William Preston

“All excellence,” says a modern biographer, “has a right to be recorded.” On this ground we have been called upon, by numerous friends of our Publication, to add to those of the good and the great which already adorn our pages, a PORTRAIT and a MEMOIR of this gentleman; who is well known to have attained the very acme of celebrity for his skill in the ancient and venerable lore of FREEMASONRY.

William Preston, Esq. (his father), who was an eminent writer to the signet in Edinburgh, married, in 1740, Helena Cumming, daughter of Mr. Arthur Cumming, of that city; and by her had five children; of whom, however, four died in infancy; WILLIAM, their second son (the subject of our memoir), alone surviving.

In 1750, Mr. Preston retired to his house in Linlithgow, twelve miles distant from Edinburgh; and in the following year died suddenly in a fit of apoplexy while on a visit at the house of his friend, the Rev. Mr. Meldrum, of Meldrum, near Porphichen, where he was afterwards interred. Though Mr. P. had succeeded, by the death of his father and sister, to a considerable landed property in the city of Edinburgh; yet, through the mismanagement of his guardians, and his own unfortunate attachment to some friends who had espoused the cause of the Stuart family, after the rebellion in 1745, his business suffered a temporary suspension, which preyed on his spirits, and impaired at once both his health and his fortune.

William, his son, to whom our attention will be henceforth directed, was born at Edinburgh, July 28, O.S. 1742; and having finished his English education under the tuition of Mr. Stirling, a celebrated teacher in Edinburgh, before he was six years of age, was entered at the High School, where, under Messrs. Farquhar, Gibbs, and Lee, he made considerable progress in the Latin tongue. From the High School he went to college, and was taught the rudiments of Greek under Professor Hunter.

While he was at the university, his habits of study, and attention to literature, recommended him to the notice of that very celebrated grammarian, Mr. Thomas Ruddiman, who, from intense application to classical pursuits, and the infirmities of age, had greatly impaired, and at length totally lost, his sight. To the friendship and protection of this gentleman Mr. Preston having been consigned after the death of his father, he left college to attend on his patron as an amanuensis, in which character he continued till Mr. Ruddiman’s decease.

Before that event, however, Mr. Ruddiman had bound young Preston apprentice to his brother, Walter Ruddiman, printer in Edinburgh; but his eyesight having, as before observed, failed him long before he died, he employed Mr. Preston the greater part of his apprenticeship in reading to him, and in transcribing such of his works as were not completed, as well as correcting those in the press. [2] This employment, as must be supposed, prevented Mr. Preston from making a great proficiency in the practical branch of the art. After Mr. Thomas Ruddiman’s death, however, he went into the office, and wrought as a compositor for about a twelvemonth; during which time he finished a neat Latin edition of Thomas-a-Kempis in 18mo, and an edition of Mr. Ruddiman’s Rudiments of the Latin Tongue. But his natural inclination being bent on literary pursuits, he resolved, with the consent of his master, to go to London, where he arrived in 1760.

He brought with him several letters of recommendation from his friends in Scotland; and, among the rest, one from his master to the late William Strahan, Esq. his majesty’s printer, who not only kindly received Mr. Preston, but engaged him in his service, as his principal corrector of the press, and general superintendant, and honoured him with his friendship and confidence till his death, in July 1785. As a mark of his approbation, Mr. Strahan by his will, among many other liberal benefactions, left an annuity for life to Mr. Preston.

Andrew Strahan, Esq. his son, now M.P. for Catherlogh, having succeeded to the business, Mr. Preston, naturally attached to a family to whose liberality and friendship he was so much indebted, continued to act in the same confidential capacity for him, till Midsummer 1804, when his long and zealous services were rewarded, by his being received into partnership with Mr. Stahan.

We now come to consider Mr. Preston in his more public relation to the Ancient Fraternity of Freemasons.

Soon after his arrival in London, a number of brethren from Edinburgh resolved to institute a Freemason’s Lodge in this city under sanction of a Constitution from Scotland; but not having succeeded in their application, they were recommended by the Grand Lodge at Edinburgh to the Antient Grand Lodge in London, who immediately granted them a dispensation to form a lodge, and to make masons. They accordingly met at the White Hart, in the Strand, and Mr. Preston was the second person initiated under that dispensation.

