Three Men in a Boat turned Jerome K Jerome into a literary giant

He was doing topical satire long before Private Eye, and observational humour long before Jasper Carrot. And most of all, Jerome K Jerome was writing witty, incisive travelogues a century before anybody had heard of Bill Bryson or Jeremy Clarkson.

Jerome pictured with the dog he made famous in Three Men in a Boat. Picture: Jerome K Jerome collection
Jerome pictured with the dog he made famous in Three Men in a Boat. Picture: Jerome K Jerome collection

Three Men in a Boat, written by Jerome in 1889, remains one of the defining works of modern English literature. A tale of three malingering, hypochondriac men, who decide a boat trip along the River Thames will be the perfect cure for their various perceived ailments, seems as relevant today as it did back in Queen Victoria's day.

As they navigate the great waterway from Kingston to Oxford and back, the hapless trio encounter a battle with the London railway station, a fight with a tent, have to endure some increasingly far-fetched fishing tales from the locals, and find that the reality of a refreshing morning swim is not always as enticing as it first sounds. All themes which could easily be the making of a sitcom in the 21st century.

Initially intended as a serious travel guide with a bit of humour to lighten the tone, the threesome's misadventures captured the imagination of millions of readers all around the world. The book, with its liberal use of working-class slang, was derided by the critics of the day as unspeakably vulgar, but the public couldn't get enough.

Sales of the book were so prolific that his publisher, J W Arrowsmith later questioned where all the copies must go.

“I often think that the public must eat them," he observed, in a quip that Jerome himself would be proud of.

Jerome K Jerome. Picture: Jerome K Jerome collection
Jerome K Jerome being given the Freedom of Walsall in 1927 Picture: Jerome K Jerome collection
A photograph of Jerome K Jerome and his dog taken circa 1885. Picture: Jerome K Jerome collection

In its first 20 years alone, the book sold over a million copies worldwide. It has been adapted into films, TV, radio shows, stage plays, and even a musical. Its writing style has influenced many humourists and satirists in England and elsewhere.

And within a year of its publication, the number of boats registered on the River Thames increased by 50 per cent, and it was Three Men in a Boat which established the River Thames as a destination for tourism and recreation.

Maybe having a name like Jerome Clapp Jerome (he later changed his middle name to the more exotic Klapka) meant the writer was always going to have a sense of humour. And his unconventional upbringing certainly gave him plenty of material to work with.

Born in 1859 at the imposing Belsize House in Bradford Street, Walsall, Jerome was the son of an architect-turned- nonconformist minister Jerome Clapp and his Welsh wife Marguerette.

Jerome senior was himself a pretty colourful character. Originally from London, after getting married he settled in Appledore in Devon. He built a large house for his family himself, and quite the entrepreneur, he turned his hand to a number of different money-making schemes, including farming and silver mining, with varying degrees of success. He built up a big following as an eloquent and uncompromising preacher, but left Devon under a cloud. After becoming very unpopular in Appledore, with rumour of him even fathering an illegitimate child, Jerome senior moved his family to Walsall, and changed his name to Jerome Clapp Jerome.

According to the Jerome K Jerome Society, the writer was almost certainly born with the same name as that his father had adopted, and probably changed his middle name from "Clapp" to "Klapka" in order to sound more interesting.

While JKJ, as he became known, was born into comfortable affluence, this would not last. Jerome Snr lost all his money in a failed coalmining venture when he sank two pits near Cannock, and the family moved to Stourbridge when he was two years old. Jerome's father then headed off to East London to take over an ironmongery business, the rest of the family joining him two years later. But the Rev Jerome proved as successful at ironmongery as he was at coalmining, and the family was plunged into acute poverty. JKJ's autobiography, My Life and Times, painted a vivid picture of the debt collectors arriving at the family home.

While at St Marylebone Grammar School, Jerome dreamed of a career in politics, or as a man of letters. But these hopes were dashed when his father died at 13, followed by his mother at 15, and he was left to fend for himself.

