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Preston, William (entry B)

This distinguished Freemason was born at Edinburgh on July 28, 1742, Old Style, and Brother C. C. Hunt, of Iowa, points out that the date sometimes given as August 7, New Style, should be August 8, as the calendar error which was ten clays in 1582 had become eleven in the eighteenth century when the change was made in English-speaking countries He was the son of William Preston, Esq., Writer to the Signet, a Scottish legal term meaning an agent or attorney in causes in the Court of Sessions, and Helena Cumming. The elder Preston was a man of much intellectual culture and ability, and in easy circumstances, and took, therefore, pains to bestow upon his son an adequate education. He was sent to school at a very early age, and having completed his preliminary education in English under the tuition of Stirling, a celebrated teacher in Edinburgh, he entered the High School before he was six years old, and made considerable progress in the Latin tongue.

From the High School he went to college, where he acquired a knowledge of the rudiments of Greek. After the death of his father he retired from college, and became the amanuensis of that celebrated linguist, Thomas Ruddiman, to whose friendship his father had consigned him. Ruddiman having greatly impaired and finally lost his sight by his intense application to his classical studies, Preston remained with him as his secretary until his decease. His patron had, however, previously bound young Preston to his brother, Walter Ruddiman, a printer, but on the increasing failure of his sight, Thomas Ruddiman withdrew Preston from the printing- office, and occupied him in reading to him and translating such of his works as were not completed, and ia correcting the proofs of those that were in the press. Subsequently Preston compiled a catalogue of Ruddiman's books, under the title of Bibliotheca Ruddimana, which is said to have exhibited much literary ability.

After the death of Ruddiman, Preston returned to the printing-office where he remained for about a year; but his inclinations leading him to literary pursuits, he, with the consent of his master, repaired to London in 1760, having been furnished with several letters of introduction by his friends in Scotland. Among them was one to William Strahan, the Kings Printer, in whose service, and that of his son and successor, he remained for the best years of his life as a corrector of the press, devoting himself, at the same time, to other literary vocations, editing for many years the London Chronicle, and furnishing materials for various periodical publications. Preston's critical skill as a corrector of the press led the literary men of that day to submit to his suggestions as to style and language; and many of the most distinguished authors who were contemporary with him honored him with their friendship. As an evidence of this, there were found in his library, at his death, presentation copies of their works, with their autographs, from Gibbon, Hume, Robertson, Blair, and many others.

It is, however, as a distinguished instructor of the Masonic Ritual and as the founder of a system of lectures which still retain their influence, that William Preston the more especially claims our attention. Stephen Jones, the disciple and intimate friend of Preston, published in 1795, and in the Freemasons Magazine, a sketch of Preston's life and labors; and as there can be no doubt, from the relations of the author and the subject, of the authenticity of the facts related, we shall not hesitate to use the language of this contemporary sketch, interpolating such explanatory remarks as we may deem necessary.

Soon after Preston's arrival in London, a number of Brethren from Edinburgh resolved to institute a Freemasons' Lodge in that city, under the sanction of a Constitution from Scotland; but not having succeeded in their application, they were recommended by the Grand Lodge of Scotland to the Ancient Lodge in London, which immediately granted them a Dispensation to form a Lodge and to make Freemasons. They accordingly met at the White Hart in the Strand, and Preston was the second person initiated under that Dispensation. This was in 1762. Lawrie records the application as having been in that year to the Grand Lodge of Scotland. It thus appears that Preston was made a Freemason under the Dermott system. It will be seen, however, that he subsequently went over to the older Grand Lodge.

The Lodge was soon after regularly constituted by the officers of the Ancient 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, Blackfriars.

Here it continued to flourish about two years, when the decayed state of that building obliged it to remove to the Half Moon Tavern, Cheapside, where it continued to meet for a considerable time. At length Preston and some others of the members having joined the Lodge, under the older 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, then No. 325, but now 134. The ceremonies observed, and the numerous assembly of respectable Brethren who attended the Grand Officers on that occasion, were long remembered to the honor of the Lodge.

This circumstance, added to the absence of a very skillful Freemason, to whom 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.

Preston's own remarks on this subject, in the introduction to his Illustrations of Masonry, are well worth the perusal of every Brother who intends to take office.. "When," says he, "I first had the honor to be elected Master of a Lodge, I thought it proper to inform myself fully of the general rules of the society, that I might be able to fulfil my own duty, and officially enforce obedience in others. The methods which I adopted, with this view, excited in some of superficial knowledge an absolute dislike of what they considered as innovations; and in others, who were better informed, a jealousy of pre-eminence, which the principles of Masonry ought to have checked. Notwithstanding; these discouragements, however, I persevered in my intention of supporting the dignity of the society, and of discharging with fidelity the trust reposed in me." Freemasonry has not changed. We still too often find the same mistaking of research for innovation, and the same ungenerous jealousy of pre- eminence of which Preston complains.

