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.