J.M Barrie

Sir James Matthew Barrie, the celebrated Scottish novelist and playwright, whose most famous creation is Peter Pan, came to live in Dumfries at the age of 13. He and his friends played in the riverside garden of Moat Brae House. Their favourite game was pirates and in later years he recalled that this happy time had inspired his play, "Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up".

the five years or so that I spent here were probably the happiest of my life …

James Matthew Barrie became a resident of Dumfries in 1873, at the age of 13. He left the family home in Kirriemuir and came to live with his eldest brother, Alexander, who was Inspector of Schools for Dumfriesshire. His sister Mary also lived with them and acted as Alexander's assistant and housekeeper.

This was not the first time that Barrie had lived away from home. At the age of nine he was sent to live with Alexander, who was then teaching in Glasgow, so that he could attend Glasgow Academy. The family valued education and it was for this reason that Barrie came to Dumfries, drawn by the reputation of Dumfries Academy.

Barrie's first home in Dumfries was in Irving Street, "from the windows he had a good view of the Cameronian Church". It was close to Dumfries Academy, and to Moat Brae House, the home of the first friend he made at his new school, Stuart Gordon.

The Barries moved to 6 Victoria Terrace in 1875. This was a move from the closely arranged streets of the Georgian part of the town to a spacious Victorian suburb. The house overlooked the railway station - a symbol of the modern age and Dumfries was by that time an important railway junction.

In the 1870s Dumfries had three newspapers, almost twenty schools including several boarding schools, a theatre, a museum and public lecture hall which regularly held audiences of over 1,000. The Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary was newly built and the Crichton Royal Institution had an international reputation for the treatment of psychiatric illness. There were sixteen churches, many of them also recently built and the majority diverging in thought from the established Church of Scotland. There was an atmosphere of prosperity, progress and inquiry about the town.

The five years Barrie was to spend in Dumfries contained not just the inspiration for Peter Pan in the gardens of Moat Brae House, but a more general creative awakening. At Dumfries Academy his interest in writing and drama were encouraged, and in the open spaces around the town he could skate, canoe, walk for miles and play football and cricket. He was later to claim that his time in Dumfries was the happiest of his life.

Barrie left Dumfries to study English Literature at Edinburgh University in 1878, at the age of eighteen. This was at least a year later than many of his school friends. He did not make it into the top rank academically, perhaps due to his extensive out of school activities, and he failed to obtain a scholarship. This was the means by which his brother, Alexander, had been the first in their family to go to University. Maybe Barrie's small size and physical immaturity lead his family to give him another year at school. Whatever the reason, he spent an extra year in Dumfries - making his happiest time last a little longer.

"The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I also must give up games, and how it was to be done I saw not, (this agony still returns to me in dreams, when I catch myself playing marbles, and look on with cold displeasure); I felt that I must continue playing in secret."

"I think the five years or so that I spent here were probably the happiest of my life, for indeed I have loved this place."

a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me …

Moat Brae House sits with its front facing the town centre, looking along Irving Street. It seems closely surrounded by the terraces of this Georgian part of town and its front steps rise straight from the pavement. But when Barrie knew it the gardens and woodland at the back covered almost 2 acres and ranged down to the River Nith. The house belonged to James Gordon, solicitor, Sheriff Clerk and a former Provost of the town. 

When he purchased the house in 1863 the sales description read, 

"The Property combines the advantages of a town and of a country residence, and for a gentleman wishing an elegant, substantial and beautifully situated residence, such an opportunity can rarely occur in the district." 

During his first years in Dumfries, especially when he was living in Irving Street, Barrie spent most of his out of school hours here, later he was to say, "I was more in that house than any other in Dumfries."

Here he played with Stuart and Hal Gordon the sons of its owner. Barrie had become friends with Stuart on his first day at Dumfries Academy when they discovered that they shared a love of lurid boy's adventure stories. Their boyhood games of pirates, ship wrecked sailors and Red Indians echo throughout Peter Pan.

