J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Hulton-Preston Connection

On Wednesday, I quoted a manuscript memoir written by Henry Hulton, one of the Commissioners of Customs stationed in Boston from 1767 to 1776. That document is in the Princeton University library. The University of New Brunswick has a copy on microfilm.

At the start of that document is the bookplate of one "Thomas Preston," along with a heraldic shield and the motto “Lucem Spero Clariorem.” The British army captain who was put on trial after the Boston Massacre was named Thomas Preston. Back in 1969, as he was researching his magisterial book The Boston Massacre, Hiller B. Zobel wrote to the Princeton staff, asking if they had any clues about the previous owners of the Hulton memoir. Could the Commissioner have sent this copy to Capt. Preston himself? Could the Customs staff and the army captain have been in close touch with each other—as Boston's Whigs had hinted all along?

The library staff couldn't shed any light on that question thirty-odd years ago. But now we can, thanks to:

According to this genealogical website, Henry Hulton's wife was born Elizabeth Preston, and she had a younger half-brother named Thomas Preston. Furthermore, this other website states that the Hultons' eldest son, Thomas (born 1767), inherited an estate from a maternal relative in the early 1800s, and legally changed his surname to Preston. (In 1815 the Crown made him a baronet, so he gets into Debrett's Peerage and other reliable printed sources; the internet makes it simpler to find that information, but we don't have to rely on the web alone.)

So the easiest explanation for the Hulton manuscript's provenance was that the Commissioner left it to his son, who later became Sir Thomas Preston (Bart.). And there's another relative of the same name. Either man is therefore a more likely owner than the British army captain.

But could Capt. Thomas Preston have been related to Henry Hulton's wife? That seems unlikely. Elizabeth Preston's family was from Norfolk. The captain was said to come from and retire to Ireland (though John Adams recalled seeing him in London in the 1780s). In his memoirs and letters, Hulton never mentioned a family connection, and neither did the Whigs, who would surely have hollered if they had evidence of such ties. Rather, the same name popping up in two or three different places is evidence that (as in my investigation of Capt. Thomas Morton) eighteenth-century British parents didn't choose from a wide range of names.

Surfing for Sir Thomas Preston brought me to this website about the Jermy family, related to the Norfolk Prestons and Hultons. It offers a delicious mid-1800s murder scandal complete with pictures of Sir Thomas Preston's estate, true-crime books, and Staffordshire pottery souvenirs (click on the photo above).

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