Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Egan, Pierce (1772-1849)

EGAN, PIERCE, the elder (1772–1849), author of 'Life in London,' is believed to have been born in London in 1772. From an early time he dwelt in the suburbs, and continued to reside there until his death, making frequent expeditions to every part of England where notable races, prize fights, matches, or amusements were expected to take place. By 1812 his reputation was established as 'reporter of sporting events' in the newspapers, and his impromptu epigrams, songs, and witticisms enjoyed a wide circulation. In that year, having secured a permanent engagement, which he held until the end of 1823, as the accredited purveyor of sporting news on a journal printed by E. Young, he married and settled, and his son. Pierce Egan the younger [q. v.], was born in 1814. In the same year he wrote and set in type and worked off with his own hands a book (pp. 144) concerning the Prince Regent and Miss Robinson, entitled 'The Mistress of Royalty; or the Loves of Florizel and Perdita, printed by and for Pierce Egan,' 1814. His declaration of authorship, signed and dated 25 Jan. 1843, is extant. In 1818 he wrote and published a serial work, monthly, called 'Boxiana; or Sketches of Modern Pugilism,' giving memoirs and portraits of all the most celebrated pugilists, contemporary and antecedent, with full reports of their respective prize fights, victories, and defeats, told with so much spirited humour, yet with such close attention to accuracy, that the work holds a unique position. It was continued in several volumes, with copperplates, to 1824. At this date, having seen that Londoners read with avidity his accounts of country sports and pastimes, he conceived the idea of a similar description of the amusements pursued by sporting men in town. Accordingly he announced the publication of 'Life in London' in shilling numbers, monthly, and secured the aid of George Cruikshank [q. v.] and his brother, Isaac Robert Cruikshank [q. v.], to draw and engrave the illustrations in aquatint, to be coloured by hand, George IV had caused Egan to be presented at court, and at once accepted the dedication of the forthcoming work. This was the more generous on the king's part because he must have known himself to have been often satirised and caricatured mercilessly in the 'Green Bag' literature by G. Cruikshank, the intended illustrator. On 15 July 1821 appeared the first number of 'Life in London; or. The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, Esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis.' The success was instantaneous and unprecedented. 'It took both town and country by storm.' So great was the demand for copies, increasing with the publication of each successive number, month by month, that the colourists could not keep pace with the printers. The alternate scenes of high life and low life, the contrasted characters, and revelations of misery side by side with prodigal waste and folly, attracted attention, while the vivacity of dialogue and description never flagged. Many years afterwards (in the 'Cornhill Magazine,' October 1860, No. viii. De Juventute in his 'Roundabout Papers') W. M. Thackeray described the impression left on him by his early perusal of the book, together with a much later reperusal and partial disenchantment, but did full justice to the clever illustrations which so largely contributed to the success of the work (see his paper on Cruikshank in the Westminster Review, 1840). Imitations and pirated copies appeared, both of the text and pictures. The chief of the former were 'Real Life in London; or, The Rambles and Adventures of Bob Tallyho, Esq., and his Cousin, the Hon. Tom Dashall, through the Metropolis. By an Amateur,' illustrated by W. Heath and H. Alken, Dighton, Brooke, Rowlandson, &c., May 1821, and following months to 1822, in sixpenny numbers. This was a favoured rival to 'Life in London,' and there was a suspicion that Egan was its author, but this is improbable. Other imitations were David Carey's 'Life in Paris, the Rambles of Dick Wildfire,' &c., illustrated by George Cruikshank,' 1821; 'The Sprees of