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Sims began writing lively humour and satiric pieces for Fun magazine and The Referee, but he was soon concentrating on social reform, particularly the plight of the poor in London's slums. A prolific journalist and writer he also produced a number of novels.
Sims was also a very successful dramatist, writing numerous plays, often in collaboration, several of which had long runs and international success. He also bred bulldogs, was an avid sportsman and lived richly among a large circle of literary and artistic friends. Sims earned a fortune from his productive endeavours but had gambled most of it away by the time of his death.
Sims was born in Kennington, London, England. His parents were George Sims, a prosperous merchant, and Louisa Amelia Ann Stevenson Sims, president of the Women's Provident League. Sims was the oldest of six children, who were exposed to their parents' cosmopolitan artistic and progressive friends, including suffragists. He grew up in Islington, London, and his mother often took him to the theatre. He was educated in Eastbourne and then Hanwell Military College and the University of Bonn. He had begun to write poetry at the age of ten, and at Bonn he wrote some plays, including an adaptation of Dr. Wespe by Benedix. He completed his studies in Germany and France, where he also became interested in gambling. In Europe, he translated Balzac's Contes drôlatiques, which was published in 1874 by Chatto and Windus; but it was considered too racy and was withdrawn, only to be reissued in 1903.
Sims was married three times and was twice a widower. In 1876, he married Sarah Elizabeth Collis (b. 1850). In 1888, he married Annie Maria Harriss (b. 1859). Finally, in 1901, he married Elizabeth Florence Wykes (b. 1873) who survived him. None of these marriages produced any children. The Times wrote in Sims's obituary that
He returned to England and briefly worked in his father's business, but his interests lay in writing, and he began to write stories and poetry. He began to publish pieces in Fun in 1874, succeeding editor Tom Hood and making friends with fellow contributors W. S. Gilbert and Ambrose Bierce. He also contributed early to the Weekly Dispatch. In 1876, Sims penned a satiric open letter "To a Fashionable Tragedian", humorously accusing actor-producer Henry Irving of inciting mass murder by emphasising the gore in his Shakespeare plays and of paying bribes to critics. Irving sued Sims and his editor Harry Sampson for libel, but after an apology he withdrew the legal action.
In 1877, he began contributing to a new Sunday sports and entertainments paper, edited by Sampson, The Referee, writing a weekly column of miscellany, "Mustard and Cress," under the pseudonym Dagonet, until his death. This was so successful that compilations of his verses from the paper, published as The Dagonet Ballads (1879) and Ballads of Babylon (1880), sold in hundreds of thousands of copies and were constantly in print during the next thirty years. He also wrote amusing and popular travelogues, also as Dagonet. He became editor of One and All in 1879 and for various papers wrote about horse racing, showing dogs, boxing, and leisure. Although Sims published his "Mustard and Cress" column every week for 45 years without fail, according to The Times,
Sims is best-remembered for his dramatic monologue from The Dagonet Ballads that opens "It is Christmas Day in the workhouse". Its zealous social concern aroused public sentiment and made Sims a strong voice for reform, dramatising the plight of suffering Londoners. He also contributed numerous articles from 1879 to 1883 about the bad condition of the poor in London's slums in the Sunday Dispatch, Daily News and other papers. Many of these were later published in book form, such as The Theatre of Life (1881, Fuller), Horrible London (1889, Billing and Sons), The Social Kaleidoscope, and The Three Brass Balls. In particular, in 1881, Sims and Frederick Barnard wrote a series of illustrated articles entitled How the Poor Live for a new journal, The Pictorial World. This was published in book form in 1883. He also wrote many popular ballads attempting to draw attention to the predicament of the poor. These efforts were important in raising public opinion on the subject and led to reform legislation in the Act of 1885.
Sims was appointed as part of an 1882 study of social conditions in Southwark in 1882 and as a witness before the 1884 royal commission on working-class housing. Sims also raised public awareness of other issues, including white slave traffic in a series articles published in the Daily Telegraph, later in book form as London by Night (1906) and Watches of the Night (1907); and the maltreatment of children, writing The Black Stain (1907). Together with Mrs E. W. Burgwin, he founded the Referee Children's Free Breakfast and Dinner Fund (1880), which became London's largest charity of this kind. He also worked to promote the boys' clubs movement and campaigned to open museums and galleries and permit concerts on Sundays as part of the National Sunday League.
