Tag Archives: Eastward Ho!

What Is The Origin Of (250)?…

Paul Pry

My favourite pub in Worcester is the Paul Pry, a marvellous Victorian boozer with well kept, good quality ales. It was always a pleasure to visit clients in the area because it gave me the excuse to pop in. The character after whom the pub is named is someone who could fairly claim to be someone who went viral in a non-internet world, quite some phenomenon when you come to think of it.

Paul Pry was the comic invention of the English playwright, John Poole, and the three-act play bearing Pry’s name premiered at London’s Haymarket Theatre on September 13, 1825. He was a meddling, interfering character with an overpowering sense of curiosity. His party piece was to leave his umbrella behind, giving him an excuse to return and continue his eavesdropping. He even had a catchphrase; “I hope I don’t intrude”.

It was an overnight sensation. The review in the Globe the day after the premier of Paul Pry concluded with this sentence; “the house was crowded at an early hour, and when at the conclusion of the comedy Mr Pry came forward to “ask just one more question”, viz whether it might be repeated? the long and universal applause which followed, conveyed an answer which must have been equally gratifying to the feelings of the actor, the author, and though last not least, of the manager”.

To give a sense of how quickly Paul Pry not only captured the nation’s imagination but became part of its vernacular you need only look at a court case reported in the Morning Advertiser on November 24, 1825, little more than ten weeks after the play made its debut. Sarah Stevenson was up before the magistrate at the Marlborough Street police court, charged with assaulting Frances Kirkham. The report stated that, “and with the exception of Paul Pry, Miss Kirkman did not believe that there was upon the face of the earth so curious or impertinently inquisitive a being as Sarah Stevenson”. The word on the street, indeed.

The provinces were not impervious to Paul Pry mania, the play touring the country and reaching Worcester’s Theatre Royal on July 13, 1826. By 1829 there was a stagecoach running daily from Worcester to London’s Broad Street named the Paul Pry and in the 1840s a satirical periodical akin to Private Eye called Paul Pry hit the streets of Worcester. It was short-lived but had a picaresque existence, writers being arraigned in court for alleged libel and even horsewhipped. The Paul Pry pub first made an appearance in the annals in 1834.

The take up of the name in Worcester amply illustrates one commentator’s observation that Paul Pry was “first a play and then within weeks virtually every other category of cultural practice.” It had become so established as a synonym for an inquisitive person that Ebenezer Brewer thought fit to include it in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, published in 1870; “An idle, meddlesome fellow, who has no occupation of his own, and is always interfering with other folk’s business – John Poole, Paul Pry (a comedy)”.

Paul Pry was to the nineteenth century what a nosey parker was to the twentieth. We saw the transition last week in the exchange recorded in E Hesse-Kaye’s Eastward Ho! published in Belgravia: A London Magazine in May 1890; “lookey ‘ere, Mr Poll Pry, you’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr Nosey Parker about you”.

Paul Pry rather sank into obscurity but I rather like it as a term for an annoyingly inquisitive person.

What Is The Origin Of (249)?…

Nosey parker

A nosey parker is someone who cannot resist the opportunity to stick their nose into other people’s business, someone who is overly inquisitive or likes to pry. But where does it come from and was there a historical nosey parker?

In etymological terms it is a fairly modern phrase, first appearing in a story published in the Belgravia: A London Magazine in May 1890 entitled Eastward Ho! by E Hesse-Kaye. The narrator, who hails from the West End of London makes an intrepid expedition into the Badlands of the east, notably Shoreditch and Hoxton. Part of the article is devoted to recording the scraps of conversation he overhears. In one of the exchanges he hears, “lookey ‘ere, Mr Poll Pry, you’re a askin’ too many questions for me, there’s too much of Mr Nosey Parker about you”.

That it was well established in the vernacular of London folk seems to be confirmed by one of those court cases that make local newspapers a treasure trove of social insights. In its edition of October 21, 1896 the Daily News reported a case which had troubled the beak at Southwark police court involving a certain Elizabeth Waddell, described as “a determined-looking woman” who was accused of smashing up a barrow load of toys. In her defence, Waddell is reported as saying, “if the complainant had not been such a Nosey Parker, she would have escaped the row”.

Not unsurprisingly, when we look at the development of the meaning of nosey, we find that it was used at least from the seventeenth century to describe someone with a large nose. Thomas Shelton undertook the enormous task of translating Cervantes’ Don Quixote into English, a feat he achieved in 1620. In one passage, he wrote “the story leaves them, to tell who was the Knight of the Glasses and his nosier Squire”. Although not clear in excerpt form, the context shows that the adjective was used to describe a physical attribute of the squire, not where he stuck it.

It was not until the early nineteenth century that the word began to be used in a more figurative sense, to suggest that the nose was used to pry into matters not necessarily concerning the bearer of the snout. This transition in meaning can be seen in Robert Montgomery’s satire of 1828, The Age Reviewed, in which he writes, “the sycophantic gang Whine through the kingdom with deceitful slang; Till nasty, nosy gabble mouth’d for hire, Puff their mean souls into Presumption’s fire”.

The other component of the phrase had a rather literal meaning, a parker was someone who looked after a park. One of the temptations or occupational hazards of the job may have been inadvertently, or deliberately, observing a person or persons unknown getting up to no good. But this perk of the job is not necessarily the origin of our phrase but it does attract me.

It almost certainly not a reference to the sixteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. We have illustrations of him and whilst he has a fine snout, it is not particularly prominent and, in any event, he was not known for being particularly inquisitive. The gap of four centuries, even allowing for it to be in oral use before it made its way into print, tends to argue against him as the phrase’s origin. There was a postcard from 1907 entitled The Adventure of Nosey Parker but this appeared after the first recorded use of the phrase.

As is often the way, there is no definitive answer to our conundrum but I do like the image of an inquisitive park attendant.