His parents designing him for the church, he was sent to Winchester; but his love of music early diverted his thoughts from the clerical profession. After receiving some instruction from the organist of Winchester Cathedral, where he was a chorister from 1756 to 1759, he went to London at the age of fifteen. Here he was placed in a music warehouse in Cheapside, but he soon abandoned this employment to become a singing actor at Covent Garden. On May 21 1762 his first work, an operetta entitled The Shepherd's Artifice, with words and music by himself, was produced at this theatre.
Other works followed, his reputation being firmly established by the music to the play of The Padlock, produced at Drury Lane under Garrick's management in 1768, the composer himself taking the part of Mungo with conspicuous success. He continued for some years to be connected with Drury Lane, both as composer and as actor, and produced during this period two of his best known works, The Waterman (1774) and The Quaker (1775). A quarrel with Garrick led to the termination of his engagement. In The Comic Mirror he ridiculed proniinent contemporary figures through the medium of a puppet show.
In 1782 he became joint manager of the Royal circus, afterwards known as the Surrey theatre. In three years he lost this position owing to a quarrel with his partner. His opera Liberty Hall, containing the successful songs "Jock Ratlin," "The Highmettled Racer," and "The Bells of Aberdovey," was produced at Drury Lane theatre on February 8, 1785.
In 1788 he sailed for the East Indies, but the vessel having put in to Torbay in stress of weather, he changed his mind and returned to London. In a musical variety entertainment called The Oddities, he succeeded in winning marked popularity with a number of songs that included "'Twas in the good ship 'Rover'," "Saturday Night at Sea," "I sailed from the Downs in the 'Nancy,'" and the immortal "Tom Bowling," written on the death of his eldest brother, Captain Thomas Dibdin, at whose invitation he had planned his visit to India.
A series of monodramatic entertainments which he gave at his theatre, Sans Souci, in Leicester Square, brought his songs, music and recitations more prominently into notice, and permanently established his fame as a lyric poet. It was at these entertainments that he first introduced many of those sea-songs which so powerfully influenced the national spirit. The words breathe the simple loyalty and dauntless courage that are the cardinal virtues of the British sailor, and the music was appropriate and naturally melodious. Their effect in stimulating and ennobling the spirit of the navy during the war with France was so marked as to call for special acknowledgment.
In 1803 Dibdin was rewarded by government with a pension of £200 a year, of which he was only for a time deprived under the administration of Lord Grenville. During this period he opened a music shop in the Strand, but the venture was a failure. Dibdin died of paralysis in London on the 25th of July 1814. Besides his Musical Tour through England (1788), his Professional Life, an autobiography published in 1803, a History of the Stage (1795), and several smaller works, he wrote upwards of 1400 songs and about thirty dramatic pieces. He also wrote the following novels: The Devil (1785); Hannah Hewitt (1792); The Younger Brother (1793). An edition of his songs by G Hogarth (1843) contains a memoir of his life. His two sons, Charles and Thomas John Dibdin, whose works are often confused with those of their father, were also popular dramatists in their day.