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Creating Neverland: The origins of J.M. Barrie’s indelible Peter Pan

Posted on 14 Mar 2023

In this extract from ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Past’, Alistair Moffat explores the tragic, real-life inspiration behind J.M. Barrie’s classic children's story, which continues to entertain with Disney’s new Peter Pan movie ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ due in 2023.

David Barrie was The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. In the winter of 1866, two days before his fourteenth birthday, the elder brother of J. M Barrie went skating. Accidentally colliding with another skater, he fell on the ice, fractured his skull and died. When news of the tragedy reached his mother, Margaret Barrie, she resolved to ‘get between death and her boy’. Of course, she failed, and David Barrie’s death overwhelmed the family. He had been his mother’s favourite, and she became obsessed with the boy who could never grow up. James Barrie remembered how he tried to fill the emotional void by dressing up in his older brother’s clothes. In a bestselling biography of his mother, he wrote that once, when he came into her room, she said, ‘“Is that you?” I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to, and I said in a little, lonely voice, “No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me”.’

James Barrie was born in 1860 in the Angus town of Kirriemuir, one of ten siblings. His education was peripatetic but rich. Two of Barrie’s elder siblings, Alexander and Mary Ann, had qualified as teachers, and at the age of eight, he followed them to Glasgow Academy, where they taught, and they looked after their little brother. Later they went to Dumfries Academy. It was there that the story of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up began to stir into life. Barrie befriended Hal and Stuart Gordon, whose home and wooded garden at Moat Brae House was close to the school. He remembered it well.

‘When the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work. We lived in the tree-tops, on coconuts attached thereto, and that were in a bad condition; we were buccaneers and I kept the log-book of our depredations, an eerie journal, without a triangle in it to mar the beauty of its page. That log-book I trust is no longer extant, though I should like one last look at it, to see if Captain Hook is in it.’

Barrie was determined to become a writer, and after three novels and some journalism he began to write plays. Having moved to London, he found success with the productions of Quality Street and The Admirable Crichton in 1901 and 1902. Most days, Barrie took Porthos, his big Saint Bernard, for walks in Kensington Gardens, where he struck up a friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family, and in particular, their children, George, Jack and Baby Peter, as well as their nanny, Mary Hodgson. The boys enjoyed playing with his big, cuddly dog, and Barrie entertained them by waggling his ears and moving his eyebrows up and down, and by telling them stories. The cast of Peter Pan was slowly coming together.

J. M. Barrie, 1892. National Media Museum @ Flickr Commons.

At 5 foot 3 inches (1.6 metres), James Barrie was a small man, and perhaps that was one reason why children found him easy to talk to. When he met little Margaret Henley and her mother, another friendship grew, and a new Christian name was created. The child adored Barrie and called him ‘My Friendy’, but like some young ones, she had trouble pronouncing her Rs. Barrie’s nickname came out Fwendy, and sometimes it was Fwendy Wendy. Aged only six, the little girl died, but her Fwendy made sure she was immortalized.

Some of the stories Barrie told the Llewelyn Davies children revolved around Baby Peter. The author insisted that babies had been birds before they were born and could fly. To prevent them escaping, parents had bars attached to nursery windows. Barrie’s tale was about one baby who did escape and flew out through the nursery window, eventually reaching Neverland (second to the left and straight on till morning), never to grow up.

The ghosts of David Barrie and Margaret Henley, the garden at Moat Brae House and its pirates, Barrie’s big dog and the Llewelyn Davies children all came together in 1904 on the opening night of Peter Pan, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The play was an instant, enormous and enduring success. The indelible, wholly original image of Peter Pan has entered our culture. Barrie’s dramatic genius gave the boy a dark, anarchic side to his character. When the stature of Peter Pan was unveiled in Kensington Gardens in 1912, there was disappointment. The sculptor, Sir George Frampton, had used a conventionally good-looking child as a model, and Barrie was not impressed. ‘It doesn’t show the devil in Peter.’

Having enjoyed great success with other plays, such as What Every Woman Knows and Dear Brutus, James Barrie was knighted in 1913, later made a member of the Order of Merit and elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in 1919. In 1922, he stood up to give a memorable rectorial address on the theme of courage. But he himself appeared to lack what he was about to talk about. Having stood silent at the lectern for a few minutes, paralysed by nerves, Barrie only began to speak after students started to barrack him. Perhaps such anxiety was not untypical. In a photograph taken only a few weeks later, Barrie’s unsmiling face looks haunted, hunted, with dark circles under his eyes, hollow cheeks and a faraway, unreadable, almost vacant look.

Peter Pan grew out of tragedy, out of the deaths of David Barrie and Margaret Henley, and even more bereavement was to follow. George Llewelyn Davies was killed in action in Flanders in 1915, his brother, Michael, drowned in 1921, perhaps committing suicide, and Peter had an unhappy life. In 1960 he threw himself under a train. Barrie had little consolation at home. He married Mary Ansell in 1891, but they had no children of their own. When he learned that his wife was having an affair in 1909, they eventually divorced. So much tragedy swirled around Peter Pan and his creator, it is no wonder that the eternal innocence of children seemed like a refuge.

Discover the book

Scotland's Forgotten Past

A History of the Mislaid, Misplaced and Misunderstood Alistair Moffat