Jacobs, W(illiam) W(ymark)

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JACOBS, W(illiam) W(ymark)

Nationality: English. Born: Wapping, London, 8 September 1863. Education: Educated privately. Family: Married Agnes Eleanor Williams in 1900; two sons and two daughters. Career: Clerk in the Savings Bank Department of the Civil Service, London, 1883-99; thereafter a full-time writer. Died: 1 September 1943.



Selected Short Stories, edited by Hugh Greene. 1975.

Short Stories

Many Cargoes. 1896.

Sea Urchins. 1898; as More Cargoes, 1898.

Light Freights. 1901.

The Lady of the Barge and Other Stories. 1902.

Odd Craft. 1903.

Captains All. 1905.

Short Cruises. 1907.

Sailors' Knots. 1909.

Ship's Company. 1911.

Night Watches. 1914.

Deep Waters. 1919.

Fifteen Stories. 1926.

Sea Whisper. 1926.

Snug Harbour: Collected Stories. 1931.

Cruises and Cargoes (omnibus). 1934.

The Monkey's Paw and Other Stories. 1994.


The Skipper's Wooing, and The Brown Man's Servant. 1897.

A Master of Craft. 1900.

At Sunwich Port. 1902.

Dialstone Lane. 1904.

Salthaven. 1908.

The Castaways. 1916.

The Night-Watchman and Other Longshoremen. 1932.


The Grey Parrot, with Charles Rock (produced 1899). 1908.

Beauty and the Barge, with L.N. Parker, from the story by Jacobs (produced 1904). 1910.

The Temptation of Samuel Burge, with Frederick Fenn (produced1905).

The Boatswain's Mate, with Herbert C. Sargent (produced 1907).1907; revised version, music by Ethel Smyth (produced 1916).

The Changeling, with Herbert C. Sargent, from the story by Jacobs (produced 1908). 1908.

The Ghost of Jerry Bundler, with Charles Rock. 1908.

Admiral Peters, with Horace Mills (produced 1908). 1909.

A Love Passage, with P.E. Hubbard (produced 1913). 1913.

In the Library, with Herbert C. Sargent, from the story by Jacobs (produced 1913). 1913.

Keeping Up Appearances (produced 1915). 1919.

The Castaway, with Herbert C. Sargent, from the story by Jacobs. 1924.

Establishing Relations. 1925.

The Warming Pan. 1929.

A Distant Relative. 1930.

Master Mariners. 1930.

Matrimonial Openings. 1931.

Dixon's Return. 1932.

Double Dealing. 1935.



Jacobs: A Bibliography by Chris Lamerton, 1988; The W. W. Jacob's Periodical Bibliography, 1996.

Critical Study:

in Books in General by V. S. Pritchett, 1953; Pensive Jester: The Literary Career of W. W. Jacobs by John D. Cloy, 1996.

* * *

W. W. Jacobs flourished at a time when it was possible for a writer to make a comfortable living from short stories alone. In England the Education Act of 1870 had created a large reading public that enjoyed a wide range of publications. The most successful among many was The Strand Magazine, in whose pages Conan Doyle had introduced Sherlock Holmes and boosted its circulation enormously. Jacobs, one of the highest-paid short-story writers of the time, wrote for The Strand and The Idler, a periodical edited by his friend Jerome K. Jerome, himself author of the humorous classic Three Men in a Boat. It would take Jacobs about a month to write one of his short stories. "I first of all assemble a few sheets of paper, a bottle of ink, some pens and a blotting pad," he once said. After which he would stare into infinity and cudgel his brains. Sometimes a story dawned and seemed to write itself. "I then rewrite it," he added. These stories, which read so easily and spontaneously, were the result of long and painstaking labor—rewriting, cutting, and endless polishing. He was reputed sometimes to take a whole morning over a sentence. Once he had completed a dozen or so stories he would collect them together for publication in book form. These volumes proved as lucrative as his magazine writing, and most of them went into many reprintings. Many Cargoes, for example, had been reprinted 31 times by as early as 1909, and much of his work was translated into Dutch, French, German, and Spanish.

