PRESTON, Robert (1740-1834), of Woodford, Essex and Valleyfield, Perth.
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Family and Education
b. 21 Apr. 1740, 5th s. of Sir George Preston, 4th Bt., of Valleyfield by Anne, da. of William Cochrane of Ochiltree, Ayr. m. 27 Apr. 1790, Elizabeth, da. of George Brown of Stockton, s.p. suc. bro. Sir Charles Preston† as 6th Bt. 23 Mar. 1800.
Cdr. E.I. Co. naval service 1768.
Elder brother, Trinity House 1781-d., dep. master 1795-1803; dir. Greenwich Hosp. ?1789-d., Sun Fire Office by 1798.
‘Floating Bob’ Preston, who rescued his family’s finances with a fortune made in the naval service of the East India Company and prospered still more on his return as a London insurance broker and shipowner, was replaced as government candidate for Dover in 1790. He made a late intervention at Cirencester and was only just beaten into third place by a local man, against whose return he petitioned on the ground of the admission of illegal votes. On 9 Aug. 1790 his friend James Boswell visited him at Woodford:
I was entertained heartily, and the strong common sense and prosperity of Preston drove away low spirits ... He told me that Pitt had broken his word to him repeatedly, but that he continued to support him for his own credit in being uniform and not swayed by interest, and he trusted that Pitt would feel how much he had been in the wrong to him, and would provide for his brother, Sir Charles. I perceived in Preston a kind of sound understanding better than talents.1
He was seated on petition in 1792 and duly continued to support Pitt, though he is not known to have spoken in the House. He signed the London merchants’ declaration of loyalty, 2 Dec. 1795; was marked ‘pro’ in the ministerial survey drawn up for the general election of 1796, when he retained his seat after a contest; was one of the committee of shipowners who condemned the mutiny in the fleet, 7 June 1797,2 and voted for the assessed taxes augmentation bill, 4 Jan. 1798. Later that year Pitt at last provided his brother with a Scottish revenue place. In 1800 Preston succeeded him to the baronetcy and the family estate near Culross, which gave him an electoral interest in the Stirling district of burghs.
He was in the minority, along with his fellow Member for Cirencester, in favour of continued prohibition of distillation from corn, 14 Dec. 1801, but otherwise followed Pitt’s line in giving support to Addington initially. It was said that ministerial influence was exerted against him at Cirencester in 1802,3 but he again finished the poll in second place. He voted with Pitt for the orders of the day in the clash on Patten’s censure motion, 3 June 1803, and followed him into opposition to Addington in 1804, when he voted against government in the divisions of 15 Mar., 23 and 25 Apr. He supported Pitt’s second ministry, voting against the censure of Melville, 8 Apr. 1805.
Although Preston voted against the Grenville ministry’s repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr., and their American intercourse bill, 17 June 1806, he clearly did not consider himself to be in systematic opposition to the new government. In July he asked his friend Thomas Coutts, the banker, who had first introduced him to Pitt in 1784, to apply on his behalf to Lord Grenville for a revenue appointment for a distressed kinsman, which, he claimed, had been promised by Pitt shortly before his death. Coutts recommended him as ‘a very useful man’ who would prove ‘as steadily attached to your administration as ever he was to Mr Pitt’s’. Grenville’s reply was cordial:
I should have great pleasure in obliging Sir Robert Preston, with whose steady attachment to Mr Pitt I was long and well acquainted ... There being no vacancy ... I cannot well enter into any engagement ... but I should be happy to see Sir Robert Preston, and to have the opportunity of assuring him personally of my wish to comply with his wishes whenever it may be in my power to do so.
Preston then wrote to Coutts, who passed the message on to Grenville:
You are no stranger to my sentiments in regard to his lordship, as minister of this country, and I am consistent with my public principles in former times, when I say I shall support his administration the very same as I did my late friend Mr Pitt’s.
Shortly afterwards he communicated to Grenville, via Coutts, his view, based partly on conversations with Pitt, that when peace was concluded the coastal defences must be strengthened to guard against a treacherous attack by Buonaparte.4 Preston’s parliamentary career came to an unlooked-for end at the dissolution. When he arrived at Cirencester he found that dissatisfaction with his alleged neglect of the constituency had resulted in a move to return a local businessman, whose support was so strong that it was futile to contest the issue.
Lord Stowell described him to Lord Sidmouth, 31 Aug. 1821, when he was 81 years old, as ‘a plain, unaffected man, very friendly and thoroughly well affected’, who ‘lives in a style of great hospitality’.5 His fine house in Downing Street was sold during his lifetime to government and used to accommodate the Colonial Office. His business premises were at Frederick’s Place, Old Jewry until about 1819, when he moved to Old South Sea House. His name disappeared from the London commercial directories after 1823. Celebrated for the annual whitebait dinners which he gave at Greenwich during the Pitt and Addington administrations, Preston died 7 aged 94 and reputedly worth a million pounds.6