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28 November 2008


Rupert Errol Victor Buxton

10 May 1900 - 19 May 1921

Nicholas McAulay

but the mists were round him

Reading the closing pages of Andrew Birkin’s J. M. Barrie and The Lost Boys, the reader unexpectedly encounters Robert Boothby rumbling fruitily that Rupert Buxton was saturnine, gloomy with an almost suicidal streak and a morbid influence on Michael Davies. When asked by Michael why he disliked his being friends with Buxton, Boothby replied that he had a feeling of doom about Rupert. If this were not bad enough for Rupert’s reputation, Robert Rhodes James in his 1991 biography of Boothby, quotes his lordship’s opinion that Rupert became unhinged at Sandford pool, and Michael died trying to save him from suicide - a reversal of the inquest’s finding that Rupert died saving Michael.


Boothby’s harsh judgment, unsoftened by the passage of 50 years, contrasts with the opinion of Arthur Bryant, a friend of Rupert’s from his Harrow days, and later to be a well-known historian, who wrote to Lady Buxton on 20 May 1921, the day after the drowning:

 I have never met a being so full of charm as he: one could not help loving him. ... he seemed so beautiful a soul ... he was ... delightful and amusing...

Bryant’s description of Rupert is not unique; the anonymous writer of Rupert’s obituary in the usually sober Harrovian described him in the following extraordinary terms:

 ... he had infinite pity for the poor and unhappy. Humble people always thought him as a kind of saint as soon as they looked at him. He was a sort of gentle-hearted savage.

The Buxton family have preserved the letters of condolence that arrived at Warlies after Rupert’s death – too many to quote here - but this is Clive Burt’s, who was also a friend of Michael’s at Eton:

University College, Oxford

May 24th [1921]

Dear Lady Buxton

If it were not that you knew how much Rupert was to me, I would not now be writing to tell you how I regret not being able to be present at Warlies today [for the funeral].

The happiest times of my life have been spent with Rupert and in spite of this terrible accident I cannot and do not believe that his presence and influence are gone.

Of all my friends he most of all stood for something so positive and great that to me he can never be lost. Tho’ his life has been short it has been one of marvellous fullness and of amazing influence upon all who had the good fortune to meet and know him. ...

Yours very sincerely

Clive Burt

Should one then dismiss Boothby’s remarks as arising from the envy he felt for Michael and Rupert’s friendship, as Michael’s brother Nico believed? Furthermore, what about the scandalous “peer and thug” stories saying Boothby was involved in the depraved activities of the Kray twins? Should anything the evil old reprobate said be taken seriously?

Another of the boys’ contemporaries at Oxford was the novelist L. P. Hartley; it would be helpful to bear in mind the opening sentence of The Go-Between:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

The world of 1921 was a Betwixt-and-Between; neither the weary heroism of the First World War nor the frivolous Jazz Age; a time when life was just beginning to get back to normal. It is unlikely now in 2008, as the early 1900s sink below the horizon of living experience, to fully describe Rupert’s character and his social circle: this article is not a “definitive” biography. Some discussion will involve speculation about Rupert’s psychology and in particular whether his friendship with Michael “went beyond the bounds of ordinary affection”, in another of Boothby’s pointed phrases (but here describing Michael’s relationship with Barrie). In blunter language: were they homosexuals? One should be wary of becoming beguiled into interpreting this period solely from the luxury of our 21st century armchairs: they did things differently.

Much has recently come to light in the way of letters and other documents which will hopefully inspire an informed discussion about the boys’ relationship in which even Boothby’s voice will have its place: his observation that there was a feeling of doom about Rupert deserves examination. But what part did Michael play? Michael’s loss of his parents at a very young age was unbearable for him; it weighed upon his mind, distorting it.  In any friendship there is a sympathy of personalities; for Rupert to have come as close to Michael as he did, had he too suffered an equal grief?

The intention of this article is to present Rupert Buxton as accurately as possible after three decades where his reputation has been maligned. A good fraction of his written work survives – enough to give a reasonable insight into his personality. I have strayed, no doubt foolishly, into wider territory by portraying his relationship with Michael and J. M. Barrie, but have attempted to tread the via media between intellectualism and sentimentality.

Examples of Rupert’s poetry have been quoted from the collections found in the following sources: Bryant prints a selection as an appendix to his 1926 Rupert Buxton, a memoir, published privately by the Buxton family, one poem of which “Hope” has subsequently appeared in an anthology; The Harrovian magazine printed some work during Rupert’s time at the school (1914-1918); the Buxton family have preserved several collections of poems in Rupert’s manuscript including a small black notebook (bought from Army and Navy Stores, Victoria) in which Rupert copied the poems he (presumably) thought the most successful, starting with a work composed in 1908, and continuing with work written up to about 1917 or 1918 and to which he supplied an index; a school exercise book containing his long narrative poem The Pilgrimage of Thala, illustrated with photographs cut from magazines and some drawings (also presumably) by Rupert himself; and various individual good copies of poems which he may have shown to people as examples of his work. There is also a prose description of about 1917 of the aftermath of an air raid, scribbled in pencil on the end papers ripped from a book, and an attempt to turn this into a poem. Why this has survived is unknown. The index in the notebook lists twelve poems which were not copied, but are mainly available elsewhere. To dismiss this work as juvenilia is pointless given the situation that they are all there is.

To illustrate Rupert’s character, further quotations have been taken from some of the letters he wrote almost weekly to his mother, and other family correspondence - copies of most of these will appear on the website. Much use has been made of Arthur Bryant’s Memoir and an anonymous obituary in the Harrovian; considerable unpublished material held in Sir Arthur Bryant’s collection is quoted by permission of The Trustees of the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, and is marked thus: *. Unfortunately, no correspondence between Rupert and Michael and no photographs of them together are known to have survived.  I have spoken with Sir Jocelyn Buxton on the telephone, and he has always been courteous and helpful in supplying letters and other documents. Lady Buxton, Rupert’s mother, lived well into the 1950s and imparted to Sir Jocelyn a great deal of family history; the faint whisper of her voice will occasionally be heard in these lines; perhaps Peter Davies’s voice may be heard occasionally, too. Mrs Hatfield, archivist at Eton College and Mrs Boswell at Harrow School have also been very helpful. An assumption is made that the reader is familiar with Andrew Birkin’s J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys or Janet Dunbar’s earlier biography of Barrie for the background to Michael’s life. The final section is my own reconstruction of the fatal day at Sandford; it is based on the witness accounts preserved in contemporary newspaper reports. I have left out some of the fanciful stories, as they may readily be explained: Why do some reports say the bodies were tied together? Because the crowd of onlookers on the bank saw a rope being used to drag the corpses out of the water. Incidentally, the bodies were finally located at 3 p.m. the next day, after about twenty four hours in the water. As they were pulled in, a weight seemed to drop away from the first body, Rupert’s, giving the impression that the bodies may have been clasped – not an unusual event in a double drowning and one which should not be interpreted as proof of a high-romantic Liebestod. Michael’s body was recovered about an hour later. Rupert’s face was said to bear “a look of joy”, interpreted by Hugh Montgomery in a letter to Lady Buxton of 29 June 1921 as having “given up everything in an act of complete self-sacrifice he had gained an everlasting joy ...”. A rictus of rigor mortis is a more likely explanation. These details are certainly open to interpretation, but I am convinced the boys died in an accident.

Before Rupert and Michael became close friends at Christ Church, probably in early 1920, the two families had lead converging lives: Victor Buxton, Rupert’s father was at Trinity College Cambridge from 1883 to 1887, with both Arthur Davies, at Trinity from 1881 to 1884 and also Hugh Macnaghten, who was at Trinity from 1881 to 1885. Rupert’s uncles Noel and Charles, both later Labour Party MPs, were heavily involved in social reform work in the Spitalfield – Whitechapel area, as was Michael’s aunt Margaret. Rupert’s older brother Roden, the second son and father of the present baronet, went to Osborne in 1903 and then to Dartmouth, and made his career as an officer in the Royal Navy. He married in 1917 and made his first home in Scotland – a similar story to Jack Llewelyn Davies. It is very likely that the two boys had encountered each other before Oxford, perhaps during a visit to Eton by Rupert to see his older brothers Clarence (1892-1967) and Maurice (1898-1919) who were oppidan contemporaries of George and Michael in Macnaghten’s house (both were Bloods: Clarence was Captain of the Boats and Maurice was Captain of the Boats and President of Pop, the Eton Society), or perhaps in one of the sporting matches between the two schools, as they were good footballers.  More than these physical coincidences of time and space, the two boys had emotional similarities drawing them together.

