PRESTON, Richard (1768-1850), of Lee House, Chulmleigh, Devon.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
KC 1834; bencher, I. Temple 1834, reader 1844.
Professor of Law, King’s, London 1835-8.
Preston’s father, who was still living at Okehampton in the early 1790s, may have been the son of John Preston of Staverton, near Totnes, who matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford in 1754, aged 22. In the House, 16 Feb. 1816, Preston claimed to be related to John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, who, like himself, had begun his legal career as an attorney in Ashburton; but the connexion, of which Preston ‘did not boast’ on account of Dunning’s ‘tergiversation’ in accepting a peerage and a place in 1782 after making his name as the champion of economical reform, has not been traced. He was in business on his own account as an attorney at Ashburton by 1792 when, answering legal queries from the council of the duchy of Cornwall concerning the proposed enclosure of Dartmoor Forest, he told the Prince of Wales’s private secretary that if it took place he would ‘be particularly happy to be employed under the commissioners as their solicitor’ and asked, apparently in vain, for the stewardship of the forest.3 His Elementary treatise on the quantity of estates, published in 1791, attracted the attention of Sir Francis Buller, the eminent judge, on whose advice he entered the Inner Temple in 1793. Before being called to the bar in 1807, he practised as a certificated conveyancer at King’s Bench Walk, Temple, and published further tracts on property law. With the proceeds of his lucrative practice, he invested heavily in Devonshire landed property and acquired a country seat in the north of the county.
Returned for Ashburton on the Clinton interest in 1812, Preston proved a voluble and thoroughly independent Member. He does not appear in any of the lists of ministerial voters which have been found for the 1812 Parliament and is known to have voted against government on specific issues at least 27 times. He voted for Catholic relief, 2 Mar., 13 and 24 May 1813, but not in subsequent divisions on the question.
He supported the gold coin bill, 11 and 14 Dec. 1812; opposed the vice-chancellor bill, 15 Feb.; spoke against the motion for an address on behalf of the Princess of Wales, 17 Mar., and was the only Member to open his mouth in support of Romilly’s bill to mitigate the harshness of the laws of treason and attainder, 5 Apr. 1813.4 Like the Whigs, he opposed the proposed Weymouth election bill, 7 Apr., and, although he suspected the existence of corruption at Helston, saw no prospect of proving the case in a court of law and therefore moved as an amendment to Swann’s motion to prosecute the Duke of Leeds, 21 June 1813, a resolution to consider the extension of the franchise next session. He afterwards withdrew it to facilitate the immediate introduction of a bill for that purpose. In the debates on the renewal of the East India Company’s charter, 3, 14 June and 1 July 1813, he attacked the Company’s regime and monopoly, attributing to it the deplorable extremes of wealth and poverty which existed in India. He favoured inquiry into the Corn Laws, 15 June 1813, and advocated the encouragement of an extension of corn cultivation, as he himself had for 16 years laid out much capital on corn growing, with beneficial results.
Preston spoke and voted for Romilly’s renewed treason and attainder bill, 25 Apr., and his measure dealing with simple contract debts, 29 Apr. 1814. He opposed Bankes’s proposed inquiry into the corn trade, 20 May, denying that farmers were making fat profits, and on 16 June insisted that the landed interest required only equitable treatment and that rents and prices could not safely be allowed to fall to pre-war levels. He supported inquiry into the excessive increase in legal fees, 28 June. He voted for Romilly’s motions criticizing the continuance of the militia in peacetime, 28 Nov. 1814 and 28 Feb. 1815, spoke and voted for receipt of the City petition against the renewal of war, but did not divide with opposition on this issue on 28 Apr. or 25 May. His Address on the Corn Laws, written early in 1815, was dedicated to Ponsonby, the Whig leader, ‘the steady friend of the people’, who ‘opposes ministers on those subjects alone, which are, in his opinion, injurious to the public; while he uniformly gives to them his countenance and support, when they are pursuing measures of difficulty to serve the country’. He warmly supported the corn bill, 22 Feb., 3 and 8 Mar. 1815, but voted against government on the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, 28, 30 June and 3 July. He objected to the proposal to distribute £800,000 among the army for captured enemy stores, 23 June, and on 3 July complained of the severity of stamp duty on annuities.
