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Biography of W.S. Gilbert

Photo of W.S. Gilbert

William Schwenck Gilbert was a nineteenth century librettist and playwright famous for the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

When and Where was he Born?

18th November 1836, 17 Southampton Street, London, England.

Family Background:

W.S. Gilbert was the son of William Gilbert a retired naval surgeon and Anne Gilbert who also had three daughters.


Great Ealing School, London. Kings College, London.

Timeline of William Schwenck Gilbert:

1849: Gilbert returns to London after many years traveling Europe with his family.

1863: The first production of his play “Uncle Baby” at the Royal Lyceum Theatre.

1867: W.S. Gilbert becomes a clerk in the Privy Council office in London.

1864: He is called to the bar, but is unsuccessful in landing well paid briefs and supplements his income by writing for magazines such as “Punch” and “Fun”. His humorous verse is published under the pseudonym “Bab”.

1866: Gilbert writes a Christmas show called “Dulcemara or the Little Duck and the Great Quack”.

1867: He marries Lucy Agnes Turner on 6th August.

1869: The publication of the “Bab Ballads” as a book. The last performance of his comic burlesque “The Pretty Druidess”. He meets Arthur Sullivan for the first time when he is introduced to him by his lifelong friend Frederic Clay at a rehearsal for “Ages Ago”, an operetta with music by Clay.

1870: He writes “The Palace of Truth” which was his first stage hit.

1871: Gilbert writes “Pygmalion and Galatea” for the stage.

1873: He collaborates with Gilbert a Beckett on a political satire called “The Happy Land”. This was briefly banned because of its caricatures of Gladstone.

1875: The first performance of “Trial by Jury” with music by Arthur Sullivan, is staged at the Opera Comique. A collection of his stage plays is published by Chatto and Windus.

1876: Richard D’Oyly Carte forms his comic opera company. Gilbert’s parents split up.

1877: First performance of “The Sorcerer”.

1878: First performance of HMS Pinafore.

1880: First performance of “The Pirates of Penzance”.

1881: First performance of “Patience” a satire about Oscar Wilde and his circle. Opening of the Savoy Theatre on 10th October by Richard D’Oyly Carte which was to make the joint works of Gilbert and Sullivan famous.

1882: First performance of “Iolanthe”.

1885: First performance of “The Mikado”.

1887: First performance of “Ruddigore”.

Plaque to W.S. Gilbert, London
Commemorative Plaque to W.S. Gilbert 
on the Victoria Embankment of Thames, London (copyright  Anthony Blagg)

1888: First performance of “The Yeomen of the Guard”.

1889: First performance of “The Gondoliers”.

1890: W.S. Gilbert quarrels with Arthur Sullivan, supposedly about the style of carpet and its cost in the Savoy Theatre.

1893: The rift between Gilbert and Sullivan is temporarily halted and a new collaboration “Uptopia Limited” is produced.

1896: First performance of “The Grand Duke”.

1900: Death of Sir Arthur Sullivan.

1907: W.S. Gilbert is knighted.

1909: After the death of Sullivan Gilbert tried to form a partnership with the composer Edward German who had finished some of his musical pieces but their work “Fallen Fairies” was not a success.

1911: His last play “The Hooligan” is a powerful short dramatic sketch which shocked the audience due to its attention to reality.

When and Where did he Die?

29th May 1911, Grim’s Dyke, Harrow Weald, Middlesex, England due to a heart attack brought on by rescuing a woman from drowning in a lake on his country estate.

Age at Death:


Major Works:

1869: “The Bab Ballads.”
1873: “More Bab Ballads.” “The Happy Land.” (A satirical play based on his earlier work “The Wicked World.”
1871: “Thespis or the God’s Grown Old.” (first Collaboration with Sullivan)
1875: “Trial by Jury.”. For Richard D’Oyly Carte.
1876: “Princess Toto.”
1877: “The Sorcerer”. “Engaged.”
1878: “HMS Pinafore.”
1879: “The Pirates of Penzance.”
1881: “Patience or Bunthorne’s Bride.”
1882: “Iolanthe or the Peer and the Peri.”
1884: “Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant.”
1885: “The Mikado or the Town of Titipu.”
1887: “Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse.”
1888: “The Yeomen of the Guard.”
1889: “The Gondoliers.”
1892: “The Mountebanks.”
1893: “Utopia Limited.”
1894: “His Excellency.”
1896: “The Grand Duke.”
1898: “Songs of a Savoyard.”
1909: “Fallen Fairies, (based on his earlier work “The Wicked World.” (Music by Edward German).
1911: “The Hooligan.” (Play).


6th August 1867 to Lucy Agnes Turner.

Site of Grave:

Ashes held at St. John the Evangelist Church, Great Stanmore, London, England.

Places of Interest:


The Savoy Theatre, The Strand. Next to the Savoy Hotel which was built later.
Monument plaque to him in a wall on the riverside of the road on the Embankment.