For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Neverland and the whole Peter Pan mythology. The story was told to me by my mother when I was a young child. I was enthralled by the tales of ‘the boy who never grew up’, and I have remained so to this day.
But what you might not know is that there’s a true story to be told behind the story of Peter Pan, it’s author, J.M Barrie, and the five boys who helped inspire the character’s development. Particularly one boy, Michael Llewelyn-Davies, who was said to have been ‘uncle Jimmy’s (J.M. Barrie’s) favourite boy’, and the boy who inspired most of Peter’s later character development. The true story behind Peter Pan is a tragic one, and not just for Michael, but for all five boys, their parents, and even Barrie himself.
Much like the character they helped inspire, two of the Davies boys would never get the chance to grow up and have families of their own.
The character Peter Pan was first introduced to the world inside a book called Little White Bird, published in 1902. Pan was only featured in part of the book, and the chapters that he is in were later published separately under the title; Peter Pan In Kensington Gardens (1906).
But the world really came to know Peter Pan from the play, Peter Pan: The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. The play made its début in the Duke Of York’s Theatre, London,. On December the 27th 1904. It was extremely well received and would go on to see several revivals over the coming decades, as well as international adaptations, including Broadway, in 1905. The play would also come to inspire animated shows, musicals, books, and motion picture films, and would continue to do so for more than a century after its original showing.
The author’s own inspiration for creating Peter Pan came about when he met, and some say fell in love with, the Llewelyn-Davis family.
The boys were born and raised in the wealthy Paddington and Notting Hill areas of London. Their father, Arthur, was a barrister, and their mother Sylvia, the daughter of a successful cartoonist and writer. They lived a comfortable upper-class life in a household with servants, and they were one of the few families to actually have their own motor car, at the time.
In 1897, the two oldest boys, George and Jack (aged four and three) were befriended by the playwright and novelist, J.M Barrie, while out in the Kensington Gardens. The boys were accompanied by their nurse (Mary), and their newborn baby brother, Peter (who was later to lend his first name to the famous character). Barrie would entertain the two young boys with his playful antics, such as dancing with his dog, Porthos (a large Saint Bernard who, according to Barrie, ‘ has dreams of being a bear’). He further entertained them with stories (stories which over time developed further, and were to influence much of the Peter Pan mythology). Through time Barrie became a regular part of the boys’ lives, and whom they came to call ‘Uncle Jim’.
In the summer of 1900, the fourth son, Michael, was born, and not long after that, the last of the boys, Nico (Nicholas) was born (1903). In that time, Barrie had invented the character Peter Pan to entertain the oldest boy, George, and in 1902 it was featured in Barrie’s novel, The Little White Bird. But this Peter Pan shared little resemblance with the character that the world would eventually come to know. He was initially the villain of the story, stealing sleeping children from their beds. This was long before the days of the pirate Captain Hook and the Jolly Roger.
Much of the early development behind the character of Peter Pan was inspired by the three oldest Davies boys, George, Jack, and Peter. It was this character that would feature in the 1904 play. The play was so successful that Barrie was to eventually write a full-length novel featuring Peter Pan, called Peter & Wendy, published in 1911. Much of the character we know today, came from this particular novel.
Between the 1904 play and the 1911 novel, both the boys’ parents had lost their lives to cancer. Their father, Arthur, had lost a battle to bone cancer in his jaw, in 1907. Their mother, Sylvia, died from cancer in her chest, just three years later.
Losing both their parents at such a young age was obviously tough on all the boys, but perhaps none more so than on young Michael, who was described as ‘a sensitive soul’, and of being particularly close with his parents. He was just ten-years-old when his mother died, and it is believed that losing so much in such a short space of time, is what lead to him have terrible reoccurring nightmares, these nightmares were later to be incorporated into Pan’s character in Barrie’s 1911 novel. As well as the boy’s fear of water and many of the other character traits which are now associated with Peter Pan.
Barrie had originally intended to write a novel following the adventures of Peter Pan’s brother, ‘Michael Pan’, inspired by Michael Llewelyn-Davies, but he later decided against doing this and instead incorporated the new material based Michael’s character, into the 1911 Peter & Wendy Novel.
Barrie was to raise the boys on his own, after their mother’s unfortunate death. The author was considered extremely wealthy at this time. He was making over ten times what the current British Prime Minister was (which was pretty impressive considering he came from such a humble beginning). This fact as well as his obvious love for, and connection with the boys, made his placement as their guardian the right decision.
Barrie, still a child-like person himself in many ways, became particularly fond of Michael. He later referred to him as “The One” in letters he sent to Michael, who was attending boarding school in Eton at the time. It is believed the reason that Barrie had taken to Michael above all the other boys, was his vivid imagination. Michael lived the fantasy life more intensely than any of them. While his older brothers had all grown older and had long given up any belief in fairies, pirates, and in the far away world of Neverland, Michael’s imagination stood firm, much to the pleasure of Barrie, they had a strange and wonderful world they could both share together.
As the years went by, Michael and Barrie’s friendship continued to blossom. Barrie and the boys’ would go on annual trips, lasting months at a time, to Barrie’s native homeland, Scotland. They’d stay in cabins out on the great expanses of the Scottish Highlands, believed to be part of the inspiration behind Neverland. In particular Loch Tay. To which I can personally attest to, Loch Tay is about an hour’s drive south of where I live, it is quite a sight to behold.
It’ is quite easy to take a walk in the Scottish Highlands and believe that you’ve become lost in another world.
