins’ Illustrator,” New York Times, October 2, 2000.

For more information about the paper of P. L. Travers see the guide to her papers in the Mitchell Library of New South Wales:

You can find Cotsen’s Mary Shepard and P. L. Travers archive on the Princeton University Library Finding Aids website at:

Unique Copy of “Nancy Cock’s Song-Book” (1744) Acquired

Copies of the four foundational collections of English nursery rhymes are as scarce as  proverbial hen’s teeth.  There’s less chance of finding in your grandmother’s attic a copy of the two-volume Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book (1744), Mother Goose’s Melody (1780), or Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784) than a 42-line Gutenberg Bible.  There are forty-eight copies of Gutenberg, versus no copies of the first and two copies of  the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book, one copy of  the 1784 edition of Mother Goose’s Melody, and the compiler Joseph Ritson’s copy of Gammer Gurton’s Garland.

Until now, the black swan of nursery rhyme anthologies was the first edition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, which was assumed to have vanished without a trace.  The English Short Title Catalog of eighteenth-century imprints lists an edition printed around 1786 in Newry, North Ireland and the Elisabeth Ball copy of a John Marshall edition from the early 1790s, now at the Lilly Library, Indiana University at Bloomington.  The nursery rhyme scholars Iona and Peter Opie considered Miss Ball’s copy of Nancy Cock one of the most important books in her collection because it was almost certainly a late edition of an anthology published earlier in the century.  The rhymes it contained were recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951).

Who published it and when remained a mystery until Brian Alderson and I found an advertisement in the May 15 issue of the Daily Post identifying the publisher as one T. Read of Dogwell-Court while researching the history of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  Read is not mentioned in the scholarly literature as a competitor of Thomas Boreman, Mary Cooper, and John Newbery during the 1740s.nancy-cock-ad

James Burgh’s Youth’s friendly Monitor; or, The affectionate School-master. Containing his last pathetic farewell Lecture to his young Pupils, on their Entrance into a busy World (1752) was a Thomas Read book, but childrens’ books do not seem to have been part of his stock in trade unless Joe Miller’s Jests or a ripping yarn like The English Rogue: or, The Life of Jeremy Sharp, commonly called, Meriton Latroon (1741) are counted.   More down Read’s alley were things like  A Collection of the most remarkable Trials of Persons for High-treason, Murder, Rapes, Heresy, Bigamy, Burglary; and other Crimes and Misdemeanors (1734), Warm Beer, a Treatise. Proving, from Reason, Authority and Experience, that Beer so qualify’d, is far more wholesome than that which is drank cold (1741), or Celibacy: or, Good Advice to young Fellows to keep single. In which are painted, in very lively Colours, the Pictures of many terrible Wives, both at Court and in the City (1739).

Read’s motives for publishing a novelty like a nursery rhyme anthology are not clear, but he produced a winner.  Advertisements for different editions of Nancy Cock in London and American papers between 1747 and 1770 indicate it was frequently reprinted.  No copies by any publisher survive, however.   Only one copy of any edition of Nancy Cock has come into the rooms in the last twenty years.   Cotsen was the underbidder for the Marjorie Moon-David R. MacDonald copy of a 1795 provincial edition with the imprint “For the booksellers” sold December 2 2014 at Sotheby’s New York.  Even though it was likely that this would be my last chance to add a Nancy Cock to the Cotsen, I was philosophical about the loss.

nancy cock robin

Illustration of “Little Robin Red-Breast” from the “for the booksellers” edition of Nancy Cock previously owned by the collectors Marjorie Moon and David MacDonald.

It is an unwritten law of bibliography that if you publish speculations about a rarity no one has ever seen, and a copy will rise up eventually to bite you.  In the 2013 Cotsen Occasional Press edition of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book, Brian Alderson and I reconstructed the contents of the lost volume 1 and ever since then we have been waiting for our come-uppance.  Instead, we have been rewarded for going out on a limb because the 1744 Nancy Cock has turned up this fall.  And it’s a very special copy, having been passed down by three generations of English women as a family treasure.

