A Legend is Born
When J.M. Barrie created the enchanted world of Peter Pan, he touched the lives of millions of children. His own life was marked by extraordinary achievement, but also by terrible tragedy.
“Certainly Peter Pan is the only children’s play that is also a great work of literature…“
Peter Pan the First Fifty Years Roger Lancelyn Green, published 1954
The Dumfries Years 1873 – 1878
“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” J.M. Barrie
From the ages of 13 -18, James Matthew Barrie played wild and adventurous pirate games with his friends in the ‘enchanted land’ surrounding the grand Georgian house at Moat Brae.
These games were long after to provide the inspiration behind ‘that nefarious work’ – Peter Pan. The unique environment and the experiences he had here in Dumfries at that time would strongly influence Barrie’s astonishingly successful writing career.
J.M. Barrie moved to Dumfries in 1873 from Kirriemuir, in Angus, where he had grown up as one of ten children in a weaving family. He stayed with his older brother Alexander, a schools inspector, and attended Dumfries Academy where he became involved in the newly formed Dramatic Club as well as writing for the school magazine.
It was in the wings of the Theatre Royal in Dumfries and the reading rooms of Anderson’s Library and Book Shop that Barrie developed his love of theatre and satisfied his voracious appetite for literature. His first play, written and performed when he was 17, was called Bandelero the Bandit and his first work of fiction was a ‘log book’ of the games he played in the ‘enchanted land’ at Moat Brae.
Six years previously, his brother David had died tragically at the age of fourteen after a ice skating accident. This had a profound and devastating effect upon his mother who remained in Kirriemuir. James tried very hard to replace his brother in his mother’s affection. She believed that through his premature death David would always remain a boy.
The Pirate Crew
J.M. Barrie’s first friends at the Academy were Stuart and Hal Gordon, son of James Gordon who owned Moat Brae.
“ When I came to the Academy I intended to work hard…and I would have probably worked hard …had it 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 to me and asked my name. I told him. That 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 his pirate crew. I did. That was fatal to my prize giving.”
Moat Brae – Enchanted Land
J.M. Barrie spent many hours playing fantastic games in the gardens at Moat Brae which he recorded in a ‘Log Book’, he probaby sailed with his friends up the River Nith where they often visited the Gordon brothers’ grandfather’s house.
“When shades of light began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and crept up trees and down walls in an odyssey which would long after 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.”
He claimed the ‘Log Book’ had been lost, but admitted he would have relished the opportunity to read the journal again to check if his timeless character, Captain Hood, had made an appearance at this early stage.
“We had a sufficiently mysterious cave, that had not been a cave until we named it… Here, too, we had a fire, lit as Jack to contrived to light his [ref Coral Island], by rubbing two sticks together. So we said (even in the Log-Book, I daresay); but, of course, this fire came by more plebeian means, and never in our hearts did we believe in the efficacy of the sticks. No boy, so far as I knew, did.” .
“The Academy bell is not my pet antipathy. I look back upon it with very pleasant feelings, and sad ones too.”
JM Barrie was a fairly good student, but as his report stated “he did not distinguish himself.” He won prizes for essays written in his last years at school, however it was the school’s extra curricular activities that he really enjoyed – drama, debating and, above all, sports. His school friends and teachers nurtured Barrie’s imagination and his love of theatre, encouraging him to pursue his writing ambitions.
Barrie was not keen on mathematics but when looking back on his days at the Academy he had nothing but respect and admiration for Mr John Neilson, his mathematics teacher. Interestingly, Barrie hinted in a speech in 1924 that Captain Hook could have been ‘drawn from’ Mr Neilson.
“…in our most impressionable years he set us an example of conduct and character that kept a guiding hand on our shoulders when we went into the world”
“I have sought the company of schoolmasters in England because I find them the pick of men, but if this were their prize-getting day and I had the distribution of the honours, I know who I should begin with. “First prize, John Neilson.” I wish I had said that to him long ago in my Academy days”
Barrie was an active member of the Dumfries Academy football and cricket teams and spent many hours writing to local businesses and alumni of the school requesting them to support the teams. However, surprisingly, his favourite sport was skating on ice, despite his older brother David being involved in a fatal skating accident days before his 14th birthday and his grieving mother only finding comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her.
