Pierce Egan

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Pierce Egan (1772–1849) was an early British journalist, sportswriter, and writer on popular culture.

Egan was born in the London suburbs, where he spent his life. By 1812 he had established himself as the country's leading 'reporter of sporting events', which at the time meant mainly prize-fights and horse-races. The result of these reports, which won him a countrywide reputation for wit and sporting knowledge, appeared in the four volumes of Boxiana, or, Sketches of Modern Pugilism, which appeared, lavishly illustrated, between 1818-24. It was Egan who first defined boxing as the sweet science.

So successful was Boxiana that Egan turned to his other interest, the world of London clubmen, themselves devotees of the Turf and the Ring. In 1821 he announced the publication of a regular journal: Life in London, appearing monthly at a shilling a time. It was to be illustrated by George Cruikshank (1792-1878), who had succeeded the illustrators Hogarth and Rowlandson as London's leading satirist of urban life. The journal was dedicated to the King, George IV, who at one time had received Egan at court. The first edition 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 appeared on 15 July, 1821. Egan's creation was an enormous, instant success, with its circulation mounting every month. Pirate versions appeared, featuring such figures as 'Bob Tallyho', 'Dick Wildfire' and the like. Print-makers speedily knocked off cuts featuring the various 'stars' and the real-life public flocked to the 'sporting' addresses that Egan had his heroes frequent. There was a translation into French. 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 Moncrieff (1794-1857) - one of contemporary London's most successful dramatists and theatrical managers and a man whose knowledge of London and of its slang equalled Egan's - was praised, not without justification, as 'The Beggar's Opera of its day'. 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 popularize the book's trademark use of fashionable slang.

Life in London appeared until 1828, when Egan closed it down. The publisher (and slang lexicographer) John Camden Hotten brought out a reprint in 1869, but the work had already established itself as a literary influence. The rip-roaring world it portrayed undoubtedly prefigures that of Dickens' Pickwick Papers (published just eight years ater Tom and Jerry); Cruikshank's illustrations, of course, helped both men with their success. Nor did 'Tom and Jerry' vanish with Egan: the celebrated duo have been perpetuated in Warner Brothers' cartoon cat and mouse and as the male protagonists of BBC television's Seventies' sitcom The Good Life.

But the success of his best-seller by no means ended Egan's writing. He published his report of the trial of John Thurtell and Joseph Hunt, whose murder of William Weare provided Regency England with one of its juiciest courtroom melodramas; sales, not to mention the author's ego, were boosted when 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. He provided regular reportage of the major capital trials, as well as such satirical legal pieces 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, also Pierce Egan (1814-80)

In 1823 Egan produced an edition of Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785 et seq.) 'Egan's Grose', as it is generally known, is by no means an original work, but it does embellish its predecessor with the inclusion of a variety of mainly sporting Regency slang. He also cuts the coarse and broad expressions' which Grose had allowed and notes the way that some slang terminology, typically rum - once a positive term, but by 1820 generally the reverse - had altered. Egan must have found it an enjoyable task: his had always been a slangy style. As the writer Don Atyeo has explained in his study of Violence in Sport (1979), ' Boxiana is riddled with "Fancy" slang: '"Ogles" were blackened, "peepers" plunged into darkness, "tripe-shops" received "staggerers", "ivories" were cracked, "domino boxes" shattered, and "claret" flowed in a steady stream.' And as his own character Corinthian Tom explains in Life in London , '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.'

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