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Gilbert at King's

The College Archives throw new light on Gilbert’s life as an undergraduate – long before Sullivan

ws-gilbertEagle-eyed observers of the College’s ‘Hall of Fame’ in the Strand windows may have noticed that we wrongly recorded the subject of W S Gilbert’s degree at King’s as engineering. In fact, the librettist (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) whose death centenary falls this year, gained his BA by taking a University of London general degree in 1857, after studying at King’s between 1853 and 1855.

Gilbert’s degree required him to pass exams in classics; Grecian, Roman and English history; mathematics and natural philosophy; animal physiology; logic and moral philosophy, and either French or German.

Although he cannot be said to have had an engineering degree (or a law degree, which some have supposed on the grounds that he went on to become a barrister), the syllabus he followed for ‘mathematics and natural philosophy’ did include some topics useful to engineers, such as arithmetic and algebra; geometry; plane trigonometry; mechanics; hydrostatics, hydraulics and pneumatics, and astronomy.


William Schwenk Gilbert was born in 1836, the eldest child and only son of the surgeon turned author Dr William Gilbert.

He was educated at the Western Grammar School, Brompton, and the Great Ealing School where he was Head Boy.  Records in the College Archives show that he was first enrolled as an ‘occasional’ student at King’s in March 1853 and then in September 1853 as a ‘regular’ student in the College’s Department of General Literature and Science.

The subjects he took at King’s (between the Michaelmas term of 1853 and the Michaelmas term of 1855, with a gap in the Easter term of 1855) were divinity, history, classics, mathematics and French, with a possible short dabble in German.

The student Reports book shows he received generally good reports for his English studies, though variable ones for other subjects. In the Lent term of 1854, for example, his divinity performance was described as ‘indifferent’, and in French he was ‘frequently absent’ and ‘inattentive’, with ‘more application required’.In classics however his work was ‘much improved’, and his marks for English and English composition ranged from ‘Good’ to ‘Very good’.


The idea that Gilbert studied engineering may have arisen from a report in W O Skeat’s account of the King’s College London Engineering Society 1847-1857 (not dated, but probably published in 1957).

Skeat records various signs of decline in the Engineering Society in the early 1850s, and records that on 31 October 1854, ‘at an Extraordinary Meeting, it was proposed and seconded, under a motion from a member named Geary, “that this Society be dissolved and that its funds and property be devoted to the founding of a Shakespearean Reading Society.” An amendment moved by a certain W S Gilbert was then carried, that the Society be also called a Dramatic as well as a Shakespearean Reading Society.’

The resolution was subsequently approved by the Principal (Dr Jelf) and Gilbert became Secretary of this society. Skeat also records, however, that in November 1857, ‘as soon as was decently possible’ after Gilbert’s graduation, the Engineering Society reassumed its proper title (becoming the ‘Engineering and Scientific Society’ in 1858).

Downing Street

Gilbert’s address after leaving King’s is given in the College records as ‘Ed Dept Downing Street’, reflecting the fact that after he took his degree he became an assistant clerk in the education department of the Privy Council Office.

A year or two later he inherited funds which enabled him to have an income of £300, and he then left his government job to become a barrister, having already entered the Inner Temple as a student.

He was called to the bar in November 1863, and after practising in London he joined the northern circuit in March 1866. However, in 1861 he had become a contributor to a new comic weekly magazine, Fun, and his career as a journalist, critic, translator, short-story writer, occasional war correspondent, illustrator, dramatist and librettist rapidly became successful.  

He began collaborating on what were known as the Savoy operas with the composer Arthur Sullivan in 1875 with Trial by Jury, and their partnership endured, through works including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Patience, Iolanthe, The Mikado, The Yeoman of the Guard and The Gondoliers, until the early 1890s. In 1907 Gilbert became the first dramatist to receive a knighthood.

He is one of the remarkable range of authors connected with King’s, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Arthur C Clarke, and from Thomas Hardy to Hanif Kureishi.

By Dr Christine Kenyon Jones

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