Wherever instruction could be acquired, thither Preston directed his course; and with the advantage of a retentive memory, and an extensive Masonic connection, added to a diligent literary research, he so far succeeded in his purpose as to become a competent master of the subject. To increase the knowledge he had acquired, he solicited the company and conversation of the most experienced Freemasons 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 connections he had formed. He was frequently heard to say, that in the ardor of his inquiries he had 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. He was also accustomed to convene his friends once or twice a week, in order to illustrate the lectures; on which occasion 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, 1779, which was honored with the presence of the then Grand Officers, and many other eminent and respectable Brethren. On this occasion he delivered an oration on the Institution, which, having met with general approbation, was afterward printed in the first edition of the Illustrations of Masonry, published by him the same year.

Having thus far succeeded in his design, Preston determined to prosecute the plan 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 on all the Degrees of Freemasonry, and these were publicly delivered by him at the Miter Tavern, in Fleet Street, in 1774.

For some years afterward, Preston indulged his friends by attending several schools 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, and in all the Lodges in which his name was enrolled, which were very numerous, he enforced a due obedience to the laws and regulations of that Body.

By these means the subscriptions to the charity became much more considerable; and daily acquisitions to the society were made of some of the most eminent and distinguished characters. At last he was invited by his friends to visit the Lodge of Antiquity, No. 1, then held at the Miter Tavern, in Fleet Street, when on June 15, 1774, the Brethren of that Lodge were pleased to admit him a member, and, what was very unusual, elected him Master at the same meeting.

He had been Master of the Philanthropic Lodge at the Queen's Head, Gray's-inn-gate, Holborn, for over six years, and of several other Lodges before that time. But he was now taught to consider the importance of the first Master under the English Constitution; and he seemed so regret that some eminent character in the walks of life had not been selected to support so distinguished a station. Indeed, this too small consideration of his own importance pervaded his conduct on all occasions; and he was frequently seen voluntarily to assume the subordinate offices of an assembly, over which he had long presided, on occasions where, from the absence of the proper persons, he had conceived that his services would promote the purposes 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 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 became an active member of the Grand Lodge, was admitted a member of the Hall Committee, and during the secretaryship of Thomas French, under the auspices of the Duke of Beaufort, then Grand Master, had become a 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, he compiled, for the benefit of the charity, the History of filemarkable Occurrences, inserted in the first two publications of the Freemasons' Calendar: prepared for the press an Appendia; to the Book of Constitutions, and attended so much to the correspondence with the different Lodges as to merit the approbation of his patron. This enabled him, from the various memoranda he had made, to form the history of Freemasonry, which was afterward printed in his Illustrations. The office of Deputy Grand Secretary he afterward resigned.

An unfortunate dispute having arisen in the Society in 1777, between the Grand Lodge and the Lodge of Antiquity, in which Preston took the part of the Lodge and of his private friends, his name was ordered to be erased from the Hall Committee; and he was afterward, with a number of gentlemen, members of that Lodge, expelled. The treatment he and his friends received at that time was circumstantially narrated in a well-written pamphlet, printed by Preston at his own expense, and circulated among his friends, but never published, and the leading circumstances were recorded in some of the later editions of the Illustrations of Masonry. Ten years afterward, however, on a reinvestigation of the subject in dispute, the Grand Lodge was pleased to reinstate 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 Preston's exclusion, he seldom or ever attended any of the Lodges, though he was actually an enrolled member of a great many Lodges at home and abroad, all of which he politely resigned at the time of his suspension, and directed his attention to his other literary pursuits, which may fairly be supposed to have contributed more to the advantage of his fortune. So much of the life of Preston we get from the interesting sketch of Stephen Jones. To other sources we must look for a further elucidation of some of the circumstances which he has so concisely related. The expulsion from the Order of such a man as Preston was a disgrace to the Grand Lodge which inflicted it. It was, to use the language of Doctor Oliver, who himself, in after times, had undergone a similar act of injustice, "a very ungrateful and inadequate return for his services."