"When I came to the Academy I meant to work hard, I know, for several days - and I probably would have worked hard and become a shining light if it had not been for another boy who led me astray. It was Stuart Gordon. But that wasn't the name he was known by at school. He came up and asked me my name. I told him. It didn't seem to please him. He said, 'I'll call you Sixteen String Jack.' I asked his name, and he said it was Dare Devil Dick. He asked me if I would join. I joined the pirate crew - and that was fatal to my prize-taking."

" … when the shades of night began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles, crept up walls and down trees, and became pirates in a sort of Odyssey that was long afterwards to become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work."

"We lived in the tree-tops, on coconuts attached thereto, and that were in a bad condition; we were buccaneers and I kept the log-book of our depredations, an eerie journal, without a triangle in it to mar the beauty of its page. That log-book I trust is no longer extant, though I should like one last look at it, to see if Captain Hook is in it …"

I put the literary calling to bed for a time having gone to a school where cricket and football were more esteemed …

Barrie's family arranged for him to attend Dumfries Academy because of the reputation of the school as "famous, useful and flourishing". The Academy building sat on a rise, facing Irving Street. It had been built in 1802 and by the time Barrie was a pupil there it was overcrowded and a bit dilapidated. It was rebuilt in the 1890s and Barrie's reaction to the new school was this,

"I do want to congratulate you on this grand new school. It makes the one I attended a very one-horse show."

It was surrounded by large open grounds and encouraged sports and games at playtimes. Years later Barrie wrote nostalgically of the many exciting games of "Stalkey" he and his schoolmates enjoyed in the Dumfries Academy playground. It taught both boys and girls and unusually for the time they shared both the classrooms and the playground.

Up until 1872 it had belonged to the Town Council, who appointed its teachers and managed its affairs. The Council paid salaries to the staff, but the teachers charged fees for each pupil as well and these were paid by their families.

But in 1872 a national Education Act came into force and the school passed into the management of an elected School Board. At the same time a new Rector or head teacher was appointed. This was Dr James Cranstoun, who would take the school through the changes required by the Education Act and increase its academic reputation. Barrie joined the school at this turning point in its history.

Barrie did fairly well at school, without distinguishing himself. In particular he won prizes for essay writing during his last three years in the school. Whilst keeping up with his school work, Barrie enjoyed many activities at Dumfries Academy - meetings of the debating society, monthly readings and recitations, where he performed "The Stuttering Minister's Speech" - and best of all sports.

Though he was always small for his age, Barrie was good at sport, and he played in the school's football and cricket teams. After matches against other schools, the boys drank each other's health in "treacle beer". He admitted that he would often skip school during the "cricket and football and skating seasons". This would seem to cover most of the school year!

At the end of his school career, Barrie was awarded an Armstrong Bursary of £15 to assist him in his first year at university. These bursaries were distributed to pupils intending to continue their studies at either Glasgow or Edinburgh University. They were rewards for "steady attendance, general scholarship and good conduct". He came second.

"I did get two or three prizes at the Academy - and I always knew that I could get the second prize without working much, but that I could never get the first, however hard I worked."

"I remember one prize I got which had rather disastrous results. It was awarded by the girls of the school by plebiscite, to the boy who had the sweetest smile in school. The tragic thing was that my smile disappeared that day and has never been seen since."

"I have sought the company of schoolmasters in England because I find them often to be the pick of men, but if this were their prize-getting day and I had the distribution of the honours, I know whom I should begin with - 'First Prize, John Neilson.' I wish I had said that to him long ago in my Academy days:"

"I remember during the cricket and football and skating season, some of - the bigger boys - had to absent ourselves on private business, but the masters treated us with no delicacy in those days. They would insist in knowing where we had been."

"We used to write to every boy, to every man who had been a boy at Dumfries Academy, who had a cousin who had been at Dumfries Academy - who had been at the Station - or anything like that, to give a subscription to our cricket and football clubs. It seems to me that's about the most vivid recollection I have. We used always to be writing for subscriptions to cricket and football clubs. "

when you and I were young they were our partners in the ball …

The countryside around Dumfries gave Barrie plenty of opportunity to have adventures. Perhaps, living with a bachelor brother, he had more freedom than he would have had at home in Kirriemuir. In "The Greenwood Hat", the closest he comes to autobiography in his writing, he says, "We had a good deal of skating in the winter…". It is remarkable that skating was a favourite activity, as his elder brother, David had drowned whilst skating when Barrie was seven, an event which was to shape his childhood and be carried into his adult life.