A theme that runs through the story of the Buxton and Davies families is taken as the title of this article: et in Arcadia ego. It may be understood in several ways: usually inscribed on a tomb, it may mean that the occupant has found rest at last, or perhaps that in his life the dead person had enjoyed the simple pleasures. Another reading is that of a memento mori: death addresses the passer-by, announcing his presence in even the happiest surroundings. It is inscribed as Peter’s epitaph on the Davies family grave at Hampstead recalling at once Barrie’s best known character (Pan was the Arcadian god) with whom Peter was (to his regret) ever connected, Arthur’s doomed paradise at Berkhamsted, the tiny graves of dead children Barrie imagined in the parish boundary markers in that rus in urbe Kensington Gardens, and the willowed banks of Sandford pool.

 * * * * *

A little family history

From the 17th century, the Buxtons were a noted family of Essex landed gentry; their current entry in Burke’s Peerage runs to 18 columns. They were associated politically with the Whig (later Liberal) party in parliament and with the evangelical movement. In the early 1800s this combination of political radicalism and religious faith inspired Thomas Buxton (1786-1845) to take a leading role (with William Wilberforce) in the emancipation of 800,000 slaves in the British dominions. After Wilberforce’s retirement in the 1820s, Buxton took on the difficult task of piloting the necessary legislation through Parliament.

Thomas was also an able businessman. Apprenticing himself to Truman’s brewery in Spitalfield, he worked his way up until he owned the company, whose full name became Truman, Hanbury and Buxton Ltd. He modernised the firm, introducing steam operated machinery, and expanded the brewery till it was one of the largest in the world at that time. Apart from having a local street in Spitalfield named after him, Thomas’s efforts were recognised by his being created baronet, and when he died from exhaustion (not surprisingly given all his activities) a splendid marble statue was put up in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey. Although Wilberforce is better known today, Thomas is not forgotten - his image appears on the current Bank of England £5 note: he is the tall figure standing on the far left of the group on the note’s reverse, and commemorates his work with Elizabeth Fry for amendment of the penal code.  

Later in the 19th century, Rupert’s grandfather, the 3rd baronet Sir Thomas Fowell (1837-1915), Governor of South Australia 1895-1898, moved into an elegant country house at Warlies, near Waltham Abbey, Essex. He built another beautiful home for his family of ten children close by at Woodredon. In between lay the hamlet of Upshire, so small it did not even have its own church until Sir Thomas Fowell built one, St Thomas’s, in 1902. Keeping up the evangelical tradition of his family, the baronet stipulated that the church, although part of the Anglican communion, be run as a missionary chapel - Upshire Mission - under a mission chaplain appointed by Sir Thomas Fowell. Informal prayer meetings, Scripture Union for the children and Band of Hope assemblies on alternate Thursday evenings were organised to complement the prescribed liturgy. The church was not to be consecrated (instead of licensed) and a vicar installed until 1985, after the Buxtons had left the area. It is an attractive building, highly thought of by Pevsner and Betjeman (“Upshire’s delightful church”), and the simple vernacular style chosen gives it the impression of having stood on Horseshoe Hill for centuries.

Sir Thomas Fowell’s estate, combining the manors of Woodredon and Warlies was a rural idyll: glorious countryside - farmland, woodland and park - rolled from horizon to horizon and the primeval magic of Epping Forest was just to the south. All the excitement of a trip to London, where the Buxton’s had a town house at 66 Eaton Place, was a short journey on the Great Eastern Railway from Waltham Cross to Liverpool Street. The confidence and wealth of the Edwardian age formed the general background to this period; the First World War was to wreck any illusion of stability. Although the Buxtons were not amongst the super rich as would be said now, their fortune was counted in hundreds of thousands of pounds, the equivalent of tens of millions today, and their manner of living was very different from even middle class families. Peter Davies’s reminiscence on the world before 1914 (“Four maids to Tilford! It’s uncanny...” ) when Arthur, Sylvia and the boys managed to get by on £400 a year, is an illustration of the simplicity of life before the arrival of mass consumerism, and when wages for domestic servants were very low. Apart from the fine houses in Upshire and London, the Buxton family also had other properties - not to mention the huge brewery in Spitalfield with its offices in Brick Lane. Many people’s livelihoods depended on them: along with the factory employees and house servants, there were workers with various skills on the estate and in the village - even the chaplain and the village school teachers were remunerated and accommodated by the Buxton family.

Rupert ...

Into this world of natural beauty, wealth, elegant homes, high expectations and active Christianity, Rupert, sixth son and youngest of seven children, was born to Sir Thomas Fowell’s heir Victor, and Anne, née O’Rorke, on 10 May 1900. Sir Victor, a Justice of the Peace, High Sheriff of Essex, and President of the Anti-Slavery Society who in the war raised and trained a battalion of volunteers, was very involved in the Church Missionary Society (CMS), travelling on their behalf to Palestine, E. Africa, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone – sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, and when possible accompanied by Anne. He loved nature and encouraged his children to see its beauty and to love animals and treat them as friends. Not considered a contradiction at the time as it would be now, he enjoyed riding to hounds and shooting big game. A high minded and religious man, he was a kindly and thoughtful father who loved the company of his children. Anne came from a religious background; although O’Rorke suggests an Irish ancestry, her father was Anglican Rector of Feltwell and Anne was herself piously Protestant, abhorring Roman Catholicism. A family friend who lived with the O’Rorkes at Feltwell was Catherine Marsh, a well known writer of religious tracts.

Although very strong minded, Anne was at heart a kindly and homely person, signing her letters “Annie Buxton”, whose children were brought up to always look for the best in people. The Buxtons were a large, busy family, with much visiting back and forth amongst the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. A pleasantly informal photograph of about 1910 or 1911 shows Rupert, the darling of his family, embraced by both his father and older brother Roden and wearing knickerbockers George would have killed for. He is a delightful little boy who gazes into the camera’s lens with “... a certain shyness and curious vagueness of manner, a deep and inquisitive mind looking out on an undiscovered world.” (Bryant, Memoir)

Rupert’s first poem, composed at Humbie in Scotland during a family holiday is preserved in the black Army and Navy Stores notebook and is dated autumn 1908:

The Lark

The lark that soars so high above

Can sing the songs that men can love...

There follows a foresight of war with Germany (composed at Warlies, Christmas 1909, perhaps as an entertainment during the festival):

The German Invasion

They come with sounding bands,

They wreck our sunny sands,

The sound of a great war

Is heard upon our shore.


In Rupert’s vision, the war ends like a rowdy soccer match:

 But let us be up and doing,

And scatter them all with glee,

Then let us all start booing

Their mad attempts to flee.

One might expect everything to have been sunny and cloudless in Rupert’s comfortable world, but from an early age he showed an unusual awareness of the sadness that darkens life. Peter Davies illustrated his mother Sylvia’s tendency to melancholy with a quotation from Vergil: Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, which could be paraphrased in Rupert’s own words: “One staggers under the accumulated weight of sorrow which afflicts this sad sweet earth of ours”. (letter to his mother 30 Sept 1917)

Drowning and the cruel indifference of nature are alluded to in an Ode to the Ocean, composed at Summer Fields, his preparatory school, in June 1912 (perhaps he was thinking of the loss of RMS Titanic on April 14 of that year):

Oh thou! dark ocean, for thine own hast claimed

So many lives ...

So many lives! Alas! What deep

And dreadful [ harm] and eternal sleep

Hast caused with these small waves,

Of one unceasing power the only slaves!

Loss and death become themes in a nostalgic Ode to the Past, written at Summer Fields in July 1913, where he writes as an elderly man:

Oft in the summer, when far far away

From all that was dearest in days long passed by:

Visions of home and friends passed away

Are wafted by breezes with a glimpse of a day

When you were a child ...

Death only viewed on the farthest horizon,

Was seldom remembered till years were declining ...

Rupert was a generous contributor to a number of causes and one of the charities he supported was the London Association for the Blind. Rupert’s sympathy may have arisen from his own problems: he underwent an operation on his eye in 1920 to remove a chalky accretion. Incidentally, some photographs of Michael seem to show that he may have suffered from a recurring swelling around his left eye. This strange poem of about 1915 about a child going blind might have been intended for use in fundraising. Rupert did not have a younger brother “Clare” who died in infancy:

Kind Death


I’m so tired, Mother!

Mayn’t I come and nestle down beside you?

The darkness is trying to hide you from me, Mother!

Surely the night is very long?

Where is the happy song

Of the little bird which comes

And wakes us every morn with his fight

Upon the window-ledge, to get the crumbs

Which Nursie puts there for him over night?

It’s so dark!

“My Little child,” a wailing

voice replied:

“It is not night!

But you will ne’er again

see God’s pure light,

Until you reach his heavenly Kingdom bright!”

Silence! An awful silence – then a voice:

Oh Mother! you are wrong! Look over there

In that dark corner, by the box of toys

That Daddy gave me! Why I think it’s Clare

My little brother who has gone to Heaven!

Oh Mother! Look!

He’s beckoning me up!

... I’ll have to go, Mother!

Good bye!

This tendency to choose gloomy subjects is balanced by more light hearted moments:

A Ride

Just a touch of the whip, and we’re off to the end of the world!