After four years working for London & North Western Railway, initially collecting coal that fell along the tracks, he tried his hand as a jobbing actor.

He made his professional debut at the age of 18, using the name Harold Crichton, and over the next three years he toured the country, both revelling in and despairing at the life whose “glorious uncertainty almost rivals that of the turf”.

At the age of 21, with little sign of fame and fortune, Jerome decided he had enough of stage life.

Penniless and living in a dosshouse, he tried to scratch a career as a journalist, writing short stories and essays, but most of his works were rejected. He worked as a schoolteacher, a packer and solicitor's clerk. But one evening he stumbled across a poem by the American poet Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, which made him decide that he needed to take a different approach to his writing:

By his evening fire the artist

Pondered o’er his secret shame;

Baffled, weary, and disheartened,

Still he mused, and dreamed of fame.

O thou sculptor, painter, poet!

Take this lesson to thy heart:

That is best which lieth nearest;

Shape from that thy work of art.

It was said to be this poem which convinced him that he should write about a subject closer to his heart ­– the trials and tribulations of life as a struggling actor.

Published in 1885, Off The Stage – and On wasn't an instant success, and he received a fair few of the familiar rejection letters. But it struck a chord with retired actor Aylmer Gowing, who had just launched a new magazine called The Play, and he decided to serialise it.

“He was the first editor who up till then had seemed glad to see me when I entered the room," recalled Jerome in his memoir.

"He held out both hands to me and offered me a cigarette. It all seemed like a dream. He told me that what he liked about my story was that it was true. He had been through it all himself, 40 years before. He asked me what I wanted for the serial rights.

"I was only too willing to let him have them for nothing, upon which he shook hands with me again, and gave me a five pound note. It was the first time I had ever possessed a five pound note… I could not bear the idea of spending it. I put it away at the bottom of an old tin box… Later, when my luck began to turn, I fished it out, and with part of it I purchased an old Georgian bureau which has been my desk ever since."

Tony Gray, of the Jerome K Jerome Society and Walsall-born actor Jeffery Holland unveiling a bust of Jerome K Jerome at Walsall Arboretum in 2016
A bust of Jerome K Jerome, before it was installed at Walsall Arboretum

The writer was now 27 years old, and it was at this stage that he changed his second name to Klapka.

It was followed by Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow in 1886, a collection of humorous essays which had previously appeared in the newly founded magazine, Home Chimes.

It became a best-seller, but the critics hated it, something that would become a constant theme of his career.

He wryly observed that the same critics who had denounced Off The Stage ­– And On as rubbish, then panned Idle Thoughts as being an unworthy successor.

He later recalled: “I think that I may claim to have been for the first 20 years of my career, the best abused author in England.

"The Standard spoke of me as a menace to English letters, the Morning Post as an example of the sad results to be expected from the over-education of the lower orders”.

On 21 June, 1888, Jerome married Georgina Elizabeth Henrietta Stanley Marris, known as Ettie. The wedding came just nine days after Ettie had divorced her first husband, and she already had a daughter Elsie from her previous marriage. They spent their honeymoon in a small boat on the River Thames,. which gave him the idea of a travelogue. He sat down to write it as soon as he returned from his holiday.

In the novel, he replaced his wife with long-time friends George Wingrave and Carl Hentschell, who he called Harris. This gave him the freedom for the men to become embroiled in comedic situations which he intertwined with the history of the area around the river.

Published in 1889 – and again serialised in Home Chimes magazine – it was an overnight success, and has never been out of print since. The success of the book meant Jerome was now financially secure, and able to dedicate his life to writing.

He wrote a number of plays, essays, and novels, but was struggled to recapture the success of Three Men in a Boat.

In 1892, he had been chosen ahead of Rudyard Kipling to edit The Idler, an illustrated satirical monthly magazine aimed at "gentlemen who appreciate idleness". The following year he founded another magazine, called To-Day, but was forced to abandon both ventures due to a libel claim and financial difficulties.

