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“A Friend of Princes and a Prince of Friends.”

by Philip Morgan

In the early 1900s, Brighton, like many other seaside resorts, was in decline. No longer patronised by royalty, its fashionable visitors were long gone, and the middle classes elsewhere, it was, according to the Daily Mail, an “unenterprising, unattractive and outdated holiday resort”.

Where others saw a decline, Harry Preston saw an opportunity. He bought the almost derelict Royal York Hotel in the Old Steine (now a youth hostel) in 1901 and began a career in Brighton that would turn him into the city’s foremost hotelier, the friend of kings and a major force in the city’s transformation over the next forty years.

“I have kept a swing door for more than half a century, and through it have passed all sorts and kinds of people. Between many of them and myself, there has been struck the magic spark that kindles that best of all things - friendship. And if I number princes among my friends as well as politicians and pugilists, it is because one dash of sport makes the whole world kin.”

He was born in 1860 in Cheltenham, the son of a solicitor’s clerk. He spent the first three years of his working life as a trainee teacher and hated it. So, as soon as he could, he took off for London, “the hub of the world”, where he worked for shipbrokers and so was able to meet sailors who had seen the world. After two years of this, he wanted a change and moved into hospitality, where he found his vocation. He was a natural. In no time, he was running some challenging pubs in Hackney, Holborn, and Lambeth, mixing with dockers, labourers, and pugilists. In 1884 despite being only five foot one and running the pubs, he got to the Amateur Boxing Association bantamweight semi-finals. He also used his pubs as locations for illegal prize fights, using his passion for sport to make money and contacts as he was to do throughout his career. Harry Preston had never been destined for the classroom.

While he was successful in the licensed trade, that didn’t satisfy his ambition, so he moved into hotels. It was in 1900, while running the Royal Hotel in Bournemouth, that he spotted the possibilities of the Royal York Hotel and bought it.

He refurbished the hotel and lavishly entertained London newspaper editors in return for them promoting his hotel as the ideal destination for visitors to Brighton, particularly those with motor cars. When Harry was asked by the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (later to become the RAC) to arrange a motor race at Brighton, he was delighted as this fitted beautifully with his marketing strategy. However, the club insisted it should occur on the newly invented ‘Tarmacadam’ road surface. Initially, Brighton Council was against the idea and turned him down flat. But Harry, as was his wont, persisted, and they agreed to lay a road using the newly invented tarmac on the 2km stretch between the Palace Pier and Black Rock (later Madeira Drive).

A “Motor Race Week” was held from 19th to 22nd July 1905, during which, on the 19th, the first Brighton Speed Trials took place along Madeira Drive, with the Madeira Terraces providing grandstands for spectators. French motorcyclist Henri Cissac broke two world records that day, achieving a top speed of 86 mph. The highest speed recorded during the trials was 90.2mph by S F Edge, driving a Napier. The world land speed record at this time was only 15mph faster.

Things were going well for Harry, and in 1913 he bought the nearby Royal Albion Hotel, which shut in 1900, for £13,500. Harry now owned the two hotels, which would become central to Brighton’s renewal. During the twenties and early thirties, Harry turned these hotels into favoured destinations where he entertained authors, actors, film stars, sportspeople and royalty, including Edward, Prince of Wales (later to become King Edward VIII), and his brothers George, Duke of York (later to become King George VI), and George, Duke of Kent.

Harry never lost his interest in boxing, finding it attracted people across all classes, including royalty. As a focus for this, he organised a series of celebrity charity boxing tournaments, for which he received his knighthood, with Edward V111, Prince of Wales, as the patron. The proceeds went to the Royal Sussex Hospital and the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. The high spot of these events was in 1926 when he persuaded Jack Dempsey, the world heavyweight champion, to make his only UK appearance. Another of his sports personality friends was WG Grace. The cricketer reputedly deliberately got himself dismissed during a cricket match in Hastings so he could get his first-ever ride in a motor car. On 11th May 1926, a crowd of 4,000 people gathered at the tram depot on Lewes Road in Brighton. Chief Constable, Charles Griffin, told them to disperse, but when they refused, he sent 300 foot police and 50 mounted specials, apparently led by “Sergeant” Harry Preston, into the crowd. A violent and bloody incident known as the ‘Battle of Lewes Road’ followed.

While Harry’s reputation took a hit from his involvement in this incident, he remained a popular and influential figure in Brighton until his death on 13th August 1936 in his private suite at the Albion Hotel. Hundreds of mourners lined the streets of Brighton to watch his cortege pass by. The Brighton Herald wrote:

“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”.

Posted in History on Jul 01, 2023