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8 May 2020

A glimpse into the life of J M Barrie

Written by Ian Riches, Archivist
Black and white photograph of two men wearing suits and hats, sitting on a bench in a garden.
J M Barrie and James Robb, 1930
Many words have been written about the creator of Peter Pan, with a number of biographies, appraisals and reappraisals on the life, works and character of the man who has become part of Scottish literary folklore.

James Matthew Barrie (later Sir James Matthew Barrie) was born on 9 May 1860 at 9 Brechin Road, Kirriemuir. He was the ninth child of ten to be born to David Barrie and Margaret Ogilvy.

James was only 6 years old when his older brother David died at the age of 13. This shattered the close-knit family and was particularly devastating for James’s mother, as David was the apple of her eye. James tried to replace his late brother in his mother’s affections by dressing as him and attempting to replicate David’s special whistle. His brother’s death was to have a deep influence on Barrie’s life and work.

Even as a child, James devised and produced plays for himself and his friends, staging them in the wash-house opposite the family home. The wash-house would later become a model for the Wendy House in Peter Pan. As his mother began to recover from the grief of losing David, she began to tell James stories about her childhood as well as tales from the locality of Kirriemuir. These would feature in many of his later works.

In 1868, at the age of 8, James was sent to attend Glasgow Academy, where he stayed for three years before going to Dumfries Academy, in both places staying with his older brother Alexander, a schoolteacher, and his sister Mary. James wrote his first play while he was at Dumfries – Bandolero the Bandit, which was performed at the Dumfries Theatre Royal.

In 1878, Barrie moved to Edinburgh to attend university, where he began to write articles and reviews for local newspapers. After graduating, he accepted a post to write for the Nottingham Journal

First page of a handwritten letter from 1883.
Letter from J M Barrie to his friend James Robb while he was in Nottingham, 26 May 1883

Barrie wrote many articles about his life in Kirriemuir and sent them to editors of London newspapers; some were published, which consequently persuaded him to move to London in 1884. Eventually these stories would find their way into his first books – Auld Licht Idylls and When a Man’s Single (both 1888), A Window in Thrums (1889) and the novel The Little Minister (1891).

As well as books, Barrie began to write for the stage. While watching a production of his third play, Walker London, James fell in love with the lead actress, Mary Ansell. They married in 1894. 

Black and white photograph of the head of a woman, sideways to the camera.
Mary Ansell

In 1895, further tragedy struck the Barrie household when James’s sister Hannah Ann and his mother Margaret died. Barrie paid affectionate tribute to his mother in his work, Margaret Ogilvy (1896).

James and Mary lived in Kensington. While walking his dog Porthos in the park, James befriended the three children of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, entertaining them with stories. The stories and games that James devised were acted out in Kensington Gardens by the two eldest Llewelyn Davies boys, George and Jack. Soon, they began to make their way as ‘Peter Pan’ stories into Barrie’s works, The Little White Bird (1902) and later the play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This was first produced and staged in 1904 at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. 

Black and white photograph of a scene from the stage play Peter Pan.
Peter Pan and Wendy in the tree tops; silver print of the production of Peter Pan, Duke of York’s Theatre, 1905

James and his wife grew very close to the Llewelyn Davies family and were near neighbours. However, the family suffered a blow when Arthur died in 1907 and then Sylvia passed away in 1910. Barrie and the family’s nurse became guardians to the now five Llewelyn Davies boys – George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nicholas.

Other plays produced by Barrie, such as Quality Street (1901) and The Admirable Crichton (1902), achieved great success and his popularity and fortune increased further. More works followed, including: What Every Woman Knows (1908); Dear Brutus (1917); Mary Rose (1920); Farewell Miss Logan (1932) and The Boy David (1936).

Barrie was granted several honours including being made a baronet in 1913 and being given the Order of Merit in 1922. He also became President of the Society of Authors in 1928, was made Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh in 1930 and was afforded the Freedom of his home town Kirriemuir, also in 1930. A great fan of cricket, Barrie offered to fund the building of a new pavilion for the Kirriemuir cricket team, which he officially opened in 1930.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Barrie regularly corresponded with his childhood friend James Robb, who continued to live in Kirriemuir, and we’re very fortunate to have some of these letters in our archive collection. Much of their content revolves around past times, and mutual friends and acquaintances in Kirriemuir. Before his death, James Barrie gave the rights to Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, which continues to benefit to this day. In increasingly ill health, Barrie died of pneumonia in a London nursing home in 1937 at the age of 77. He was buried in Kirriemuir cemetery next to his parents.

In part 2, we’ll focus on the archives held at Barrie’s Birthplace museum in Kirriemuir. This collection of letters, photos and supplementary material contains some significant items which provide an interesting insight into Barrie, particularly in the latter years of his life.

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