Oh! the wonder of galloping thus on a morning in spring,

With the glory of youth in the billowing air of the fields,

And the glory of speed in my effortless, buoyant career!

Perhaps it was this love of the thrill of speed that brought him to the notice of The Times in August 1912.  Cycling down the hill from his home at Woodredon he turned into Woodredon Hill and collided with a dogcart, the shaft of which was driven into his forehead. The wound was severe enough to require an operation by a London specialist. The injury did not effect his intellectual development or his sense of balance, but would it be the cause of the severe headaches which he suffered in adolescence, and aggravate his tendency to depression?

Rupert won a scholarship to Harrow, with a distinction in Latin, in March 1914.

He wrote from his grandmother’s house (where also lived Anne’s three unmarried sisters: “the Aunts”) to his mother, who was just returning from a trip abroad:

7 St Mark’s Square

Regent’s Park, N. W.

March 31st 1914

My dearest Mother ...

I suppose you’ve heard about Harrow by now, I’m not sure I’m frightfully impressed with Harrow, although I suppose I shall get to like it, when I’ve been there a little time. The English paper was rather hard on the whole, I had to write vast essays on the “Taking of the Bastille” and “The Reform Bill”, although I didn’t know much about either. However that wasn’t so hard as the arithmetic and Latin Verses. ...

Ever your loving son


His years there were academically and socially successful (he was both head of his house, Elmfield, and Head of School) and he developed his technique as a poet. This extract from his poem Night composed in late 1916 shows his experiments with form and rhythm:

Whispering of leaves as I pass,

   And the night’s dim beauty around me:

   Here, in the dewy grass,


   Silence has found me. (etc)

By 1915, four of Rupert’s brothers were serving in the armed forces, but life at Woodredon maintained a relaxed pre-war pace. This description of an early morning outing to Epping Forest is reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows:


April 7, 1915

My darling Clarence,

I am afraid I haven’t written to you for perfect ages. I got away from Harrow nearly a week early, which was awful luck, especially as I did not have to have anything done to my knee.

Woodredon is perfectly lovely now and we are having quite fine weather. So it is glorious: early yesterday morning Lucy, Maurice and I went to the badgers, starting from the house at three a.m. I won’t give you a minute description of it because Maurice is doing that, but my impressions of night were vivid, so hope you won’t be bored if I tell you some: I know you like these sort of letters better than a practical one, and I like writing them better.

When we got onto the Loughton Road the moon was shining quite brightly and everything looked lovely; so that I wish you and I could have been there together. The beech trunks shone like silver and the mass of trees was a lovely dim grey colour – I could have walked for miles without getting tired of it, and so could you, I know. When we got into the trees, which, by the way, was a long process, there was nothing much to see, as the moon seemed to get dimmer, but every now and then a ghostly night jar flew over, crying and shrieking as if in ghostly remembrance of long ago. Then all of a sudden, night was gone! In one moment every bird in the forest had woken up and began to sing, as if at a given signal. It was absolutely wonderful. Of course lots of things happened before sunrise; we saw a badger, three foxes and some deer which looked awfully pretty in the morning light.

I’ve had another time when I have felt I must write poetry, so I have already written three more, and I feel like writing more still!

I will write again soon, so, goodbye now,

Your most loving brother


Rupert also contributed poetry to the Harrovian and founded a magazine Beginnings. He was noted for not having flogged any boy, although it was his “privilege” as head of school to do so:

The Monitors’ Room


[Summer 1918]

Dearest Mother

... So far this term has gone excellently & Ford [the headmaster] is in ecstasies. But there is a week more - & camp. Very ticklish times! However I hope we shall do without any rows. ... I am convinced it is because people punish too much, and especially beat. My greatest enterprise then [is] the avoidance of beating and I think it is the only satisfactory way in a school. If you treat a man like a criminal, when he isn’t one, naturally he is inclined to become one! ...

Your loving son


The headmaster of Harrow, the Rev. Lionel Ford, remarked that:

 ... no boy could have discharged his duties of head of the school with more high-mindedness, loyalty, tact and consideration for others. I regard the delightful tone and record of the school during his headship as largely due to his personality and influence.

In case anyone should think Rupert a faultless paragon of all the virtues, the Harrovian obituary conveniently lists his human shortcomings: excessive carelessness, arrogance, jealously and obstinacy; his older sister Lucy thought him a “pest” when he was younger and Arthur Bryant remarked that he had an unworldly vagueness. Gloom and morbidity are not, however, mentioned.

Apart from his interest in literature (he was specially fond of Shelley) Rupert could play the organ (a favourite piece being Sibelius’s Finlandia), and the piano: his best loved piece was Chopin’s 3rd Ballade in A flat, Op 47. He entertained the other passengers while on a voyage to Africa by playing ragtime dances: “You were right about the music – but not quite, because it is well known that I play ragtime! I’m playing the dance music for the Fancy Dress Ball tonight!” (Letter to his sister-in-law Dorothy, summer 1920) Sir Jocelyn’s mother would occasionally, on visits from Scotland, sing in the drawing room at Warlies, accompanied by Rupert. He loved to climb trees, mountains even the outsides of buildings and was very concerned by the despoiling of the countryside by the growth of industry and housing – an event he would have witnessed from atop Harrow Hill as the pretty villages of Wembley, Kingsbury and Neasden (now a Private Eye joke) were engulfed by London’s suburban expansion.

Several letters written by Rupert in 1917 show that emotionally he had an extremely turbulent adolescence, and may have experienced a form of ecstatic synaesthesia. Writing from Woodredon to his uncle Charles in April 1917 he says:

*Dear Uncle Charlie ...

there are some fierce storms going on!  Storms of belief and unbelief, of passion, love, anger and madness ... . The calm of a surface religion has given place to swift transitions between doubt and indifference and certainty; the worship of beauty purely as a pinnacle by itself, and again as a medium of love and art; the worship of pleasure as the only really important thing in life, and the condemning of it as selfish and base ... . Colour has an extraordinary effect on me.  Yellow makes me cheerful, blue hopeful, green strong, purple angry, mauve sad. And yet again these influences change.

I am appallingly lazy and changeable, unable to go on at one thing for long – a charlatan, wildly ambitious in the poetic world.

Sometimes I don’t think anything matters, sometimes everything. But love is the only thing that is always there.

He does not seem to have been unhappy. A letter to his brother Clarence of August 1917 describes his activities during the summer holidays, including a growing interest in social reform:

*I read poetry all day long – wrote it – went for walks alone – loved solitude, revelled in abstract beauty – read all the books on the mystic life – and dreamt oh! such wonderful dreams. At the same time I was wildly keen on social reforms and alleviating sorrow and pain. I read as many books on social questions as I could – books on psychology, philosophy and education.

Bryant thought Rupert would eventually lead a political campaign to do away with “all that is ignoble in the industrial life of our country”. Whatever he chose to do, Rupert was expected to have a substantial career in later life.

Then, in December 1918, something very odd occurred: he ran away from school. The Times reported the incident in detail: melodramatic and mysterious letters were sent to his family and to the school saying that “his brains were needed” and concluded with the threat: “Ill if he refuses, well if he agrees.” A telegram signed “Rupert” was delivered from a Newcastle hotel, but when inquiries were made the management stated that no boy of Rupert’s description had stayed there. Eventually Sir Victor found his son at King’s Cross Station “in a fainting condition”, and he was taken to a nearby hotel and put under medical supervision. Such was the concern that Sir Victor issued a statement on his son’s health in January 1919 explaining that the incident was due to the strain of his preparing for a scholarship exam. Whether this was the case or not, correspondence between his house master’s wife and Lady Buxton suggests Rupert was obliged to leave Harrow:

Elmfield, Harrow

Dec. 12 [1918]

My dear Lady Buxton

... To me after 19 years here, it is the saddest ending to the most brilliant career that I have ever seen. I only hope and pray that dear Rupert will soon be quite strong, & that all this episode will fade from his memory, so that nothing will interfere with the great future which lies in front of him. ...

Yrs most sincerely

Celia Vassall  

Was it a joke that went wrong, or perhaps an attempt to gain attention from his parents? Bryant refers first to Rupert’s being troubled by serious headaches in about 1917; about the same time he transferred from the demanding classics department to the easier history side, as if he were falling behind, and later, at Oxford, Bryant hints that Rupert may have had a weak memory. Furthermore, Bryant mentions an undefined “illness” in 1918, and later in 1920 describes Rupert suffering the *“listless despair of the nervous invalid”- which sounds like a description of depression: it is likely Rupert had a breakdown in late 1918 whose effects lasted for several years. He seems to have put away, at least temporarily, whatever was troubling him by autumn 1920:

Jun 21st 1921

The Head Master’s


Dear Lady Buxton

... Dear dear Rupert! How we loved him here! and how we grieved over the sad events that surrounded his leaving Harrow! It has often been in my mind to write to you about him, but I could never quite over come my shyness in intruding with gratuitous advice about him and his plans. But I must tell you what an unspeakable comfort it was for me when he came down here after his Africa trip, and told me himself all about that sad time – it was almost exactly what I had felt sure it must be – and we parted so happily ... .

