Rishton, Ralph – postmaster

Ralph Rishton (1653-1705) was the son of Geoffrey Rishton, a doctor and an MP for Preston, and a nephew of Thomas Rishton, a Preston apothecary and one-time mayor of the town. His sister Dorothy was married to Edmund Hornby of Poulton. [1]

Rishton was for some years the deputy-postmaster for the town, a salaried post that he claimed led him into financial ruin. The role of ‘deputy-postmaster’ at this time involved considerable responsibility and meant that Rishton had charge of the operations of the mail from Wigan to Kendal, an onerous charge that eventually proved too much for his abilities.

It was at this period that the mails were beginning to take on their modern form, a fact that had important implications for 17th-century English society, as Steve Pincus argues, ‘… the emergence of a national and accessible postal system in the later 1600s made it easier for merchants to conduct business, for communication networks to fan out across wider areas, and for political gossips to spread the news ever more rapidly.’ He maintains that it was one of the important developments that ‘… facilitated the gradual transformation of the English from a nation of consumers dependent exclusively on the rhythms of market fairs into a nation of shoppers’. [2]

Curbs were placed on this free exchange for political reasons, especially when James II had control of the mails, as Pincus notes,

James and his postmasters throughout the country were remarkably effective in stifling the exchange of information through the post. The evidence … suggests that James could depend on politically reliable postmasters to sift through the mails. Letter writers complained that the mail was opened at Preston, Oxford, Grantham, Gloucester, Dublin, and Aberdeen. No one’s letters were safe … The son of the archbishop of York, Gilbert Dolben, reported that a private letter containing news “must now serve to light my pipe, for I dare not trust it by the post.” [3]

Rishton would have been one of these ‘politically reliable postmasters’, opening and reading the mails. Such inspections could, for example, have led Lord Derby to suspect Alexander and Edward Rigby of disloyalty at the time of Monmouth’s rebellion, leading him to order their arrest.

The development of Preston’s postal service has been ably documented by Malcolm Mynott on whose researches much of the following account is based. [4] This research shows that as early as 1666-7 the town was well served with mail from the capital with bags for Preston despatched from London on Sundays and Wednesdays each week.

Rishton took on the responsibility for the service in 1685 but was soon encountering difficulties, a plight he shared with his fellow postmasters as William Lewins in his history of the royal mails describes, ‘The Treasury Letter Book relating to this reign [William and Mary] teems with petitions to the effect that the petitioners have been nearly ruined during the first years of William and Mary, “through much spoiling of their horses by officers riding post in the late blessed Revolution.” Others grumble at the lowness of their salary.’ [5]

Mynott goes to the same source where he finds Rishton petitioning that,

… for many years he provided horses, and despatched the packets between Wigan and Kendal, which is a hundred north country miles, forwards and backwards, for a salary of only 70l. per annum, and also found horses and despatched packets from Wigan to Lancaster, which is sixty-eight long miles, for a salary of 50l. per annum, spending his whole time with the two services; and though your petitioner begun with a considerable fortune, he is now penniless and beggared, and dismissed the office because he is in arrears.

Lewins adds that Rishton ‘prays that his debts may be remitted and that the Postmaster-General may not be permitted “to pursue him and put him in prison”.’

The Calendar of Treasury Papers (Reference Book VII page 53, 2nd January 1695/6) sets out the extent of his debts when he petitions the Treasury Lords ‘praying to be discharged from a debt of £574.18.0 being forced to abscond and not able to pay same’. The debt seems to have caused some financial anxiety to the Preston men– Edward Rishton, John Neale and Edmund Hornby – who stood surety to his bond, as the same source (page 127, 17 January 1695/6) refers to a petition sent to the Post Master General by them ‘praying that in consideration of their paying £250 in part of the £570 which the said postmaster is run in arrears, and unable to pay, the residue may be remitted and they discharged of their bonds’.

As Mynott notes, their pleas seemed to have found some sympathy in that the Treasury papers (Warrants Not Relating to Money, XV page 198-9, 2 November 1696) record,

Treasury warrant to the Post Master General to remit and discharge the sum, of £100 part of £172.17.0 residue of an arrear owing by Ralph Rishton late deputy for the town of Preston, co. Lancs; his sureties John Veal [Neal?] and the said Rishton being altogether insolvent and not in a condition to make any reparation to the said sureties and the Treasury Lords being satisfied of the hardship of this case, on the Postmaster General’s representation of its circumstances the said Rishton or his sureties to pay £72.17.0 in further part of the said remaining arrears

Others in Preston could have been put in debt, including Thomas Bellingham, who records in his diary for 14 August 1688, ‘saw Mr. Rushton’s bond and articles sign’d and seal’d and sent to London’. At this time Bellingham’s cousin, Philip Frowde, was governor of the Post Office. [6]

If Rishton operated from his home then the post office in Preston at this time was probably facing on the Market Square as his name is attached to a property in that position on the plan of Preston shown above. The Court Leet records have a ‘house late in possion of Alderman Rishton now Mr Winckleys att the South end of the Shambles’ in 1695, which suggests a move round the corner from his 1684 property. [7] Winckley took possession of the Shambles house at a time when Rishton, according to his own account below, was financially ruined, his position as postmaster having been taken over by William Woods in January 1694.

[1] ‘Lancashire OnLine Parish Clerk Project – District of Preston’, accessed 9 February 2017, http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Preston/Preston/stjohn/index.html; William Dugdale and F. R. Raines, ‘The Visitation of the County Palatine of Lancaster: Made in the Year 1664-5’, The Chetham Society, OS, 88 (1873): 249; ‘Rishton, Geoffrey (c.1617-67), of Preston, Lancs. | History of Parliament Online’, accessed 16 February 2017, http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1660-1690/member/rishton-geoffrey-1617-67.
Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (Yale University, 2009), 68.
[3] Ibid., 151.
[4] Malcolm T. Mynott, The Postal History of Preston, Garstang and the Fylde of Lancashire from the Civil War to 1902 (Preston: Preston & District Philatelic Society, 1987).
[5] William Lewins, ‘Her Majesty’s Mails; a History of the Post-Office, and an Industrial Account of Its Present Condition.’, HathiTrust, p62, accessed 6 March 2016, http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015020942697?urlappend=%3Bseq=80.
[6] Thomas Bellingham and Anthony Hewitson, Diary of Thomas Bellingham, an Officer under William III (Preston: Toulmin & Sons, 1908), 5, http://archive.org/details/diaryofthomasbel00belluoft.
[7] ‘Preston Court Leet Records’, accessed 29 January 2017, http://c5110394.myzen.co.uk/mw/index.php?title=Main_Page.