How J.M. Barrie took celebrity cricket to the Cotswolds

  • The Allahakbarries

The little-known story of how the Peter Pan author gathered his literary friends in the Cotswold village of Broadway to play a bit of cricket...

Today the Cotswolds is world-famous as the rural retreat of some of the world's biggest stars. But it is perhaps less well known that – well over a hundred years ago – the celebrities of the day began concentrating in a small Worcestershire village to do little more than play a few ridiculous games of cricket.

That Worcestershire village was Broadway, and the man responsible for it all was the diminutive scot, J.M. Barrie – better known for writing Peter Pan than his sporting aptitude.

Indeed, the short, slight Barrie may have been no great shakes at the game itself, but this didn't stop him from assembling and captaining his own crack team of celebrity chums, active between 1890 and 1913.

Their name formed from a misappropriated Arabic phrase (meaning 'God is Great', rather than 'Heaven help us' as Barrie had perhaps believed), the Allahakbarries boasted some truly famous players - though all of them chiefly known for their cultural rather than athletic accomplishments. A professional dramatist and a master of theatre, Barrie made the every Allahakbarrie game a big production of which he was the director.

J.M.Barrie

Barrie's friendly rivalry with the Broadway team captain, the beautiful American actress Mary de Navarro, was the nucleus of the Broadway tests. Barrie wasn't even the best-known author to play at the village - his starry line-up included none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as well as many other men of great reputation, including writers, magazine editors and cartoonists.

Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne, Jeeves and Wooster author P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome were amongst those who joined the ranks of the Allahakbarries, though not all of these luminaries played in Worcestershire. Barrie repeatedly tried to lure H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man, to come and play at Broadway, but Wells – resolutely disinterested in cricket – refused.

Wryly honest when weighing up the merits of his team (Jerome K. Jerome was 'a great cricketer, at heart,' and another player was a 'very safe bat [when travelling] on the train' but 'loses confidence when told to go in'), Barrie must be the least likely captain in all of history. Unlike the tall, competent Conan Doyle (who often played cricket professionally, featuring in ten matches for MCC and having even bowled cricketing legend WG Grace), he was hardly the most fitting candidate for a cricketer in the first place.

'If you had met Barrie, a cricketer was about the last thing that you would have imagined him to be. For he was small, frail and sensitive, rather awkward in his movements, and there was nothing athletic in his appearance,' wrote 'junior' Allahakbarrie Philip Carr.

He compensated for his stature by throwing his sizeable spirit into the game. Full of wit and mischief, he wrote ironic literature extolling the virtues and accomplishments of his team. The impishly humorous Allahakbarries C.C., stuffed full of cartoons, takes the reader on a tour of Barrie's Broadway, where he insists 'it was certainly to Broadway that Caius retired when he fled from the city. Here Caesar probably played many fine innings of a Sunday afternoon.' First editions of the book are today highly sought by collectors.

J.M. Barrie's Allahakbarries C.C.

His 'dear enemy' in the village, Mary de Navarro, had retired from the American theatrical circuit to Broadway at around the age of thirty, where she cultivated her musical interests and became well-known as a hostess, creating her own circle of distinguished friends – including composer Edward Elgar. (As a matter of fact, Oscar Wilde penned his very first play for her; alas, she wasn't much interested in it). It was this circle of influential painters and writers, the 'artists', which would prove the opposition for the Allahakbarries. Navarro herself bowled out Barrie in 1897, much to the amusement of all.

The first 'Artists vs. Writers' match was played in the garden of Russell House, then occupied by the painter Frank Millet. Barrie and de Navarro plotted their future matches through written correspondence and planned to include 'wild sports' such as sack racing. Barrie's letters were typically playfully competitive and, as you'd expect from a writer of his stature, rather amusing. Take, for instance:

'[The Allahakbarries see] a wistfulness on your face as if, after having lorded over mankind, you had at last met your match...As one captain speaking to another, I would beg you not to let your team see you are hopeless of their winning. It would only demoralise them further.'

Later, in the same letter, he writes: '...I want to be like you in your nobler moments. Teach me your fascinating ways. Teach me to grow your face. Teach me how you manage to be born anew every morning. In short, I will make you a sporting offer. Teach me all these things, and I will teach your team how to play cricket.'

The arrival of the Great War may have put put paid to such frolics. One Allahakbarrie met his end in that conflict - George Llewelyn Davies, one of the children said to have inspired the character of Peter Pan. The time for such escapades had passed. Yet in recent years the Allahakbarries have been remembered in special matches commemorating their spirit and legacy.

Today, Barrie's legacy is still visible in the village of Stanway. Built by John Oakey of Winchcombe, a pavillion was gifted by the author to the local cricket club (he stayed in the nearby Stanway House during the 1920s). Distinctive for its mushroom-like saddle-stone supports, the appealing structure is a fitting testament to the enthusiasm he brought to the Cotswolds.

The Broadway matches feature prominently in Kevin Telfer's Allahakbarrie book Peter Pan's First XI, where they are explored in greater detail than is possible here.