What do J.K.Rowling, Liz Hurley, and Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail have in common?

If you answered ‘a love for Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes’, then give yourself a pat on the back (or maybe not, since the title of this blog somewhat gives the game away!).

These three obviously have fine taste, and they join the thousands of children around the world who grew up reading and treasuring Streatfeild’s stories. In June of this year, her nephew Bill Streatfeild kindly donated Noel’s archive to Seven Stories, and it has been my pleasure to catalogue such rich and varied material, while learning more about one of my very favourite children’s authors – and what a life she led! The collection is large, and contains more than enough nuggets of gold to excite even the most casual fan, from Noel’s wartime diaries to draft notes for one of her best-loved novels. So buckle up, and prepare for the whistle-stop tour!

Author photograph, c.1951. © John French

Streatfeild began her career as an actress, training in the Academy of Dramatic Art in London and working in the theatre for almost a decade. Following a difficult touring season, Noel decided that she needed a more stable career, and chose to become an author instead – a move that might seem baffling today! Luckily for her the gamble paid off, and in 1931 The Whicharts was published to considerable acclaim. It was her second novel that cemented Noel’s career, however – that book was Ballet Shoes, a classic and an enduring favourite since its first publication in 1936, when shops struggled to keep it in stock and set up special counters devoted to its sale.

International editions of Ballet Shoes. Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books.

It’s easy to see why it has appealed to children for so long. Every detail in the book is simultaneously fantastical and written as though it were the most ordinary thing in the world, from the Fossil sisters’ unlikely rescue by Great Uncle Matthew, to the colourful cast of lodgers in their Cromwell Road home, and the trio’s successes on stage and screen. Pauline, Petrova and Posy each have differing appeal, and if you’ve read the book you probably had a favourite (Petrova, for me!). Importantly, all would pass Streatfeild’s strict test of a character’s authenticity – they would be unmistakeably recognisable if you met them on the bus. In spite of the novel’s instant success, Noel felt less affection towards Ballet Shoes than her adoring readership did, recalling years later in an article for Books and Bookmen:

‘The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself. I distrusted what came easily, and so despised the book.’

The one aspect of the process she did enjoy was choosing an illustrator for the novel – who just so happened to be her sister, Ruth Gervis. We’re fortunate to hold some of these original illustrations in our archive, and I think you’ll agree that they’re pretty special:

Ruth Gervis, RG/01/01/03,13,31. Selection of finished pencil drawings for Ballet Shoes, circa 1936. © Estate of Ruth Gervis

Thanks to the presence of a large selection of diaries and articles, our new collection makes it possible to build up a vivid picture of the author beyond her most famous work, giving real insights into her writing habits and her perpetual struggles with self-discipline. In the following article written in 1960, she explains the secret to getting work done: staying in bed!

Typescript draft of ‘A Writer at Work’, published in Woman Journalist, 1960. NSt/06/05. © Estate of Noel Streatfeild.

This habit didn’t hamper her social life too badly, as her diaries show she frequently dined out with friends. It certainly boosted her productivity, however, as throughout her career she published an average of one book a year – with many of them bestsellers!

The importance of discipline and routine is certainly evident in the diaries Streatfeild kept throughout the course of World War II, when she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service. During the Blitz, Noel was often on duty as an air-raid warden, and she was later responsible for establishing a mobile canteen to bring much needed cups of tea to the hardworking rescue teams.

Photograph of W.V.S. Mobile Canteen, NSt/11. © Unknown.

At the same time, she was busy writing stories, novels and serials for publication - even after the windows in her flat were blown in, and later when she was bombed out of her home. Although Streatfeild had originally planned to publish the diaries as a record of the war years, paper rationing was introduced and her plans were thwarted – so if you would like to gain a better insight into life in wartime London through the eyes of a talented author, then the archive at Seven Stories is the place to come.

Streatfeild’s devotion to London was unwavering, to the extent that she felt unable to leave the city even at the height of the Blitz. Her love for the city and its people led to her continued involvement with the Deptford voluntary Child Care Committee, and both her diaries and lectures document regular visits to South London in this capacity, as well as her work organising civil defence efforts there. In spite of this deep sense of belonging to London, Streatfeild was a lifelong traveller, beginning in her early twenties when she travelled to South Africa and Australia as part of a theatre troupe:


      Noel Streatfeild’s Diary, 1928-1929, NSt/08/01. Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books.

She also completed a tour of the Netherlands in 1945 and visited Russia in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and we’re fortunate to hold the diaries she kept of these travels. Her experiences of travelling to Jamaica on a banana boat (and being treated as less valuable than the fruit!) inspired her to write a talk given in 1957, entitled ‘Those Green First Class Passengers’. No lingering resentment there, then.

Several of her works were very clearly influenced by these journeys (Lisa Goes to Russia, and The Painted Garden for instance), and perhaps this broader outlook is part of what has led to her enduring international popularity. A great number of the letters held in our collection are from school children in America, many of whom have been tasked with writing to their favourite author. This isn’t a recent development either - her fan mail dates from the 1930s to 2003, documenting a staggering 70-plus years of popularity! As you can see from the selection of books below, Noel’s influence continues to spread – among the editions we hold are Hungarian, Thai, German, Slovak, Hebrew, Polish, Serbian, Korean and Israeli translations:

Translated editions of Streatfeild’s work, from the Seven Stories Book Collection. Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books.

One of the gems of the collection is the preparatory material for White Boots, the tale of spoilt skating star in the making Lalla, and the convalescent beginner, Harriet. The draft notes for White Boots seem to be typical of Streatfeild’s writing process. First, she produced a family tree, mapping out the connections and relationships between various characters. Next there are more detailed character descriptions, followed by plot sketches for each chapter. Interestingly, we can see from the draft material that several key details of the novel have changed in its journey towards publication - Olivia, Lalla and Harriet were originally named Amy, Rachel and Joanna, for instance.

Preparatory material for White Boots, circa 1951. Photograph © Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books.

The collection also contains preparatory material for her adult novels Aunt Clara and Babbacombes, the romance Love in a Mist and a handful of books for children – including a beautiful galley proof of Christmas with the Chrystals, and a typescript draft of her non-fiction work, Look at the Circus. Intriguingly, we also hold two unpublished manuscripts for sequels to the Maitlands series - and spoiler alert – a lot has changed at Cuckly place!

With a writing career that spanned almost five decades, and produced 38 books for children, 16 novels for adults, 12 romance novels and countless short stories, playscripts, articles and lectures, it is little wonder that Angela Bull described Streatfeild as ‘A National Monument’ in her biography. Our new collection provides a wonderful insight into the woman behind this staggering output, revealing her belief in the importance of quality children’s literature, and her strong social conscience and involvement in humanitarian efforts (perhaps inspired by her forebear, Elizabeth Fry). Streatfeild’s writing garnered a number of awards throughout her career (including the Carnegie Medal in 1938, for The Circus is Coming) and she was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1983 – fitting recognition for the achievements of a woman whose wonderful novels are still read by children around the world.

Original photograph of Noel Streatfeild at the awarding of her OBE, 1983. © Unknown


- Amy Burnside, Northern Bridge Placement Student

Seven Stories was able to support the acquisition of the Noel Streatfeild Archive through support from a Heritage Lottery Fund ‘Collecting Cultures’ grant. This has been awarded to Seven Stories in recognition of the museum’s national role in telling a comprehensive story of modern British children’s literature. For more information on our HLF Collecting Cultures project see:  http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/news/latestnews/hlf

If you’d like to find out more about the Seven Stories Collections, you can browse our catalogue, explore our archives online, email us via collections@sevenstories.org.uk or leave a comment below!