John Harry Preston was born in Cheltenham on February 19, 1860, the son of John Preston, a solicitor’s clerk.
He began his career as a teacher in London but later became a clerk in an East Indian merchant’s office. It was then that he developed a keen interest in boxing and at the age of eighteen, joined the West End Boxing Club. When, in 1884, the Amateur Boxing Association instituted a Bantam Weight competition, he was the first to enter and made it through to the semi-final, only to lose by a narrow margin. He was also a member of the West London Rowing Club and won several prizes for swimming at the St. James’s Club.
He married Ellen Boore, daughter of a boot manufacturer, in London in December 1885 and their daughter, Ethel, was born the following year. After his father’s death he gave up serious boxing and turned his attention to the hotel trade. By 1891 had taken over the running of the Central Hotel in Bournemouth.
Arriving in Brighton in 1901 he took over the dilapidated Royal York Hotel in the Old Steine. The town at the time was perceived by some as not being the famous resort it had once been and a move was made to reinvent it as a:
‘Blackpool show fair with swings and roundabouts and an Eiffel Tower’.
Harry was opposed to this view, saying the ‘best people’ could be encouraged to return and gave an interview to the Daily Mail in order to promote his cause.
In his early days in Brighton, he was approached by the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) and asked to arrange a race at Brighton, but the club insisted that it must take place on tarmac. The Corporation was against the proposal initially but finally agreed to lay the tarmac along Madeira Drive. The first speed trials took place during the ‘Motor Week’ from 19 to 22 July, 1905.
Harry was not only a sportsman on land but also in the air and on the water. A photograph in his autobiography, Leaves from My Unwritten Diary shows him as a passenger in a water-plane (a sea-plane). The pilot was Andre Beaumont who had won the Daily Mail Circuit of Britain Race in August 1913. Harry also hosted a banquet at the Royal Albion Hotel to celebrate the arrival of Oscar Morrison, who flew his plane from Brookwood to Brighton in sixty five minutes.
Harry was a keen sailor and owned a motor yacht called ‘My Lady Molly’. Both the yacht and Harry nearly came to grief in 1911 when, during a voyage from Erith to Cowes, the vessel ran into a storm. Not only was the yacht swamped with water but the engine caught fire. It was eventually driven ashore at Shoreham.
He redecorated the Royal York and in about 1906 took over the Royal Albion. In 1910 he carried out large scale alterations creating a roof garden which overlooked the Palace Pier.
Ellen died in 1913 and a year later he married Edith Collings, who was listed on the 1911 census as ‘Hotel manageress’ at the Royal Albion Hotel.
Harry was a great supporter of charities in Brighton. He became president and life governor of the Royal Sussex County Hospital, for which he raised ten of thousands of pounds, and further funds were raised for the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Sick Children and the Lady Chichester Hospital in Hove. He frequently borrowed the Brighton Hippodrome for Sunday celebrity shows in aid of the hospitals.
One of his most famous associates was Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and ultimately the Duke of Windsor). He first approached the Prince in 1920 to enquire if he would become patron of the boxing tournament he was planning to hold in Brighton to raise funds for the Royal Sussex County Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital. The Prince’s brother, the Duke of York (later King George VI), also agreed to be a patron.
The match took place at The Dome and Harry himself took part, fighting Tom Ringer, featherweight champion of 1908. The souvenir programme for that event can be seen at the Brighton History Centre. Further boxing matches took place at the Dome over the following years and included such famous fighters as Jack Dempsey (world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926).
Popular as Harry was, author Beverley Nicholls was not so complimentary:
‘Sir Harry was not quite a gentleman …. was tiny with a bright mauve complexion, and had the curious habit of drenching himself in a variety of expensive toilet water’
With regard to Harry’s relationship with the Prince of Wales, Nicholls commented :
‘Both were very tiny and very rich… and they were both, if one may be forgiven for mentioning it, rather common’
This comment was made many years after Harry’s death. However, his reputation had been somewhat tarnished by his involvement in the 1926 General Strike. Strikers had gathered at the tram depot in Lewes Road, anticipating that volunteers were on their way to operate the trams. A large crowd gathered and around 11am, several hundred police and special constables arrived on the scene. One of the mounted special constables was ‘sergeant’ Harry Preston. It was reported that the police charged the crowd, which included women and children, and according to Adrian Wookey (‘Impact of the General Strike on Brighton’), eye witnesses ‘all tell of indiscriminate police brutality’.
It has been suggested that following the ‘Battle of Lewes Road’, as it became known, Harry lost some of his popularity.
The high point of Harry’s life came in July 1933 when he was knighted for his services to charitable causes. In 1934, his wife, Edith, was presented at Court and Nancy, their daughter, followed suit in 1935.
Sir Harry died in August 1936 after several weeks of illness. Tragically, a week later, his great friend, Captain Chandler (a former heavyweight boxer), died following complications which arose after he had given Harry a blood transfusion.
Sir Harry Preston’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people, too many to be accommodated in the parish church of St. Peter’s. London Road was lined with onlookers watching the cortege as it made its way from the church to Cuckfield, and two large motor coaches and eight cars were needed to take the huge numbers of floral tributes. Amongst them were wreaths from the theatre impresario, C B Cochran and the comedian and singer, George Robey.
The Brighton Herald reported :
‘ The passing of Sir Harry marks the closing of a chapter in the history of Brighton…. Brighton has lost her greatest ambassador, and the realm of sport one of its greatest figures.’
Paul Jordan, Senior History Centre Officer