The Lodge was soon after regularly constituted by the Officers of the Antient Grand Lodge in person. Having increased considerably in numbers, it was found necessary to remove to the Horn Tavern, in Fleet-street, where it continued some time, till, that house being unable to furnish proper accommodations, it was removed to Scots Hall, Black-friars. Here it continued to flourish about two years; when the decayed state of the building obliged them to remove to the Half Moon Tavern, Cheapside, where it continued to meet for a considerable time.

At length, Mr. Preston and some others of the members having joined a Lodge under the regular English Constitution, at the Talbot Inn, in the Strand, they prevailed on the rest of the Lodge at the Half Moon Tavern to petition for a Constitution. Lord Blaney, at that time Grand Master, readily acquiesced with the desire of the Brethren and the Lodge was soon after constituted a second time in ample form, by the name of The Caledonian Lodge. The ceremonies observed, and the numerous assembly of respectable Brethren who attended the Grand Officers on this occasion, will long be remembered to the honour of that Lodge.

This circumstance, added to the absence of a very skillful Mason, to whom Mr. Preston was attached, and who had departed for Scotland on account of his health, induced him to turn his attention to the Masonic Lectures; and, to arrive at the depths of the science, short of which he did not mean to stop, he spared neither pains nor expense. Wherever instruction could be acquired, thither he directed his course; and with the advantage of a retentive memory, and an extensive Masonic connexion, added to a diligent literary research, he so far succeeded in his purpose as to become master of the subject. To increase the knowledge he had acquired, he solicited the company and conversation of the most experienced Masons from foreign countries; and, in the course of a literary correspondence with the Fraternity at home and abroad, made such progress in the mysteries of the Art, as to become very useful in the connexions he had formed. He has frequently been heard to say, that in the ardour of his inquiries he has explored the abodes of poverty and wretchedness, and, where it might have been least expected, acquired very valuable scraps of information. The poor brother, in return, we are assured, had no cause to think his time or talents ill bestowed.

Mr. P. was also accustomed to convene his friends once or twice a week, in order to illustrate the Lectures; on which occasions objections were started, and explanations given, for the purpose of mutual improvement. At last, with the assistance of some zealous friends, he was enabled to arrange and digest the whole of the First Lecture. To establish its validity, he resolved to submit to the Society at large the progress he had made; and for that purpose he instituted, at a very considerable expense, a grand Gala at the Crown and Anchor Tavern, in the Strand, on Thursday, May 21, 1772, which was honoured with the presence of the then Grand Officers, and many other eminent and respectable Brethren. On this occasion, Mr. Preston delivered an Oration on the Institution; which, having met with general approbation, was afterwards printed in the first edition of the “ILLUSTRATIONS OF MASONRY,” published by him in the same year.

Having thus far succeeded in his design, Mr. Preston determined to prosecute the plan that he had formed, and to complete the Lectures. He employed, therefore, a number of skillful Brethren, at his own expense, to visit different town and country Lodges, for the purpose of gaining information; and these Brethren communicated the result of their visits at a weekly meeting.

When, by study and application, he had arranged his system, he issued proposals for a regular course of Lectures in the different degrees of Masonry; and these were publicly delivered by him to the Fraternity, at the Mitre Tavern, in Fleet-street, in 1774.

For some years afterwards, Mr. Preston indulged his friends, by attending several Lodges of Instruction, and other stated meetings, to propagate the knowledge of the science, which had spread far beyond his expectations, and considerably enhanced the reputation of the Society. Having obtained the sanction of the Grand Lodge, he continued to be a zealous encourager and supporter of all the measures of that assembly which tended to add dignity to the Craft; in all the Lodges in which his name was enrolled, and which were very numerous, he enforced a due obedience to the laws and regulations of that body; and, as a proof of his good wishes, he subscribed, himself, 20l to the Hall,and 20l to the Charity Funds. By these means, the subscriptions to the Fund of Charity became much more considerable, and daily acquisitions to the Society were made of some of the most eminent and distinguished characters. At length, he was invited by his friends to visit the Lodge of Antiquity, No. 1, then held at the Mitre Tavern, in Fleet-street; when the Brethren of the Lodge were pleased to admit him a member; and, what was very unusual, they elected him their Master at the same meeting.