... accept from me the deepest and most reverent sympathy of your Rupert’s friend and headmaster

Lionel Ford

Meditation on death and the extinction of human personality may lead to a philosophical nihilism as death becomes an absolute end in darkness. As Lytton Strachey wrote:

 How fast has brother followed brother,

From Sunshine to the sunless land.

(Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey Vol II p 672)

But for Rupert death was the gateway to heaven. Concerning friends killed in the war he wrote to Clarence on 22 August 1917:

*I think they are with us – actually taking part in our thoughts moulding them, inspiring them, guiding them with the great love which they have found in Heaven.

His most ambitious work, at least in length, is The Pilgrimage of Thala, A Legend which is a narrative poem in 24 stanzas dealing with a boy’s journey from a dark and forbidding world through death to the kingdom of heaven. This extract contains the moment when the hero passes out of this life, and starts to approach the Divine Realm:


... he must either die upon the rock

 Or dive into this iridescent lake,

  And drown himself beneath its flowing rills.

 He chose the latter course, and throwing off

  His flask of wine and precious hunting knife,

 (He knew not why), he plunged into the pool

  To drown himself at once, and yet for aye.


But look what wondrous thing has come to pass!

  Instead of suffocating ‘neath the wave,

He glided thro’ the [slumbering] rills of green,

  Down thro’ the water, further, till he thought

He must be dashed against the bottom rocks.

  But no! Thro’ lovely flowers of blue and green

He glided, sinking more – and sinking yet!

  Oblivion came, and after that he slept:

Yet onward thro’ the limpid green he sank –

  And died – yet lived in spirit one more day

 Till two great scenes could shew him all this life,

  And what it comes to in the sight of God.

With its description of drowning, although here considered a painless transition, it is very difficult to read this extract without considering that Rupert had a premonition of his own death; moreover, this particular page in the exercise book is illustrated by a photograph cut from a magazine (on which the tiny date 1915 is still legible) bearing a resemblance to the pool at Sandford. It is hard to know what to say about these presentiments, beyond observing that the whole story of Barrie and the Davies family has a disturbing “paranormal” side, but Rupert seems to have had a particular attraction to death and the hereafter, going back to his childhood. Bryant wondered if Rupert had an inkling of his fate:

Once he questioned me deeply as to the possibility of a man being certain of his destiny. I wonder if deep in his heart there was a knowledge that he would never live to fulfil the great hopes men had formed of him.

The question is not whether Rupert could be gloomy but whether the “morbidity” may be thought definitive of his character. Remembering that Clive Burt wrote that “the happiest times of my life have been spent with Rupert” one may consider that it was this side of Rupert’s character that attracted Michael so much, unless one believes that Michael was drawn to unhappiness.

Unfortunately there are only occasional mentions of this positive side in the family letters on which the biographer is so reliant. The happiness, witticisms, laughter, music, poetry and sheer pleasure in life, along with the fast cars (Rupert drove a Minerva), motor bikes, football matches, climbing, riding, lunches, dinners, light-hearted camaraderie, trips for fun into the countryside and abroad, acting in a film and so on, must be left to the reader’s imagination, but they happened and were as much an expression of Rupert’s true personality as the other.

The conventionally Christian tone of some of his poems in the black note book make it clear that Rupert accepted without question (at least before 1918) his parents’ faith:

Trust in God!

Oh perfect love!

When thro’ the trees sunbeams are softly glancing,

And over the fallen leaves are lightly dancing,

Each a bright golden flower:

In plenteous shower

Of glistening darts, upon the verdant ground

Falling, and mingling with the light around

A Heavenly dower!

So in our life, His sun shall shine the more,

If in the noon of power,

We put our fullest trust in Jesus, for

He is our Tower!

Between 1915 and 1919 the family suffered a series of bereavements. Rupert’s grandparents Sir Thomas and Lady Victoria died of old age in 1915 and 1917. Of his brothers, Jocelyn was killed in 1916 and Maurice, although he survived the war and was decorated with the MC (like Peter Davies), died a victim of pneumonia in August 1919, shortly after his father Sir Victor had died in a tragi-comic accident.

In May 1919 there was still no need for a driver to take a driving test. Victor had just bought a car, but had no idea how to drive. He and one of the estate workers (who had no idea either) were trying the machine out on the carriage drive at Warlies, when, while attempting to change seats, Sir Victor fell out and was run over by his own car. His left leg had to be amputated, but gangrene set in and he died. These two letters record Rupert’s reaction to the bad news, although he did not yet realise how serious the situation was:

University Pitt Club

[May 1919]

My own precious Mother

I must write you a line of love and sympathy in this cruel trial. It is a terrible pity that I cannot be at home to do anything to help. ... I long to hear that darling father is getting on well, and is not in pain. I am afraid it must have been very painful at the beginning .... ... It will be delightful coming for the weekend but I suppose Father will still be at Epping [hospital]. If it is all right we must go over and see him. ...

God bless you, darling Mother, and help you in this trial, as he has in so many before.

All my loving sympathy

Your devoted son



My darling Father

I won’t write much as you mustn’t read, I expect, very much. But I must just say how sorry I am about the accident, and how I long to hear that you are getting on well. I hope the leg is not very painful, and that you won’t have to be in bed very long. We are all most anxious to hear good news of you. ...

May God watch over you at this time

Your loving son


To add to the family’s unhappiness, the death of Sir Thomas Fowell and Sir Victor occurring so close together, the family were hit twice by Lloyd George’s punitive tax on inherited wealth, and were eventually obliged to move out of the big house at Warlies, which became a Barnardo home for girls.

Tragedy is often used in a loose way to describe very sad events, which meaning may well be applied to the fate of Victor and Anne’s family, but in drama it carries the extra meaning of a flawed hero who arrogantly challenges the divine order, and for which insolence he must receive his just deserts and be brought down - thereby will order be restored. What might have been the hubris of the Buxton family? Was it Sir Thomas’s pride and ambition? He certainly was not alone if it were. The Buxton family tried to leave the world a better place than it was when they found it and this generation should at least remember Sir Thomas Fowell’s work to ensure the preservation of Epping Forest for the future – a thoughtful endeavour that did not please some of the local squirearchy. However, rather than believe in punishment for arrogance by spiteful deities, Lady Buxton is more likely to have believed her faith was being tested. She would have read in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ ... And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us ...

 and been consoled by this expectation of the coming of the Comforter. However, there would be few indeed who would not feel the heartache of despair at watching the lengthening row of graves on Horseshoe Hill, and see the loss of their wealth and property and who could then unhesitatingly repeat Job’s cry of submission to the Divine Will: “... Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”, for herein lies a wisdom almost beyond the human heart.

The catastrophe that befell the Buxton family and its effect on an extremely sensitive boy like Rupert will never be fully understood. It seems likely that the accumulative effect of these deaths of family members, and the deaths of friends in the war, when added to his tendency to depression, provoked his breakdown; Rupert became emotionally overwhelmed and stopped writing in 1918. His experience of an air raid (probably about this time) may mark an emotional turning point as he actually came into contact with dead, disfigured bodies.

However, the most significant personal loss appears to have been his brother Jocelyn, to whose memory Rupert dedicated two poems in 1916. Like George Davies, Jocelyn was a hapless probationary 2nd lieutenant, recruited from the public schools’ OTCs. Only 20 years old, he fell on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. George was picked off by a sniper, but Jocelyn was described as Missing: believed killed, surely a kind way of saying blown to pieces. Rupert dedicated two poems to his memory, trying to express his heartache through his art. Neither, however, is satisfactory as Rupert  falls back onto unconvincing Christian sentiments like:

Let us give thanks! And ...

Go forward through the night, eyes ever turned

Towards that dawn, whose coming shall reveal

The Heavenly Lands, where you have gone before!

His beloved brother Jocelyn who had :

That glowing smile of love, that joy to trace

All of the good in man ...

who was horribly killed in a slaughter house of a battle and whose remains were never found – but Rupert still tried to write “beautiful” poetry:

He came towards me through the glistening grass

Under a waning moon ...

Rupert’s immediate reaction to the news of Jocelyn’s death is preserved in these two letters; he must have been heartbroken, but nevertheless, perhaps for his parents’ sake, maintains his restraint:  

The Sanatorium


July 9th 1916

My own darling Mother

This must be a very trying time for you and darling Father. You have always been so gentle & comforting to us all in our troubles, I wish I could return that sympathy.