He also published a number of novels, including:
His autobiography, My Life: Sixty Years' Recollections of Bohemian London (1917) became very popular. It consisted of reminiscences originally contributed to The Evening News. Its profiles of Sims London contemporaries are written kindly but with zest. His other books include:
Sims was intrigued by the psychology of crime, and he penned some ingenious detective stories. His 1897 story, Dorcas Dene, involved a woman detective. At Arthur Lambton's Crimes Club, Sims took pleasure in discussing cases with Max Pemberton, Conan Doyle and Churton Collins. He was consumed with the murders of Jack the Ripper and even became a suspect. A modern edition of his poetry, Prepare to Shed Them Now, was published in 1968.
Sims's sympathy and wit were not enough to spare him some criticism. The National Observer, in 1892, ironically nominated Sims to succeed Tennyson as poet laureate. The members of the aesthetic movement were sometimes contemptuous of Sims, and in 1894 he was the butt of a spoof in The Green Carnation by Robert Hichens. In 1899, Charles Whibley wrote an acid profile of Sims. He later sacrificed some of his standing among progressives with his 1906 campaign in The Tribune, "Bitter cry of the middle classes", in which he criticised organized labour and argued that lower middle-class tradesmen and workers were over-taxed in the name of statism.
Sims wrote over thirty plays, but most of them were adapted from European pieces. His first hit play, Crutch and Toothpick, based on a French farce by Labiche, was produced at the Royalty Theatre in 1879 and enjoyed a run for 240 nights. In 1881, he wrote the even more successful melodrama, The Lights o' London, produced by Wilson Barrett at the Princess's Theatre, London. This ran for 286 nights and toured in the British provinces, as well as earning record ticket sales in America. It went on to tour continuously in Europe and elsewhere through World War I. Next, at the Princess's, in 1882, was Romany Rye, another hit. In the early 1880s, Sims became the first playwright to have four plays running simultaneously in West End theatres. He also had a dozen touring companies playing his works by that time. He collaborated on many of his plays, and his co-authors included Barrett, Sydney Grundy, Clement Scott and Arthur Shirley.
His most successful collaboration was with Henry Pettitt, with whom he created a substantial body of hits, including In the Ranks (1883, 457 performances at the Adelphi Theatre) and The Harbour Lights (1885, 513 performances at the Adelphi). Their Gaiety Theatre musical burlesques included Faust up to date (1888), which remained a hit for several years and coined a new meaning for the phrase "up-to-date", meaning "abreast" of the latest styles and facts. Their next hit was Carmen up to Data (1890). Both of these were composed by the Gaiety's music director, Meyer Lutz. With Cecil Raleigh, he wrote the hit burlesque opera, Little Christopher Columbus (1893), and among his other musical plays were Blue-eyed Susan at the Prince of Wales Theatre (1892, starring Arthur Roberts) and The Dandy Fifth (Birmingham, 1898) and Dandy Dick Whittington (1895), at the Avenue Theatre, with a score by Ivan Caryll. Robert Buchanan and Sims co-authored five melodramas at the Adelphi, including The Trumpet Call (1891), starring Mrs Patrick Campbell early in her career. On stage, one night, Mrs. Campbell's costume collapsed which, her biographer suggests, extended the run of that play. Sims and Mrs Campbell had an affair, but she tired of it before he did. In 1896, Sims wrote the melodrama Two Little Vagabonds with Arthur Shirley (an adaptation of Les deux gosses) which was a hit at Princess's Theatre and enjoyed many revivals. He also co-wrote some pantomimes, including Puss in Boots produced at the Drury Lane Theatre.
Sims's other famous melodramas included:
His other notable comedies included:
Sims enjoyed his position as a successful author and playwright and belonged to the Devonshire club, the Eccentric Club and others. He reported earnings of nearly £150,000 in 1898, but he gambled most of his wealth away, or gave it to charities, by the time of his death. He was passionate about sports, especially horse racing and boxing, and he played badminton and bred bulldogs. Sims invented a tonic, Tatcho, that was marketed to cure baldness, but his friends found this a source of mirth when it did not stop his own hairline from receding.
Sims used the Daily Mail to wage a campaign to secure the pardon and release of a Norwegian, Adolph Beck, who had twice been imprisoned because of mistaken identity. This effort led to the establishment, in 1907, of the court of criminal appeal. For his assistance, in 1905, the king of Sweden and Norway made him a knight of the order of St Olaf, first class, awarded by in 1905.
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