Preston, William (1742-1818) (DNB00)

PRESTON, WILLIAM (1742–1818), printer and writer on freemasonry, born at Edinburgh on 28 July 1742, was second son of William Preston (d. 1751), writer to the signet. Educated at the high school and university of his native city, he became amanuensis to Thomas Ruddiman [q. v.], whose brother Walter, the printer, took him as apprentice. In 1760 Preston went to London with letters of recommendation to William Strahan, king's printer, who employed him as corrector of the press, and left him an annuity on his death in July 1785. Andrew Strahan, on succeeding to his father's business, employed Preston as chief reader and general superintendent until midsummer 1804, when he took him into partnership.

Preston's initiation into freemasonry took place in 1763 at lodge No. 111 of the ‘Ancient’ or ‘Atholl’ grand lodge, which had recently been opened. It was formally constituted as the ‘Caledonian’ in 1772. Preston became known as a lecturer, and was admitted in 1774 a member of the lodge of antiquity No. 1, of which he afterwards became master. In the same year he delivered a course of lectures on the different degrees of masonry at the Mitre tavern in Fleet Street, London. He and some others, having renounced allegiance to the grand lodge of England, set up a grand lodge of their own in 1779. The rival body did not prosper, and Preston and the other seceders, having tendered their submission, were restored to their privileges in 1789. He had a share in reviving the grand chapter of Harodim in 1787, but the establishment of formal lodges of instruction did away with the object of this body (Watson's reprint of Illustrations of Masonry, pref. pp. 8–11).

Few masonic publications have achieved the extensive popularity of the ‘Illustrations of Masonry,’ of which the first edition, now a very rare book, was published by Preston in 1772, London, 12mo. It was issued under the sanction of Lord Petre, grand-master, to whom it was dedicated. It differs from all the subsequent editions, and was reprinted, with a biographical notice, by W. Watson, London, 1887, 12mo. It contains descriptions of ceremonies, songs, and an historical account of masonry. The later editions are chiefly historical and descriptive. A ‘second edition, corrected and enlarged,’ appeared in 1775, London, 12mo. The tenth edition, with considerable additions, London, 1801, 12mo, was reprinted at Portsmouth in 1804 as ‘the first American improved edition, to which is [sic] annexed many valuable masonic addenda and a complete list of the lodges in the United States of America, edited by Brother George Richards.’ The twelfth (London, 1812) and thirteenth (London, 1821) editions were edited by Stephen Jones, ‘with corrections and additions,’ and a portrait. The fourteenth (London, 1829), fifteenth (London, 1840), sixteenth (London, 1846), and seventeenth (London, 1861), editions were edited by the Rev. George Oliver; the last edition, in which little of the original remains, contains ‘additions, explanatory notes, and the historical portion continued from 1820 to the present time.’ A German translation by J. H. C. Meyer appeared in 1776 and 1780. Preston instituted the ‘Freemason's Calendar,’ and is said to have helped to compile the ‘Bibliotheca Romana’ (1757), a catalogue of T. Ruddiman's library.

Through his connection with Strahan, Preston was on friendly terms with Robertson, Hume, Gibbon, Johnson, and Blair. He died on 1 April 1818 at Dean Street, Fetter Lane, London, in his seventy-sixth year, and was buried on 10 April in St. Paul's churchyard.

A portrait, engraved by Ridley after a picture by S. Drummond for the ‘European Magazine’ (May 1811), is reproduced, slightly reduced, in Stephen Jones's editions of the ‘Illustrations’ (1812 and 1821).

[Biography by Stephen Jones in European Magazine, 1811, pt. i. pp. 323–7; see also Gent. Mag. 1818, i. 372; Kloss's Bibliographie der Freimaurerei, 1844; Allibone's Dict. of English Lit. ii. 1454, 1676; Timperley's Encyclopædia, 1852, p. 918; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. Hist. viii. 490.]

H. R. T.