All children, except one, grow up
James Matthew Barrie was born in the small weaving town of Kirriemuir, Scotland, on 9th May 1860, the ninth of ten children of a handloom weaver. For the first six years of his life, James lived in the shadow of his mother’s love for his older brother David. Tragically, on the eve of his fourteenth birthday, David was fatally injured in a skating accident. In his desperate attempt to be loved and to replace David in his mother’s life, Barrie virtually became David. Trying so hard to be his brother affected him deeply, and the notion of the everlasting childhood stayed with Barrie and became one of the defining reasons for his lifelong love of children.
After graduating from Edinburgh University, and a short stint at the Nottingham Journal, Barrie came to London seeking his fortune as a writer. His first novels, Auld Licht Idylls (1888) and The Little Minister (1891), established him as a writer and he soon turned his hand to works for the theatre, such as The Admirable Crichton and Quality Street, to immediate success.
Barrie married Mary Ansell, an actress, in 1894. In 1897, while walking his St Bernard dog Porthos – and later his Newfoundland Luath, the inspiration for Nana – in Kensington Gardens, Barrie met the eldest three Llewelyn Davies boys: George, five; Jack, four; and Peter, still a baby. Two more sons, Michael and Nico, joined the family in the next few years and Barrie developed a strong friendship with the children and their parents, Sylvia and Arthur.
Sylvia and Arthur both tragically died when the boys were still young. Barrie became their guardian and brought them up as his own children. His life with the boys has been explained as the strongest inspiration for the creation of Peter Pan in 1904. Barrie himself once said: “By rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks to produce a flame, I made the spark of you that is Peter Pan.”
The story and play of Peter Pan emerged gradually over a number of years. Peter made his first appearance in The Little White Bird, published in 1902, in a chapter entitled “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which told the story of how the baby Peter came to Kensington Gardens and learned to fly. Then, in 1903, Barrie sat down to write what was to become Peter Pan, although his new play was first entitled The Great White Father – a title which, fortunately, was quickly dismissed.
The first production of Peter Pan took place at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London on 27 December 1904 and was a phenomenal success. The play ran for 150 performances in London and was revived every Christmas for the next thirty years and more. The novel Peter and Wendy was published a few years later in 1911 and became an instant bestseller, and has never been out of print since.
It was another twenty-five years before Barrie stunned the world by making his gift of the copyright to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, in 1929. It seems the gift was not a sudden gesture, as Barrie had long thought about how he could help the hospital. This exceptional gift meant that all proceeds from his magical tale would thereafter come to the hospital. Though childless himself, Barrie loved children and had long been a supporter of the hospital. As he said in a speech in 1930, “At one time Peter Pan was an invalid in the Hospital for Sick Children, and it was he who put me up to the little thing I did for the hospital.”
J.M. Barrie died in 1937 and was buried in the family grave in Kirriemuir.
More fairy dust was sprinkled over Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1988, when the House of Lords, prompted by Lord Callaghan, voted for a special clause in the Copyright Designs & Patents Act, which gave the hospital a right to royalty from Peter Pan in perpetuity in the UK. The story of Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland with Wendy, Michael, John, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys, and his battle against his arch-enemy Captain Hook, is still enchanting children and adults alike, and thus will continue to help forever towards making the hospital the incredible centre of hope it is today.
Text copyright © 2016 Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s CharityRegistered charity no. 1160024
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