Mary Poppins and the Red Cross

On 2 February 2014 we went to see the film “Saving Mr Banks” at the local cinema. It is the story of the fight  between author Pamela Lyndon Travers and Walt Disney over the portrayal of the characters from her ‘Mary Poppins’ books. And in the evening ABC TV showed a documentary about “The Real Mary Poppins”. So what have these two films to do with a Military site such as this?

Well there really is a military connection with “Mary Poppins” and the story starts with an Australian lady by the name of  Barbara Ierne Goff. On Boxing Day 1927, she married Orpen Boyd Moriarty. Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force in October 1939, Boyd Moriarty sailed for the Middle East with the 6th Division in 1940. His wife followed him as a representative of the Australian Comforts Fund and worked in camps in Palestine. She held the post of cipher officer with the Royal Navy for six months at Alexandria, Egypt. Her husband was killed in action on Crete in May 1941. Two months later Biddy Moriarty, as she was known, joined the Australian Red Cross Society’s field force attached to the 2nd/2nd Australian General Hospital at Kantara, Egypt. (Kantara is the burial place of Trooper Stuart Courtney Gaden of the 7th Australian Light Horse who died of wounds in 1916). Returning to Australia in February 1942, she performed Red Cross duties in New South Wales, Victoria, the Northern Territory and North Queensland, and was promoted superintendent in December.

Biddy Moriarty was sent back to the Middle East in 1943 to deal with recovered prisoners of war. In August she was made senior superintendent of the Red Cross. Promoted Commandant in April 1944, she joined the Australian Army Staff in London to prepare for the reception of Australian prisoners of war expected to be liberated when the Allies invaded Western Europe. She was attached to the A.I.F. Reception Group which repatriated large numbers of men after Germany surrendered in May 1945. One of her thoughtful gestures was to distribute sprigs of ‘wattle’ to the freed Australians.

Having arrived in Sydney with a shipload of liberated men in August 1945, Moriarty went on leave. She was recalled to take charge of women in the Australian Red Cross contingent which reached Singapore in September to assist the 2nd P.O.W. Reception Group. Here she was reunited with her good friend’s grandson, Capt EW (Bill) Gaden of the 2/20 Bn AIF. With the last of the released troops, she came home in November. For her distinguished work with the Red Cross, Barbara Ierne (Biddy) Moriarty was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal in July 1947.

So what’s the connection with Mary Poppins?

In 1934 the character Mary Poppins first appeared in a successful series of books written by Pamela Lyndon Travers…but that was her pen name, she was, in fact, Helen Lyndon Goff who had moved from Australia to England. Helen had two sisters, Moya and Biddy. The children had spent some of their childhood at Allora, Queensland, next door to the National Trust property ‘Glengallen’, Warwick, where my Mother-in-law was born. Moya became a very good friend and close Bowral neighbour of the Gaden family, including the mother, aunt and cousins of Trooper Stuart Courtney Gaden. Biddy became the stalwart of the Australian Red Cross and if she had even a fraction of the ‘stickatability’ of her sister, then it’s not surprising that she worked wonders to help the troops.

According to one of her colleagues, Biddy  was “full of energy and charm. She had beautiful, shining golden hair and eyes like aquamarines…even in uniform she dressed with flair. She was very good at achieving the impossible…the day after we arrived in Singapore…she acquired a jeep. Biddy was a wonderful boss, dignified and serene when necessary but full of fun and extremely popular with all ranks”…now that sounds to me a bit like her sister Pamela/Helen’s delightful character called “Mary Poppins”!

References: “Saving Mr Banks” (Disney) and “The Real Mary Poppins” (ABC TV).  Sydney Morning Herald 16 Sept 1916,  Australian Dictionary of Biography  <; Commonwealth War Graves Commission web site <; and various entries in “Pounding along to Singapore.”

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