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Front cover of the Peter Pan programme, at the Duke of York Theatre, December 1914

​Front cover of the Peter Pan Programme, Duke of York's Theatre, December 1914.

​Peter Pan and the First World War

Charlotte Hopkins

'Peter Pan is as delightful a fantasy of childhood as we ever remember to have seen on the stage.' (The Times Dec 28 1904)

In 2014, there were two anniversaries: the centenary of the start of the First World War and the 110th anniversary of the first performance of J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 27 December 1904 where it played for a further 10 years. I decided to think about how the home front in London might have related to the production of Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up when so many young men would never return. What might an audience of largely middle and upper class women and children feel when they are watching such a performance? The theme of the lost boys cannot be ignored.

Memoirs, diaries and letters would be the ideal source for a snapshot of the individual experience at a performance of Peter Pan. Such sources have not been uncovered here at LMA, but we do hold the records of the London County Council, the Illustrated London News, a large collection of theatre programmes, and records of the publishers Hodder and Stoughton which I have used to understand the play and its London origins. We also have photographs of Leinster Corner, 100 Bayswater Road where J.M.Barrie wrote Peter Pan (although the images are not contemporary with his time there and were taken in 1972). They can be viewed online on Collage.

Theatre-going in London during the First World War

Entertainment was an important distraction for those at home whilst helping to maintain a sense of stability, for there should be a world to return to after the fight was over. The popularity of theatre-going in London is reflected in statistics: 'By 1904, there was an estimated nightly audience of as many as 59,000 music hall goers as against 47,000 in the theatre.' (Susan D. Pennybacker A Vision for London 1889-1914: labour, everyday life and the LCC experiment Routledge, London 1995). By 1913, the approximate accommodation of theatres in the County of London recorded in LCC London Statistics (31.6 LCC) was 64,919, although in 1919 this had declined to 54,341. The figure in both cases does not include music halls/ theatres of varieties which were recorded separately. Patriotic performances at the music halls conveyed to the masses what we were fighting for, but what was going on in the theatre should also not be forgotten. 

Christmas and Peter Pan

The first performance of Peter Pan on 27 December 1904 was in-keeping with the traditional amusements usually put on at Christmas-time. A decade later in 1914 the Illustrated London News remarked on the importance of this tradition:

December 5: 'Despite the war, even because of the war, it is more than ever desirable that the kindly customs of Christmas should this year be maintained…'

December 26: 'The great charm of Peter Pan is that it enables the onlooker to forget for a few hours the worries of everyday life. There are none of the topical allusions or the strident patriotic songs which the purveyor of pantomime considers that his customers demand, and it was a real joy at the Duke of York’s Theatre on Christmas Eve to leave the thoughts of European war outside and to revel for an afternoon in the creatures of Sir James Barrie’s imagination…'

Peter Pan programme, at the Duke of York Theatre, 1914

​Peter Pan programme, Duke of York's Theatre, 31 December 1914

The programme shown here is dated 31 December 1914 and lists Madge Titheradge appearing as Peter whose 'conception of the part is more masculine than some of her predecessors…' (The Times, 26 December 1914). Peter was represented by a female who could convincingly adopt the guise of a young boy. This was as a result of the Employment of Children Act 1903 that prevented children from performing for long hours on the stage. The original Peter Pan in 1904 was Nina Boucicault who was followed in the role by Cecilia Loftus. They were succeeded by Pauline Chase (1906-1914). The original costume worn by Chase is on display at the Museum of London and is not the more familiar green, but a red colour. For the remainder of the war years, Peter was played by Unity More followed by Fay Compton.

The cover of the programme, seen above, from 31 December 1914 was designed by John Hassall as part of set of posters sold in the lobby of the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1907 and it became the design for the programme for the next few years. The programme from the opening night in 1904 is not held in our collection and is of great rarity.

However, LMA does hold plans of the Duke of York’s Theatre which include the longitudinal section of the theatre and frontage plan (GLC/AR/BR/19/0425/001-007). Reference to Peter Pan was made in the Building Act Committee on 21 January, 1907 (GLC/AR/BR/17/010158/002) where it was noted that no action was to be taken in respect of an extension of the illuminated sign at the above theatre, forming the words: PETER PAN, PAULINE CHASE. Earlier presented papers of the London County Council (LCC/MIN/10799, 9 December 1904) demonstrate confidence in the theatre: 'It is of entirely fire proof construction in the auditorium and was at the time considered I believe by the committee one of the safest theatres in London and my opinion is that it is so now.'

