Dramatist and writer, Douglas Jerrold was born on the 3rd January 1803 in Greek Street, Soho, the son of Samuel and Mary Anne Jerrold (nee Reid). His father was a strolling player and printer for the Dover Company of Players, and his mother was an actress.1

Shortly after his birth, Jerrold’s family moved to Wilsley near Cranbrook where Samuel leased a theatre in a small, thatched barn.2 However, by October 1803 “a respectable company under the management of Mr Jerrold” opened in Sheerness, revealing his parents’ ambitions.3 Sheerness was 'if a jolly but also a very ‘loose’ place-4, full of sailors and officers, with the potential for high ticket sales. The audience “was not, as may be readily imagined, a very quiet one”5 and the company performed Shakespearian tragedies, nautical farces, and comic songs. In 1804, Douglas made one of his first public appearances in Rolla in the arms of Edmund Kean, who later become a celebrated Shakespearean actor.6

By January 27th 1807, Samuel Jerrold had left Wilsley for good as competition among travelling companies in the rural towns was fierce and he acquired the lease of a wooden theatre in Sheerness. It was situated in the High Street, Blue Town, among the ‘closely-huddled little wooden houses, every other one of which was a tavern and every third a brothel’ which were painted with blue-grey dockyard paint.7 Smugglers who operated along the ditch behind the theatre hid their contraband under the theatre floor. Samuel also leased a theatre in Southend, the other side of the Thames.

Jerrold’s parents were busy running their theatres, and so he was raised by his grandmother, Mrs Reid, and “no speck was ever seen upon his collar”8. He was educated by one of the actors, Mr Wilkinson, who taught him to read and write at the age of 6. As a young boy, he was often locked in his room “like a pet bird” and left to read whilst his grandmother collected the takings at the theatre. He would look out of the window with envy as his friends played in the streets below.9 After Mr Wilkinson left the company, Jerrold was sent to Mr Herbert’s School in Sheerness which had a hundred pupils. Herbert taught the boys “to turn noughts into nines.”10

By 1813, profits in the theatre were down and Jerrold aged 10 left school and went to sea, serving on the gunship Namur. His captain was Jane Austen’s brother. Jerrold disliked the navy and left in 1815 after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to help his now elderly father.11 Peace brought poverty to the town of Sheerness and the Jerrolds auctioned off their belongings at the White Horse. His mother set off to London to find new lodgings and work, leaving her children in the charge of her mother. They were reunited on New Year’s Day, 1816, the year that Jerrold was apprenticed to a printer. He spent his first wages on the ingredients to make a beefsteak pie.12

His work as printer, then compositor, exposed him to the world of literature. He began writing plays and periodical articles and had his first success with a play that he had written at 14 entitled More frightened than hurt. This was followed by more including his 1829 play Black-eyed Susan which was a huge hit, being performed over 300 times.13

Black-eyed Susan; or, "All in the downs" was a nautical and domestic drama, set in Deal and would have drawn on both Jerrold’s naval experience but also his knowledge of the nautical plays performed in his parents’ theatres. In scene 1, Doggrass, the landlord of Susan, whose husband is away at sea, is described as a rascal who 'has no more heart than a bagpipe! one could sooner make Dover Cliffs dance a reel to a penny whistle, than move him with words of pity or distress.'14 It is clear that Jerrold understood the harshness of poverty. The impact of sailors on coastal towns is evidenced later in scene 4 when Jacob Twig, a bailiff in Deal complains: 'I don’t much like this trade of bailiff. I’ve a great mind to give it up, go back to my native Dover again and turn ploughman. Deall will be crowded again; there will be no getting a sweetheart for these six months.'15 The play was produced by Robert William Elliston who had been the director of the Children’s Opera that ‘Life on the ocean wave’ composer Henry Russell had joined as a child. Jerrold made £60 and his career was established. Jerrold contributed to several periodicals including Punch and “soon became a leading spirit in that hebdomadal castigator of follies and shams.”16

In 1837 Jerrold met Charles Dickens and the two men hit it off. They were from similar backgrounds, both having experienced poverty in childhood. Although preferring a life off stage, Jerrold was persuaded to act in the 1851 production of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem, alongside Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.17 Queen Victoria who watched the play described ‘Dr Jerrold’ as ‘a funny little man who writes in Punch extremely well’.18

Douglas Jerrold died in London on 8 June 1857 and is buried at West Norwood Cemetery. Charles Dickens was a pall-bearer and raised money for his widow.

References


  1. Jerrold, William Blanchard . The Life of Douglas Jerrold, Bradbury, Evans & Co., London, 1870. 

  2. Jerrold, Walter. Douglas Jerrold Dramatist and Wit Hodder & Stoughton, 1914. 

  3. Monthly Correspondent, 17 Nov, 1803. 

  4. Jerrold, Blanchard. The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold W. Kent & Company, 1859. p.19. 

  5. Jerrold, Blanchard. The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold W. Kent & Company, 1859. p.10-11. 

  6. Slater, Michael. "Jerrold, Douglas William (1803–1857), playwright and journalist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 12. Oxford University Press. Date of access 4 Jul. 2022, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-14789 

  7. Jerrold, William Blanchard. The Life of Douglas Jerrold Bradbury, Evans & Co., London, 1870. 

  8. Jerrold, Blanchard. The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold W. Kent & Company, 1859. p.14. 

  9. Jerrold, Blanchard. The Life and Remains of Douglas Jerrold W. Kent & Company, 1859. p.17. 

  10. Jerrold, William Blanchard . The Life of Douglas Jerrold, Bradbury, Evans & Co., London, 1870. p.17. 

  11. Jerrold, William Blanchard . The Life of Douglas Jerrold, Bradbury, Evans & Co., London, 1870. 

  12. Jerrold, William Blanchard . The Life of Douglas Jerrold, Bradbury, Evans & Co., London, 1870. 

  13. Slater, Michael. "Jerrold, Douglas William (1803–1857), playwright and journalist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 12. Oxford University Press. Date of access 4 Jul. 2022, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-14789 

  14. Jerrold, Douglas. 'Black-eyed Susan; or, 'All in the Downs' 

  15. Jerrold, Douglas. 'Black-eyed Susan; or, 'All in the Downs' 

  16. 'Death of Mr Douglas Jerrold' Kendal Mercury - Saturday 13 June 1857. 

  17. Sun (London) - Thursday 01 May 1851. 

  18. Douglas William Jerrold by Yvonne Jerrold.