He had been Master of the Philanthropic Lodge, at the Queen’s Head, Gray’s-inn Gate, Holborn, above six years, and of several other Lodges before that time. But he was now taught to consider the importance of the office of FIRST MASTER UNDER THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION; and he seemed to regret that some more eminent character in the walks of life had not been selected to support so distinguished a station. Indeed, this too humble consideration of his own real importance has pervaded his conduct on all occasions; and the writer of this brief account has frequently seen him voluntarily assume the subordinate offices of an assembly over which he has long before presided, on occasions where, from the absence of the proper persons, he has conceived that his services would promote the objects of the meeting.

To the Lodge of Antiquity he now began chiefly to confine his attention; and during his Mastership, which continued for some years, the Lodge greatly increased in numbers, and improved in its finances.

That he might obtain a complete knowledge of the state of the Society under the English Constitution, he now became an active attendant at the Grand Lodge, was admitted a member of the Hall Committee, and, during the secretaryship of Mr. Thomas French, under the auspices of the Duke of Beaufort, then Grand Master, had become an useful assistant in arranging the General Regulations of the Society, and reviving the foreign and country correspondence. Having been appointed to the office of Deputy Grand Secretary, under James Heseltine, Esq. he compiled, for the benefit of the charity, the History of the Remarkable Occurrences inserted in the first two publications of the Freemason’s Calendar; prepared for the press and Appendix to the Book of Constitutions; and attended so much to the correspondence with the different Lodges, as to merit the warmest approbation of his patron. This enabled him, from the various memoranda that he had made, to form the History of Masonry which was afterwards printed in his “Illustrations.” The office of Deputy Grand Secretary he soon after voluntarily resigned.

An unfortunate dispute having arisen in the Society in 1779, between the Grand Lodge and the Lodge of Antiquity, in which Mr. Preston took the part of the Lodge and his private friends, his name was ordered to be erased from the Hall Committee; and he was afterwards, with a number of gentlemen members of that Lodge, expelled the Society.

The treatment which he and his friends received at that time was circumstantially narrated in a well-written pamphlet, printed by Mr. Preston at his own expense, and circulated among his friends, [3] entitled “A State of Facts,” &c. &c. and the leading circumstances were recorded in some of the latter editions of the “Illustrations of Masonry.” Ten years afterwards, however, on a re-investigation of the subject in dispute, the Grand Lodge was pleased to re-instate Mr. Preston, with all the other members of the Lodge of Antiquity, and that in the most handsome manner, at the Grand Feast in 1790, to the general satisfaction of the Fraternity.

During Mr. Preston’s exclusion, he seldom or never attended any of the Lodges, though he was an enrolled member of a great number at home and abroad; all of which he politely resigned at the time of his suspension, and directed his attention to literary pursuits, which may fairly be supposed to have contributed more to the advantage of his fortune.

To the Lodge of Antiquity, however, he continued warmly attached; and it was matter of deep regret with many of his best friends of the Institution, that so active, zealous, and profoundly-skilled, a Brother should at any time have had occasion to desert a Society to which he had proved so eminently useful a friend.

In 1787, Mr. Preston revived, with great effect, the Antient and Venerable Order of HARODIM, of which he instituted a Chapter in London. In this Chapter, the Lectures of Masonry were rendered complete, and periodically illustrated by the Companions; over whom the Right Hon. Lord Macdonald presided as Grand Patron, and James Heseltine, William Birch, John Spottiswoode, and William Meyrick, Esqrs. as Vice Patrons. The public meetings of this Chapter were held at Freemasons’ Tavern, on the third Mondays in January, February, March, April, October, November, and December. We say, were held, because, from circumstances as difficult as unnecessary to account for, the Chapters of this Order have for some time ceased to be convened; though they certainly placed the moral and scientific Lectures of Masonry in a most pleasant and advantageous light.

Under the presidency of Mr. Preston, and of subsequent Masters, who have all acknowledged themselves chiefly indebted to his instruction for their knowledge in the Art, the Lodge of Antiquity had long maintained a high degree of pre-eminence; not so much for its rank, as the first Lodge under the English Constitution, as for its zealous care in sacredly preserving, and constantly keeping in view, the ANTIENT LANDMARKS [4] of the Order; and in diligently, yet prudently, dispensing the treasures of Masonic knowledge.

At length, the time came, when the Lodge of Antiquity was to receive the honour of a most illustrious patronage.

