“Nothing succeeds like success”—or “Fails like failure,” wrote Pierce Egan. My father explained to me, when I was a youth, “Nothing succeeds like success.” He never gave me the second half of that quote. I learned that on my own. I wonder if the phrase that Egan wrote a hundred years before my birth had come down to my father orally and then to me. Pierce Egan’s words passed down through a century. Apparently Mr. Egan had an eye for the human condition, and an ear for common language.
Pierce Egan was the child of Irish immigrants to the city of London. Being poor immigrants there is no certainty if Pierce Egan was born in London, or brought there as an infant by his parents. But Pierce Egan became a part of the city of London, and an observer of many levels of the society around him, both high born, and the lowest of the oppressed.
Pierce Egan learned a lot about words as a young man when he learned the printers trade. Letters and words and phrases were his daily and hourly occupation. Every letter mattered in the letterpress machines Egan helped operate. Too many extra words meant more time effort and money. A print shop in London circa 1800 would have many different types of customers and a variety of materials to print. Rich people or their poor servants and agents would frequent a shop. As every printer learns, customers always want their job done ‘yesterday.’ Printers usually have a good idea of what is going on in the news since some of them print newspapers, and all of them can read.
Pierce Egan began to write accounts of sporting events that were published in newspapers. In the early 1800’s the main sporting events the public attended were boxing and horse racing. He became popular and people sought out his written accounts of events and looked forward to his writing.
Four volumes about the sport of boxing under the title Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism where put out between 1813 and 1824 with lavish illustrations. Pierce Egan was the wordsmith who first called boxing “the Sweet Science.”
(Audio book on Librivox)
Egan began to publish a regular journal entitled Life in London. Priced at a shilling a copy the magazine was affordable for many, and was passed hand to hand and read aloud to others. Egan got to meet the king so Egan put the king’s name as a dedication to deflect criticism and gain some prestige. The letterpress printed issues were illustrated with black and white drawings and color illustrations from George Cruikshank.
On July 15, 1821, the first issue introduced the characters ‘Tom and Jerry’ whose names have come down through the last century and landed on playful and mischievous cartoon characters. The full title on the work was 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.
(On Project Gutenberg – text )
As the character Tom explains, the language on the streets of London is not always the upper class King’s English: “A kind of cant phraseology is current from one end of the Metropolis to the other, and you will scarcely be able to move a single step, my dear JERRY, without consulting a Slang Dictionary, or having some friend at your elbow to explain the strange expressions which, at every turn, will assail your ear.’ Such a dictionary is what Egan offers, hoping in sum that his efforts work ‘to improve, and not to degrade mankind; to remove ignorance, and put the UNWARY on their guard; to rouse the sleepy, and to keep them AWAKE; to render those persons who are a little UP, more FLY: and to cause every one to be down to those tricks, manoeuvres and impositions practised in life, which daily cross the paths of both young and old.”
The stories and characters and scenes depicted in the magazine were so popular that unauthorized editions were illegally printed. People wanted to visit the places mentioned in the stories.
A French edition was published.
Plays appeared on stage. At least six plays were based on Egan’s characters, contributing to yet more sales. One of these was exported to America, launching the Tom and Jerry craze there. The version created by William Thomas Moncrieff was first performed in 1821, it was praised as The Beggar’s Opera of its day. Moncrieff was the publisher of Egan’s Boxiana series. Moncrieff’s production of Tom and Jerry, or Life in London ran continuously at the Adelphi Theatre for two seasons and it was the dramatist’s work as much as the author’s that did so much to popularise the book’s trademark use of fashionable slang. Life in London appeared until 1828, when Egan closed it down.
Egan published a report of the trial of John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt, for the murder of William Weare. The murder case caught the attention of the whole country and exposed a life in the world of boxing. John Thurtell was a boxer who owed money from gambling debts to William Weare. Rather than pay his debts to Weare, Thurtell shot him, beat him, cut his throat, and shoved a gun barrel into his skull. Pierce Egan attended the highly publicized trial to report on the case. Thurtell was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged and then disected. Thurtell allegedly mentioned, just seven hours before his execution, that among his final wishes was a desire to read Egan’s coverage of a recent prizefight.
The murder trial and broad coverage in newspapers exposed not only the gruesome details of the killing but also the seedy London underworld of gambling and amateur boxing to a broad public that had little knowledge of that life. As more lurid details were published of the underworld which Thurtell and Weare had inhabited, there were increasing calls for something to be done.
Egan wrote also satirical legal pieces such as The Fancy Tog’s Man versus Young Sadboy, the Milling Quaker. In 1824 he launched a new journal, Pierce Egan’s Life in London and Sporting Guide, a weekly newspaper priced at eightpence-halfpenny. Other works included sporting anecdotes, theatrical autobiographies, guide-books, and ‘fancy ditties’. Among his later efforts, in 1838, was a series of pieces on the delights to be found on and immediately adjacent to the Thames. It was dedicated, with permission, to the young Queen Victoria and featured the illustrative work of his son Pierce Egan the Younger.
(Life in London – text on Project Gutenberg)