W. S. Gilbert (1836-1911)

English dramatist, librettist, poet and illustrator, born on 18 November 1836 in London.  While travelling with his parents, Gilbert, supposedly at the age of two or three, was kidnapped and redeemed for the equivalent of twenty-five pounds sterling.  Such strange experiences provided the basic ingredients of his later drawings or comic operas, and developed into his unique ‘topsy-turvy’ style.  He also used his childhood nickname ‘Bab’ in the titles of his ballad collections and signed his drawings ‘Bab’ regularly.

Gilbert went to school in Boulogne, France, and attended Western Grammar School at Brompton, London, and the prestigious Great Ealing School.  In 1853, he entered King’s College, London, and began to be actively involved in art, literature and writing. At the same time, he became interested in the army and attempted to enter the Royal Artillery with the aim of going to the Crimea, but the end of the war compelled him to give up starting a military career.  His interest in military affairs is reflected later in his work.

In 1863, he was called to the bar and joined the northern circuit, but without much success.  However, he became a regular contributor to a comic journal, Fun, in 1861, and for ten years he wrote articles as a drama critic and comic ballads accompanied by his own drawings.  He occasionally contributed to Punch and the Illustrated Times.  These satirical and humorous verses soon gained wide popularity, and forty-four of them (thirty-four of them illustrated) were selected and published as the first of his ballad collections, The ‘Bab’ Ballads, in 1869.  The second volume, More ‘Bab’ Ballads, appeared in 1872, including thirty-five ballads (all illustrated), and fifty of his own favorites appeared in the collection Fifty ‘Bab’ Ballads in 1876, including “Etiquette”.

From 1871 to 1896, Gilbert produced fourteen comic operas in collaboration with Sir Arthur Sullivan, of which thirteen were called ‘Savoy Operas’, and enjoyed great success throughout England.  The most successful include HMS Pinafore (Opera Comique, 25 May 1878), one of the most popular comic operas, The Pirates of Penzance (Fifth Avenue Theatre, New York, 31 December 1879) which reflects the abduction of ‘Bab’, and The Mikado (Savoy Theatre, 14 March 1885) which has its setting in Japan.

In 1891, Gilbert excerpted sixty-nine lyrics from the Savoy Operas, each with a new title and some with slight revisions, and he published them as Songs of a Savoyard.  He seemed to have also considered calling the volume The Savoy Ballads.   (N. M.)


1.Ellen McJones Aberdeen  
2.Emily, John, James, and I  
4.General John  
5.Gentle Alice Brown  
6.Sir Guy the Crusader  
7.The Story of Prince Agib  
8.The Yarn of the “Nancy Bell”