The Llewelyn Davies boys who just didn’t want to grow up inspired J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan

 
 

Undoubtedly, the story of Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, has become a classic tale and even after more than a century Peter Pan shows no signs of getting old. The story has become a quintessential part of popular culture, appearing on stage, television, and in the movies; 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” when he appeared for the first time in the chapter entitled Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Soon the story went on stage, and after its success, Barrie penned the full novel Peter and Wendy in 1911.

Sir James Barrie, around 1895

While we all love the story of Peter Pan, not many of us know what inspired Barrie to create this classic story. The author credited five boys with inspiring the tale: George, John (Jack), Peter, Michael, and Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies.

So the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the daughter of the writer and cartoonist George du Maurier and sister of actor Gerald du Maurier gave Barrie the idea for Peter Pan’s adventures.

Illustration of Peter Pan playing the pipes, with Neverland in the background, by F. D. Bedford, from the novel Peter and Wendy published in 1911.

Barrie became acquainted with the young 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 immediately caught his eye and charmed him, so he started seeing them almost every day and became a firm family friend. In fact, Barrie became so close with the Llewelyn Davies family that they vacationed together for years.

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

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

However, tragedy struck the Davis’ 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. Their mother also developed cancer and died just three years later at which point Barrie took primary responsibility for the children.

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

J.M. Barrie took this photo of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in 1898. She was the mother of the five boys who inspired Barrie to write his story about “Peter Pan.”

However, it seemed that the tragedies for the Llewelyn Davies family would never come to an end, as in 1915 another misfortune struck them. The oldest of the boys, 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.

One would think that things couldn’t have gotten any worse, but 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.”

J. M. Barrie, the boys’ foster father

John Llewelyn-Davies died in 1959, at the age of 65.  Peter Davis, who was plagued by his lifelong identification as ‘the real Peter Pan’ and the fact that everywhere he went he was referred to as Peter Pan, 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.

Read another story from us:  Alice Liddell: The girl who inspired the children’s classic “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

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.