Jerome K Jerome
Although the river passes through Benson, it is the nearby village of Ewelme that holds an interest for anyone who has spent any period of time along the middle reaches of the Thames. The churchyard at Ewelme is the final resting place of Jerome K Jerome.
Jerome wrote “Three Men in a Boat” which was published in 1889 and the River Thames has not been the same since.
The book is fictional, although the main characters are based on Jerome himself (J) and two of his close friends, Carl Hentschel (Harris) and George Wingrave (George). Montmorency (the dog) was entirely fictional, although his mischievous nature was said to be more than a little bit based on the playful characteristics of Jerome himself.
Jerome started writing the book immediately after he returned from honeymoon with his new bride Georgina (more generally known as Ettie). It can be no coincidence that they spent their honeymoon along the banks of the Thames.
The book tells of the antics of the three friends on a trip up and down the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. Originally the book was meant to be a light-hearted travel guide for the newly popular pastime of boating on the river. During the writing Jerome’s sense of fun gradually took over, and by the time the final version of the book was published it had become a humorous book in a travel setting.
Allegedly all of the inns and pubs mentioned in the book are still trading, which is a little fact that I have locked away in the memory-box. It seems to me to be a good opportunity for a pub crawl at some point in the future.
References to the book will keep cropping up during the walk, but it is the lives of the three men themselves that I am going to deal with here.
George Wingrave came into Jerome’s life when the two of them rented rooms in the same house in Tavistock Place during JKJ’s younger days and they became lifelong friends through a mutual love of the theatre. Wingrave worked in a bank, and eventually become manager of Barclays Bank in the Strand. He appears to have led a relatively quiet life, and his fictional adventures were probably much more exciting than his earthly existence.
Carl Hentschel was born in Lodz, Poland in 1864, and he migrated to England with his parents in 1869 at the age of five years. His father invented a photographic process which revolutionised the printing of illustration plates in books. The firm was very successful and Carl set up on his own and became even more successful. He too was a great theatre goer, and thus it was that he came into contact with Jerome and Wingrave. He was teetotal, which will come as a surprise to anyone who has read the book, for the character of Harris could be best described as a man who enjoyed a few bevies.
But it is Jerome himself who predictably provides the more interesting life history. He was born on May 2nd 1859 in Caldmore, near Walsall, Staffordshire. His father was Jerome Clapp Jerome and he was a somewhat unconventional character. Jerome Senior was originally a lay-preacher and part-time farmer, but had moved from Appledore to Staffordshire after a mining venture on his land turned sour and became an ironmonger. However he still maintained an interest in mining businesses and invested somewhat unwisely in them. The result was that the Jeromes became well acquainted with the local bailiffs and eventually lost all of their assets. The family moved to the Poplar area of London and relative poverty. His father died in 1871 when Jerome Junior was only twelve years old. At fourteen years of age young Jerome had little choice but to leave school to support his mother and sisters.
His first job was as a clerk with the London and North Western Railway at Euston. Following the death of his mother his sisters left home and he was free of all responsibility, he turned to the theatre. He assumed the stage name of Howard Crighton and toured the country as a jobbing actor, and we can assume this was not exactly successful. Disillusioned he tried journalism and writing, but all he was successful in was increasing his pile of rejection slips. He tried becoming a schoolmaster, where he appears to have enjoyed a similar success. Now totally demoralised, he tried a succession of dead-end jobs but remained firmly rooted to the bottom of the pile.
It was when Jerome was at his lowest that he had the inspiration that was to be the pivotal moment of his life. He decided to write a humorous account of his life as an actor. It was titled “On the Stage – and Off, the Short Career of a Would-be Actor” and was published in 1885. It is an absorbing account of life in the Victorian theatre, though its key to Jerome’s future was that people found it very funny.
Spurred on by this success he wrote “The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow” which was equally successful. He met and married Georgina Marris (Ettie) in 1888 and they went on their honeymoon along the Thames and the rest, as they say………….
The book was a runaway success. It reached sales of one million copies after just twelve years and is still in print. A mark of its popularity is that the year after the book was published the number of pleasure boats registered on the Thames leaped by fifty percent.
While Jerome is remembered mostly for his one work, he was a prolific and very successful writer of his day. He wrote twenty-one plays, ten novels, countless essays and was a prolific columnist. When the magazine “The Idler” was searching for a new editor, he beat Rudyard Kipling to the position. His literary friends included Kipling, J.M.Barrie, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells and Rider Haggard.
Jerome died of a stroke and brain haemorrhage on 14th June 1927. He is buried with his wife Ettie, her daughter from a previous marriage Elsie, and his sister Blandina by his side in the pretty churchyard of Ewelme, Oxfordshire, and a short walk from the banks of the river that made him famous.
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