Sir Harry Preston was a Brighton businessman and sportsman. In the 1920s and 30s, he made the Royal Albion Hotel into the town’s most fashionable place to stay and sponsored the first ‘Motor Race Week’ on the sea-front.
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.
According to the Daily Mail, the town was an “unenterprising, unattractive and outdated holiday resort”.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.
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 bears a simple inscription,
“In Memory of my Beloved Husband Sir Harry Preston, born February 19th 1860, died August 13th 1936”
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.