William S Gilbert was born in London in November 1836. His father was a naval surgeon and author and for the first 10 years of his life, William travelled with his parents to live in Italy and France, before they returned to live in London in 1847.
In 1856, William took the Army commission exams, but being unable to find a suitable commission decided to join the civil service and enlist in the militia (he continued to serve in it to 1878, rising to the rank of captain). In 1863, he quit his job in the civil service to try his hand as a barrister but was not successful. William began to write stories, poems and theatre reviews for publication. A series of poems which came to be known as the ‘Bob ballads’ became very popular. He had his first play produced professionally and he wrote a number of pantomimes.
In 1871 he was commissioned to work on a Christmas play with composer Arthur Sullivan and although this was successful, the pair parted after the run ended and went their separate ways. It was four years later that, after offering ‘Trial by jury’ to Richard D’Oyly Carte, it was suggested that he collaborated again with Sullivan. The play was a runaway hit, but again the pair parted afterwards to work on individual projects. A further two years was to elapse before Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte would form a partnership which, over the following 10 years, would see many hits including ‘HMS Pinafore’ and ‘The Mikado’. The relationship between the three was not without strains and finally broke following a row over costs between Gilbert and D’Oyly Carte. Gilbert wrote two more operators with Sullivan, but neither was a success. Sullivan died in 1898 and Gilbert later wrote that this led to his decision to stop writing operetta. He did write three more plays, but none of these were successful. He continued to work on revivals of the Savoy operettas and he wrote two children’s books based on the stories of HMS Pinafore and the Mikado in which he fills in some of the back story not contained in the original operetta.He was knighted for his services to Drama in 1907.
William Gilbert died on the 29th of May 1911 of a heart attack whilst trying to rescue a woman who had fallen into a lake at his home.
His memorial on Victoria Embankment states ‘His foe was folly, and his weapon wit’ reflecting that much of his work was a parody criticism of the society that he saw around him.