J.M. Barrie playing Neverland with Michael Llewelyn Davies
Public DomainJ.M. Barrie playing Neverland with Michael Llewelyn Davies - Credit: jmbarrie.co.uk

 James Matthew Barrie (1860-1937) was the ninth of ten children born in Kirriemuir, Angus, to a moderately wealthy line of weavers. In 1867, when Barrie was six, his 14-year-old brother David died in a skating accident. This incident would greatly affect Barrie's childhood and influence his writing career. David's death traumatized Barrie's mother, creating a vacuum that the young James always strived to fill. If there was one consolation, said Barrie in the 1896 memoir of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy, it was that she found solace in knowing that David would never grow up and leave her. With this sentiment, Margaret had unwittingly laid the foundations for Barrie's most famous novel.


At thirteen, Barrie attended the Dumfries Academy, where his love of reading blossomed. He was fond of works by Robert Michael Ballantyne and James Fenimore Cooper. Ballantyne's belief that "Boys [should be] inured from childhood to trifling risks and slight dangers of every possible description, such as tumbling into ponds and off of trees," was readily apparent in the 1857 fantasy book, The Coral Island. It was a story which piqued many a young gentleman's sense of adventure with its tale of shipwrecked boys and their encounters with fiendish pirates.


Barrie also had a fondness for the grisly serial stories published weekly in the penny dreadfuls. In Andrew Birkin's J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (2003), Birkin describes how these adventure publications filled Barrie's imagination with a, "Staple diet of blood and thunder, pirates and desert islands." With works such as James Fenimore Cooper's, The Last of the Mohicans (1826) for inspiration, the defining characteristics of the magical Neverland were starting to solidify.


In the gardens of Moat Brae house at Dumfries Academy, Barrie's love of pirate adventures blossomed. He and his friends often engaged in the fantasy world of swashbuckling and role play, and this soon led to the formation of a drama group. Barrie's first play produced at Dumfries was Bandelero the Bandit. It was not well received by the school governing board, who declared the production immoral.


Barrie was a fan of Lurid Serial Comics like this Penny Dreadful
Public DomainBarrie was a fan of Lurid Serial Comics like this Penny Dreadful - Credit: Edward Viles

Despite a firm nudge towards the ministry by his family, Barrie's passion for writing proved too strong, and he went on to study literature at the University of Edinburgh. During his time there he wrote for The Edinburgh Courant, one of the nation's first local newspapers. He graduated with his Magister Artium (Master of Arts) in 1882. Barrie took a position as a staff journalist in Nottingham before returning home and writing for the St. James's Gazette in London.  A series of articles for the Gazette formed the basis for his first books, Auld Licht Idylls (1888), A Window in Thrums (1890) and The Little Minister (1891).


In Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1902), the seeds of Peter Pan were sown: as Tommy grows from boy to young man, his vivid imagination and childhood fantasies hold him captive and cost him dearly. The first book to make mention of Peter Pan was the 1901 novel, The Little White Bird.  "His age is one week," writes Barrie in chapter 14, "and though he was born so long ago he has never had a birthday ...he escaped from being a human when he was seven days' old."


Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in 1898. Barrie Claimed they were Engaged After her Death
Public DomainSylvia Llewelyn Davies in 1898. Barrie claimed they were engaged after her death - Credit: J.M. Barrie

Barrie also wrote for the theatre. His 1892 play, Walker, London, introduced him to a young actress by the name of Mary Ansell. The couple married in 1894, but the union, it was alleged, remained unconsummated. Instead James and Mary became the proud parents of Porthos, a Saint Bernard dog – often the breed used for Nana in the stage play (as opposed to the Newfoundland in the book). Barrie enjoyed walking Porthos in Kensington Gardens, and it was here in 1897 that he first became acquainted with the Llewelyn Davies family. Barrie became a regular visitor to the house of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and their boys, George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas.


The character of Peter Pan was created to entertain and amuse the Davies boys. But it wasn't long before Peter Pan became a grown-up play. It is said that all delightful fairy tales should have an auspicious beginning and a glorious ending yet Barrie wasn't sure he had either when the play first showed on December 27, 1904 at the Duke of York's Theatre in London. But the production's innovative approach soon paid off. The novel, adapted from the play by Barrie, was originally called Peter and Wendy, and was first published in 1911. Today, children and adults know it as Peter Pan. The rest, as they say, is history.


Barrie's great achievement was recognized in his lifetime: he was made a baronet in 1913 and a member of the Order of Merit in 1922. He counted amongst his friends such respected and distinguished individuals as Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Antarctica explorer, Robert Falcon Scott. 


J.M. Barrie, was Born in this House in May 1860
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeJ.M. Barrie, was Born in this House in May 1860 - Credit: Richard Slessor

In April 1929, Barrie awarded the copyright of his Peter Pan works to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Eight years later, on June 19, 1937, Sir J.M. Barrie succumbed to pneumonia at the age of seventy-seven. Barrie was buried where he was born, in his beloved Kirrie, the inspiration for his fictional town of "Thrums." In death, the author retained an aura of mystery and left many unanswered questions regarding his character; the Daily Telegraph's 2008 article, "How bad was J.M.Barrie" by Justine Picardie, examines some of these.


James Matthew Barrie once said,  "The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." What Barrie made of his life's achievements one can only speculate, but public perception is clear. Peter Pan remains timeless, repeatedly portrayed on stage, screen, television and radio; in print, comics, sculpture, video games and music. Could Barrie have ever imagined that the story of a boy who never grows up would escape the ageing process for over a century?  Now that, Mr. Barrie, is a marvellous ending. 


J.M. Barrie's Signature: Author of the Most Famous Fairy Play


Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children