I was sitting out in the garden when your letters came: all the wonderful peace of God’s love was on the flowers. Do you know, I always like to think that He loves the flowers just as much as us – in fact we are His Garden Flowers! Well, He seemed to whisper down through the evening scents of roses and carnations, that He would take care of his precious flower Jocelyn, as Love’s wisdom chose. Just as, when we pick a rose it soon fades, so when the Life is picked from one of His Roses, it drops and dies – to revive in the great cool calm depths of Heaven’s Garden. And the wonderful flower is revived by His gentle hands, and the Night of Rest freshens its beauty for Tomorrow’s Life. ...

And now, darling Mother ... May God’s great gentle eyes look down and watch over our darling Jocelyn, as they watch over us; and may he give us all His Calm, and perhaps a little of His Wisdom for the trying days that are coming. Give all my love to darling Father

Your devoted son



My precious Mother

... I know how awful it is to find another hope shattered: but surely there is absolutely no reason to give up hoping ...

Look at these statements:

“Several men state that he was wounded in the shoulder ...”. “This is to certify that I saw [Pte Rycroft] bringing in 2nd Lt Buxton from the front of our barbed wire into the trench ...”. “Several of his section informed [Capt Grey] that he was brought into our trench from ‘No Man’s Land’”.  “ There is every reason to believe he was brought in safely”.

... God will take care of [Jocelyn] wherever he is, and if he has taken him, it is for his good. ...

With all my love

Your devoted son


Barrie’s howl of grief on receiving the telegram about George is perhaps more understandable, but dare one judge or compare any reaction to such news? When Rupert wrote to his grandmother on 27 July 1916 saying a sick relative would be “better out of all this emptiness of life” it is possible he was in deep despair. As Jocelyn remained posted missing, the family kept up hope that he was still alive; Sir Victor maintained a long running personal advertisement in The Times asking for news of his son’s whereabouts: of all the poetry and literature of the sadness of that time this handful of words in a newspaper is unintentionally one of the most poignant.

Rupert was not a pacifist (although his quixotic uncle Charlie, author of My Lost Causes, had made himself unpopular by advocating a negotiated settlement with Germany - and would make himself unpopular again in 1939) but was upset by Harrow School’s treatment of a conscientious objector:



March 19th 1916

My darling Mother

... I wonder what you think about conscientious objectors to the war? I think theirs is the most appalling position that anyone could ever be put into. Of course your smug patriot says that they could easily chose the “lesser of two evils” and go and fight so as to end the war: but that is obviously a short sighted view, as there must be, and are people who cannot bring themselves to fight or even aid the fighting in any way; and as for the childish fury of these brave English people, who brand them as cowards – well – it’s merely mad.

This is all because of an unpleasant thing Harrow School has just done: There was a young temporary master, who was both medically unfit for the war, and a conscientious objector: he had the moral courage (which was, it is true, unnecessary) to say out, what he thought about it – and the school in body, with that particularly babyish inconsistency which forgets the facts, and remembers only impressions, branded him as a coward, refused to be taught by him, with a petition to the Headmaster (which was received!) that he should be sacked, with the result that he was sacked! His fault being excessive cowardice in declaring what so many people dare not – his conscientious objection to the war.

This is Harrow’s latest achievement and in spite of my being a Harrovian, I think it perfectly loathsome. Please don’t tell anyone about it. ...

Love to all

Your devoted son


In a letter to Lady Buxton of 18 July 192[5] Bryant writes:

Had he lived another five years I do not think there would have been any need to write of him: his own pen would have done that. As it is, I’m afraid, his poetry is too immature to do him anything but an injustice – as though Shelley were to be remembered only by what he had written before he was seventeen. ... He had that rare thing genius, as I have never seen it elsewhere: I should hate people to think him a minor poet.

In the Memoir Bryant goes a little further and invites us to see in Rupert a major literary figure in development: “... there is in his verse, young work that it is, a certain passionate innocence that I can recall in one other English poet, Emily Brontë.  That his work cannot stand any serious comparison in style to these great ones I believe to have been due to his youth only. When he died he had at last recovered his powers after a serious illness, and had even five more years of life been given him, there might well have been added another name to the roll of English poets. The Gods, loving beautiful youth, willed it otherwise.” Bryant’s judgment seems exaggerated and was probably influenced by his delight in Rupert’s company and the quality of his conversation.

Amongst Bryant’s correspondence there is a ferociously scribbled letter of 15 March 1923 from A. C. Benson concerning Rupert’s poetry. Barely legible, it contains the following criticism: Rupert’s *“imagination overpowered his thought and his love of phrases overpowered his imagination”. Happy the writer whose imagination, thought and phrasing stroll together. As illustrated by some of his letters, when freed from the restraints of writing poetry, Rupert’s prose is often lively and expressive.

Rupert’s activities in the months following his departure from Harrow were unsettled.  A January 1919 letter to his mother gives no indication of the crisis that had just occurred, which may mean that the family wanted the whole thing to blow over as soon as possible and that Rupert was in fact glad to have left the school:

27 Portugal Place


25. 1. 19

My darling mother

I am so sorry not to have answered your letter before. I have been spending a most delightful week-end at Harrow. It really was immense fun all through. On Saturday I played football with the XI and enjoyed it greatly. On Sunday Clarence and I went to meals in various school houses and dined with Ford. Everyone was amazingly friendly. I am enclosing the Bill from the School of Aviculture: I think father settled to pay it. On my way down here on Monday night I met Fowell at Liverpool Street and saw him off by his train. It is very sad to here about his bad luck. I do hope he may get out soon.

It is most exciting that R. and D. [Roden and Dorothy] are coming here for the week-end.

I see that the Guards process through London on the 22nd of March. I do wish Maurice could have been there as a captain. But he will look very smart with his M. C.

I hope father has not had any return of his flu. The weather fortunately is less atrocious now so I expect the flu will die down. Heaps of love to you all

Your devoted son


Could you please ask Father to pay the Bill as soon as possible.

The “School of Aviculture” is unknown and Rupert is next reported to be studying sciences at Cambridge, probably at Trinity. There seems to be adolescent confusion here as to what he really wanted to do. He finally transferred to Christ Church, Oxford in Michaelmas 1919, probably reading PPE.

At Oxford, Rupert stayed in the Christ Church Deanery with the future Bishop of Ripon, a family friend, who in a 17 July 1921 letter of condolence to Lady Buxton commented on Rupert’s continuing depression, and how he felt unable to help him:

... I wish I had helped him more when he was with me. But I have always had a horror of forcing any man’s confidence and though I think that this is an error on the right side, I have always felt that I have missed many opportunities. It haunts me rather, that he was often depressed and unhappy when he was with me, and I never succeeded in doing anything for him.

In Hugh Montgomery’s 29 June 1921 letter previously quoted, he says: “... I am sure Rupert will now find perhaps for the first time real peace and joy – and he may have been saved much unhappiness.”

According to Bryant, Rupert remained “deeply perturbed by his illness” until about early 1920, when he began to recover. It was about this time that his friendship with Michael developed. In spring of that year they went on a walking tour of the South Downs:

66, Eaton Place,


April 4 1920

My own darling Mother

... I have had a most successful time in Surrey with Michael Davies. I am sorry to say I did not get through a great deal of work, as the country was so lovely, and there was such a lot to do. Our last few days were the best – actually the last two we took an expedition walking from the neighbourhood of Chichester to Beachy Head, the whole length of the South Downs, keeping to the crest of the ridge all the time. ... We did 35 miles a day. I have never known such a walk for views – southward over the hills to the sea and northward over the whole expanse of Sussex and Surrey on a narrow grassy plain with steep sides covered with primroses, violets, cowslips and wood anemones. A most inspiring place to walk on. I can well understand the enthusiasm of Belloc & Kipling for the “great hills of the South Country” and the patriotism they breed. ...

Your devoted son


A letter to Arthur Bryant written just after the walking tour again contains only a passing mention of Michael but gives further insight into Rupert’s political thinking and to the atmosphere of revolutionary change that was in the air at that time:

*The Murrel



[Spring 1920]

My dear Arthur

I am very glad you wrote: I was wondering what had become of you. I am afraid this can’t be a long letter as I am very busy and have not time for myself.

I am extraordinarily interested in your predictions as to some big shock in the structure we think so all embracing. I am rather inclined to agree with you, but cannot say when, or how. We shall see – for a moment at any rate! I have always thought it a much easier thing than it is supposed to overthrow the civilisation of two or three thousand years – on every hand; and perhaps it may be easier yet.

Michael Davies – Barrie’s ward – and I walked from Felstead to Beachy Head ten days ago (the whole length of the South Sussex Downs). If you look it out you will see what a glorious thing it was. I can well understand Belloc now. We walked it in two days (perhaps too quick? but it gave us an idea of the range and the county as a whole) only stopping at Bramber and Beachy Head. Chanctonbury [Ring] was stupefying.

The flowers were quite marvellous: primroses, violets, cowslips, bluebells, anemones – carpets of them. But I must tell you more about it when we meet.

