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Thomas Preston (1774–1850)

Thomas Preston was born in London. His father died when Preston was in his infancy, and when his mother remarried the baby was given away. At the age of six months an accident left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

Preston  was apprenticed first to a silversmith and then to a shoemaker.  He then spent years 'on the tramp' around England and Ireland.  In Cork he led a successful shoemakers' strike. In 1794 he returned to London and joined the London Corresponding Society. Following Pitt's repressive legislation after the outbreak of the French Revolution, Preston  went to Chatham to avoid imprisonment.

He then went to the West Indies; on his return he settled in London and married a widow with three children. The couple had four children and ran three shoemaker's shops which between them employed forty people.  In 1807 Preston's wife left him for another man; Preson’s business soon failed, and he fell into poverty.

Preston became a supporter of Sir Francis Burdett in 1810 and  was active in several literary and debating clubs. In 1811 became a supporter of Thomas Spence. After Spence's death in 1814 his followers formed the Spencean Philanthropists, with Preston a leading member.  He was known as the Bishop because of his use of the Bible in support of Spencean ideas.

 In 1816 there was widespread poverty and unemployment in London and Preston joined a society of artisans campaigning for limitations on the use of machinery, not from any agreement with their aims but in the hope of raising an agitation, and as the secretary of the Spenceans, it was he who called the famous meeting at Spa Fields to petition the prince regent for relief.

James Watson and Arthur Thistlewood played the leading role in organising this meeting. Preston organised support among the unemployed silk-weavers of Spitalfields. At the second Spa Fields meeting on 2 December 1816, Thistlewood, Preston, and Watson's son tried to start an armed rising and led a section of the crowd into the City, where they were soon dispersed. Preston was among those arrested and one of the four charged with high treason, but the acquittal of Watson after the unmasking of an agent provocateur, John Castle, led to the dropping of the charges against the rest.

For the next three years Watson, Thistlewood, and Preston led a London group of ultra-radicals and revolutionaries, with Preston the most committed Spencean. Watson favoured open mass action; the other two preferred secret conspiracies. Late in 1819 they were the leaders of what became known as the Cato Street conspiracy to assassinate members of the government. He avoided prosecution when the attempt failed in February 1820.

Preston was not very active in the 1820s but in the early 1830s he became a leading figure in the National Union of the Working Classes. He also remarried and had a son. In 1834 he published a plan, drawing on proposals by Spence and Thomas Paine, for state pensions for the aged, widows, the sick, and orphans, funded by a special tax and death duties.

 In the later 1830s he was an associate of  new radical figures such as Julian Harney, and in the 1840s was an occasional lecturer at Chartist meetings. He also published further pamphlets on his plan for state pensions. He died in London on 1 June 1850 in extreme poverty. A collection financed his burial at Bunhill Fields cemetery; his funeral was attended by over 400 people, led by Harney and Luke Hansard. He was survived by his second wife and son.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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