As a celebrated writer, Barrie later went on to create on of the most unlikely cricket teams – the ‘Alahkbarries’ which included amongst its players at various times: H.G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jerome K Jerome, G.K. Chesterton, A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse. You can find out more about the cricket team here
Barrie had two great “heroes” whilst at Dumfries Academy. One was Thomas Carlyle who Barrie first met in the late 1870’s. Barrie wrote:
“ In our home the name that bulked largest next to Burns was Carlyle … indeed he was the only writer that I ever tried to imitate.”
The other was RM Ballantyne:
“… The Coral Island. It egged me on, not merely to being wrecked every Saturday for many months in a long-suffering garden, but to my first work of fiction, a record of our adventures, the “Log-Book.”
from the preface written by JM Barrie to The Coral Island, Ballantyne, RM, London, James Nisbet & Co, 1913
Like most boys of his age, Barrie was fascinated by codes and secret messages. He often referred to his friends using anagrams of their names and, together with a boy called James McMillan he hid messages to his future self in a coded language somewhere in the ruins of Torthorwald Castle. Barrie revisted the castle in the 1920’s and managed to retrieve the messages, but later reburied them at the same spot. They are probably still there today!
Books, Writing and the Dramatic Club
One of the greatest influences on the young J.M. Barrie was another Dumfries Academy pupil – Wellward Anderson “Wedd” as Barrie called him (also ‘Dew Darneson’). Wellward shared Barrie’s passions for literature and theatre and was the son of the owner of Anderson’s Bookshop and nephew of the great sea Captain Sir James Anderson who laid the first cable across the Atlantic Ocean. It was in the school magazine ‘The Clown’, founded by Anderson that Barrie wrote his first “published piece”- “Rekollekshuns of a Skoolmaster”.
The boys also ran the Academy’s Dramatic Club which included in its first production a performance of Barrie’s first play, written when he was 15, Bandelero the Bandit. The original manuscript is in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University Library here
Theatre Royal, Dumfries
It was in the wings of the Theatre Royal in Dumfries that Barrie developed his love of theatre.
“it was the first [theatre] I ever entered; so it was the one I liked best.”
Inspired by seeing the work of comic actor J.L. Toole, Barrie and Anderson went on to establish Dumfries Academy Drama Club.
Barrie’s first written play Play was not received favourably. Barrie’s first review stated: “ Two awful villains, Gamp and Benshaw were characters in Barrie’s play. They were no worse, and no better than that average stage villains of the penny plain and tuppence”
Note: J.L. Toole later starred in the lead role in Barrie’s plays in the West end of London
Dumfries Academy Drama Club Started in 1876 Barrie was Secretary and Anderson the Stage Manager First performance was in the English Room in January 1877. It was a triple bill – comedy drama “Off the Line” Barrie played Harry Coke the engine driver.
The original handwritten manuscript and notebook containing the script and press clippings relating to the public performance of JM Barrie’s first play is in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University Library here.
Dumfries Academy school board member the Rev. D.L. Scott raised objections to the activities of the Drama Club Rector Dr Cranstoun defended it Other key supporters included:
The 7th Duke of Buccleuch and Ernest Noel MP.
Professor John Stuart Blackley challenged Rev. Scott to a fight and wrote that
“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.”
Dumfries Academy Drama Club’s 2nd season opened with “Awkwardly Alike or Which is Browne” – a 1 act comedy Opened in March 1878 at Dumfries Assembly rooms Barrie played the part of a young lady called Adele
Barrie left school in summer 1878 – he gained an Armstrong Bursary which gave him £15 to assist him in his first year at university.
In 1893 Barrie returned to Dumfries Academy to present prize giving, aged 30 he was by now a famous journalist and writer.
The lost smile
“I did get 2 or 3 prizes at the Academy, but never the 1st. I remember one prize I got…It was awarded by the girls in a vote and given to the boy with the sweetest smile in the school. The tragic thing is that my smile disappeared that day and has never been seen since.”
Freedom of Dumfries
On 11th December 1924 Barrie returned to Dumfries Academy for the final time. He watched a play put on by pupils “ the Duke of Christmas Daisies” Famously he stated about Dumfries: “ I am reminded of the Spanish proverb: God gives us walnuts when we have no teeth to crack them…let me tell you of a few of the walnuts Dumfries has given me, whose taste is still sweet on the tongue.”
We give grateful acknowledgement to William McGair, Principal Teacher of Social Studies at the Academy for producing an historic account of J. M. Barrie’s time here.
The Dumfries Museum collection of Barrie artefacts can be viewed here.
Images courtesy of Dumfries Academy and Dumfries Museum and Archives.