How you must have loved your walk from Salisbury to Wincombe. We must do it together one day.

Best wishes

Yours ever


In the summer Rupert made an adventurous trek down the Blue Nile to Khartoum, starting from Uganda. The family may have wanted him to take over his father’s role in the CMS:

[perhaps from the Bishop’s Palace]


East Africa

[undated, summer 1920]

My darling Grandmother

... We have been having a lovely time out in Toro and have just finished a strenuous week here at Kampala visiting CMS schools and hospitals and rather leading the social life!

Now we are starting off tomorrow to begin our journey down the Nile. It is going to be a very varied trip. We start by rail, then by steamer then by rail again, then again by steamer, then by motor, then again by steamer, then walking for 10 days – finally by steamer to Khartoum.

... I am longing to be home again, although the trip has been a great success and I have enjoyed it immensely. The English countryside can’t be beaten by Africa at any rate! ...

Ever so much love from

Your devoted Grandson


As was noted in the introduction, the Buxtons and Davieses had been on a collision course for some time. The exact circumstances of Rupert’s encounter with Michael are not recorded, but when they met they fitted together like two pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. Artistic and highly intelligent, both had felt uneasy at school (Rupert spectacularly so) and were underwhelmed by university life.

No trace has survived of their conversations together, except Barrie’s remark that they were either “very serious or wildly gay”, and possibly, and if so only partially, in the characters of David and Jonathan in Barrie’s last play The Boy David. The description of Jonathan: “cultured, good-looking, and intelligent, but not imaginative ... his chief note is of open honesty ... He is looking dejected ...” could be of Rupert, at least as Barrie saw him.

... and Michael

Barrie wrote about Michael: “I think few have suffered from the loss of a mother as he has done,” but Michael also suffered from the loss of his father. Arthur died when Michael was still six years old and his last letter of 15 April 1907 was to his fourth son, and contained the aviator’s image of the magic carpet following the railway lines to Ramsgate, as if trying to amuse him. Sylvia also wrote a cheerful letter to Michael as Arthur lay dying on 18 April. After his father’s death, Michael mentioned that he had met his father in the woods and had played a game with him. Whether this is a ghost story, or an example of Michael compensating for his father’s loss in his fantasy world, is not important here as the experience was real enough for the boy. Sending the younger children away so that they would be spared their father’s agony was motivated by kindness, but Michael, with his strong internal life and vivid imagination would have recreated the scene at Berkhamsted as a fantasy and suffered.  His parents realised all was not well, and concerned about his disquiet, they tried to cheer him up. It is significant that Barrie first mentions Michael’s nightmares in 1907, shortly after Arthur’s death.

So much in Michael’s psychology remained unresolved: the loss, the despair, the nightmares, the sleepwalking, the phobias, the loneliness ... ; he was so painfully in need of understanding. Barrie’s response was to distract him with toys and games, but as Michael grew older and became “the dour, dark and impenetrable”, his inner world becoming increasingly inaccessible to his guardian. At Eton he hid his feelings behind a mask of indifference, at times appearing to have lost interest. Part of his contribution to Speech Day, summer 1918, was presenting W. J. Cory’s wistful Amaturus  which may be found in Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury. This is how the Eton Chronicle described his over-controlled performance:

Michael Llewelyn Davies did not appear to love, or be about to love, his speech, but considering his lack of enthusiasm, he did quite well. Why could he not have let himself go in something he really liked? He need have had no fear: no murder would have been committed.

Out of Michael’s poetic work, only one notable sonnet remains, written during the August 1920 holiday with Barrie on Eilean Shona in the Western Isles of Scotland. Its companion piece, Island of sleep, was judged inferior by Michael himself and crossed out. Why so very little of Michael’s writing (young poets tend to produce a great deal) was preserved is impossible to say. The obvious but cruel explanation is that it was not worth preserving, but Peter (for his own reasons) may have destroyed what there was in the early 1950s.

Barrie quoted the sonnet in Courage, the Rectorial Address to the Students of St Andrews University, and introduced it saying: “He often gaily forgets, and thinks he has slain his foe by daring him, like he who, dreading water, was always the first to leap into it. One can see him serene, astride a Scotch cliff, singing to the sun the farewell thanks of a boy ...”. I quote here the sonnet in Michael’s original version – that is without Barrie’s later alterations, the most important being the substitution of serene for secure in the first line, and the substitution of beauty for duty in the seventh.

Throned on a cliff, secure, Man saw the sun

hold a red torch above the farthest seas,

and the fierce island pinnacles put on

in his defence their sombre panoplies;

foremost the white mists eddied, trailed, and spun

like seekers, emulous to clasp his knees;

till all the duty of the scene seemed one

led by the secret whispers of the breeze.

The sun’s torch suddenly flashed upon his face

and died; and he sat content in subject night

and dreamed of an old dead foe that had sought and found him;

a beast stirred boldly in his resting-place;

and the cold came; Man rose to his master-height,

shivered, and turned away; but the mists were round him.

This poem describes Michael’s solitary meditations while on the island and ends in confusion and retreat. The writing has some striking visual images and examples of Michael’s technical cleverness, for example the sequence pin-nacles, pan-oplies,

s-pun. Furthermore, both this poem and Island of Sleep contain pan, either as the syllable above, or as the god’s name, making the reader wonder if, taken together, the poems are partly at least a private joke between Michael and Uncle Jim. There is a more important question: who is the old dead foe?

Michael’s waking nightmares which had haunted him since early childhood involved searching the room for an enemy who had intruded. Barrie himself commented on this, and also on his wish that he had woken Michael in the middle of the nightmare so that the intruder could at last be identified, as if it were essential for Michael’s well being that the foe be named. In the sestet of this sonnet Michael presents the intruder as a character, but fails to make clear who he, or what it, is. Only hearing the poem’s atmospheric quality is self-indulgence; there is no beauty in Michael’s tormented inner world and his failure to exorcise it. Barrie’s revisions unbalance a work where the “secure” octave is set against the highly insecure sestet: Michael diminished the sunset scene by calling it a “duty”, clearly placing the weight of the poem in the horror of the final lines. The sonnet’s shallow verbal cleverness heightens the feeling of dislocation between Michael’s polished outer persona and the grief and fright within. Anyone with any love for Michael, and with the foreknowledge of what lay ahead of him, would wish that he had purged himself of this haunting, destructive presence in the summer of 1920.                                                                                        

The sonnet is an unanswered cry for help, an unheard cry of pain and the only response now is a sorrowful silence. Poor Michael: trapped and doomed.


At the end of the holiday, in the autumn of 1920, Michael’s life went through another crisis: he firstly withdrew from Christ Church, announcing this in a letter to his tutor Robin Dundas on 9 September, with a hint he had not done well in the exams: “Your emotions will not, I know, be violently stirred, when I say I am not going up to Oxford again; surprise, pity or wrath can scarcely have survived the thrashing of last term ...”, and then on 15 September, having changed his mind, writing to Dundas asking: “should I possibly be allowed to creep into the house again in October, into some obscure corner?”, adding, with a mixture of arrogance and lack of confidence: “I dislike always bringing up the whole question of my existence before you”.

Michael had gone up with a number of his Eton friends, in particular Roger Senhouse, Edward Marjoribanks, Robert Boothby and also Alastair Grahame, Kenneth Grahame’s unfortunate son. Senhouse at least is definitely known to have been homosexual; his relationship with Lytton Strachey is infamous and Michael was photographed with Strachey at Garsington Manor in summer 1920. Strachey’s obvious (the photographs show him grinning like the wolf coming down on the fold) interest in Michael may be explained by his friendship with Michael’s uncle Theodore, but Michael is nevertheless implicated in one of the homosexual cliques at Oxford; by association Rupert is implicated, too. This has led some writers

to state unconditionally that Michael and Rupert were homosexuals, and that they concealed the sexual nature of their friendship in order to avoid a public scandal (a recent play by Barry Lowe, The Death of Peter Pan presented Rupert and Michael as lovers, and in the dimmer reaches of cyber Nether Land may be found Michael Barrie, victim of homophobia, who committed suicide in 1915). However, all that may be said with accuracy is that both boys at this particular time in their (very young) lives had a strong need for sympathetic masculine company, which is not the same as saying they were homosexuals.

Whether they were sexually involved is unknown, but as it would involve both young men, against their known characters, leading secret “double” lives, deceiving both their families and their friends, it is more likely that they were not. Still, their friendship was exclusive, a kind of folie à deux but with beneficial results. Reginald Colquhoun writing to Lady Buxton remarked: “[Rupert] and Michael were inseparable and the death of either alone would have been terrible beyond all words to the other. ... They were a peerless couple ...”. In his 31 May 1921 letter to Lady Buxton Barrie says how Rupert took him “in hand”, as if Rupert were playing a parental role in the friendship. It is conjecture, but did Rupert also play a parental or older brother role with Michael? Whatever the case, their closeness provoked a jealousy that grated on Boothby ever after.