Jacobs was born and bred in Wapping, a Thames-side district of London where his father was a wharf manager. In those days much of its population consisted of sailors who plied barges and lighters up and down the river and out along the coast to other ports. They could be found yarning and drinking in the pubs and cheap lodging houses of Wapping. Jacobs observed them closely for his raw material, and they were to provide the lifelong subjects of his unobtrusive art. Recurrent antiheroes in his stories were a trio of disreputable firemen—or stokers, the lowest form of seagoing life—known as whiskery old Sam Small, red-headed Ginger Dick, and Peter Russet. Once ashore they become involved in all sorts of ludicrous misadventures due to their quest for get-rich-quick schemes or free beer or rich widows with a bit of property. As someone remarks: "A sailorman is like a fish, he is safest when 'e is at sea. When a fish comes ashore it is in for trouble, and so is a sailorman" ("Shareholders," Deep Waters). Sam and Dick and Peter are cunning but not quite cunning enough. "Treat me fair," says one of the dubious characters, "and I'll treat other people fair. I never broke my word without good reason for it, and that's more than everybody can say" ("Skilled Assistance," Ship's Company). Their exploits are related by the nightwatchman. He is idle, lazy, and henpecked. In real life he would be a bore. As presented by Jacobs, he is a superbly humorous creation, sententious and dryly comic. Another of Jacob's raconteurs is the oldest inhabitant of a fictional village called Claybury. A tedious old fellow, forever cadging beer and tobacco, he becomes a virtuoso of rustic malice in the hand of his creator with his tales of artful yokels and their even more artful womenfolk. A frequent protagonist of Jacob's stories is the villainous Bob Pretty, poacher, con man, and general trickster who always comes out on top. He is seen at his most resourceful in "A Will and a Way" (Light Freights), "The Persecution of Bob Pretty" and "Odd Charges" (Odd Craft), "In the Family" (Short Cruises), and "A Tiger's Skin" (The Lady of the Barge).

Jacobs's characters were all drawn from what were then known as the lower classes: dockland layabouts, longshoremen, policemen, private soldiers, lower-deck sailors, shop assistants, bare-fist boxers. The men are shifty, work shy, and not very intelligent. They spend a lot of their time trying to do each other down with plans that always backfire surprisingly and bring the story to an unexpected end. The women are invariably depicted in an unflattering light. If they are young and pretty they are also cold and calculating in their search for a husband they can nag. If they are married they are fiercely jealous termagants, more than a match for their craven husbands. As a boy, Jacobs suffered from a harsh stepmother, and as a man he was unfortunate enough to have married an unsympathetic women with whom he could agree on nothing. His view of women was accordingly very negative. As the nightwatchman puts it, sailormen "see so little of wimmin that they naturally 'ave a high opinion of 'em. Wait till they become nightwatchmen, and, having to be at 'ome all day, see the other side of 'em. If people on'y started life as nightwatchmen there wouldn't be 'arf the falling love that there is now" ("The Third String," Odd Craft).

Because he concentrated on a very small area of humanity and because he wrote primarily to entertain, Jacobs is often ignored unjustly by literary critics. He is an accomplished artist and a master of the short story. He gets his effects through a brilliant economy of means and a faultlessly controlled style. In "The Captain's Exploit" (Many Cargoes), the drunken skipper is rowed back to his ship by a waterman to whom he, fuddled with beer, gives four times the usual fare. "'Steady, old boy,' said the waterman affectionately." The choice and placing of the adverb "affectionately" speak volumes. Again and again Jacobs's gift for the pithy phrase arouses pleasure: the nightwatchman has "disgust written on a countenance only too well designed to express it" ("Skilled Assistance," Ship's Company); a group of haughty women "seemed as if they had just come off ice" ("Dual Control," Ship's Company); and a bottle of wine is described as "port of the look and red-currant to the taste" ("Twin Spirits," Light Freights).

Jacobs also had Simenon's gift for evoking an atmosphere in very few words: "It was a wet, dreary night in the cheerless part of the great metropolis known as Wapping. The rain, which had been falling steadily for hours, fell steadily on to the sloppy pavements and roads, and joining forces in the gutter, rushed impetuously to the nearest sewer. The two or three streets which had wedged themselves in between the docks and the river, and which, as a matter of fact, really comprise the beginning and end of Wapping, were deserted except for a belated van crashing over the granite roads, or the chance form of a dock-labourer plodding doggedly along, with head bent in distaste for the rain, and hands sunk in trouser-pockets" ("The Captain's Exploit," Many Cargoes). He can also write lyrically: "It was a beautiful morning. The miniature river waves broke against the blunt bows of the barge, and passed by her sides rippling musically. Over the flat Essex marshes a white mist was slowly dispersing before the rays of the sun, and the trees on the Kentish hills were black and drenched with moisture" ("Mrs. Bunker's Chaperon," Many Cargoes). Within the limits Jacobs set for himself, he is unique. He was that rare type of artist who is successful because he chose to work entirely inside the narrow restraints he imposed. The target he aimed at, as did comic writers from Aristophanes to Dickens and onward, was human frailty. He never missed it.

—James Harding

See the essay on "The Monkey's Paw."

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