He walked for miles on the country roads around the town. He recalls walking to local landmarks with his brother, Alexander. Later with school friends, the distances covered seem to be the objective rather than any destination. One morning he walked 24 miles, and then played football for the school in the afternoon.

The town also offered entertainment. Circuses and menageries made regular visits. The annual Rood Fair filled the High Street with stalls and travelling musicians and the Whitesands with "steam propelled merry-go-rounds, shuggy-shoes, shooting galleries and machines for testing the strength of a person's nerve, muscles, etc."

"The country round Dumfries! It is lovely. Criffel, the Nith frozen, the Nith released, Torthorwald, Caerlaverock, Lincluden, the Solway, the very names of them are music to Scottish ears; when you and I were young they were our partners in the ball. "

"We must always have something in common that others cannot share if we have sat out a dance with the Cluden. She was my favourite partner of all, and sometimes she sang to me and sometimes I had a book with me to improve her mind."

"I wooed her in a canoe, but she was a capricious mistress and often went off with the canoe, leaving me with the water. The next time one of you goes in pursuit of her - in a canoe - I wish you would give her my love and say that I never think of her without feeling wet."

Carlyle in cloak, sombrero and staff, mooning along our country roads…

Barrie's boyhood hero, Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan in 1795. His father was a stonemason by trade. He was educated at Annan Academy and when he was not yet 15 years old, he went to Edinburgh University - walking all the way. He studied to become a Church of Scotland minister but abandoned the idea and instead became a maths master at his old school in Annan.

He married Jane Welsh and from 1828 to 1833 they lived at Craigenputtock near Dunscore. In this lonely farmhouse Carlyle wrote "Sartor Resartus". With the manuscript of his book he sailed from Glencaple (the railway had not yet reached Dumfries) en route to London. "Sartor Resartus" brought financial success and helped to establish him as one of the most famous writers of the 19th Century.

Carlyle's London home was at No 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea. In 1837 he published his "History of the French Revolution". His other works include "Heroes and Hero Worship", "Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell", "Frederick the Great and Past and Present". He became known as the "Sage of Chelsea" - the most influential and original thinker of Victorian Britain.

Despite this rise to fame and a busy literary life, Carlyle remained close to his family and often returned to Dumfriesshire. Barrie encountered Carlyle in the 1870s when he was visiting his sister, Jean Aitkin and his brother, Dr John Carlyle. They lived at The Hill on St Mary's Street, close to Barrie's home at Victoria Terrace. (Carlyle is said to have complained about the noise from the near by railway station during these visits.) By this time he was almost 80 years old and a living legend - as famous for who he was as for his work.

Carlyle was a hero to Barrie, but a more immediate one was the school friend in whose company he often stalked the great man. This was James McMillan, "the caretaker's boy", a brilliant scholar who took all the prizes at Dumfries Academy and went on to a distinguished career at Glasgow and then Oxford Universities. Tragically he died in 1893, aged just 33.

McMillan was not a sportsman like Barrie, nor did he engage in Barrie's schoolboy attempts at journalism or drama. Nevertheless it is clear that McMillan's friendship was greatly valued, especially in his last years at school. Barrie says of him, "I never admired any boy so much as McMillan."

Walking in the country around Dumfries, one of their favourite places was Torthorwald Castle, "a spot heavy with romance", where they hid a "time capsule" in the ruin. It contained a message to their future selves, written in code, which they intended to return and read again when they were grown up. Barrie recounts how he did return later in life to read it again. Then, as far as we know, he replaced it in its hiding place.

"In our Scottish home the name that bulked largest next to Burns was Carlyle. … indeed he was the only writer I ever tried to imitate."

"When I was at school in Dumfries I often saw Carlyle in cloak, sombrero and staff, mooning along our country roads, a tortured mind painfully alone even to the eyes of a boy."