Bryant describes Rupert as having a great many friends, in a way, too many, and he was much in demand socially and on the sports field; it would be wrong to think of him as an isolated or lonely person. Besides Michael he had at least one other very close friend: Edward Hogg, “Teddy”. However, the worrying reports of depression continued during his first year at Oxford, and he was experiencing difficulty with the exams:

 ... I am afraid I have not been at all comfortable in the [exam] papers, and seriously consider it doubtful if I have passed. One must face the situation – still it is not very important, I find, to pass this time. (Rupert to his Grandmother, spring 1920)

 It was this summer that he made his trip down the Nile, which may have helped to restore his confidence and interest in life. Rupert’s state of mind started to improve, and by the beginning of 1921 he was thinking far beyond the confines of Oxford University. First of all there was a trip to Norway, which depended on Michael: “The Norway project is rather vague still, I’m sorry to say. Michael may not be able to go, in which case it will have to be given up”. (letter of 6 Feb 1921 to his Mother)

Rupert was also keeping a cool eye on the political scene of the period. His uncle Charles had recently returned from a visit to the infant Soviet Union, and wanted to write a book about his experiences. He asked Rupert for his advice:


March 1921

My dear Charlie

... As you ask me to say what I think on this subject of a book I will give one or two comments ... The unpublished half of “Exit Regent Street” points ... to the possibility of a very powerful book politically, if you contemplated discussing the big principles of Russian communism ... and illustrating them from your own experience in Russia. This however you do not wish to do; and that leads to the question of your object in writing a book at all.

You say to “interest people in the Russian people under their present terrible circumstances” and to show that you see good as well as bad in the Communistic government. In fact you wish to present the facts ... and leave conclusions to the intelligence of your readers; to promote sympathy with the people of Russia, but not to conduct a case on behalf of the new social system ... . This, as I read it, is your object. Is it a legitimate one? I think not. If one fact is clear it is that these new principles call in question the very foundation of that system on which ... the capitalist states take their stand. It is a case of accept or destroy: the two systems are mutually pernicious. One or other must go under. It is our business to decide which. The situation, tragic though the fact is, does not admit of your plea “Give them a chance”, because this thing is no remote and picturesque development which we can afford to encourage for its very remoteness. If we are to destroy it we must destroy it now. ... those who fought against the French revolution did ... suppress the revolutionary principle in the form in which it was pernicious to them, for they compelled the revolutionaries to prostitute their high ideals ... and to adopt those very reactionary principles which they had so lately condemned.

[You should] write about what is happening in Russia ... [This was] wanting in Europe in 1790 and [is] wanting now. ... But – and here I am open to correction - there seems to be an uncertainty in your mind. The articles which I have read ... suggest that you ... are not quite certain that the new building which is springing up ... will satisfy you ...

But here I am on the sixth side already, having written the longest letter for three years. ...

Best love to you and Aunt Dorothy,

Yours affectionately


It was now late April 1921, and the last time Bryant met Rupert; they discussed Rupert’s latest venture which was rather different from what his family had in mind for his future:

On the way home he described with vivid details his new and odd experiences as a cinema actor. He was very amused by these, determined that it was going to be profitable, and anxious that I should come with him one day and act too.  The whole affair was typically casual and Rupert-like, down to his pride in acting; he acted two or three times a week in a film in which he had an interest. I pointed out that the cost of the railway fares alone would neutralise any future profit, unless he could hope to develop splay feet, the correct bowler and baggy trousers essential to the film millionaire. But he only laughed. (deleted passage from Memoir)

Rupert’s family wanted (as do all families) that he eventually settle down and find his place in the world. Given Rupert’s sympathy for emotionally wounded people, Lady Buxton was concerned about those with whom he associated. Remembering Rupert’s interest in people with eye problems, he had befriended Alastair Grahame, blind in one eye and with a severe squint in the other, and invited him to Woodredon, where Alastair enjoyed playing the two manual organ at Warlies. Alastair was, according to most accounts, difficult as a person and is likely to have made a bad impression; his horrific suicide on the railway line across Port Meadow, Oxford in May 1920 would have added to the family’s worries.

As for Michael, Sir Jocelyn remembers that Lady Buxton did not wholeheartedly approve of their friendship, mainly because of Michael’s association with Barrie. Strongly religious, she disapproved of Barrie’s divorce. Also, as an Eton parent herself with two boys in Macnaghten’s, she may have already encountered Barrie (and Michael) at the school; Barrie’s later attempt to befriend Rupert’s older sister Lucy (“I should like by and by to be allowed to see Rupert’s sister, with the hope that she might come in time to look on me as a friend.” (letter to Lady Buxton, 31 May 1921)) was discouraged.  

After the Easter holidays, Michael was preparing for final schools, which coinciding with his twenty first birthday would mean that he had both reached the age of majority and fulfilled his obligation to his family to achieve his degree. He would have felt an approaching freedom from constraint, and was probably planning to go abroad in the summer, first to Paris, then later further afield. One detail of this period has survived: there was industrial unrest in Easter 1921 and the government, over-reacting, stationed troops in Hyde Park to deal with any civil disorder. Michael volunteered as a private in the London Scottish Regiment, although there was no compulsion on him to do so, and briefly joined his regiment under canvas.

Michael’s apparent enthusiasm for the military life and preparedness to fire on strikers and demonstrators – this was the period of the Amritsar riots in India and the Black and Tan operations in Ireland - should be taken into account when considering his personality and political persuasions; he seems to have agreed with Rupert’s thoughts about Bolshevism: “If we are to destroy it we must destroy it now.” In any case, Barrie’s remark about “Major Davies” may not have been simply humorous. The emergency did not last long, and the two boys spent the remainder of the holiday studying at an inn by Corfe Castle, Dorset, where Barrie joined them.

And this brings the narrative to the unremarkable last weeks of their lives about which very little is known, except that during a boating trip with some friends, not it seems including Rupert, Michael became very nervous, warning that he could not swim, when one of the party started rocking the boat.

As they wandered down to Sandford, one may imagine the two friends as happy enough in themselves, perhaps not doing quite as well academically as their school work had promised, but otherwise, and as is the case with most young men of 21, with the whole of their lives ahead of them.  

Thursday 19 May 1921

The afternoon of 19 May was pleasantly warm as the boys left Oxford for the four or five mile walk down the Thames to Sandford. Friends who met them as they were leaving Christ Church noticed nothing unusual in their behaviour, and according to Bryant and others they had been to Sandford together to swim several times before.

About a mile above the village, the Thames (flowing north to south) divides into two equal streams, coming together again just above the lock, the land in between forming a forested island. Three quarters of the way down the western course there is a dam, half of concrete piers separating mechanical sluice gates, the other half a breakwater of descending granite steps. Across the top runs a railed walkway, in the middle of which, pointing skywards like an exclamation mark, stands a memorial obelisk to the drowned. The dam controlled the flow of water to a paper mill which was situated 200 yards downstream, by the lock. The mill, now long demolished, was an unsightly Victorian building with a tall chimney. The whole assembly of weir and factory was an ugly industrial intrusion into the open Oxfordshire countryside, but just beneath the steel and stone of the barrier, the river momentarily forms a still pool, 60 yards or more across, with wooded heights and willows on the banks trailing their branches in the inviting water; cascades spilling over the granite breakwater splash and tinkle with a silvery echo; and it is these pleasing things, with its isolation from Oxford and its crowds of noisy undergraduates, which give Sandford pool its special attraction as a place to bathe and relax on a hot afternoon.  

On that early summer’s day, the boys followed the western bank of the diversion down to the pool, undressed leaving their clothes in little piles on the bank and jumped in. The plan was for the athletic Rupert, six foot two inches tall, “of gigantic physical strength” and a powerful swimmer, to give Michael a lesson. Rupert could move around freely, but Michael was supposed to stay in the shallows by the bank where his feet could touch the riverbed. Then they would horse around a bit before drying off and making their way back to Oxford for tea. Rupert did not realise that Michael’s phobia was so serious that he was a dangerous liability in deep water: he could not swim because he was terrified of immersion for psychological reasons that may have been related to his nightmares and sleepwalking. Michael’s uncle Theodore drowned in 1905, and this may have frightened the impressionable five year old boy, but his phobia, though recognised by his family, was not understood then, and any attempt to understand its cause is now impossible. Everything seemed to come so easily to Michael; he was naturally very attractive and his intellectual and sporting achievements always appeared effortless, to the envy of his brother Nico, who had to work to get on. The one thing Michael could not do was swim, and rather than accept this he worried at it, over and over again as if it were some unbearable personal imperfection. Nico had his revenge here as he could swim well enough, and remembered his brilliant older brother floundering about in rubber water wings one day when they visited Silchester Road baths together.

