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15 May 2020

Delving into the archives at J M Barrie’s Birthplace

Written by Ian Riches, Archivist
Black and white photo of a hall full of men in 1930. Several men are standing on a stage, and one man is being presented with a fancy box.
Barrie receiving the Freedom of Kirriemuir, June 1930
The archive collection at J M Barrie’s Birthplace has come from many sources. Some documents are likely to have been at the museum when the National Trust for Scotland acquired the property in 1937, some have been gifted to us by various generous donors, while others have been purchased by the Trust.

However, this is by no means a comprehensive collection of letters, photos and supplementary material concerning Barrie. Apart from various letters held by other archive repositories, a fuller body of archival material is held at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. But our archives do contain some significant items which provide an interesting insight into Barrie, particularly in the latter years of his life.

The archives have recently been catalogued and preserved into acid-free materials. They have been divided into five separate and broad categories: letters and manuscripts; photos; programmes, posters and other published material; newspapers; and that wonderful term, miscellaneous.

Letters

The majority of the letters we have are those written by Barrie himself to various correspondents. This includes a collection of letters and newspapers donated to Barrie’s Birthplace in 2000 by Elizabeth Dale, who was the daughter of Barrie’s childhood friend, James Robb.

In the 1920s, Barrie and Robb had rekindled their friendship, which began when they were school friends in Kirriemuir and Robb was a part of Barrie’s early ‘wash-house’ plays. Most of the letters were written from Barrie’s London address at Adelphi Terrace, London, and date from around 1928.

The subject matter of much of this correspondence revolves around their shared past in Kirriemuir and characters they knew. Some of the content is quite prosaic and everyday – Barrie thanking Robb for Christmas and birthday presents, wishing him a Happy New Year and general pleasantries – but they do afford an insight into Barrie’s life at that time. 

An earlier, charming little note provides another fascinating insight into Barrie. We don’t know to whom this note was written but it apparently sees Barrie writing left-handed and purportedly from Peter Pan, granting the recipient the right to call their garden house ‘”Wendy House” as she has to do wot I tell her’. (We have another document in the collection with similar handwriting where Barrie states that he is writing left handed.)

A handwritten note from 1930, written in uneven handwriting.
A note written in Barrie’s left hand, 21 September 1930

Further documents allow us to see the contrast between James Barrie’s public and private life. In this letter to Robb, written in May 1932 shortly after Barrie’s 72nd birthday, he thanks him for his recent letter and birthday wishes and refers to a forthcoming Robb family wedding.

In the same letter Barrie refers to the fact that while the papers enquired about his own birthday, he had recently thrown a special party at his Adelphi Terrace flat to celebrate the 70th birthday of the statesman Lord Grey. This lunch was attended by various notables, including Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Lang. Churchill had proposed a toast to the health of Barrie. In his speech at the party, Barrie refers once again to his pet canary.

A newspaper cutting from The Times in 1932
Extract from The Times, May 1932

Photos and other images

As well as correspondence, there are many photos and postcards in the collection.   

A series of four silver prints mounted on board show the production of Peter Pan at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London in February 1905. This image shows Peter Pan in Napoleonic costume and the Lost Boys after the defeat of Captain Hook. This and the other photographs came from the studio of Alfred Ellis & Walery, who were established as pre-eminent theatrical photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, often photographing live performances. The Trust purchased these prints in 2004.

Black and white photo of a scene from Peter Pan being performed on stage in 1905
Silver print of the production of Peter Pan, Duke of York’s Theatre, 1905

Numerous photographs and postcards document the 1930 ceremonies in Kirriemuir where Barrie was given the Freedom of the town and the opening of the cricket pavilion.

Other items

Barrie continued his correspondence with James Robb until the mid-1930s.In 1935, while Barrie was in Italy, he heard that Robb had passed away. This telegram and subsequent letter to Mrs Robb expresses Barrie’s deep sympathy for the loss of his ‘oldest and dearest friend writing’ and that Robb was ‘the man for whom I cared most of all’.

We also have Barrie’s passport, which was issued in September 1934 and due to expire on 1 September 1939 (the day World War Two broke out). The passport describes Barrie’s profession as author, his height at 5’ 3½” (possibly an exaggeration!) and includes stamps on the last page which confirms Barrie’s trip to Italy in May 1935.

Programmes and posters 

Among the other documents in the collection are a series of theatre programmes for Barrie’s plays, dating from 1897 to the 2000s. This beautiful programme from 1905, from the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, highlights its production of The Admirable Crichton. Not only does it give details of the cast – including Gerald Du Maurier, son of George Du Maurier and sister of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies – it also affords us a fascinating insight into early 20th-century advertising. 

Conclusion

Our archive collection relating to J M Barrie is a small but significant assemblage of various documents from a range of sources. The mixture of letters, photos, postcards and other documents help to paint a fuller picture of Barrie’s life, offering some invaluable insights into his personality and character.

The collection of letters and newspapers bequeathed by James Robb’s daughter is of particular interest. From them we get a unique perspective of Barrie’s later years, where he often describes to Robb their shared memories of Kirriemuir (where Robb was still living in the 1930s) and of mutual acquaintances.

The content of these letters may appear to be quite humdrum – general small talk, birthday and Christmas wishes, gifts and photos sent, etc – but they show Barrie looking back on his life with one of his oldest and dearest friends. He particularly referenced the place where he was born and the wash-house to the rear of the property where he wrote and performed childhood plays with his school friends.

His affection for Kirriemuir shines through his letters, as well as his desire to not only accept the Freedom of the burgh but to help fund the cricket pavilion and perform the opening ceremony.

The number of newspapers and articles which feature Barrie highlight just how well-known he was in Britain in the first third of the 20th century, and his death and funeral were matters of national concern. It’s quite clear that interest in J M Barrie will continue for many years to come, not least in 2020, the 160th anniversary of the great man’s birth. 

Two newspaper cuttings relating to J M Barrie's funeral.
J M Barrie funeral notices, June 1937

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