W. W. Jacobs

William Wymark Jacobs (8 September 1863 – 1 September 1943) was an English author of short stories and novels.[1] During his career he was best known for his farcical comedies involving dockside and rural Essex characters. He occasionally wrote horror stories and today is most famous for "The Monkey's Paw" (1902).

W. W. Jacobs
Portrait of Jacobs by Elliott & Fry
BornWilliam Wymark Jacobs
(1863-09-08)8 September 1863
Wapping, London, England
Died1 September 1943(1943-09-01) (aged 79)
Islington, London, England
OccupationShort story writer, novelist

Early life

Jacobs was born on 8 September 1863 in Wapping, London, where he grew up. His father was a wharf manager on the South Devon wharf at Lower East Smithfield.[2] He was educated at a private school in London and later at Birkbeck College (then called Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, now part of the University of London).[3]


Early work

In 1879, Jacobs began work as a clerk in the civil service, in the Post Office Savings Bank, and by 1885 he had his first short story published. His road to success was relatively slow: Arnold Bennett writing in 1898 was astonished that Jacobs turned down the sum of £500 for six short stories. Jacobs was financially secure enough to be able to leave the Post Office in 1899.


Jacobs is now remembered for his macabre tale "The Monkey's Paw" (published 1902 in the collection of short stories The Lady of the Barge)[4] and several other ghost stories, including "The Toll House" (published 1909 in the collection of short stories Sailors' Knots) and "Jerry Bundler" (published 1901 in the collection Light Freights).[4][5] However, the majority of his output was humorous in tone. His favourite subject was marine life: "men who go down to the sea in ships of moderate tonnage" said Punch[6], reviewing his first collection of stories, Many Cargoes, which achieved great popular success on its publication in 1896. Michael Sadleir said of Jacobs's fiction, "He wrote stories of three kinds: describing the misadventures of sailor-men ashore; celebrating the artful dodger of a slow-witted village; and tales of the macabre".[7]

Many Cargoes was followed by the novel The Skipper's Wooing in 1897, and another collection of short stories, Sea Urchins (1898), set the seal on his popularity. Among his other titles are Captains All, Sailors' Knots, and Night Watches. The title of the last reflects the popularity of perhaps his most enduring character: the night-watchman on the wharf in Wapping, recounting the preposterous adventures of his acquaintances Ginger Dick, Sam Small, and Peter Russet. These three characters, pockets full after a long voyage, would take lodgings together determined to enjoy a long spell ashore; but the crafty inhabitants of dockland London would soon relieve them of their funds, assisted by the sailors' own fecklessness and credulity. Jacobs showed a delicacy of touch in his use of the coarse vernacular of the East End of London, which attracted the respect of such writers as P. G. Wodehouse, who mentions Jacobs in his autobiographical work Bring on the Girls! written with Guy Bolton, published in 1954.

The stories which made up Many Cargoes had varied previous serial publication, while those in Sea Urchins were for the most part published in Jerome K. Jerome's Idler. From October 1898 Jacobs's stories were appearing in The Strand, an arrangement which lasted almost to his death and provided him with financial security.

John Drinkwater described Jacobs' fiction as "in the Dickens tradition".[3]

Dramatic work

Jacobs's short story output declined somewhat around the time of the First World War. His literary efforts between then and his death were predominantly adaptations of his own short stories for the stage. His first stage work, The Ghost of Jerry Bundler, was performed in London in 1899, revived in 1902 and eventually published in 1908.

Personal life

Jacobs married Agnes Eleanor Williams in 1900 at West Ham, Essex. Agnes was later a noted suffragette. The 1901 Census records their living with their first child, a three-month-old daughter, at Kings Place Road, Buckhurst Hill, Essex. Also recorded in the household were his journalist sister Amy, his sister-in-law, Nancy Williams, a cook and an additional domestic servant. Altogether, the Jacobs were to have two sons and three daughters.[8]

Jacobs went on to set up home in Loughton, Essex, where he had two houses, the Outlook, in Park Hill, and Feltham House, in Goldings Hill, where there is a blue plaque to him. Loughton is the "Claybury" of some of the short stories, and Jacobs's love for the forest scenery in the area features in his "Land Of Cockaigne". Another blue plaque shows Jacobs' central London residence at 15 Gloucester Gate, Regents Park (later used for the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture).

Jacobs stated that although he had held left-wing opinions in his youth, in his later years his political position was "Conservative and Individualistic".[3]

Jacobs died on 1 September 1943 at Hornsey Lane, Islington, London.


  • Many Cargoes, 1896
  • The Skipper's Wooing and The Brown Man's Servant, 1897 (novel and novella)
  • More Cargoes, 1897
  • Sea Urchins, 1898 (also known as More Cargoes, US)
  • A Master of Craft, 1900
  • Light Freights, 1901
  • The Lady of the Barge, 1902 (contains "The Monkey's Paw")
  • Dialstone Lane, 1902
  • At Sunwich Port, 1902
  • Odd Craft, 1903 (contains "The Money Box")
  • Captains All, 1905
  • Short Cruises, 1907
  • Salthaven, 1908
  • Sailors' Knots, 1909 (contains "The Toll House")
  • Ship's Company, 1911
  • Night Watches, 1914
  • The Castaways, 1916
  • Deep Waters, 1919
  • Sea Whispers, 1926

Film adaptations

See also


  1. The New York Times
  2. Loughton and District Historical Society Newsletter, No. 186. September/October 2010, p. 6.
  3. "Jacobs, William", in Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Twentieth Century Authors, A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, (Third Edition). New York, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1950, pp. 721–723.
  4. Norman Donaldson, "W. W. Jacobs", in E. F. Bleiler, ed. Supernatural Fiction Writers. New York: Scribner's, 1985, pp.383–388. ISBN 0684178087
  5. Mike Ashley, Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction. Elm Tree Books, 1977, ISBN 0-241-89528-6, p. 102.
  6. Punch, vol. 112 p. 54, January 30 1897
  7. John Sutherland, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford University Press, 1990. ISBN 0804718423, pp. 324–325.
  8. Michael Sadleir, "Jacobs, William Wymark (1863–1943)", rev. Sayoni Basu, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, UK: OUP, 2004 Retrieved 13 October 2016.

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