John Gillespie Ma-gee was born in Shanghai, China, to an American father and a British mother, who both worked as Anglican missionaries. His father, John Magee Senior, was from a family of some wealth and influence in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Magee Senior chose to become an Episcopal priest and was sent as a missionary to China. Whilst there he met his future wife, Faith Emmeline Backhouse, who came from Helmingham in Suffolk and was a member of the Church Missionary Society. Magee’s parents married in 1921, and their first child, John Junior, was born 9 June 1922, the eldest of four brothers.
Magee began his education at the American School in Nanking in 1929. In 1931 he moved with his mother to the UK and spent the following four years at St. Clare, a boarding school for boys, near Walmer, in Kent.
He attended Rugby School from 1935 to 1939. He developed his poetry whilst at the school and in 1938 he won the school’s Poetry Prize. He was deeply moved by the roll of honour of Rugby pupils who had fallen in the First World War. This list of the fallen included the celebrated war poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915), whose work Magee greatly admired. Brooke had won the school poetry prize thirty-four years prior to Magee. The prize-winning poem by Magee referred to Brooke’s burial at 11 o’clock at night in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros.
Whilst at Rugby, Magee met and fell in love with Elinor Lyon, the daughter of P. H. B. Lyon, the headmaster. She became the inspiration for many of Magee’s poems. Though his love was not returned, he remained friends with Elinor and her family.
Magee visited the United States in 1939. Because of the outbreak of World War II, he was unable to return to Rugby for his final school year, and instead attended Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. He earned a scholarship to Yale University in July 1940, but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year.