William Schwenck Gilbert was born in London in 1836, the son of a retired naval surgeon and the eldest of four children. He spent his early years travelling in France and Italy with his parents until they returned to London in 1856. His early education was in Boulogne, then at Western Grammar School, Brompton, and latterly at Great Ealing School. He went on to King’s College, London University, graduating in 1856.
On leaving university he joined the Civil Service, working in the Privy Council Office. In 1859 he joined the Militia, a part-time volunteer force in which he served until 1878. He left the Civil Service to become a barrister but failed to attract a sufficient number of clients and gave this up. During his time in the Civil Service he wrote a number of stories, comic sketches and theatre reviews to supplement his income. He became the London correspondent for L’Invalide Russe and a drama critic for the Illustrated London Times. He went to France in 1870 to cover the Franco-Prussian War for the Observer newspaper.
In 1867 he married Lucy Agnes Turner, who was 11 years his junior. His first play, Uncle Baby, was performed in 1863. He wrote several pantomimes in the mid-1860s and a number of fairy comedies in the 1870s. His collaboration with Arthur Sullivan began in 1871 with Thespis or the Gods Grown Old, but their first major triumph was with Trial by Jury. Together, over the next 20 years or so, under the management of Richard D’Oyly Carte, they produced a string of comic operas which are still popular today. Gilbert also created librettos for other composers. He was honoured with a knighthood in 1907 and died at the age of 74 after a heart attack brought on by his rescue of a woman from a lake on his country estate, Grim’s Dyke in Harrow Weald.
Although best known for his 14 comic operas produced in collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan, he also wrote over 75 plays and short stories, and an extensive collection of light verse, poems, lyrics, and ballads. The style of his poetry is jaunty, pleasing, and humorous with some very clever wordplay and original rhyming. Both in his comic operas and poems he was not afraid to use satire to poke fun at establishment figures, which occasionally got him into hot water.