"I often passed him on my way to school. McMillan and I used to saunter up and down on the other side, lifting our hats every time he looked our way."

"I always took off my cap to him. I daresay I paid this homage fifty times, but never was there any response. He may have thought me one of the tribe who tried to get a word from him for storage by asking, for instance, if this was the road to Lochmaben, when he would undo them by pointing out the way with his staff and silently wander on."

"I used to come to the prize distribution to help another boy to take his home. My last day at Dumfries Academy I was with him all day - James M'Millan. He was a brilliant scholar, and had also a most original mind; and he would have done something if he had had half a chance."

"He was the greatest boy that ever sat on the forms of the old Dumfries Academy. The other boys felt that there was something winged about him, just as I did. What was it about James M'Millan that has stayed with me for so many years, and can still touch me to the quick? I felt, when we were boys, that he was - a Presence, and I feel it still."

"One day we wrote something about ourselves in cryptogram and hid it in a crevice in the ruin, agreeing to have another look for it when we were men. So when I was a man I dug for it and found it, having then quite forgotten what it said."

the theatre in Dumfries was the first I ever entered; so it was the one I liked best …

At school Barrie became close friends with Wellwood Anderson. This was a friendship which was to continue throughout their lives. It is clear that Barrie felt a great affection for "Wedd" and that Anderson was a considerable influence on the young Barrie. Anderson was the son of the owner of a bookshop and library and as Barrie loved books, this connection must have delighted him; it meant that he was able to browse in the shop for as long as he wanted to.

The earliest work by Barrie which survives today was written for a school magazine founded by Wellwood Anderson in May, 1875. It was a manuscript magazine, intended to circulate from hand to hand, and was called The Clown. It consisted of four numbers. Barrie contributed four articles headed - "Rekollekshuns of a Skoolmaster: by James Barrie, Esq. MA, ASS, LLD, Etc.", written in intentionally bad grammar and worse spelling.

In 1876 the Theatre Royal was re-constructed by the well-known theatre architect, C J Phipps. It re-opened under the management of the popular actor, Mr J H Clynds. The theatre had its own company of actors who performed a wide ranging and frequently changing programme of plays. As well as this, famous touring companies and guest stars would come to the Theatre Royal. Barrie and Anderson made a point of being present at each new production.

In 1877 Barrie was thrilled to be allowed to go behind the scenes. The star of the evening's pantomime was such a favourite that the theatre could not contain all her admirers. By the time Barrie arrived no seat was available - not even standing room. It was suggested that a few more patrons might gain admission, provided they did not mind sitting in the wings. So Barrie got a place backstage, close to the actors as they came and went on stage.

The two friends were particularly impressed by the performances of a visiting comic actor, J L Toole. Barrie writes, without irony, "a great actor visited the town". It was Toole's work which gave them the enthusiasm to form their own drama club and which inspired Barrie to write his first play. Twenty years later J L Toole starred in Barrie's plays in the top London theatres.

"I got the best of my love scenes out of the novels by sparkling ladies which I read with my eyes standing out of my head in Mr Anderson's library."

"I was then- it is now revealed for the first time - I was then writing my first novel. It was a very cynical work, entitled "A Child of Nature". It was a tale of Dumfries, and practically an exposure of the ladies therein. A few years ago I came upon the manuscript, and, you will be relieved to hear, gently tore it up - just in case it should fall into the wrong hands, you know."

"The theatre I rashly call the smallest was in Dumfries and was the first I ever entered; so it was the one I liked best."

"It is a pretty little building, quite complete, but so tiny that you smile to it as to a child when you go in … "

"I entered many times in my schooldays, and always tried to get the end seat in the front row of the pit, which was also the front row of the house, as there were no stalls. I sat there to get rid of stage illusion and watch what the performers were doing in the wings."

