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JM Barrie biography

JM Barrie
Portrait of JM Barrie

James Matthew Barrie was born in the small weaving town of Kirriemuir, Scotland on 9 May 1860, the ninth of 10 children of a handloom weaver and his ambitious wife, Margaret Ogilvy.

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 gravely injured in a skating accident and died shortly afterwards.

Forever young

While his mother derived some consolation from the notion that David would remain a boy forever, Barrie drew inspiration.

In his desperate attempt to be loved and to replace David in his mother’s life, Barrie virtually became David and tried to replace him in his mother's affection.

Barrie's inspiration

The notion of the everlasting childhood stayed with Barrie and became one of the defining reasons for his lifelong love of children, as well as the inspiration for his most famous play, Peter Pan.

It would be another 33 years before that inspiration emerged in the shape of Peter Pan, but here was the germ, rooted in his mind from the age of six.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his five boys
Arthur Llewelyn Davies and his sons

Family life

Barrie married Mary Ansell, an actress, in 1894 and although they had no children, he had many as friends.

He had previously known a little girl, Margaret Henley, who died at the age of six. She called him 'my friendy', which she lisped as 'fwendy' or 'wendy', and he named the heroine of his new play after her in honour of his little friend.

Barrie did not entirely invent the name, but he popularised it and to this day, the name remains as popular as ever, thanks to his story.

The 'wendy house' was of course named after the little house build by the Lost Boys for Wendy in the story.

Llewelyn Davies boys

In Kensington Gardens in 1897, Barrie met the eldest three Llewelyn Davies boys, George, five, Jack, four, and Peter, who was still in his pram.

Two more sons, Michael and Nico, joined the family in the next few years.

Barrie developed a strong friendship with the children and their parents, Sylvia and Arthur. 

In 1901, during a summer holiday at Barrie's country house in Surrey, he took photographs of George, Jack and Peter's exploits and games and turned them into a book, The Boy Castaways.

This became the precursor to Peter Pan. Watch a slideshow of these photographs, put together by Andrew Birkin, here.

Peter Pan inspiration

Sylvia and Arthur both tragically died of cancer when the boys were still young.

Barrie became their guardian and, although now divorced from Mary, 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.
 

Useful links

  • Discover JM Barrie's London in our Peter Pan Gallery on Flickr 

  • Find out more about Moat Brae, the house and garden that inspired JM Barrie when he was a schoolboy in Dumfries.

Some other works by Barrie

  • Quality Street (1901)

  • The Admirable Crichton (1902)

  • What Every Woman Knows (1908)

  • Dear Brutus (1917)

  • Mary Rose (1920)