Sir James Matthew Barrie Biography

Sir James Matthew Barrie, a Scottish novelist, is best known for creating the beloved character Peter Pan. Born into a family of weavers, Barrie was deeply affected by the death of his brother in childhood, finding solace in his close bond with his mother. He received his education at various academies before settling in London as a freelance playwright. Barrie’s first successful book, ‘Auld Licht Idylls’, was published in 1888. He married actress Mary Ansell in 1894, but their relationship ended in divorce in 1909. During his time in London, Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies boys, who would inspire his masterpiece, ‘Peter Pan’. After the boys’ mother passed away, Barrie adopted them as his own. Sir James Matthew Barrie passed away in 1937 at the age of 77.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Sir James Matthew Barrie, 1st Baronet
  • Died At Age: 77
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Mary Ansell (m. 1894)
    • Father: David Barrie
    • Mother: Margaret Ogilvy
  • Born Country: Scotland
  • Novelists
  • Playwrights
  • Died on: June 19, 1937
  • Place of Death: London, England
  • Cause of Death: Pneumonia
  • More Facts:
    • Education: University Of Edinburgh

Childhood & Early Life

Sir James Matthew Barrie was born on 9 May 1860, in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland, to Margaret Ogilvy and David Barrie. He was the ninth of ten children born to his parents. His elder brother David, who was his mother’s dearest son, died before his 14th birthday, leaving his mother devastated. Eventually, Barrie and his mother found comfort in each other and consoled themselves with stories of David’s brief life.

When he was eight, Barrie was sent to study at the Glasgow Academy under the watchful eyes of his siblings Mary and Alexander. Two years later, he returned home and attended the Forfar Academy. He again left home at the age of 14 to study at Dumfries Academy. During his time, Barrie became an avid reader and loved reading the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Michael Ballantyne. He eventually enrolled at the University of Edinburgh from where he graduated in April 1882 with an MA degree.


While at university, James Matthew Barrie wrote for the ‘Edinburgh Evening Courant.’ Following his graduation, he worked as a journalist with the ‘Nottingham Journal.’ He created content using his mother’s childhood stories and submitted them to a London newspaper called ‘St. James’s Gazette.’ These stories later served as the basis for his initial novels, namely ‘Auld Licht Idylls’, ‘A Window in Thrums’, and ‘The Little Minister’ which were published in 1888, 1890, and 1891, respectively. The novelist released his two “Tommy” novels titled ‘Sentimental Tommy’ and ‘Tommy and Grizel’ in 1896 and 1900, respectively.

Meanwhile, he got attracted to the theatre and started writing biographies, starting with that of Richard Savage which was critically panned. He followed this with ‘Ibsen’s Ghost,’ a parody of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘Hedda Gabler and Ghosts.’ Released in 1891, it remained unlicensed in the United Kingdom until 1914. His third play was ‘Walker, London’ that was published in 1892. He next came up with the opera ‘Jane Annie’ and the short story ‘A Lady’s Shoe’. Between 1901 and 1902, Barrie enjoyed back-to-back successes with ‘Quality Street’ and ‘The Admirable Crichton’. In 1902, the novelist also published ‘The Little White Bird’ in which he introduced his character Peter Pan. This was followed by ‘Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens’ which was published in 1906. He then had a long string of successes on the stage, including ‘The Twelve Pound Look,’ a story about a wife who leaves her ‘typical’ husband to work as an independent woman. In the ensuing years, he contributed to several plays, including ‘Half an Hour’, ‘Der Tag’, ‘Rosy Rapture’, ‘A Kiss for Cinderella’, ‘Shakespeare’s Legacy’, ‘Dear Brutus’, and ‘Mary Rose’, to name a few.

In April 1929, Barrie granted the copyright of his Peter Pan works to the children’s hospital Great Ormond Street Hospital. His last play was ‘The Boy David’. A biblical story of the young David and King Saul, it was released in 1936.

Marriage to Mary Ansell

In 1891, Sir James Matthew Barrie met actress Mary Ansell. The two became friends and eventually married on 9 July 1894. Their relationship was supposedly unconsummated and they had no children. Beginning in mid-1908, Ansell developed romantic feelings for novelist Gilbert Cannan who was twenty years her junior. After many attempts to keep his wife away from her beau, Barrie eventually filed for divorce. The divorce was finalized in October 1909. The novelist, however, continued to lend financial support to Ansell even after she married Cannan.

Relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family

James Matthew Barrie met Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the daughter of caricaturist cum writer George du Maurier in 1897. He had earlier met her sons George, Jack, and baby Peter during a walk in London’s Kensington Gardens. He became a regular visitor at their house after the death of Sylvia’s husband Arthur and developed a strong bond with Sylvia and her five sons, including Michael and Nicholas. It was during his story-time with the Llewelyn Davies boys that “Uncle Jim” aka Barrie developed the character of Peter Pan. Following Sylvia’s death in 1910, Barrie became one of the guardians of her boys. At that time, the novelist revealed that he and Sylvia had recently been engaged. He lost George in 1915 during World War I while Peter committed suicide after his brother’s death.

Social Connections

During his lifetime, James Barrie developed several important social connections. Some of the well-known personalities he was acquainted with were novelists George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson, S. R. Crockett, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Hardy. He was friends with explorers Joseph Thomson and Robert Falcon Scott. In 1891, he joined the Authors Cricket Club where he played for the team Authors XI alongside noted authors Arthur Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, and A. A. Milne. In 1917, he hired Cynthia Asquith, daughter-in-law of former British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, as his secretary. In the 1930s, Barrie told stories to the daughters of the Duke of York, Princess Margaret and the future Queen Elizabeth II.

Honours & Achievements

In 1913, King George V appointed James Matthew Barrie a baronet. He was later made a member of the Order of Merit. In 1919, he became the Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews and held the position for three years. From 1930 to 1937, he served as the Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. The novelist was the only individual to earn the Freedom of Kirriemuir on June 7, 1930, in a ceremony held at the Kirriemuir Town Hall.

Death & Legacy

On 19 June 1937, Barrie died of pneumonia in Marylebone, West London, England. He left the majority of his estate to his secretary Cynthia Asquith. The estate excluded the rights to his Peter Pan works whose copyright he had given to Great Ormond Street Hospital in 1929. The surviving Llewelyn Davies boys also received legacies. Barrie also made provisions for his ex-wife Mary Ansell who would receive an annuity for as long as she lived.

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