There were also rumours made by some people who knew him, that J.M Barrie was a pederast, with a physical attraction to the beauty that he saw in the boys, particularly Michael. This rumour is strengthened by the fact that Barrie took many photographs of the brothers, including holiday (vacation) photos of them skinny dipping. But this could just be passed off as an innocent sign of the times. When childhood nudity in certain settings was not so controversial. Other people who knew Barrie (including Nico), dismissed the claims of paedophilia, although some have acknowledged the unusual relationship he had with the boys. Perhaps he was attracted to their imagination, Michael’s more so than any of the others, since his was the most vivid of all.
In 1915, another tragedy struck the Llewelyn-Davies family. George the oldest of the five, and just 21 at the time, had gone off to fight in the first world war, and had served in the tranches, in Flanders. He was shot in the head and killed instantly. Two of the other Llewelyn-Davies boys’, John and Peter, also volunteered for service. But unlike their brother, George, they were not killed in action.
And just when things seemed like they couldn’t have gotten any worse for the remaining Llewelyn-Davies boys’, yet another tragedy struck. This time it would befall the boy who’d had the biggest impact of all creating Peter Pan’s character – Michael.
In 1921, Michael, aged just twenty, was studying in Oxford. He is said to have been a physically striking young man, and very popular, both among his peers and teachers. He was also said to have been involved a couple of homosexual relationships during his time away at school, and then later in college. Such relationships would have seen him sent to prison. Homosexuality was not decriminalized until 1967, in the UK. Almost half a century later.
It is perhaps for this reason that Michael Llewelyn-Davies and his lover, Rupert Buxton, decided to commit suicide together, in Sandford Pool, a body of water near Sandford Lock, along the River Thames, London. On the 19th of May, 1921.
Of course this is just speculation. The coroner’s inquest concluded the pair had ‘accidentally drowned’.
Given the fact that both of the boys were fairly high in public profile, wealthy, and that homosexuality was still viewed rather negatively at the time, it was highly unlikely that the report would have gone any other way. But given Michael’s previous homosexual relationships, and the reports that both he and Rupert were intimate lovers, that they had died while wrapped in each others’ arms, it is likely the death was indeed a suicide pact between the pair. A kind of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ ending for the two, 20th century, oppressed, gay lovers. They were coming to the end of their school years together at Oxford, and by the society of their time, would have been forced ever-further away from each other.
This also seemed to be confirmed later, with both Peter and Nico agreeing that their deaths were likely a suicide pact.
This tragedy completely destroyed Michael’s guardian, Barrie, who wrote later that same year; “Davies’ death was in a way the end of me.”
The author J.M Barrie passed away a little over a decade after Michael, at his home, in the June of 1937, to pneumonia, at the respectable age of 77.
The remaining Llewelyn-Davies boys, unlike their unfortunate brothers, managed to live to reach their middle-aged years, and beyond.
John Llewelyn-Davies, the second oldest of the boys, died in 1959, at the age of 65. I haven’t been able to find a cause of death for him (nor for Nico).
Peter later came to resent Barrie, and the relationship that Barrie had had with the Davies family, particularly with Michael. He is reported to have been jealous of Barrie and Michael’s close relationship, and had lost his temper and burned a lot of the surviving notes that were passed, between Barrie and Michael, upon discovering them. And although he respected the success of the play, he had grown to hate having his name attached to the character of a boy who ‘never grew up’. He was also furious that J.M. Barrie left the fortune he made from Peter Pan, to the Great Ormond Street Hospital (which still benefits from money made from all Peter Pan works).
On the 5th of April, 1960, Peter Davies, then 63, threw himself under a train as it was pulling into Sloan Square Station. He is said to have been of ill health, both mentally, and physically ( reports suggest he had emphysema), as well as being emotionally distraught with the knowledge that his wife and all three of his sons had inherited the (usually fatal) Huntington’s disease.
Nico (Nicholas), the youngest of the five brothers, lived to be the oldest of them. He passed away in 1980, at 77-years-old, after having lived a full life. Of the five (six if you include Barrie) he appears to have been the only one to have left behind children of his own to carry on the Llewelyn-Davies legacy. Although it is possible that John had children, or that Peter’s ill children survived. These are details I haven’t been able to find.
The story of the Llewelyn-Davies family, is one that I find both fascinating, and at the same time, saddening. This ‘essay’ really is just a brief summary of the whole story behind J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn-Davies family. There have been entire books written about their relationship. Some try to cast Barrie as a ‘dark and creepy’ man with a ‘disturbing interest’ in the Davies’ boys. Others write about him as an innocent, caring man who had an unusual (but not-so-creepy) fascination with the brothers. Maybe we’ll never really know which view best fits Barrie’s feelings towards the boys. Perhaps it’s much more nuanced than either side make out. I’ll leave that for you to draw your own conclusion.
There are biographies written on J.M. Barrie, whose life story extends far beyond just his relationship with the Davies family, which I’d recommend taking a look at for those who’re interested.
You have to wonder what Barrie and the boys would have made of the recent multi-million dollar Hollywood film adaptations, based on the stories that they first created together to entertain themselves, in Kensington Gardens, during the early 1900s.
I originally wrote this as an interest piece for myself. I hadn’t intended to share it with anyone else. If you’ve read this in full, I appreciate it and I thank you. I can only hope that I have sparked some interest in the subject for you, in the story behind the story, and that I have given you something to think about the next time you see a Peter Pan film, or hear about it referred to in some future conversation.