19th Century

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880): Biography of a Penny Dreadful Author

Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880) was one of the most popular penny dreadful authors in the Victorian period, perhaps second only to G. W. M. Reynolds. Egan’s immense popularity is summed up by the words of the following reviewer from MacMillan’s Magazine in 1866:

There is a mighty potentate in England whose name is Pierce Egan […] Many among us fancy that they have a good general idea of what is English literature. They think of Tennyson and Dickens as the most popular of our living authors. It is a fond delusion, from which they should be aroused. The works of Mr. Pierce Egan are sold by the half million. What living author can compare with him? [1]

The details of his life are very scant, and although listed in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, he has thus far warranted but a short entry. It is the intention of this particular post to develop people’s knowledge of Egan’s life from my own research into newspapers, periodicals, and Census records.

2

Title Page: Pierce Egan’s Edward, The Black Prince (c.1850).

Egan was born in 1814, the son of the famous Regency writer Pierce Egan (1772-1849). Very little is known about his childhood, although his mother sadly died when he was ten years old. [2] The records, to my knowledge, are very quiet until 1838 when he provides the illustrations for his father’s work The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National, after which Egan turned his attention to writing and published his first novel Quintin Matsys, or the Blacksmith of Antwerp, an historical romance set in early modern Antwerp, which was serialised between 1838 and 1839. Encouraged by the success of his first novel, he went on to write Robin Hood and Little John, which was serialised between 1838 and 1840, and Wat Tyler, or the Rebellion of 1381 serialised between 1839 and 1840. Having been praised by reviewers for animating the lives of well-known thieves and rebels, he authored the serial Captain Macheath in 1841, a tale of an eighteenth-century highwayman which was based upon John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727). [3] He returned to the medieval period afterwards, however, authoring Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie (1842) and Fair Rosamund (1844).

Debtors Prison

Interior of a Victorian Debtors’ Prison (Source: Wikipedia)

Egan is listed in the Census for 1841 as living at 2a Grove Terrace with his sisters, Elizabeth Egan and Rosina Egan (their surnames are spelled as on the Census as ‘Egans’). [4] Sometime after this he began cohabiting with his future wife, Charlotte Martha Jones, at this address. When Egan married her on 10 August 1844, for instance, they give both of their addresses as 2a Grove Terrace. [5] Perhaps more scandalous in the Victorian period than cohabiting together was the fact that she was already pregnant with their child when they married: their son, who they named Pierce after his father and grandfather, was born just a little over three months after they were married on 2 November 1844. [6] His second son John Milton Egan was born on 1846. Perhaps Egan’s growing family accounts for the fact that he appears to have been relatively inactive in the second half of the 1840s, contributing only a few illustrations to The Illustrated London News. It is perhaps this fall in income that contributed to him having been remanded in a Debtors’ Prison on 25 February 1847, where he was listed as being ‘out of business’. [7] The London Gazette does not reveal to whom Egan owed money, however, although he was quickly discharged from the prison on 26 March 1847. [8]

33 Huntingdon Street London Egan Residence

33 Huntingdon Street, London – Egan’s Residence during the 1860s

By the 1850s his literary career picked up again. Between 1849 and 1851 be became the editor of Home Circle. The year 1850 also marked the birth of his third child, a daughter named Violet Catherine Egan. [9] By 1851 the family had also moved to 148 Stamford Brook Cottages, Hammersmith where Egan is listed as living with his wife Charlotte, his sons Pierce Egan and John Milton, his mother-in-law Hannah Jones, his daughter Violet C. Egan, and one servant named Eliza Lancaster. [10] The family moved around a lot: by the time that the Census for 1861 was collected he is listed as living at 33 Huntingdon Street, London with his wife Charlotte, his sons John M. Egan and Pierce Egan, and his sister Elizabeth Egan. [11] The tone of his literary work also appears to have changed as his family grew, with his fiction becoming more ‘domesticated’, apart from the novel Clifton Grey (1854) which is a tale set in the Crimean War. When he became the editor of The London Journal in 1860, a title that he was to hold until his death in 1880, he wrote numerous short stories for the magazine: The Wonder of Kingswood Chace (1860-61), Imogine (1861-62), The Scarlet Flower (1862), The Poor Girl (1862-63), Such is Life (1863-64), Fair Lilias (1865), The Light of Love (1866-67), Eve; or The Angel of Innocence (1867), The Blue-Eyed Witch; or not a Friend in the World (1868), My Love Kate (1869), The Poor Boy (1870), Mark Jarrett’s Daisy, the Wild Flower of Hazelbrook (1872), Ever my Queen (1873), Her First Love (1874), False and Frail (1875), The Pride of Birth (1875-76), Two Young Hearts (1876-77). Egan’s immense contributions to The London Journal, and the penny publishing industry overall would see him honoured at a special dinner held for him by G. W. M. Reynolds in 1857. [12]