The loss of childhood and the theme of fairies

The Illustrated London News reported on 2 January 1915: 'Volumes of print must have been written in praise of J.M.Barrie’s happy fantasy, ‘Peter Pan’, and millions of children must by now have testified in answer to its appeal their belief in fairies…'

A belief in the supernatural is understood as something that gave people hope for a life after death. Spiritualism and a need to connect with the dead grew in popularity following the First World War. With such beliefs it is therefore not surprising that people had no hesitation, rather movingly so, in clapping to save a fairy’s life in the play. The spirit of the age is captured in this paragraph from the inaugural performance in 1904:

'There was no need, when Peter asked for the first time, ‘Do you believe in fairies?’ for the orchestra (as had been arranged) to lead the clapping that was to save Tink’s life - the audience fulfilled its part enthusiastically, though they were nearly all grown-ups that night, and many of them were professional critics.' (Roger Lancelyn Green, Fifty-Years of Peter Pan, Peter Davies, London, 1954).

Peter represented eternal youth and immortality in a fantasy world within a contemporary setting. The young men that never returned home might be thought of as being frozen in time and if one doesn’t grow old then one can remain within the supernatural realm and in the unrecapturable joy of childhood. Towards the close of the play, Peter says to Mrs Darling, 'No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.'

The importance of a mother’s love is a theme that runs through the play in the form of Wendy’s nurturing. The sustained childhood suspends reality and lives on in the fantastical perpetuation of that moment. It is indeed poignant to clap to save a life, to return to this innocence or to interrupt responsibility in adulthood. Tinker Bell sacrifices herself to save the life of Peter, which could be seen as a parallel to the experience of war:

'Why, Tink, you have drunk my medicine! It was poisoned and you drank it to save my life! Tink, dear Tink, are you dying? …Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead! Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what she is saying. She says - she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies!'

Another analogy can be applied to the never-never land of the play: the idea of a fairyland that represented home, a distant place which must be held on to in order to escape the abject nightmare of what lay before the soldier. Caught between the idea of a whimsical past and modern warfare, this was perhaps an allusion of a better time that was fading away.

100 Bayswater Road, 1972, where J.M.Barrie wrote Peter Pan

100 Bayswater Road, London, 1972, where J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan

Evidence of this idea of symbols of home during this period has been researched by Nicola Bown who has written on Estella Canziani’s watercolour The Piper of Dreams. This was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1915 and a print was produced which sold 250,000 in the first year with many being sent to soldiers serving in the trenches. The image is of a young boy, a piper who sits at a tree in woodland invoking ‘dreams’ of fairies who float around him in their opacity. The fantasy world of children must be the intermediary world for adults to provide faith in an unseen future. Bown says, 'To the soldiers who owned copies of The Piper of Dreams ‘Blighty’ was not only home, it was their ‘lost fairyland’, their childhood - which many of them had only very recently left behind.' (Fairies in Nineteenth-Century Art and Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2001).

The producer of Peter Pan, Charles Frohman went down with the Lusitania on 7 May 1915. He is famously quoted as saying, 'Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure of life.' This echoes the words of Peter in the play, 'To die will be an awfully big adventure.' Of course war was an adventure that the soldiers might not escape from. The theme of eternal youth is also found in Robert Laurence Binyon’s, 'They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.' (For the Fallen, published in The Times, 21 September 1914).

Hodder and Stoughton and the legacy of the play

The first illustrated edition of the story based on the play entitled Peter and Wendy was published in 1911 and was reputed to be the last book published by Hodder and Stoughton that Matthew Hodder read. This was one of up to 17 different editions published within the period 1908 to 1950. In 1929 JM Barrie gave the copyright of his Peter Pan works to Great Ormond Street Hospital and this was confirmed when he died in 1937. In a correspondence file of Hodder and Stoughton dated 18 March 1963 (CLC/B/119/MS16375/001) it was remarked that 'No new editions are to be published without the hospitals approval. All editions to contain a note that Sir James Barrie is the author of the play and that the hospital own copyright.' A remarkable and enduring legacy.

A special thank you to Christine De Poortere at the Peter Pan archives, Great Ormond Street Hospital. The theatre playbill collection held at LMA can be accessed by appointment only and the collections of Hodder & Stoughton with 48 hours’ notice.

Further information

You can find out more about records relating to London's social life at LMA on our collections pages.

08 October 2014
Last Modified:
03 October 2018