An Edwardian gentleman born in 1860

Sir Harry Preston | Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
Sir Harry Preston
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council

Sir Harry Preston is buried in Cuckfield churchyard near to his country residence Apple Tree Cottage at Ansty. His burial plot is easily found next to the path in the north east corner of the churchyard. A two metre high block of quarried granite bearing the simple inscription, “In Memory of my Beloved Husband Sir Harry Preston, born February 19th 1860, died August 13th 1936” marks the grave. From this could be inferred there were no children. A contemporary report states there were 400 floral tributes; to bring these from Brighton required eight carriages apart from the funeral car and two large motor coaches. The streets were thronged with mourners.

Born of poor but honest stock
Born in 1860 of “poor but honest parents in London” (he was actually born in Cheltenham) Sir Harry Preston reportedly said he entered the hotel trade in Ramsgate and by 1900 was running The Royal Hotel in Bournemouth.  In the early 1900s Brighton, in line with many other seaside resorts, was in decline. Its fashionable visitors had long since departed and the middle classes were seeking other places. This left the town to the day trippers.

Promoted tourism
According to the Daily Mail, the town was an “unenterprising, unattractive and outdated holiday resort”. The Royal York Hotel (now Royal York Buildings) on the south side of the Steyne was almost derelict when it was taken over by Sir Harry Preston in 1901. Following the hotel’s refurbishment, he wined and dined London newspaper editors to promote visitors, particularly motorists, to the town and to encourage them to stay at his hotel. This he was spectacularly successful at and in 1913 he bought the nearby Royal Albion Hotel, which had been closed since 1900, for £13,500.

A wonderful feel for publicity
During the twenties and early thirties the Royal Albion Hotel became the town’s leading hotel where authors, actors, film stars, sportsmen and even the Prince of Wales were entertained by Preston who had a wonderful feel for publicity. Like many Edwardian gentlemen, he was a sportsman in the widest sense, embracing yachting (he owned the first motor yacht on this stretch of coast the “My Lady Ada”), motor racing and flying, as well as his first love, boxing (in his younger days he fought at bantamweight).

Promoted a Motor Race week in 1905
In 1904, with a group of other businessmen, he badgered the Council to lay tarmacadam on the Madeira Road (now Drive) for motor racing.This became the first road in the town to be covered with this material (whilst tarred blocks had been used on tram routes it was still crushed stone on other roads, ideal for horses but unsuitable for motor vehicles because of the dust and sharp stones). A “Motor Race Week” was held in July 1905 with the recently erected Madeira Terraces providing grandstands for the spectators, as they do today. The highest speed recorded was 90.2mph by the famous racing driver of the day, S F Edge, driving a Napier. The world land speed record at this time was only some 15mph faster. On 6th May 1911 Preston and his brother, who sponsored the event, welcomed fliers who had participated in the “Grand Brighton Aerial Race” from Brooklands (a motor racing circuit in Weybridge Surrey) to Brighton.

Knighted in 1933
Preston was knighted in 1933 for services to charity and sport. In 1926 he promoted a charity boxing match at the Dome, in aid of hospital funds, featuring world champion Jack Dempsey, Bombardier Billy Wells and other world famous boxers. He died on August 13th, 1936, and is buried in Cuckfield churchyard.

Comments about this page

  • Sir Harry Preston was my great-uncle, and in fact did have a daughter, Nancy, who married a Polish airman. She, however, had no children.

    By Francis Crouch (04/12/2004)
  • Sir Harry Preston was the cousin of my grandfather, Charles Preston.Their respective fathers were brothers. My grandfather was an artist and legend has it that he was the ‘black sheep’ of the family for marrying the ‘wrong woman’!

    By Terry Preston (20/01/2005)
  • My granddaughter has a racing top hat belonging to Sir Harry Preston bought at auction in Bucks. It shows various labels of places & hotels he had visited and he was obviously a very well travelled and popular man. It is one of her most treasured possesions and she was delighted to find the history and origins of this man on your website. Thank you.

    By Valerie Washington (28/08/2005)
  • My great uncle Lawrence (Laurence?) Preston RA was President of the then Brighton College of Art. I certainly remember visiting him in 1958 and I think he died a few years later. His father, William, was also an artist. They originally came from Yorkshire. He too married the ‘wrong woman’. Edith was my grandmother’s midwife who set her cap at him and he had a terrible life. After Great Uncle Lawrie died she sold all his paintings and refused to pay her rates for which demenaour she featured in the Brighton & Hove Gazette . Does anyone have any information on them and could they possibly be related to Sir Harry?

