William Schwenck Gilbert, born in London in 1836, was the son of a retired naval surgeon. Except for a kidnapping by Italian brigands in Italy at age two, and a ransomed release, he appears to have had a very normal upbringing. Beyond ordinary schooling, he took training as an artillery officer and was tutored in military science with hopes of participating in the Crimean War. Unfortunately for him, but not for us, he did not graduate until after the War was over. Gilbert subsequently joined the militia and was a member for 20 years.
After finishing his military training Gilbert worked in a government bureau job which he hated. Upon receiving a nice inheritance from an aunt, Gilbert indulged his fancy and became a barrister. Called to the bar at age 28, Gilbert's law career, with no "rich attorney's elderly, ugly daughter" to help him escape mediocrity, lasted just a few years. Before leaving his law practice, however, he married the daughter of an army officer.
Gilbert had shown a proclivity for caustic wit and sarcasm from an early age and it was this talent that put him on the path to greatness. Beginning in 1861, Gilbert contributed dramatic criticism and humorous verse (unsigned) to the popular British magazine FUN. Some of his work was accompanied by cartoons and sketches which were signed "Bab." Many of the characters in the G&S operas were modelled after some of Gilbert's "Bab" characters. A collection of these 'Bab Ballads' was later published in 1869.
The period from 1868 to 1875 was a very fruitful period for Gilbert, primarily because two plays which he wrote in 1871 netted him huge financial rewards. This was also the year that he collaborated briefly with a composer named Sullivan on a production entitled Thespis which did not bring the duo any notoriety. Their collaboration, however, spanned twenty-five years and produced a total of fourteen comic operas of which The Grand Duke, the last in the order, premiered in 1896.
Gilbert was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911, at age 74, while attempting to save a drowning woman.