Peter Pan – The lost boy who never grew up!
Posted on October 8th, 2015
By the end of this coming weekend most cinemas across the land will be showing Hugh Jackman’s latest film, ‘Pan’. It isn’t too surprising to many that Peter Pan has lasted for more than 100 years. Like so many films in recent years, from various other franchises, this latest film is described as a prequel, as it seeks to explore and portray the life that Peter had lived already before he knocked on the window of the Darling nursery window. And of course, as such an imaginary piece of work, the film is able to use all of today’s most modern and thrilling filming devices. Thus, from the trailers that I have sneaked a look at, I can see that Blackbeard’s ship flies through space, a bit like the USS Enterprise, whilst the young Captain Hook (before he lost one of his hand’s) reminds one powerfully of Harrison Ford’s ‘Indianna Jones’. No doubt before the weekend is over whole new quivers will be full of both adoring fans and those who are critical of all the changes and devices used to make a film that is going to be a rollercoaster of a ride.
I hope that, through whichever medium you were first introduced to Peter Pan – play, book or film – you will all know that the original work was written by the Scottish author James Matthew Barrie ; portrayed as the central character of the film ‘Finding Neverland’ by Johnny Depp! J M Barrie – as he is more commonly known – first wrote of Peter Pan in 1902, when he turned up in an adult novel entitled ‘The Little White Bird’. Two years later, in 1904, Peter became the central character in Barrie’s play, ‘The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up’.
Finally, in 1911 and following upon the huge success of the play, Barrie published the children’s book ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’. Such was the continuing success of that book that, in 1929, Barrie gave the copyright of all Peter Pan works to the benefit of a local hospital for sick children, now known throughout the world as Great Ormond Street Hospital.
But, despite my somewhat geekish penchant for turning every topic into something to do with my favourite subject, what on earth has all of this to do with the Great War, I can hear you ask? The answer, of course, lies with the ‘boy’ who provided the original template for Barrie’s most enduring character, Peter Pan.
Having moved from Scotland to London to pursue his career as a writer, Barrie became friends with a family of boys (George, John (Jack), Peter, Michael and Nicholas (Nico) Llewelyn Davies). To entertain them he began to tell the older boys, George and Jack, stories about a younger boy (their brother, Peter) who could fly ; Wendy’s father of course is Mr George Darling, her younger brothers are John and Michael and Peter is about 10 years old, the age that George was when Barrie first met the family. By 1910, the Llewelyn Davies boys had lost both of their parents – their mother Sylvia was played by Kate Winslet in the Johnny Depp film – and Barrie had become their guardian. Known as ‘Uncle Jim’ to them, they corresponded with him regularly as they grew up and when war was declared in August 1914, George was at University in Cambridge, Jack was serving in the Royal Navy and Peter was at Oxford University.
And this is where there is a twist to the story. For you might expect me to tell you that it was Peter who was killed during the war – which would add further prescience to Barrie’s creation of a ‘lost boy’ who would never grow up? However, it was George who was killed on 15th March 1915, whilst serving as a Second Lieutenant with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps on the Ypres Salient. He was shot in the head and low lies buried within the Voormezeele Enclosure No 3 Cemetery just outside Ypres.
Peter, like his brother Jack, survived the war and in the course of his military service was awarded the Military Cross. He married, became the father of three boys himself (two of whom were named George and Peter!) and founded his own publishing house. However, on 5th April 1960, Peter committed suicide by throwing himself under a train as it was drawing into Sloan Square station!
By this stage, having not only been orphaned as a child, lost one brother (George) to the First World War, one (Michael) to a drowning accident which might well have been a suicide and John (Jack) having died only a few months previously in September 1959, Peter was 60 years of age – so he could no longer be described as ‘the boy who never grew up’? But, given that he had spent his life trying to duck out from under the glare of publicity forced upon him by his association with Barrie’s flying scamp, he was certainly lost. He was suffering from that horrible lung disease, Emphysema – it is not hard to imagine that, serving in the trenches during the First World War he might have been gassed – and had discovered that his sons had all inherited the degenerative condition Huntington’s Disease from their mother! In the end, only the youngest brother, Nico, would live into old age, dying in 1980 aged 76.
Whether or not you plan to see the new film at the cinema over the next couple of weeks, or are likely to wait until it is available on DVD, I do hope that its undoubted dark tones will now be given some further depth by this sad story? And of course, if you would like to visit George’s grave in the course of tracing the military journey of your own ‘lost’ relative, Great War Tours will delighted to create for you your own truly bespoke remembrance tour to the battlefields of France and Belgium.
Debbie Coupland is an experienced researcher and former Lieutenant of the Women’s Royal Army Corps. These days Debbie has put her passion for history into running truly bespoke WW1 battlefield tours to France and Belgium, with Great War Tours.