One of the major characters in “Staymaker” is Jacob Pring. What he does broadly follows what his historical counterpart did. Piecing together his life through sources was interesting, and indeed his life beyond 1750 even more.
What is known was that he lived in Beckenham, and was the gang’s main middleman – responsible for selling the goods on (either directly to buyers or through the unofficial market in Stockwell). He had a very trusted position – he handled the profit side of the business, and was trusted not to rip anyone off. Some commentators call him a fence. I refuse to use the word because the goods he sold were not stolen from anyone, just brought in to the country in a way that avoided duty. Pring never saw himself as a fence.
Certainly, around the time that William Galley and Daniel Chater were being murdered, he defected. Whether this was because he knew the net was tightening or, as I have written, he was sick of the murderous ways of the gang, and Thomas Kingsmill in particular, I do not know. What is certain is that midway through 1748, he voluntarily turned King’s Evidence in return for a complete Pardon. His first task, to prove he was genuine, was the capture of John “Smoaker” Mills . The story in the Novel, of luring Mills on a pretext from Bristol to Beckenham is true, as is Pring’s subsequent ride to Horsham to fetch both customs officers and troops to complete the capture. Following this, he informed on a number of other major figures, and on the Gang’s ways of working etc.
Not content with this, Pring indeed worked out of the customs house in Woolwich thereafter. (His involvement in Ferial and Perrin’s later arrest is pure fiction however). We know that in 1753, he was responsible for the recapture of a transported smuggler (again, known to Pring for a decade) called Peter Ticknor. Ticknor was arrested originally in Lydd in 1747; charged and found guilty of going armed for smuggling. Pring and a fellow customs man called Baldwin re-arrested Ticknor in February 1753, having found out that he had returned from transportation before his sentence was ended. Ticknor got the death sentence after Pring gave evidence against him. Pring, then, certainly relished his new role as gamekeeper, and was not afraid to go up against smugglers known to him before his defection.
The other fact we know is that sometime after this arrest, Pring left the customs service to become one of the “Bow Street Runners”, London’s first professional Police service. This was set up in 1749 by Henry Fielding, and improved by his brother John in 1754.
So, there he is, Poacher turned Gamekeeper indeed.
“Smuggling in Kent and Sussex” Mary Waugh
“Smuggling in the British Isles” Richard Platt
“Honest Thieves – the Violent heyday of English Smuggling” – F F Nichols
Staymaker is available from Amazon for Kindle.