Throughout his time as the editor of both Home Circle and The London Journal Egan faced a couple of legal headaches. On 6 March 1850, he was sued in Westminster County Court by the publisher W. S. Johnson because, as editor of the Home Circle, Johnson alleged that Egan has not been paying him the correct amount for Johnson’s contributions to the magazine. Johnson’s case was subsequently thrown out, [13] but the two men appear to have made friends afterwards. They had to, of course: Johnson was the publisher of The London Journal. Johnson would even publish further editions of Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Edward the Black Prince in 1851. On 18 August 1871 Egan then came to Johnson’s aid in a court case, appearing as a witness for Johnson in the case of Johnson v. Lister at the Sheriff’s court. William Henry Lister, the proprietor of Conservative Standard, had plagiarised one of the novels in Johnson’s The London Journal. Egan said that, as the editor of The London Journal, the plagiarism had directly affected sales of Johnson’s magazine, and that in his opinion Johnson should be entitled to damages. Egan’s testimony resulted in Johnson being awarded damages of £125. [14]

Pierce Egan Older

Pierce Egan in 1863 – Illustration from The London Journal 17 October 1863, p.248.

Despite early financial setbacks such as his brief stint in the Debtors’ Prison, he appears to have been relatively affluent after the 1850s. By the time of the 1871 Census, he had moved 60 St. John’s Park, Islington with his wife Charlotte, his son Pierce Egan, his sister Elizabeth Egan, and two servants: Elizabeth Truscott and Henry Kerkeek. [15] Furthermore, he left the not inconsiderable sum of £2,000 upon his death at Ravensbourne, Kent in 1880. [16]

Although virtually no evidence exists in the form of letters and diaries which might give a clue as to the type of man that Egan was, a few things can be deduced. He was a Freemason. [17] And he appears to have been an amiable man, ever willing to use his contacts to help his friends advance their own literary careers. [18] He was also a member of several philanthropic organisations, such as the Newsvendors Benevolent and Provident Institution, and he donated to several worthy causes to help employees who had lost their jobs. [19] He also appears to have been a radical in politics: my own research has studied the strains of radical thought in his early novels, [20] and he was also a member of radical political groups such as the Repeal Association. [21]

Egan was a central figure in Victorian popular fiction, but he is an author who has thus far been eclipsed by two men: his father, Pierce Egan the Elder, and his friend and fellow radical G. W. M. Reynolds. But it is time that academic scholarship was developed upon Egan’s life and works. After all, in the words of the MacMillan’s Magazine reviewer, ‘an author who can command half a million ought not to be overlooked’.


References

[1] Anon. ‘Penny Novels’ MacMillan’s Magazine June 1866, 96-105 (p.96).
[2] Anon. ‘Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries’ The York Herald, and General Advertiser 7 January 1826, p.3
[3] Anon. ‘Captain Macheath by Pierce Egan’ The Era 15 August 1841, p.6
[4] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1841. Class: HO107; Piece: 684; Book: 7; Civil Parish: St Pancras; County: Middlesex; Enumeration District: 8; Folio: 23; Page: 43; Line: 1; GSU roll: 438800.
[5] London Metropolitan Archives, Saint John The Evangelist, Paddington, Register of marriages, P87/JNE1, Item 008.
[6] London Metropolitan Archives, Paddington St James, Register of Baptism, p87/js, Item 008.
[7] Anon. The London Gazette 26 February 1847, p.869.
[8] Anon. The London Gazette 26 March 1847, p.1209.
[9] General Register Office. England and Wales Civil Registration Indexes. London, England: General Register Office, Vol. 3, p.223.
[10] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1851. Class: HO107; Piece: 1469; Folio: 545; Page: 38; GSU roll: 87792.
[11] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1861. Class: RG 9; Piece: 129; Folio: 74; Page: 24; GSU Roll: 542578.
[12] Anon. ‘Annual Dinner of Mr. Reynold’s Establishment’ Reynold’s Newspaper 12 July 1857, p.5.
[13] Anon. ‘Court of the Exchequer’ The Times 19 April 1850, p.7.
[14] Anon. ‘Sheriff’s Court’ The Times 18 August 1871, p.9.
[15] Census Returns of England and Wales, 1861. Kew, Surrey, England: The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO), 1871. Class: RG10; Piece: 276; Folio: 13; Page: 19; GSU roll: 824919.
[16] See Anon. ‘Obituaries’ The Times 8 July 1880, p.10 & England & Wales National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, p.327.
[17] Anon. The Era 8 November 1857, p.15.
[18] Pierce Egan to Benjamin Webster, 27 August 1867, Corbett Autograph Collection Vol. 1 Part 3, Cadbury Research Library, Special Collections MS21/3/1/41.
[19] Anon. ‘The Newsvendors Benevolent and Provident Institution’ The Morning Post 10 December 1869, p.3 & Anon. ‘Total Destruction of the Surrey Theatre by Fire’ The Era 5 February 1865, p.5.
[20] Stephen Basdeo ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), pp.48-64.
[21] Anon. ‘Advertisements & Notices’ Freeman’s Journal and Daily Commercial Advertiser 27 September 1847, p.1.

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