Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Douglas William Jerrold

Douglas William Jerrold (January 3, 1803 - June 8, 1857), English dramatist and man of letters, was born in London.

His father, Samuel Jerrold, actor, was at the time lessee of the little theatre of Wilsby near Cranbrook in Kent but in 1807 he removed to Sheerness. There, among the blue jackets who swarmed in the port during the war with France. Douglas grew into boyhood. He occasionally took a child part on the stage, but his father's profession had little attraction for the boy. In December 1813 he joined the guardship Namur, where he had Jane Austen's brother as captain, and served as a midshipman until the peace of 1815. He saw nothing of the war save a number of wounded soldiers from Waterloo but till his dying day there lingered traces of his early passion for the sea.

The peace of 1815 ruined Samuel Jerrold; there being no more prize money. On January 1, 1816 he removed with his family to London, where the ex-midshipman began the world again as a printer's apprentice, and in 1819 became a compositor in the printing-office of the Sunday Monitor. Several short papers and copies of verses by him had already appeared in the sixpenny magazines, and one evening he dropped into the editor's box a criticism of the opera Der Freischl~. Next morning he received his own copy to set up, together with a flattering note from the editor, requesting further contributions from the anonymous author. Thenceforward Jerrold was engaged in journalism.

In 1821 a comedy that he had composed in his fifteenth year was brought out at Sadler's Wells theatre under the title More Frightened than Hurt. Other pieces followed, and in 1825 he was engaged for a few pounds weekl e to produce dramas and farces to the order of Davidge of the Coburg theatre. In the autumn of 1824 the little Shakespeare in a camlet cloak, as he was called, married Mary Swan and, while he was engaged with the drama at night, he was steadily pushing his way as a journalist. For a short while he was part proprietor of a small Sunday newspaper.

In 1822, through a quarrel with the exacting Davidge, Jerrold left for Coburg; and his three-act melodrama, Black-eyed Susan; or, A in the Downs, was brought out by RW Elliston at the Surrey theatre. The success of the piece was enormous. With a free gallant sea-flavour, it took the town by storm, and all London went over the water to see it. Elliston made a fortune by the piece; TP Cooke, who played William, made his reputation; Jerrold received about £60 and was engaged as dramatic author at five pounds a week. But his fame as a dramatist was achieved.

In 1830 it was proposed that he should adapt something from the French for Drury Lane. No, was his reply, I shall come into this theatre as an original dramatist or not at all. The Bride of Ludgate (December 8, 1832 was the first of a number of his plays produced at Drury Lane The other patent houses threw their doors open to him also (the Adelphi had already done so); and in 1836 Jerrold became the manager of the Strand theatre with WJ Hammond, his brother-in-law. The venture was not successful, and the partnership was dissolved. While it lasted Jerrold wrote his only tragedy, The Painter of Ghent, and himself appeared in the title-role, wit, out any very marked success.

He continued to write sparkling comedies till 1854, the date of his last piece, The Heart of Gold. Meanwhile he had won his way to the pages of numerous periodicals before 1830 of the second-rate magazines only, and after that to those of more importance. He was a contributor to the Monthly Magazine, Blackwood's, the New Monthly, and the Athenaeum. To Punch, the publication which of all others is associated with his name, he contributed from its second number in 1841 till within a few days of his death. He founded and edited for some time, though with indifferent success, the Illuminated Magazine, Jerrold's Shilling Magazine, and Dougas Jerrold's Weekly Newspaper; and under his editorship Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper rose from almost nonentity to a circulation of 582,000. The history of his later years is little more than a catalogue of his literary productions, interrupted now and again by brief visits to the Continent or to the country. Douglas Jerrold died at his house, Kilburn Priory, in London, on the 8th of June 1857.

Jerrold's figure was small and spare, and in later years bowed almost to deformity. His features were strongly marked and expressive from the thin humorous lips to the keen blue eyes, gleaming from beneath the shaggy eyebrows. He was brisk and active, with the careless bluffness of a sailor. Open and sincere, he concealed neither his anger nor his pleasure; to his sailor's frankness all polite duplicity was distasteful. The cynical side of his nature he kept for his writings; in private life his hand was always open. In politics Jerrold was a Liberal, and he gave eager sympathy to Kossuth, Mazzini and Louis Blanc. In social politics especially he took an eager part; he never tired of declaiming against the horrors of war, the luxury of bishops, or the iniquity of capital punishment.

Douglas Jerrold is now perhaps better known from his reputation as a brilliant wit in conversation than from his writings. As a dramatist he was very popular, though his plays have not seen the stage. He dealt with rather humbler forms of social world than had commonly been represented on the boards. He was one of the first and certainly one of the most successful of the men who in defence of the native English drama endeavoured to stem the tide of translation from the French, which threatened early in the 19th century altogether to drown original native talent. His skill in construction and his mastery of epigram and brilliant dialogue are well exemplified in his comedy, Time Works Wonders (Haymarket, April 26, 1845). The tales and sketches which form the bulk of Jerrold's collected works vary much in skill and interest; but, although there are evident traces of their having been composed from week to week, they are always marked by keen satirical observation and pungent wit.

Among the best known of his numerous works are:

See his eldest son's, Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold (1859). A collected edition of his writings appeared in 1851-1854, and The Works of Douglas Jerrold, with a memoir by his son, W. B. Jerrold, in 1863-1864; but neither is complete. Among the numerous selections from his tales and witticisms are two edited by his grandson, Walter Jerrold, Bons Mots of Charles Dickens and Douglas Jerrold (new ed. 1904), and The Essays of Douglas Jerrold (1903), illustrated by HM Brock. See also The Wit and Opinions of Douglas Jerrold (1858), edited by WB Jerrold.