Elisabeth Beresford at her home on Alderney, in the Channel Islands, in 1998, with Great Uncle Bulgaria, one of the most popular Wombles characters. Photograph: Nick Skinner/Daily Mail/Rex Features

Elisabeth Beresford, who has died aged 84, enjoyed her greatest success with the creation of the Wombles. The family motto of the colourful underground creatures – “making good use of bad rubbish” – sprang from a concern of the writer’s that chimed with the growing ecological awareness of the next four decades. Famously, the inspiration for the figures came on a Boxing Day walk on Wimbledon Common, south-west London, during which her daughter, Kate, misnamed it Wombledon Common.

As elsewhere with Beresford’s work, the point of departure was real – here, the place and the characters, largely drawn from uncles, grandparents, siblings and her children: Marcus, her son, genial and interested in food, inspired Orinoco; Kate inspired Bungo, a strong character in the books, though not in the films.

Their underground and above-ground adventures begin simply; in The Wombles (1968) the characters do little more than potter about tidying up, braving humans and dogs when necessary. Gradually, over the next 10 years, the adventures become more ambitious and more far-flung in titles such as The MacWomble’s Pipe Band and The Wombles Go Round the World (both 1976).

As often happens, the early home-based books worked best, since their clear message – the importance of litter collection and recycling that Beresford believed in passionately – was at their heart. Then in its infancy and largely confined to an alternative lifestyle, the theme transformed what was essentially the story of a spirited and likable but conventional family with old-fashioned values into one with an original and contemporary edge to it. It spread the message of recycling to a wide market and touched a chord with many readers, who went on to set up Womble Cleaning Up Groups on Wimbledon Common and elsewhere.