From 1888-90 he lived in Germany with Ettie, Elsie and recently born daughter Rowena, and it was there that he got the idea for a sequel to Three Men in a Boat, based around a bicycle tour of Germany.

Three Men on the Bummel was published in 1900, and featured the same three characters as Three Men in a Boat. It sold moderately well, but never came close to replicating the success of the original.

It was, however, used in German schools as a study on how the country appears to outsiders. And published some 14 years before the start of the First World War, it does with the benefit of hindsight, seem eerily perceptive. For example, he wrote:

“Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin, will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.”

By this time, he was also well established as a playwright, although his works were much better known in the US than in Britain. Drawing on his experience as an actor, and wrote a total of 26 plays, the most successful by far being his 1908 work The Passing of the Third Floor Back. Very different from his usual satire, it was a morality play about a mystical stranger who came to stay at a run-down boarding house, and changed the lives of all its residents. It ran for seven years in Britain and America, starring Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, one of the leading actors of the day, and formed the basis of two films, one made in 1918 and another in 1935. Again, the critics were not impressed. Max Beerbohm described it as "vilely stupid" and as written by a "10th-rate writer".

In 1914 Jerome's fears about "something going wrong with the governing machine in Germany" had come to fruition, and Britain was now at war with the country he briefly called home. He volunteered to serve with the Army, but at the age of 55 he was rejected. Still eager to play a role, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the French Army.

He published his autobiography, My Life and Times, in 1926, and in February, 1927, he was given the freedom of the borough of Walsall. By this time, he was spending much of his time at his farmhouse, Gould's Grove near Wallingford-on-Thames in Oxfordshire.

Some time around the end of May 1927, he set off on a motoring tour from Devon to London, via Cheltenham and Northampton. During the trip he suffered a stroke and a cerebral haemorrhage,a nd was admitted to Northampton General Hospital where he spent two weeks before his death on June 14.

He was cremated at Golders Green in London, and his ashes were buried at St Mary's Church, Ewelme, Oxfordshire. Elsie, Ettie and his sister Blandina were buried beside him. His gravestone reads "For we are labourers together with God".

Jerome K Jerome facts

*Born Jerome Clapp Jerome on May 2, 1859 at Belsize House, Bradford Street, Walsall.

*He was the son of non-conformist minister Jerome Clapp and his Welsh wife Marguerette. He had two older sisters, Paulina Deodata Clapp and Blandina Domenica Clapp, and an older brother Milton Melancthon Clapp, who was born in 1855 and died of the croup age of six.

*Jerome Snr lost his fortune after a failed coalmining venture in Cannock, and the family moved to Stourbridge c1861. Jerome Snr went to London to run an ironmongery business, and the rest of the family followed him two years later.

*He attended St Marylebone Grammar School in Westminster, where he dreamed of a career in politics. But his hopes were cut short when he was orphaned at 15, forcing him to leave school and find work.

*At the age of 18, he made his debut as a professional actor, adopting the name Harold Crichton. He quit the business after three years, having failed to make much of an impression.

*In 1885 he published Off The Stage ­– and On, a story about the life of a struggling actor. It set Jerome on the road to success.

*In 1889 he published Three Men in a Boat, which became an overnight sensation in both Britain and the US. In its first 20 years, 200,000 copies were sold in Britain and a million in the US. A second edition was released in 1909, and it has never been out of print since.

*The characters in Three Men were based on himself, who was referred to as 'J', George Wingrave, who would later become a senior manager at Barclays Bank, and Carl Hentschel, who was referred to as Harris.

*Three Men in a Boat has been the subject of three British films, one in Germany, and another in Russia. It was also the basis of a 1975 television series adapted by Tom Stoppard, starring Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore.

*He published his autobiography, My Life and Times, in 1926, and in February 1927 he was made a Freeman of Walsall.

*Died June 14, 1927, aged 68, at Northampton General Hospital after suffering a stroke.

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