The 13 January issue of the Times Literary Supplement features our account of its discovery and importance in the “Commentary” section.  But it is not illustrated with pictures from the book, and this post is!  Here is the title page spread, with the frontispiece of a cross schoolmaster punishing one of his pupils.   Notice that Nancy Cock is credited to the fictitious Nurse Lovechild, who is also supposed to have compiled Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.


The first section of the book consists of twenty-three pages, each with two captioned etchings, many showing children at play.   Pages five and six  includes one of children playing a card game.  It looks as if the boy is about to take the trick and the pot.  The other not-so-innocent amusement shown is bird’s nesting, or climbing up into a tree to steal the chicks from its mother.  Even though this favorite boys’ pastime was considered rather cruel, it is illustrated fairly often in children’s books of the period.  This is one in Nancy Cock may be among the earliest ones.spread6-7

This opening, with the swan in full sail on the left, and boys trying out different ways of breaking their playmates’ backs on the right, is another of my favorites.spread12-13If some of you think you’ve seen the illustrations of the child musicians in the next opening somewhere else, you’re right.  It has been copied from this little set of prints by Hubert Gravelot.  But it was also adapted in the frontispiece for the second volume of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book.  The lifting of this particular image strongly suggests that the engraver George Bickham, junior may have been involved in the production of Read’s Nancy Cock, along with several other of the “little books” Brian and I discussed in “Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy.”


The Gravelot original of the two child musicians.


The copy of Gravelot in Nancy Cock.


tommy thumb tp

The same two musicians and friend face the title page of Tommy Thumb.

Nancy Cock’s second section consists of twenty-seven nursery rhymes and “Hey my kitten,”a poem imitating nurse’s prattle attributed to Alan Ramsay, chopped up into sections.  Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-book and Nancy Cock print a handful of the same rhymes, but the illustrations are not the same.  “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is a good example.  In Tommy Thumb, the picture has nothing to do with the text.   In Nancy Cock, the illustration brings out the bawdy undertones of the final line, the refrain of a famous song set to a famous tune in John Playford’s 1651 The Dancing Master.  The three men waiting on Mary are wearing horns, the cuckold’s signature headgear.

tommy thumb page18

Nowhere in the text is a monkey mentioned…


Mistress Mary and her row of cuckolds.

One of the jolliest English nursery rhymes must be “Boys and girls come out to play.”  It is also among the earliest recorded, cropping up first in William King’s Useful Transactions in Philosophy, a 1709 satire on the Royal Society, then alluded to in Henry Carey’s “Namby-Pamby” (1725).  It also appears on page 32 of Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song-Book accompanied with a etching of two children looking up at the full moon, and in Nancy Cock with a picture of three boys, one with a cricket bat, hallooing a boy standing in the doorway.  There’s a crescent moon shining in the upper right hand corner.

tommy thumb page32


Nancy Cock makes two appearances on facing pages in her song book, as the newly minted heroine of “Ride a cock horse” and of “Up hill and down dale,” a now unfamiliar rhyme long associated her.  The picture of Nancy as a demure milkmaid was adapted from the same set of Gravelot designs, perhaps hoping to distance her from the associations with the name “Nancy Cock,” which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries signified a girl who no better than she should be. Thomas Rowlandson seems to be playing on those connotations in his drawing of a luscious young laundry maid with a come-hither expression.nancycockspread52-53

nancy cock thomas-rowlandson-ca-1815

Thomas Rowlandson, “Nancy Cock clear starcher.” National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.

I am extremely grateful to the Friends of the Princeton University Library, whose generous contribution helped make poassible the purchase of  this wonderful children’s book.  And with the addition of Nancy Cock’s Song-book, Cotsen needs just the R. Stockton Gammer Gurton’s Garland to complete the quartet of foundational English nursery rhymes.   It would be the perfect retirement present…