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Gilbert hero ;

Gilbert before Sullivan

Dramatist William Schwenk Gilbert is among the remarkable range of authors connected with King’s, from Virginia Woolf to Arthur C Clarke and Thomas Hardy to Hanif Kureishi.

Gilbert had a fantastic wit, and is most famous for his comedic collaborations with composer Arthur Sullivan. Yet he was a prolific author beyond these, publishing serious and comical plays, short stories, poems and song lyrics.

I've jibe and joke, And quip and crank, For lowly folk And men of rank.– W. S. Gilbert, 'The Yeomen of the Guard' (1888)

Student Days

Gilbert studied for a London general degree at King’s between 1853 and 1855. The son of a surgeon-turned-author Dr William Gilbert, before arriving at university he was educated at the Great Ealing School, where he was Head Boy. His studies at King's reveal the origins of his famous opera librettos, from pirates to the House of Lords, from the Emperor of Japan to frolicking fairies.

King’s Archives show that Gilbert passed in a multitude of subjects

  • Divinity, where his performance was described as 'indifferent'
  • French, where he was 'frequently absent' and 'inattentive'
  • Classics, where his work was 'much improved'
  • English composition, where comments ranged from 'Good' to 'Very Good'

He also studied subjects ranging from Grecian, Roman and English history to animal physiology; logic and moral philosophy to mechanics; hydrostatics, hydraulics and pneumatics, and astronomy.

Gilbert’s future career in drama was prefigured when, on 31 October 1854, he supported a motion to dissolve King’s Engineering Society, replacing it with the Shakespearean Reading Society. He event suggested the former Engineering group ‘be called a Dramatic as well as a Shakespearean Reading Society.’

Gilbert became secretary of this society, but in November 1857, ‘as soon as was decently possible’ after Gilbert’s graduation, the Engineering Society reclaimed its proper title.

Early Career

After leaving King’s, Gilbert had a wide-ranging selection of careers, starting out as an assistant clerk in the Privy Council Office. He subsequently became a barrister, practising across the UK until 1866. From 1861, alongside his legal career, he also worked as a journalist, critic, translator, short-story writer, occasional war correspondent, illustrator, dramatist, also writing some early librettos.

In 1875 the first collaboration with composer Arthur Sullivan, Trial by Jury, was produced in London. Their partnership endured until the early 1890s, creating what were later known as the Savoy Operas, with some of the most famous works including HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and The Mikado.

In 1907 Gilbert became the first dramatist to receive a knighthood. He passed away later that year, suffering a heart attack whilst rescuing a young lady he was teaching to swim in a lake. His body of work has survived over a century, and continues to be enjoyed by audiences across the world.

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