    By Judith Vann (18/06/2008)
  • I refer to the comments made by Judith Vann on the article about Sir Harry Preston dated 18.06.2008. Lawrence Preston was one of my Uncles, his father being George William Preston who lived and died in Leeds September 1930. Lawrence died according to my information March 8th 1960. Edith was Lawrence’s wife and they had connections with Leeds and according to my father Frank Preston (Lawrence’s brother) occasionally stayed with members of her family at the Myrtle Public House Meanwood, Leeds, where Lawrence had painted a large mural scene of the cricket field outside the pub and which I discovered in my later years as a student at Leeds University.(about 1960). I have a cutting from the Brighton Evening Argus for Thursday February 20th 1969, page 23, featuring Edith Preston’s plight as Lawrence’s widow and also I have one or two early examples of Lawrence’s work saved by my father.

    By Raymond A. Preston (03/08/2008)
  • Sir Harry Preston was a well known Bull Terrier breeder; he bred Bull Terriers under his Silversea prefix. He was president of the Bull Terrier Club for 10 years until his death. Just wondering if there is a relative who has got a photograph of Sir Harry Preston with a Bull Terrier. I would love to use it for a new Bull Terrier book I am writing.

    By Alice van Kempen (31/08/2008)
  • Everyone commenting on Harry Preston seem to have forgotten a small part of his history. It was Harry Preston who led a charge against the bus men who were on strike at the Lewes Road Garage during the General Strike in 1926. This is now commonly referred to as the ‘Battle of Lewes Road’. Some of us in the Socialist and Labour movement will not forget or forgive what he did.

    By Geoff Chaplin (11/02/2009)
  • With regard to Harry Preston, I am led to believe that he was my father’s, mother’s, uncle. Her name was Winifred Gray Preston and she lived in the Leckwith area of Cardiff. I hope this might be of interest.

    By Graham Haris (20/07/2009)
  • My grandmother knew Edith Preston who seemed to me, as a teenager, a rather feisty lady. Two things I specifically remember her gleefully telling us was that for some years she had been employed by the local Auctioneers, called Meads, to ‘bid up’ prices in the saleroom. She only had good words to say about her painter husband, Lawrence, and said that Walter Sickert came to Brighton to stay with them quite regularly. Edith maintained that Lawrence was a much better painter than Sickert but never got the recognition due to his retiring nature. Apparently, one weekend a good-natured bet had taken place between the two painters when Lawrence said that he could paint better than Sickert in Sickert’s style. Over that weekend he did the painting and gave it to his friend who was quite impressed. It was only later that Lawrence Preston found out to his annoyance that Sickert had taken the painting back to London, later signed it and sold as one of his own it to a collection and then kept the money. Edith considered the keeping of the money far worse than the passing off of the painting. I was too young to ask which picture and where it was sold but rather wish that I had.

    By Tony Norman (02/04/2010)
  • He was also a long standing member of the Eccentric Club in St. James’s (and the NSC and the Pelican before it). The present Eccentric Club (in Mayfair) would love to hear from Harry’s family and relatives and make a tribute page for him on the club’s website.

    By Imants von Wenden (08/04/2010)
  • I’m heavily involved in the promotion and development of University Boxing; would like to keep Sir Harry Preston’s memory alive by donating a boxing trophy named in his honour; and would love to hear from any of his living relatives – who might wish to present the said trophy. My email address is

    By Simon Kemp (06/03/2011)
  • I am currently doing some family history research into the painter Laurence Preston and would welcome any information your readers may have – particularly from Raymond A Preston and Tony Norman. My e-mail address is

    By Scott Bell (04/08/2011)
  • My mother-in-law, Eve Mary Woffenden, was a foundling baby discovered on the steps of a boys school in Lewes in 1929. She never saw her birth certificate, but was contacted late in her life and told Sir Harry Preston was her father, and her mother was an Italian nurse who was caring for his wife. Anyone know anything about this illicit liason, or the subsequent birth of a child?

    By Tracy Woffenden (01/02/2013)
  • I purchased Sir Harry Preston’s racing top hat with box at an auction in Bucks when I was a child, not knowing who it belonged to at the time. I have kept it all these years and treasured it. The box has lots of travel tickets and stamps on it, most notably London to Brighton. I feel like I was meant to have this hat as not only have I married a keen horse racing man from Brighton, but I live in the next village to Cuckfield where he is buried and have passed the graveyard many times unknowingly, as I have only just today found out this information. However, if any living relatives would like his hat, please contact me

    By Jodie (21/01/2015)

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