Tom, Jerry, and Logick [sic];' 'A New Song of Flash, Fashion, Frolic, and Fun,' with general heading of 'Life in London,' and clumsy woodcut copies of groups after Cruikshank. The latter was published and signed by James Catnach, in Seven Dials, 23 March 1822, price twopence. Innumerable pictures appeared, representing the characters and incidents; print publishers made their market of the excitement, and the streets at night were certainly not quieter or 'sporting cribs' less frequented when fashion adopted 'Tom and Jerry ' habits. At many of the playhouses dramatic versions increased the notoriety. First of these was Mr. W. Barrymore's play, produced at the Royal Amphitheatre on 'Monday, 17 Sept. 1821; Gomersal acted Corinthian Tom, Jones and Herring took Jerry Hawthorn and Bob Logic. At the Olympic, an extravaganza called 'Life in London,' by Charles I. M. Dibdin the younger [see under Dibdin, Charles], was produced on 12 Nov. 1821, with Baker, Oxberry, and Sam Vale as Tom, Jerry, and Logic. W. T. Moncrieff (supposed pseudonym of W. J. Thoms) wrote the dramatic version for the Adelphi, 'Tom and Jerry; or. Life in London,' with many songs and glees, costume and scenery superintended by Robert Cruikshank. Produced on Monday, 26 Nov. 1821, it had a great 'run,' with Wrench, W. Burroughs, and Wilkinson as Tom, Jerry, and Logic, Walbourn and Sanders for Dusty Bob and Black Sal, Mrs. Baker and Mrs. Waylett as Corinthian Kate and Sue. This version was adopted throughout the country and in the United States, everywhere securing crowded houses. Tom Dibdin [q. v.], Farrel, and Douglas Jerrold separately dramatised it during 1821 and 1822. For Egerton, Egan himself prepared a dramatic version produced at Sadler's wells on Monday, 8 April 1822, with Elliott, Bob Keeley, and Vale as Tom, Jerry, and Logic. In this version, intended for Covent Garden, in December 1821, Egan had planned to marry Hawthorn and Mary Rosebud, when 'Jerry sees his folly, acknowledges his error, with Hawthorn Hill in perspective,' and concludes with 'Tom and Corinthian Kate made happy.' Postponed for six months and transferred to Sadler's Wells it was performed 191 nights. The book was translated at Paris by M. S—— in 1822. At this date (1822) Egan lived at Spann's Buildings, St. Pancras. At Paris the French translation was entitled 'The English Diorama; or. Picturesque Rambles in London,' 1822. On 2 June, at the Coburg Theatre, was produced T. Greenwood's 'Death of Life in London; or, Tom and Jerry's Funeral.'

In 1828 Egan, rebuking the pirates and plagiarists, produced his 'Finish to the Adventures of Tom, Jerry, and Logic, in their Pursuits through Life in and out of London, with numerous coloured illustrations by Robert Cruikshank' (n. d.) In this he introduced far more of the country sports and misadventures, anticipating, and no doubt suggesting, much of the character of Dickens's 'Pickwick Papers,' which were soon to follow and to excel it. He felt bound to display the consequences of such reckless prodigality and riot, by now introducing more serious incidents: the inconstancy, degradation, and suicide of Kate, the misery and deathbed of Logic, the sufferings as a convict of 'splendid Jem,' the sickness and remorse of Jerry, who reforms, retreats to the country, marries Mary Rosebud, his early sweetheart, and developes into a generous landlord and justice of peace; with the death of Corinthian Tom, who breaks his neck at a steeplechase. Strangely enough this concluding portion of the work remained wholly unknown to, or forgotten by, Thackeray, who writes of it as though merely suggested and never executed. It was reissued in 1871 by John Camden Hotten, with the original thirty-six aquatint plates. Possessing less of 'rattling gaiety' there is plenty of incident and more literary polish than in the antecedent 'Life.' Egan spent most of his time between the publication of these two books in varied literary work. He reported and published a full 'Account of the Trial of John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt' for the murder of William Weare. 