In the debate on the address, 1 Feb. 1816, he blamed the burden of taxation for the distressed state of agriculture and voted for the amendment calling for economy and retrenchment. He voted for Brougham’s motion for information on the treaty between Britain, France and Austria, 9 Feb., but it was as an outspoken champion of improved protection to agriculture coupled with stringent economy that he made a name for and nuisance of himself in the ensuing session. His Further observations on the state of the nation (1816) called for revision of the 1815 Corn Law in the shape of a 20s. duty on all foreign corn imported, to be paid when it was released from the warehouse, and advocated retrenchment, measures to reduce pauperism, equalization of the poor rates, provision of employment for the able bodied and application of a portion of the sinking fund to relief of the heaviest taxes. In the House, his attacks on ministerial financial incompetence, 7, 16, 23 Feb. and 25 Mar., became increasingly vehement. He condemned the crown rents bill as a gross job, 16 Feb.; opposed the purchase of the Elgin marbles, 23 Feb.; voted for reduction of the army estimates, 28 Feb. and 6 Mar.; spoke from his place on the opposition benches against the navy estimates, 1 Apr.; opposed the soap excise bill, 24 May; voted against the Bank restriction bill, 8 May; the leather tax, 9 May; the Austrian loan and the aliens bill, 28 May; and clauses of the public revenues bill, 17 and 20 June 1816. On 27 Feb. he delivered a stinging personal attack on Vansittart as a ‘miserable, miscalculating, puny chancellor of the Exchequer who did not know the resources of the country, owing to the ignorance and want of power of his little mind’. He was an uncompromising opponent of the property tax, ‘the bastard of the constitution’ (7 Mar.), though he scorned to use his ‘influence over several parishes in Devon’ to foment a turbulent spirit among the people. On 7 Feb. Preston secured leave to introduce a bill to restrain grants of annuities and obtained information on the ‘excessive’ increase in extents-in-aid. He approved the principle of Browne’s plan to limit the duration of the polls in Ireland, 14 Mar., and in the debate on the Helston election bill the same day saw no reason to single the borough out for disfranchisement, but pledged his support for any project of ‘entire reform’ of the Cornish boroughs. On 22 May he called, ‘in the plain, unsophisticated language of a country gentleman’ who, as ‘no inconsiderable proprietor of land’, had ‘devoted above 20 years of his life’ to consideration of the problem of tithe reform, for a compulsory measure embodying the principle of the right of valuation, to give the church its full due. Later the same day he opposed the usury laws repeal bill. In his last known speech of the session, 24 May 1816, he expounded at length his views on agricultural distress, but was eventually called to order for digressing from the question.
The contrast between Preston’s pugnacious loquacity in 1816 and his almost total silence during the two following sessions is striking, but the reasons for his sudden lapse into comparative inactivity remain obscure. He tried to speak in the debate on the address, 29 Jan. 1817, but was shouted down by calls for the division, in which he voted with opposition. He is not known to have spoken again until 16 May 1817, when he opposed the clause of the savings banks bill which obliged trustees to invest in government funds, because it would remove from circulation cash which might be lent on mortgage for the relief of the agricultural interest; but he supported that which entitled savers to receive parish relief, as the measure was ‘not more for the encouragement of the industrious than for the reformation of the dissolute and thoughtless’. His last known speech in the House was for the bill legalizing the sale of game, 9 June 1817. He voted against Binning’s nomination to the finance committeee, 7 Feb., against the suspension of habeas corpus, 28 Feb. and 23 June, and for Williams Wynn’s candidature for the Speakership, 2 June 1817. His only recorded vote in the 1818 session was for inquiry into the prevention of banknote forgeries, 14 May, and at the ensuing general election he was replaced as the Clinton Member for Ashburton by a ministerialist lawyer. He was never again in Parliament.
Preston continued his legal career, took silk in 1834 and became a leading authority on real property law. In his will, dated 12 Aug. 1836, he wrote that ‘the ample estate I have acquired has not been obtained without a devotion to my profession which has been rarely surpassed’. His fortune, he said, was far less than might have been expected from the income of 40 years disclosed in his fee books, but he was ‘better satisfied with the sacrifices I have made than to have oppressed a tenantry who in general are meritorious and have suffered by low prices’. He died 20 June 1850.