Rupert assumed that if there were any problems his prowess would prevent any mishap. His faults where excessive carelessness, arrogance, obstinacy ... the witnesses working on the bank saw one of the men swim over to the granite steps, and sit there in the warm sun. This was Rupert, as Michael could not swim that far. The other followed him but about half way across got into difficulties. This was Michael, trying to keep up, unable to admit this was something he could not do.  He started to panic, there was a shout, Rupert swam over to Michael to see what was wrong, approaching from the front, as is natural, but illustrating why the life saving course says always approach from behind, because overwhelmed by fear Michael clung hold of Rupert and dragged them both down. In that instant of confusion, Rupert, despite his strength, was helpless, and they both drowned. Et in arcadia ego.

The manner in which the boys died provoked rumour and speculation that they committed suicide together in a pact, or that one died saving the other from suicide - even that Rupert murdered Michael and then took his own life. These possibilities would make a powerful climax to a screen play but there is absolutely no evidence to support them. Although both boys could be gravely depressed at times, it was always obvious to others in their behaviour, and no one noticed anything unusual about them that afternoon. In fact, the writer of the Harrovian obituary thought that they had never looked better. No motive has been suggested for suicide and the whole dynamic of what happened suggests an unpredictable but avoidable accident, rather than a deliberate intention.

As for the murder rumour, a possible model for this might be the homosexual relationship between Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, where Halliwell was both envious of Orton’s theatrical success and deliberately provoked by him to murderous rage through taunts and humiliations. There is no evidence that Michael and Rupert were homosexuals or involved in a homosexual affair, only an assumption that they were. No one says that Michael taunted Rupert; it is not known what passed between them as they walked down to Sandford, and they may have had an argument on the way, but this is speculation. Why in any case would Rupert have been envious of Michael? He was taller and stronger. Michael was very attractive in an elfin way but Rupert’s beauty was more masculine. He was just as intellectually able as Michael and similarly gifted with literary ability.  Socially Rupert came from a wealthy aristocratic family - if anything, the suburban Michael, dependent on Uncle Jim’s generosity, would have envied him. Rupert was not a violent man: Bryant says his tennis playing was violent, but this is letting off steam in an appropriate activity. Neither the murder nor the suicide theories fits the description of the event given by the witnesses on the bank and both should be discounted.

Although a pathologist made a brief statement (closed to the public under the 100 year rule) at the inquest, it is not clear whether there was a formal post mortem examination of the bodies and it remains a possibility that Michael, who was often said to be in poor health (although no one ever says what was wrong with him) suffered a heart attack or stroke, perhaps brought on by the exertion of swimming. This theory is plausible (young men are occasionally struck down) but speculative, and does not in any way detract from the understanding that the drowning was accidental.

There remains the question that Rupert and Michael may have shared a more-or-less unconscious death wish. The boys did not drown by being swept away by the Lasher’s current: the sluices were closed and the pool was quite still that day; when the bodies were recovered they were found in almost the same spot as where they went down. Rupert was taking no more risk swimming at Sandford than he would have done in a municipal swimming bath. Although Michael was behaving extremely foolishly by going into deep water and endangering both himself and any other with him, this is not the same as saying he wanted to die, or harm anyone else. Compared to other kinds of risk taking, Michael’s reluctance to wear the humiliating rubber water wings seems less than death-inviting. Until compelling evidence appears to contradict, the inquest’s verdict of accidental death should be accepted.

 *  *  *  *  *

Christ Church, Oxford

19 May 1921

Dear Madam

It is with the deepest grief that I have to inform you that your son, Mr Rupert E. V. Buxton was drowned this afternoon at Sandford – about two miles from here.

It seems he went with a friend Mr Llewelyn Davies, to bathe in the “lasher”, a deep pool below a sort of weir; one of them got into difficulties, the other tried to save him, and ultimately both were drowned; the bodies have not yet been recovered.

This terrible catastrophe has cast the deepest gloom over the House, where both your son and Mr Davies were greatly loved & respected. I cannot express the grief we all feel and the sympathy we would all extend to you in your terrible and sudden bereavement. ... I am sending a copy of this letter to your other address, & I hope one or other will reach you before the announcement comes in the newspapers.

With deepest sympathy

Believe me

Yours very sincerely

H. J. White. Dean

Barrie would have received a similar communication, but unfortunately he had first heard of the accident from a reporter; by 31 May he had sufficiently recovered to write to Rupert’s mother, Lady Buxton. In this letter he gives the strongest description he ever made of his relationship with Michael:

Michael was son and daughter to me, and all I have been doing of any account in the last ten years was trying to be father and mother to him. I cared for him a great deal too much ... and one of my grand ambitions for Michael was that he should form a deep friendship for some one worthy of him ... Rupert was the one great friend of his life.

By implication Barrie is also saying that he thought Senhouse, Boothby and the others unworthy of Michael’s friendship. Michael was very taken by his new friend, and Barrie also gives the best description of the enthusiasm the two had for each other:

[Michael] has often talked to me about [his friendship with Rupert], sometimes for hours, far into the night, reappearing to do it after he had gone to bed, and the last letter I had from him on the day they died, was largely about your boy.

He describes his own growing friendship with Rupert - had he been one of the excited children who packed the Duke of York’s for early performances of Peter Pan? - that took place during late 1920 and early 1921:

I suppose I knew Rupert more intimately than you [Lady Buxton] knew Michael. ... Rupert treated me quite differently from any other of my boys’ friends. They were always polite and edged away from me ... but [Rupert] took for granted that Michael’s friend should be mine also. ... I shall never forget the glee with which [Michael] told me ... that Rupert was going to ask me to dinner all alone, and how I hoped Rupert would, and how he did and also came to me. I was very proud of his treating me in that way, and Michael knew I liked it, and I daresay the two of them chuckled over it, for they could both be very gay tho’ neither was facing life lightly. They were either wildly gay or very serious as they walked together to Sandford.

Until recently the assumption has been that Michael was drawing away from Uncle Jim and even rejecting him, but this letter makes clear that though the relationship was changing, it was doing so in a friendly way and that Michael himself was developing from the “dour, dark and impenetrable” to a more open personality. In a letter to Elizabeth Lucas of 27 February 1921 Barrie wrote:

[Michael] is working hard and really enjoying his life at Oxford for the present at least. He has the oddest way of alternating between extraordinary reserve and surprising intimacy. No medium. In his room at Oxford lately he suddenly unbosomed himself marvellously.

 It adds to the sense of tragic waste that at the time of the accident Rupert and Michael were recovering their lives, in the words of the Harrovian :

They had never been so happy as during their last term: Rupert was looking bronzed and flourishing; Michael, who we have been accustomed to see rather pale, almost sallow, was distinctly improving in health. He could not have been fitter ...

Until that fine day in spring 1921, the two young men were very good for each other, and Rupert’s benign influence was also cheering J. M. Barrie’s life.

Barrie and Lady Buxton remained in polite correspondence, in these final examples instigated by Lady Buxton, exchanging letters on the anniversary of the accident until Barrie’s death in 1937:

Adelphi Terrace, W

24 May 1935

Dear Lady Buxton

My affectionate regards to you again for your letter about May 19th. I only got it an hour ago on my return from a fortnight abroad. It is a letter I like to get very much. I should be saddened if it did not come. It brings me very close to him.

J. M. Barrie

I now see that it was this night on which Colonel Lamarc died, who was a friend of mine.

Adelphi Terrace, W

20 May 1936

Dear Lady Buxton

Thank you from my heart for your very kind letter at this time. It all seems very vivid to you and me, and to most of course far away. A link between us at any rate that will not be severed in life.

Yours affectionately

J. M. Barrie

Adelphi Terrace, W

20 May 1937

Dear Lady Buxton

Thank you warmly for your letter about that day which means so much to you and me. I was not able to answer it at once as for days and indeed weeks I have been down with sciatica and other troubles but am getting a little better and I do thank you from my heart once more.

Yours very sincerely

J. M. Barrie

The above must be one of the last letters Barrie wrote.

To end, here is a poem of Rupert’s from 1918, one of his last before he stopped writing. It has found a place in English poetry for its simple charm and warmth: Rupert’s best qualities - and Michael’s, too:


Shall we meet again, dear friend,

When the Winter’s at an end,

And Spring goes dancing down the woodland ways:

When the old grey tired earth

Wakens at her sunny mirth

And smiles to think of golden Summer days?

Shall we meet again, dear friend,

When the blossomed branches bend

And woo the earth with perfumed sighs, and weep

Their beautiful starry tears:

When the last red sunbeam peers

At the first red rose of summer in her sleep?

Shall we meet again, dear friend,

When the leaves of Autumn blend

Their fiery tints with evening skies of gold,

When the dews are on the grass,

And the west winds softly pass

And breathe no whisper of the Winter’s cold?

We shall meet again, I’m sure,

For the gifts of God endure

Eternally, beyond the reach of pain;

And, if you should die, I know,

Ere the light of hope burns low,

Your spirit will come back to me again.

* * * *

November 2007

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