Jill Murphy, the children’s writer, who has died of cancer aged 72, was the author and illustrator of the phenomenally successful Worst Witch series of stories for younger children, chronicling the misadventures of the kindly Mildred Hubble, an accident-prone trainee witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches who is always botching her spells.
The first instalment was published in 1974 and it took Jill Murphy more than 40 years to write the next seven, completing the series in 2018 with First Prize for the Worst Witch. Her clear, pared-back style and charming illustrations proved a hit, and the books have never been out of print.
The stories of Mildred Hubble’s disastrous magicianship inspired a 40-part ITV series in the late 1990s, starring Felicity Jones as Mildred, as well as a series on CBBC (2017-20). In 2019 a musical stage production, The Worst Witch, opened in the West End and won an Olivier Award.
In recent years the fame of Mildred Hubble has been eclipsed by that of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, though critics have often remarked on similarities between the two series, both of which feature young characters who go off to boarding schools to learn potions, spells and broomstick prowess.
However, Jill Murphy’s crisp prose generally enabled an action-packed plot to unravel in fewer than 200 pages. And there was no Lord Voldemort to give young children sleepless nights.
JK Rowling has not acknowledged Jill Murphy’s work as an inspiration and Jill Murphy was generally reluctant to comment, though when pressed by The Daily Telegraph in 2019, she admitted: “It would be nice, I suppose, if people would say thank you. But you have to be gracious.”
Jill Murphy was born in London on July 5, 1949, the daughter of an Irish aircraft engineer and a librarian he met during the war. A gifted but quirky child, she was reading newspapers before she began school and was good at drawing.
She won a place at Ursuline High School, Wimbledon, but had problems fitting in.
Her teachers, she recalled, thought her too pleased with herself and, although she was good at writing and drawing, they took pleasure in pointing out her “hopelessness in all other areas of the curriculum and total lack of common sense”.
The school became the model for Miss Cackle’s Academy, while she based her shambolic heroine partly on herself. She was 14 when she wrote the first draft of The Worst Witch illustrating it with her own drawings.
She left school at 16 and went on to Chelsea and Croydon art schools, followed by Camberwell, but found it no easier to fit in, and was expelled from Camberwell after only six months.
She worked as a cleaner and as a nanny, spent time in a village in Togo, West Africa, with her first husband, and received rejection letters from several publishers before a small imprint named Allison & Busby took on The Worst Witch and printed 5,000 copies.
Within two months, it had sold out.
Jill Murphy continued working as a nanny, however, until the publication of The Worst Witch Strikes Again in 1980, when she decided to write full-time. She wrote and illustrated many other children’s books including Peace at Last, about poor Mr Bear and his efforts to get a decent night’s sleep; Five Minutes’ Peace (1986), the first in a series of 11 picture books about the Larges, a family of elephants; The Last Noo Noo (1995), about a monster called Marlan and his love for dummies; Dear Hound (2009), about a lost dog; and Meltdown (2016), about a rabbit called Ruby who has a tantrum in a supermarket.
Jill Murphy, who lived in north Cornwall, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the mid-1990s. In 2015 she was told the cancer had returned.
She was married twice. Both marriages were dissolved and she is survived by a son from her second marriage to Roger Michell.