LONDON -- Time has caught up with Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn't grow up.

The copyright on the classic children's story, bequeathed to London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, expired Thursday -- 50 years after the death of author J.M. Barrie.

Barrie's story of a boy who never became old, but who could fly and fight pirate Captain Hook in Never-Never Land, grew out of tales he spun for five orphaned boys. The play was first performed in 1904, followed by a story, "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens," in 1906 and the play in book form in 1911.

When Barrie died in 1937, he willed the copyright to the hospital for the maximum 50 years permitted by British law -- with the provision it never reveal how much it earned in royalties.

"It's made a considerable contribution to the life and well-being of the hospital," General Manager Sir Anthony Tippet said Thursday in typical British understatement. "It leaves a gap."

British news reports speculated the royalties from fans of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and the three Darling children amounted to several million dollars over the years. The money helped the 146-year-old hospital provide up-to-date medical equipment and treatment, giving it a world-class reputation that attracts young patients from far and wide.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, had his appendix removed there as a child.

"Peter Pan" is playing to packed houses at the Cambridge Theater in London's West End, and British singer Lulu, who plays the leading role, said the audience is not made up entirely of children.

"In the evenings it's mostly grown-ups, funny enough," she said in a British Broadcasting Corp. television interview. "It's become sort of a cult. It's fascinating the number of people that just love it and know practically every line. You know, you hardly get it out of your mouth and they're laughing."

George Cole, the actor who plays Captain Hook, says theaters performing "Peter Pan" in the future should continue to make contributions to the hospital, which is trying to raise $56 million to expand and modernize.

"I think one must prevail on people who do 'Peter Pan' from now on to contribute something to Great Ormond Street," Cole said. "And if they don't, we'll label them rat finks."