meaning and origin of ‘Paul Pry’




portrait of Liston in Paul Pry - Bell_s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle - 6 November 1825

“Just dropped in to ask after your tooth-ach.”

The comedy of Paul Pry has had an almost unexampled success at the Haymarket Theatre, and every night that it has been performed, the house has been crowded. We noticed the plot when it was brought out, and since that period Liston, who performs the part of Paul Pry with infinite drollery, has formed a subject for the pencils of various artists, many of whom have succeeded in preserving his likeness, while others have altogether failed. The above portrait will be at once recognised by all who have seen the original, and will, no doubt, prove acceptable to our country readers. The principal feature in the piece consists in the busy meddling interference of Paul Pry, and he is here represented as just entering the house of Col. Hardy, at a moment when his obtrusion was least acceptable.

from Bell’s Life in London, and Sporting Chronicle (London) – 6th November 1825



The noun Paul Pry denotes an inquisitive person.
—Synonyms: nosey parker and

The English clergyman and schoolmaster Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) defined Paul Pry in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1st edition – London, 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 the eponymous character of the play that E. B. Brewer refers to. This comedy by the English playwright John Poole (1786-1872), which became immensely popular, premiered at the Haymarket Theatre, London, on 13th September 1825. The following day, The Globe (London) published this review:


A new Comedy, in three acts, from the pen of Mr. Poole, was brought out at this theatre last night with considerable success. It derives its name, “Paul Pry,” from that of the principal character in the piece, a village Marplot, who, having no business of his own, is eternally thrusting his nose into that of other people, constantly to their annoyance, and not unfrequently to his own discomfiture. The plot is briefly this:—A rich old bachelor, of the name of Witherton, has become a perfect slave to a knavish steward and a hypocritical housekeeper, the former of whom has designs on his purse—the latter on his person. In order to further their plans, every letter between their master and an only nephew, whom he has not seen from his childhood, have been intercepted; but Mr. Grasp, the steward, fearing his coadjutrix, Mrs. Subtle, may play him a trick, is anxious to bind her over to his interest by marriage, while the latter is no less anxious to secure the hand of her master before Grasp can do her a similar good turn. The lady is very near succeeding—her arts, in a scene equally well written and acted, having brought Mr Witherton to the very brink of “popping the question,” when the malapropos intrusion of Mr. Pry, who “just drops in” to shew his friend an account of a “prodigious gooseberry,” occupying two columns in the County Chronicle, breaks off the interview at the critical moment. In the mean time, Somers, the nephew, whom Witherton has discarded for his supposed ingratitude in never noticing his letters, is, together with his wife, introduced into his uncle’s family, under the fictitious names of Willis and Marian, at the recommendation of Colonel Hardy, a Sir Anthony Absolute sort of a father, with a pretty daughter, who he resolves shall marry the son of his old friend Stanley, without ever having seen, or even knowing the name of, her intended. As young Stanley’s father has been equally absurd in concealing the name of the young lady whom he wishes his son to marry (vide “Love in a Village”), it is particularly fortunate that the young folks have somehow or another fallen in love with each other, otherwise, as Mr. Puff says, “the play would be spoiled.” But this determination of his father to marry him to a girl he knows nothing of, induces young Stanley to set off “on a cruize” (for he is a midshipman) in search of his own mistress. A tune on his flute, and a stone, with a letter attached, thrown over the garden wall, apprise her of his vicinity; but the letter having unluckily fallen into the Colonel’s hands, that gentleman suddenly opens the garden door for the purpose of pursuing the gallant, when Mr. Pry, who had discomposed the lover by watching his motions, and is at this moment planted with his eye to the key-hole, tumbles headlong into the garden, and thus gets into his first scrape, being mistaken for the serenader. It would difficult to follow, through all its ambages, a plot, the intricacy of which, involving poor Pry in a variety of dilemmas through his own curiosity, is its principal recommendation; we shall merely add, therefore, that this propensity is at length useful, occasioning the discovery of the intercepted letters, and tending, of course, to the exposure of Mrs. Subtle and the fortunate denouement of the piece. The plot, it will have been already seen, has no great claims to novelty, neither have the characters, the prototypes of which we have seen “any time these six hundred years;” but nevertheless the thing is well arranged, the incidents follow each other rapidly and naturally, and several truly comic situations are afforded, of which neither the author nor the performers have failed to make the most. Liston*, as usual, was irresistibly ridiculous in the principal character; and Farren, as the Colonel, contributed scarcely less to the amusement of the audience. The piece indeed was very strongly cast, Mrs. Glover performing the part of Mrs. Subtle, a character much beneath her powers, in such a manner as to render it a very prominent figure upon the canvass, while Madame Vestris, as an intriguing chambermaid, acted and sang to perfection; both her airs, “The Lover’s mistake,” a comic ballad, and “Cherry Ripe,” were deservedly encored. Mrs. Waylett, in a tunic and trowsers, was the Harry Stanley, which she played with her usual liveliness, and elicited much applause. The piece, as is generally the case on a first night, is much too long, but the redundancies are so obvious and so immaterial to the proper conduct of the story, that we doubt not their curtailment will secure this little comedy a run to the end of the season. 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.

(* the English comedian John Liston (1776-1846))

Very early, Paul Pry became a synonym for an inquisitive person, as illustrated by the following from the Morning Advertiser (London) of 24th November 1825, which reported that “a very pretty arch-looking young girl, named Sarah Stevenson”, was brought before the magistrate at Marlborough Street police court, “charged with an assault upon Miss Frances Kirkam”:

Miss Frances Kirkman stated as her complaint, that since she has resided under the same roof with Sarah Stevenson, she and all the other parts of her family have been harassed by the unwearied inquisitiveness of the said Sarah Stevenson. […] It seemed that her whole time was occupied in spying after all their movements, 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 earliest use of Paul Pry in its current sense that I have found is from The Morning Chronicle (London) of 16th January 1826; criticising the “busy, meddling, impertinent people, who endeavour to push themselves into notice by carrying on an active warfare with the contraband trade” of corpses, this newspaper reprinted a paragraph from the Tyne Mercury and reacted to it:

“Suspicions having been for some time entertained by Mr. Loftus, the coach proprietor of Newcastle, that a practice had obtained of sending dead bodies through Newcastle to Edinburgh, he determined to stop the first packet of a doubtful nature that should come under his observation. This opportunity was afforded by the arrival of a large box by the Telegraph from Leeds, on Friday night last, weighing upwards of 16 stone! The officers of police were sent for, and on opening the box, they discovered the dead body of a man whose stature must have exceeded six feet. He was apparently between 40 and 50 years of age, large boned, with dark hair and an aquiline nose. The corpse had not yet become putrid. The package was addressed to ‘Mr. Simpson, 61, Prince-street, Edinburgh.’ A Coroner’s Inquest was held on this subject on Saturday morning, and the result of the investigation was, that ‘no marks of violence appear on the body, but by what means he came by his death no evidence doth appear.’ The body has, of course, been since interred.”—Tyne Mercury.
Now what earthly good object, we ask, has been obtained by this piece of meddling? The Edinburgh surgeons have been deprived of a subject which was being conveyed to them. What is the consequence? That there is a demand for another in the place of it, and one grave having probably been disturbed, another must be disturbed, because the subject procured from the first has been stopped and buried in Yorkshire. Who would have suffered, had the package reached its destination—and who is the better or the happier for the discovery in question? No one but the Paul Pry of the Newcastle coach office, who, of course, prides himself on the fine thing he has done.

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