J.M. Barrie's Selfless Act and the Tragic Story of the Five Boys Who Inspired Him to Write 'Peter Pan'

By | June 21, 2017

The story of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, has become a quintessential part of popular culture; it is an enduring element of every childhood.

Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie came up with the character of Peter Pan for his 1902 novel “The Little White Bird.” Soon the story went on stage, and after its success, Barrie penned the full novel Peter and Wendy in 1911.

While we all love the adventures of Peter Pan, not many of us know the inspiration behind this classic tale. Barrie credited five boys with inspiring the story: George, John (Jack), Peter, Michael, and Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies, the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies.

Barrie became acquainted with the boys in 1897 when he stumbled upon young George, aged 5 and Jack, aged four accompanied by their nurse and their newborn baby brother, Peter while walking in London’s Kensington Gardens. The boys charmed him, so he started seeing them almost every day and became a close family friend. In fact, Barrie became so close with the Llewelyn Davies family that they vacationed together for years.

Sir James Barrie, around 1895

The kids loved uncle Jim who knew how to entertain them with stories. It is said that Barrie entertained the oldest among the boys, George, with the character he had invented named Peter Pan.

However, tragedy struck the Davies’ in 1907 when their father died of bone cancer. Barrie, who was a close companion of Sylvia, provided financial support for the family and became a guardian of the boys. Just three years later, Mrs. Barrie also developed cancer and passed away, at which point Barrie took primary responsibility for the children.

The Davies boys: Nico (in father Arthur’s arms), Jack, Peter, George, Michael (in front)

Barrie, who was considered extremely wealthy at this time provided housing, education, and financial support for the Davis boys until they were independent.

However, in 1915 another misfortune struck the Llewellyn Davies boys. The eldest, George, was 21-years-old when he volunteered to serve as an officer in the British Army during World War I and was killed in action.

J. M. Barrie, the boys’ foster father

Just when everyone thinks things couldn’t have gotten any worse, sadly, tragedy struck again. Michael, who is considered to have been the biggest influence in the creation of Peter Pan’s character, drowned along with a close friend, possibly his lover, at Oxford University in 1921. Barrie was deeply affected by the event and wrote that Michael’s death “was in a way the end of me.”

John Llewelyn-Davies died in 1959, at the age of 65. Peter Davis, committed suicide by throwing himself under a Tube train in 1960. The youngest of the Davis’ brothers, Nico, lived to be the oldest of them, and died in 1980, at the age of 77.

J.M. Barrie passed away of pneumonia on 19 June 1937, at the age of 77. He left the copyright of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital and throughout the years that followed many children benefited from Barrie’s fine gesture.