"…but on it that year descended a famous actor and manager who kept it open triumphantly for a whole winter. His name was J H Clynes. … Mr Clynes was my first Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and many others, though he did sometimes play two and more of them in a night …"

"It was in those schoolboy days that I had an experience not always vouchsafed to greater mortals - I went "behind the scenes"' That boy must have had the luck to arrive late, not only his corner seat was gone, but every seat and even standing room, and a score or more would-be patrons left out in the cold. In the astonishing circumstances we were asked if we wouldn't mind coming behind the scenes and making ourselves as small as possible. "If we wouldn't mind!" I hugged to myself the extraordinary graciousness of the phrase, as well as other events of that Arabian evening…"

a staggering work entitled Bandelero the Bandit …

Wellwood Anderson left school in 1875 and spent the next year in Edinburgh where he saw all the latest productions in the city theatres. He returned to Dumfries in September 1876, full of dramatic ideas. With Barrie, he started the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club. Barrie was the secretary; Anderson, the stage manager. Performances were based on cribbed versions of popular plays which Anderson had written out from memory after seeing them in the theatre.

The first performance of the Dumfries Amateur Dramatic Club was given in the English Room of Dumfries Academy in January, 1877. It was a triple bill. In the comedy drama, Off the Line, Barrie played Harry Coke, the engine driver, a part made famous by his hero, J L Toole.

Off the Line was followed by what the local newspaper termed, "a little sensational drama in six tableaux", entitled Bandelero the Bandit, written by Barrie himself. It was an adventure story with the author in the part of Smike, a combination of his favourite characters in fiction.

The newspaper's verdict on "Bandelero the Bandit" was not favourable, "it did not pass off quite as well as the others being too formal and unexciting." This first performance concluded with a version of another famous Toole comedy, "Paul Pry" in which Barrie played the female role of Phoebe. The evening's entertainment was a success and the Club was invited to repeat the performance at the Crichton Royal Institution a few weeks later.

The script of "Bandelero the Bandit" has not survived, but the newspaper report gives us this description of it, "Two awful villains, Gamp and Benshaw, were characters in Barrie's play. They were no worse, and no better, than the average stage villains of the "penny plain and tuppence coloured" variety and were probably based on Deadwood Dick, Spring-Heeled Jack, a Fennimore Cooper pirate, or the cruel robbers of the Babes on the Wood". This sums up Barrie's literary influences at the time, some of which he returned to in his writing of Peter Pan.

A local clergyman, and a member of the School Board, Rev D L Scott raised a considerable objection to the activities of the Dramatic Club. This caused quite a scandal in the town and the story was taken up by the national newspapers. The Rector of the Academy, Dr Cranstoun, defended the Dramatic Club and obtained the support of influential people in the district, including the Duke of Buccleuch and the local MP, Ernest Noel. The boys themselves also wrote to several top actors of the day, including Sir Henry Irving, who offered their encouragement.

Professor John Stuart Blackie of Edinburgh University took the opportunity of a lecture he was giving at the Mechanics Institute to challenge the Rev Scott to a straight fight over the matter and later wrote to Wellwood Anderson, "If my name can be of the slightest service to you in presenting a fair front against the windy puffets of a certain class of pulpit bigots, you are free to use it."

The Dramatic Club's second season in March 1878 was staged in the Assembly Rooms, a more spacious venue than the Academy, and was again a popular success. It comprised the one-act farce, "Awkwardly Alike or Which is Browne?"; a one-act comedy, "The Weavers" in which Barrie played the part of a young lady, Adele; and a comedy in three acts entitled, "The Shufflerigg Party". In "The Shufflerigg Party", Barrie appeared as Mr Heavycloud Weatherdull, a part intended to caricature the Dramatic Club's clerical critic.

"My first play was very properly written for the Dumfries Academy Dramatic Society, on whose boards I also made my only appearance as an actor."

"…as a young lady with her hair attached to her hat … I may perhaps be allowed to tell you without unpardonable elation - so many years having elapsed - that at one of our performances at the Crichton a male member of the audience asked for an introduction."

"The next time I saw that play was in London, with Miss Irene Vanbrugh in my part. You may guess I was critical, and she was nervous. I told her I thought her good, but that she was lacking in some of my womanly touches."