The story was briefly this: It had been determined by the Brethren of the Lodge of Antiquity, held on December 17, 1777, that at the Annual Festival on Saint John's day, a procession should be formed to Saint Dunstan's Church, a few steps only from the tavern where the Lodge was held; a protest of a few of the members was entered against it on the day of the festival. In consequence of this only ten members attended, who, having clothed themselves as Freemasons in the vestry room, sat in the same pew and heard a sermon, after which they crossed the street in their gloves and aprons to return to the Lodge-room. At the next meeting of the Lodge, a motion was made to repudiate this act; and while speaking against it, Preston asserted the inherent privileges of the Lodge of Antiquity, which, not working under a Warrant of the Grand Lodge, was, in his opinion, not subject in the matter of processions to the regulations of the Grand Lodge. It as for Maintaining this opinion, which whether right or wrong,- was after all only an opinion, Preston u as, under circumstances which exhibited neither magnanimity nor dignity on the part of the Grand Lodge, expelled from the Order. One first unhappy result of this act of oppression was that the Lodge of Antiquity severed itself from the Grand Lodge, and formed a rival Body under the style of the Grand Lodge of England South of the River Treatt, acting under authority from the Lodge of All England at York.

But ten years afterward, in 1787, the Grand Lodge saw the error it had committed, and Preston was restored with all his honors and dignities and the new Grand Lodge collapsed. And non, while the name of Preston is known and revered by all who value Masonic learning, the names of all his bitter enemies, with the exception of Noorthouch, have sunk into a well- deserved oblivion. Preston had no sooner been restored to his Masonic rights than he resumed his labors for the advancement of the Order. In 1787 he organized the Order of Harodim, which see, a society in which it was intended to thoroughly teach the lectures which he had prepared. Of this Order some of the most distinguished Freemasons of the day became members, and it is said to have produced great benefits by its well-devised Plan of Masonic instruction.

But William Preston is best known to us by his invaluable work entitled I Illustrations of Masonry. The first edition of this work was published in 1772. Although it is spoken of in some resolutions of a Lodge, published in the second edition, as "a very ingenious and elegant pamphlet," it was really a work of some size, consisting, in its introduction and text, of 288 pages. It contained an account of the Grand Gala, or banquet, given by the author to the Fraternity in May, 177 , when he first proposed his system of lectures. This account was omitted in the second and all subsequent editions "to make room for more useful matter." The second edition, enlarged to 324 pages, was published in 1775, and this was followed by others in 1776, 1781, 1788, 1792, 1799, 1801, and 1812.

There were other editions, for Wilkie calls his 1801 edition the tenth, and the edition of 1819, the last published by the author, is called the twelfth. The thirteenth and fourteenth editions were published of ter the author's death, with additions--the former by Stephen Jones in 1891, and the latter by Doctor Oliver in 1829. Other English editions have been subsequently published, one edited by Doctor Oliver in 1829. The work was translated into German. and two editions published, one in 1776 and the other in 1780. In America, two editions were published in 1804, one at Alexandria, in Virginia, and the other, with numerous important additions, by George Richards, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Both claim, on the title-page, to be the "first American edition"; and it is probable that both works were published by their respective editors about the same time, and while neither had any knowledge of the existence of a rival copy.

Preston died, after a long illness, in Dean Street. Fetter Lane, London, on April 1, 1818, at the age of seventy-six, and was buried in Saint Paul's Cathedral In the latter years of his life he seems to have taken no active public part in Freemasonry, for in the very full account of the proceedings at the Union in 1813 of the two Grand Lodges, his name does not appear as one of the actors, and his system was then ruthlessly surrendered to the newer but not better one of Doctor Hemming. But he had not lost his interest in the Institution which he had served 80 well and so long, and by which he had been so well requited.

For he bequeathed at his death 300 in Consols, a contraction for consolidated annuities, a British government security, the interest of which was to provide for the annual delivery of a lecture according to his system. He also left 500 to the Royal Freemasons Charity, for female children, and a like sum to the General Charity Fund of the Grand Lodge. He had a wife and grandchildren and left behind him his name as 3 great Masonic teacher and the memory of his services to the Craft. Jones's edition of his Illustrations contains an excellently engraved likeness of him by Ridley, from an original portrait said to be by S. Drummond, Royal Academician. There is an earlier engraved likeness of him in the Freemasons Magazine for 1795, from a painting known to be by Drummond, and taken in 1794. They present the differences of features which may be ascribed to a lapse of twenty-six years. The latter print was said, by acquaintances, to be an excellent likeness.

The Records of Tile Lodge of Antiquity, No. 2, have been published in two volumes bearing that title, the first in 1911 edited by Brother W. Harry Rylands and the second in 1926 by Brother C. W. Firebrace who has also supervised the publication in 1928 of a second edition of the first volume. These splendid works contain much valuable information about William Preston whose Masonic career was so intimately associated with this famous Lodge.

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