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Gilbert & Sullivan and the Victorian Age

Ian Bradley shows that the characters and plots of Gilbert and Sullivan's operas reveal much that is of interest to the historian about certain individuals and institutions of the Victorian era.

Gilbert and Sullivan's Savoy Operas provide rich source material for the historian of Victorian Britain. They parody several of the leading figures and most of the dominant institutions of the age and are rich in contemporary allusion. One of the best known characters in the Savoy Operas, for example, is Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, the First Lord of the Admiralty in H.M.S. Pinafore . What is not so well known, however, is that Gilbert modelled Sir Joseph on William Henry Smith, the Conservative politician whom Disraeli had made First Lord of the Admiralty in 1877, the year before Pinafore opened.

It was probably W.H. Smith's strong Methodist principles which Gilbert had in mind when he made Sir Joseph Porter so censorious about the use of bad language on board ship. Certainly Smith's career, which had begun with the creation of the newsagents and station bookstall empire which still bears his name today, and continued with election to Parliament and a junior post in the Treasury, provided the inspiration for Sir Joseph's famous patter song: 'When I was a lad I served a term' with its injunction in the last verse:

Now landsmen all, whoever you may be,
If you want to rise to the top of the tree,
If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool,
Be careful to be guided by this golden rule –
Stick close to your desks and never go to sea,
And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee.

In describing the song to Sullivan, Gilbert wrote mischievously, 'Of course, there will be no personality in this – the fact that the First Lord in the opera is a radical of the most pronounced type will do away with any suspicion that W. H. Smith is intended'. Those who sawPinafore , however, had no doubts as to whom Sir Joseph represented. In a letter written soon after the first production, Disraeli referred with obvious amusement to 'Pinafore Smith'.

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