"It was in order to escape from feminine rôles that I wrote for the Academy my first play, a staggering work entitled "Bandelero the Bandit". I was not Bandelero. I nobly gave up that to Tom Newbigging, because I thought one of the other parts was better. It was the part of all my favourite characters in fiction rolled into one, so that I had to be constantly changing my clothes, with the result that I was scarcely ever on the stage."

a few of the walnuts Dumfries has given me, whose taste is still sweet on the tongue …

Barrie returned to Dumfries in 1893 at the age of 30. Already well established in his career as a journalist and novelist, he had been invited as a successful former pupil to present the prizes at the end of the school year. The speech he gave that day is full of memories of his time as a pupil in the school.

In 1924, aged 64, he came to Dumfries to be presented with the Freedom of the Burgh. He made two speeches that day, a formal acceptance speech before an audience of over 2,000 in the Lyceum Theatre and an after dinner speech at a gathering of his friends in the evening. Both these speeches are a rich source of reminiscences about his time in Dumfries.

He was a shy man and generally avoided appearing in public, so the national media descended on the town, attracted by the opportunity to see and hear him. It was in the speech he gave during the freedom ceremony that he explained how Peter Pan had first come to life in a Dumfries garden. The press were delighted with this story and from then on Dumfries became known as the birthplace of Peter Pan.

During this stay in Dumfries, Barrie again visited his old school, Dumfries Academy, where he watched a play put on by the younger pupils. This was "The Duke of Christmas Daisies", which is based on characters and events in his novel, "The Little White Bird". This is the work in which Peter Pan first makes an appearance in print.

"Another thing that makes me feel like a boy again is this. Since I came into the room I saw a lady who used to be a girl at school with me."

"I am reminded today of a Spanish proverb: God gives us walnuts when we have no teeth to crack them. Instead of a set speech, let me tell you of a few of the walnuts Dumfries has given me, whose taste is still sweet on the tongue."

I could forgive him everything - save his youth…

The themes of Peter Pan developed gradually in Barrie's writing. Privately in his notebooks, as a way of understanding himself, then in "The Boy Castaways" which was written and printed specially for the boys of the Llewelyn Davies family in 1901.

In "The Little White Bird", a novel for adult readers published in 1902, Peter Pan arrives in a publicly available work for the first time. This novel tells of how Captain W - , a confirmed bachelor, befriends a small boy in Kensington Gardens and describes the imaginary world they construct together.

Barrie's publisher extracted the Peter Pan chapters from this book and published them along with illustrations by the famed book illustrator, Arthur Rackham, as "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens" in 1906.

In the meantime Barrie had written "Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up", as a stage play, full of theatrical spectacle and intended for an audience of children. On 27 December 1904, the first production of "Peter Pan" was staged in London.

The play was produced year on year following its initial success and Barrie constantly revised the script. It was not until 1928 that it was finally published.

The demand for a children's story book based on the play led to Barrie giving his blessing to "The Peter Pan Picture Book" which was published with 28 inspired illustrations by Alice Woodward, and a text adapted from the play by Daniel O'Connor, in 1907.

Barrie then took up this challenge himself and in 1911 he published "Peter and Wendy", a much more sophisticated version of the story than O'Connor's simple abridgement.

Barrie had no family of his own, but the children he knew became part the Peter Pan story. The character of Peter developed out of games and stories devised with the Llewelyn Davies boys, George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico. In his dedication "To the Five" in the first published edition of the play, Barrie says, "What I want to do first is to give Peter to the Five without whom he would never have existed."

Barrie first met the family while walking with his St Bernard dog in Kensington Gardens. He was a close friend as the boys were growing up. Their parents died while the boys were still young and Barrie then adopted them. The original Wendy was Margaret Henley, the daughter of a friend. She called Barrie "my friendy", but because she couldn't pronounce her "r's" this became "wendy", and so the name was invented.

In 1929 Barrie presented all his rights to "Peter Pan" to Great Ormond Street Hospital, a children's hospital in London. Every time the play is performed, or an edition of the book is published, the hospital receives a payment.

"The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I also must give up games, and how it was to be done I saw not … I felt that I must continue playing in secret."

"A large number of children whom I have seen playing Peter in their homes with careless mastership, constantly putting in better words, could have thrown it off with ease."

"On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more."

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