His Royal Highness the DUKE OF SUSSEX, himself very deeply skilled in the Art of Masonry, and having distinguished himself as a Ruler of the Craft while resident on the Continent, signified a desire to witness the practice of Masonry in a Lodge which had obtained so honourable a report among the Fraternity. Accordingly, on the 31st of March 1808, His Royal Highness, attended by the Earl of Mountnorris, Lord Viscount Strangford, Baron Eben, and Gerard Frederic Finch Byng, Esq. paid a visit to the Lodge, and was received by John Bayford, Esq. (Grand Treasurer), then R.W.M., and the Brethren with the homage and respect due not only to his illustrious rank in the State, but to his just claims as a Master in the Royal Art. The proceedings of the evening received His Royal Highness’s fullest approbation; and he, with the Noblemen and Gentlemen in his party, honoured the Lodge by inscribing their names in the list of its members; which before contained that ever-to-be-revered one in Masonry, Francis Earl of Moira; of whom the Prince Regent once spoke, in a meeting of the Grand Lodge, by the kind appellation of “The Man of his Heart.”

The Lodge of Antiquity, however, was yet to receive a much higher favour at the hand of His Royal Highness; who, in 1809, on a respectful application being made to him, was graciously pleased to accept the office of Master, and at the same time to honour Mr. Preston by appointing him his Deputy.

At such time as it has been convenient for His Royal Highness to preside in person, his gratifying condescension of manner and affability of address, temperately blended with a consciousness of the dignity of his birth, have endeared him to the hearts of all who have been placed under his government, and have only rendered more severe the disappointment felt when, either through indispostion, or from engagements in his own Illustrious Family, His Royal Highness has been prevented from honouring the Lodge with his presence.

A short time previous to His Royal Highness’s election to the Chair, the Lodge had, on the proposition of Sir William Rawlins, unanimously resolved to bestow an honorary medal on each of its Past Masters, to be always worn by them at public meetings, as a visible testimony of esteem and respect from the Lodge; and one of the first acts of duty which it fell to His Royal Highness’s lot to perform, in his quality of Master of the Lodge, was, to invest each of those gentlemen with this honourable recognition of his services. The ornament is a handsome oval gold medal, richly engraven, and laid on a purple enamelled ground, with this circumscription on the obverse, “Lodge of Antiquity, No. 1. H.R.H. the Duke of Sussex, R.W.M. 5814.” It is suspended from the neck by a purple riband, and has an inscription engraven on the reverse; that on Mr. Preston’s medal runs thus: “To Brother William Preston, in Token of Gratitude and Affection, from the Lodge of Antiquity, for his luminous, faithful, zealous, and unremitted services, to this Lodge in particular, and for the benefit of the Craft in general.”

The gentlemen who received these medals were, William Preston, William Meyrick, Daniel Beaumont, Stephen Jones, James Savage, and John Bayford, Esqrs.; each of whom, on investing him with this badge of honour, His Royal Highness most graciously addressed, in language, and with a manner, calculated at the same time greatly to enhance the value of the gift to the receiver, and to promote a general spirit of emulation among the numerous spectators of the ceremony.

Under the illustrious patronage of His Royal Highness, the Lodge of Antiquity has already greatly flourished. It exceeds an hundred in number, and ranks in its list many Members of both Houses of Parliament.



  1. Author of the “ILLUSTRATIONS OF MASONRY,” in four Books: the first containing the Excellence of Masonry displayed; the second, general Remarks, including an Illustration of the Lectures, a particular description of the ancient ceremonies, and the charges used in the different degrees; the third, the Principles of Masonry explained; the fourth, the History of Masonry in England from the earliest Period to the grand Feast in 1804.— An Eleventh Edition of this excellent work is now in course of publication.
  2. Mr. Preston afterwards compiled a very laborious catalogue of Mr. Ruddiman’s books, under the title of Bibliotecha Romana, which did considerable credit to his literary abilities.
  3. It was never published.
  4. Were the writer addressing the Fraternity in particular, and not the public at large, he might adduce a very recent instance of the service hereby rendered to, and lately made good use of, by the Society at large, under the auspices of H.R.H. the Prince Regent. The promulgation, however, would be useless to the public, and to the initiated is unnecessary.

The European Magazine, Vol. 55, May 1811, pp. 323-327