Pringle, Thomas (DNB00)

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PRINGLE, THOMAS (1789–1834), Scottish poet, son of a farmer, was born at Blaiklaw, Teviotdale, Roxburghshire, on 5 Jan. 1789. His mother, the daughter of Thomas Haitlie, a Berwickshire farmer, whom he lost at the age of six, he affectionately memorialises in his ‘Autumnal Excursion.’ Through an accident in infancy Pringle was permanently lame, and used crutches (Noctes Ambrosianæ, iv. 297). As a child his nurse found him thoughtful, but ‘not half so keen of divinity on a Sunday as of history on a week day.’ After preparation at Kelso grammar school, he entered Edinburgh University. Robert Story, whose reminiscences are full of regard for his friend, was a fellow-student and close companion (Leitch Ritchie, Memoirs of Pringle, p. 20). An incident in his college career illustrates Pringle's enthusiastic temperament. He and his crutches, with the aid of forty or fifty fellow-students armed with clubs, secured a favourable first night in Edinburgh for Joanna Baillie's ‘Family Legend,’ which an organised body of opponents sought to condemn.

In 1811 Pringle entered the Register Office, Edinburgh, as copyist of old records, continuing his service for several years, and giving his leisure to literature. Dyspeptic and inclined to religious melancholy, he was able in lighter moods to co-operate with his friend Story in cleverly satirising the Edinburgh Philomathic Society as ‘The Institute’ (R. H. Story, Life of Robert Story, p. 16). A contribution to Hogg's ‘Poetic Mirror,’ 1816, brought him the friendship of Scott, whose manner his poem imitated. In a dedication to Scott, long afterwards, Pringle gracefully said he had found the ‘minstrel's heart as noble as his lay.’ Scott's generosity was proved in 1817, when Pringle and his friend Cleghorn produced the first number of the ‘Edinburgh Monthly Magazine’ for John Blackwood. Pringle's main contribution was a paper on gipsies, based on materials supplied by Scott, who had thought of using them for an article in the ‘Quarterly Review.’ Pringle and Cleghorn edited six numbers of the ‘Edinburgh Monthly Magazine,’ but resigned through disagreement with the publisher. The chief result of the quarrel was the establishment by the publisher of ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ of which the first number appeared in October 1817, and which was managed by Blackwood himself. Pringle, having now resolved to live by literature, undertook the editorship of the ‘Edinburgh Star’ newspaper, and conducted for a time an ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ for Constable. Neither venture prospered, and Pringle returned to the Register House in January 1819.

Owing to his narrow circumstances, Pringle arranged to emigrate to South Africa, and through Scott a grant of land was secured from Lord Melville for his father and brothers. The government plan of colonising required each party to contain at least ten adult males, and Pringle gathered a company numbering twenty-four. He trusted to get employment for himself in the civil service of the colony. In February 1820 they set sail, his touching ‘Emigrant's Farewell’ being a memorial of the departure. They settled in the upper valley of the Baavians river, or river of Baboons (a tributary of the Great Fish river), and by June 1821 they owned twenty thousand acres of land, under the name of Glen-Lynden. After labouring hard to make the conditions of the settlement satisfactory, Pringle removed, with his wife and her sister, to Cape Town, where he became librarian in the public library. Pringle worked hard for the colony, suggesting for the commissioners in 1823 a plan for defending the eastern frontier by a settlement of Hottentots, and in 1823–4 he acted as secretary to the society for the relief of the distressed settlers in Albany. He published in London a pamphlet on the latter subject, and was largely instrumental in collecting for his purpose 7,000l. from England and India, and 3,000l. in the colony itself. Meanwhile he and a friend, Fairbairn, started a private academy, which promised well, and they also published a newspaper and a magazine, ‘The South African Journal’ and ‘The South African Commercial Advertiser,’ both of which were suppressed by the governor, Lord Charles Somerset. ‘Pringle might have done well there,’ said Scott, ‘could he have scoured his brain of politics, but he must needs publish a whig journal at the Cape of Good Hope! He is a worthy creature, but conceited withal’ (Scott, Journal, i. 282). After the governor's action, Pringle resigned his posts at Cape Town, visited Glen-Lynden and found it prosperous, and then, with his wife and her sister, proceeded to London, which he reached on 7 July 1826. The government at home declined to grant him any redress, and he found himself involved in heavy expenses.

An article by Pringle on the South African slave trade, in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for October 1826, introduced him to the notice of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton and Zachary Macaulay, and led to his appointment in 1827 as secretary to the Anti-Slavery Society. He inspired enthusiasm in other workers. Clarkson suggested that he should write the history of the abolition of slavery; and Wilberforce, in a letter of January 1832, thanked him for his exertions, adding, ‘I shall feel it an act of friendly regard if you will come and shake me by the hand’ (Ritchie, Memoirs of Pringle, p. 94). In 1831 he was largely instrumental in enabling Coleridge to retain his government annuity, Coleridge afterwards subscribing himself, in a grateful letter, as his ‘sincere friend and thorough esteemer’ (ib. p. 90). On 27 June 1834 a document signed by Pringle proclaimed the abolition of slavery, and announced that the approaching 1 Aug. would be a day of thanksgiving. The following day he became seriously ill, and rest and change seemed imperative. His friends helped him to take out passages to Cape Colony for himself and his wife and her sister, but he was unable to start, and died in London 5 Dec. 1834. He was buried in Bunhill Fields. An appropriate epitaph was written for his tombstone by William Kennedy [q. v.]

Pringle married, 19 July 1817, Margaret Brown, daughter of an East Lothian farmer, who survived him. As she and her sister were left in straitened circumstances, Leitch Ritchie published, in their interest, in 1839, Pringle's poems with a prefatory memoir.

Pringle's earlier poems, under the title ‘Ephemerides,’ were published in 1828. In 1834 those on South African themes were reissued as ‘African Sketches,’ the volume also including Pringle's vivid and impressive ‘Narrative of his Residence in South Africa.’ After his death the ‘Narrative’ was republished, with a biographical notice by Josiah Conder [q. v.] Several of the lyrics in ‘Ephemerides’ are graceful and melodious, but the highest achievement of the author is his ‘African Sketches.’ Of these, ‘The Emigrants’ is a creditable experiment in Spenserian verse, concluding with the tuneful hymn of ‘Farewell.’ There is a collection of passable sonnets, and several of the ballads are meritorious. ‘The Bechuana Boy’ is a picturesque and touching narrative, while ‘Afar in the Desert’ is a brilliant study of movement, which Coleridge considered ‘among the two or three most perfect lyric poems in our language’ (Ritchie, Memoirs, p. 142). Pringle also assisted Belfrage and Hay in their ‘Memoirs of Dr. Alexander Waugh,’ 1830, 8vo; he supplied materials for George Thompson's ‘Travels and Adventures in Southern Africa,’ 1827, 4to, and for John Philips's ‘History of Cape Colony;’ he was editor of ‘Friendship's Offering’ for several years from its commencement in 1826, two of his colleagues being Thomas Kibble Hervey [q. v.] and Leitch Ritchie [q. v.]

[Poetical Works of Thomas Pringle, with a Sketch of his Life by Leitch Ritchie; Lockhart's Life of Scott, ed. 1837, iv. 64, vi. 363; Gordon's Memoirs of John Wilson, i. 245; Noctes Ambrosianæ, ii. 280, iv. 297; Quarterly Review, 1835; Chambers's Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen.]

T. B.