'With an appendix disclosing some extraordinary facts, Egan exclusively in the possession of the editor,' 1824. It was certified as a fact that Thurtell seven hours before his execution had said: 'It is perhaps wrong in my situation, but I own I should like to read Pierce Egan's account of the great fight yesterday,' meaning one between Tom Spring and Lankan. Egan was present at the Old Bailey sessions on 30 Oct. 1824, at the trial of Henry Fauntleroy [q. v.] for forgery, and published a full report. In 1822 he had issued 'The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of S. D. Hayward, denominated the Modern Macheath,' a highwayman condemned to death and executed 25 Nov. 1821. In 1821 Egan wrote a humorous account of a trial in the court of common pleas, 23 April, entitled 'The Fancy Tog's Man versus Young Sadboy the Milling Quaker.' Mr. Gore was the tailor, Edmund Foster pleading to be a minor, the defendant. Egan furnished the 'slang phrases' to Francis Grose's 'Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,' 1823. On Sunday, 1 Feb. 1824, with motto of 'Our king and country,' he commenced editing 'Pierce Egan's Life in London and Sporting Guide,' a weekly newapaper, price 8½d., afterwards merging into 'Bell's Life in London.' His portrait, drawn by George Sharpless, engraved by Charles Turner, was published 'at Pierce Egan's tiny crib in Chancery Lane,' 1824. He published in the same year his more ambitious work, well illustrated by Theodore Lane, and dedicated to Edmund Kean, 'The Life of an Actor;' the hero, Peregrine Proteus, ending with a successful performance before royalty, after all the vicissitudes of provincial engagements and poverty. This work was popular, and, commencing in January 1824, was completed in 1825. In 1827 appeared Egan's 'Anecdotes, Original and Selected, of the Turf, the Chase, the Ring, and the Stage, embellished with thirteen coloured plates by Theodore Lane.' His 'Walks through Bath,' and his 'Trip to Ascot Races,' 1828, preceded the issue of his poem entitled 'The Show Folks,' embellished with nine designs on wood by the late Theodore Lane, engraved by John Thompson, 1831, accompanied by an interesting memoir of Lane [q. v.], who had died 28 May 1828. This book was written by Egan to benefit Lane's widow and children. His 'Life of an Actor' had been planned to benefit Lane in 1824. In 1831 he published 'Matthews's Comic Annual; or. The Snuff-Box and the Leetel Bird: an original humourous poem by Pierce Egan.' His important work, 'Pierce Egan's Book of Sports and Mirror of Life,' was completed, after serial publication, in 1832, and is a worthy companion of Hone's 'Every Day Book,' and the best work of its class, fully illustrated on every variety of country sports and pastimes, invaluable for reference. Egan's next work was a serial dedicated by express permission to the young Queen Victoria, and completed on New Year's day 1838, entitled 'The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National.' This undertaking introduced to a wider public the artistic merits of his son Pierce, who designed and etched the numerous illustrations of 'Greenwich Park,' 'Richardson's Show,' 'Hampton Races,' 'The Match Girl,' 'The River,' 'Windsor,' ' Vauxhall,' 'Gravesend,' 'Source of the Thames,' 'The Nore Light,' 'Lord Mayor's Show,' &c. Egan's later years were spent in peaceful retirement. The editor of 'Bell's Life in London' wrote: 'Pierce was, with all his oddities, a right-minded fellow, and was respected by all to whom he was known.' Among his numerous fugitive works were 'fancy ditties' of every description, mirthful and serious, but never offensive; also guide-books to Dublin, Liverpool, &c., for he knew every spot in Great Britain. 'The veteran historian of the ring and sporting journalist' died on Friday, 3 Aug. 1849, at his house in Pentonville, London, 'aged 77 years,' leaving a large family behind him, 'most of whom are able to take care of themselves' (Bell's Life),

[Works cited throughout; John Camden Hotten's Preface to his edition of Life in London, 1870; Charles Hindley's Life and Times of James Catnach, 1878; European Magazine, November 1821; Gent. Mag. new ser. xxxii. 548; Bell's Life in London, 12 Aug. 1849, &c.]

J. W. E.