Jerome K. Jerome is such a familiar name that one rarely stops to analyse its absurd composition, with the enigmatic ‘K.’ and the repetition of Jerome. The author’s father was Jerome Clapp, who restyled himself as Jerome Clapp Jerome, and the youngest of his four children was given this set of names as well – although his mother called him Luther.
Jerome Clapp Jerome was born on 2nd May 1859 in Walsall, Staffordshire. When his father’s business collapsed, the family moved to Stourbridge, and then to Sussex Street in Poplar, in London's East End. Sussex Street is now Lindfield Street, on the edge of Bartlett Park, an area that was badly damaged years later in World War 2.
Jerome's childhood in Poplar was one of relative poverty. In 1871 his father died, and at the age of fourteen Jerome began work as a clerk for the London and North Western Railway at Euston. His mother died two years later.
At some stage, Jerome changed his middle name to Klapka, allegedly as a tribute to Hungarian General Klapka (though the Jerome K. Jerome Society says he probably invented the often-repeated story that the general was a good friend of his father, staying with him when he left Hungary). Resigning from the Railway, Jerome became involved with the theatre as a touring actor, which left him destitute. He turned to various other clerking jobs, and then in his mid-twenties he began writing.
His first book was On the Stage–and Off, which was published in 1886 after the customary round of rejections, followed by a collection of humorous essays in 1887, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Two years on, aged twenty-nine, he married Ettie, only nine days after her divorce. Their honeymoon was on the River Thames, and afterwards he began writing Three Men in a Boat, which was published in 1889 and has since been translated into numerous languages.
Jerome’s subsequent career as a writer – novelist, dramatist and journalist – continues to be eclipsed by the enormous success of Three Men in a Boat. He was much in demand as a lecturer, as far afield as America, Germany and Russia. Too old to join the army at the outbreak of the First World War, he instead enlisted in the French army as an ambulance driver. He died in Northampton on 14th June 1927, at the age of sixty-eight, after suffering a stroke. His ashes were buried in St Mary’s churchyard at Ewelme in Oxfordshire, a village less than 2 miles from the Thames, the river that transformed his life.