A new life in Bournemouth, a new business partner, and a mistress. The Woodlands family is born…
The Man of Substance
After his marriage to Ellen Boore in 1885 Harry moved to Bournemouth because the census of 1891 shows the family living at the Central Hotel in Bournemouth where Harry is recorded as the manager. We know from his books that he was still in his twenties when he moved to Bournemouth, so it must have been around 1887/9. The 1891 Census shows Ethel now five years old, while Ellen is shown as 34 and Harry 31. By 1901, Harry is well into his chosen career, the census of that year showing he is still in Bournemouth, but now the proprietor of the Grand Hotel. The ages given on this census are Ethel 15, Ellen 45, and Harry 41. As already mentioned, the ages entered for Ellen on these two censuses seem highly suspect.
Sometime during the period between the census dates of 1891 and 1901 Harry set up in partnership with William Dore, and between them they ran both the Central and the Grand. While in part ownership of these hotels and during the early part of his later move to Brighton, Harry was a director on the board of the Prince’s Hotel in London. At the start of these ventures he was still only in his early thirties, but presumably his experience running public houses in London, his early experience in the hotel business in Bournemouth, and his thrusting ambition gave him the confidence needed. Whether he moved straight into the Central Hotel as manager when he first came to Bournemouth, while still in his twenties, is not known, but undoubtedly these early years would have been spent gaining experience, and cultivating the acquaintance of the local trade and business people helpful to the furtherance of his career.
In 1884 the Amateur Boxing Association introduced the first bantamweight competition and Harry fought his way through to the finals, but shortly after this he had to give up serious boxing because his father died and he found himself “with new and important business responsibilities”. Possibly this meant that his father’s will provided a legacy which he was able to use to set himself up in his new and more adventurous business venture with Dore. Either way, at some stage during this period he found himself with the added responsibility of looking after his mother, because in the 1901 Census she is shown living in the Grand Hotel with him.
He continued boxing for what he describes as ‘fun’ and charity. During his very early days in Bournemouth he describes a fracas at the Woodbury Hill Fair, local to Bere Regis, which enabled him to establish a reputation for himself and to start his career as a fight promoter, often illegally and without a licence. He took on a heavyweight, surviving by fancy footwork and a bribe to the Negro timekeeper who called ‘time’ at critical moments when Harry was about to be slaughtered. The fight was talked about for days afterwards and Harry became part of the local boxing establishment.
Here we have Harry Preston now beginning to be a local sportsman and general man of substance in Bournemouth, and with contacts in London; still only a mere cog in the grinding wheels of commerce, but with the determination to grow from a cog into a main driver. Although he no longer lived in ‘the hub of the world’ he continued to visit London frequently, which he now called his ‘pleasure ground’. Pleasure was certainly part of it, but the astute businessman in Harry realised that the key to success in his industry was through the cultivation of the rich and influential, who were to be found in large numbers in the West End of London. He was beginning to have the financial clout to ensure a reasonably easy introduction to some of these people, increasing numbers of whom he would be able to play host to at his hotels.
Early on, Harry established a pattern of frequent absence from home, and he mentions in one of his books that he was in the habit of visiting London every week for both business and pleasure purposes. It was therefore easy for him to do what was almost established practice amongst Victorian men of means; indulge in extra-marital activities. On December 31 1895, ten years after his marriage to Ellen, a baby girl was born in Fulham, London. Her father, Harry John Preston, registered the birth of this girl child as Winifred Emily Preston. The mother was given as Lily Preston, formerly English, who was in fact Harry’s mistress and never officially a Preston at all.
The Morality of Victorian Society
It is doubtful if the morality of Victorian London was anything like the impression of it that most people sustain in the twenty first century. The refinement in speech and manners, that culminated in the ‘purity’ expected of upper-class Victorian women had started back in the eighteenth century, well before Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837. Like many of these cultural trends it was initially a reaction to the behaviour of previous generations, in this case their coarseness and immorality, and it is possible at some time during the late eighteenth century to envisage children reacting to their parents in the same way as the daughter in the TV programme ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ reacted to the sixties, ‘anything goes’, culture of her mother. Although the Victorians did not invent the trend, during the reign of their Queen it reached a crescendo of sexual prudery such as the table leg covering which is much talked of today, and was supposed to have happened to prevent the symbolism of the offending article unnecessarily inflaming the sensibilities of refined females. It was probably around the middle of the Victorian period when the reaction to this overblown social trend began to set in, resulting much later in the equally overblown trend in the opposite direction now evident. (Social trends take many decades to work through so it is just possible that some reaction to the present immorality and criminality has begun but is not yet self-evident.)
The morality we associate with the Victorians was confined to a relatively small section of the elite. It totally bypassed a large section of the population – the underclass or as they were then called ‘the poor’ who lived for the most part in both abject moral and financial poverty. You could also say it bypassed the large majority of men in all classes, and some women such as Alice Keppel, mistress of King Edward, behaved like alley-cats provided they had high enough connections. So really the Victorian morality we hear so much about was confined to the middle and upper class women who comprised a fairly small percentage of the population. Such women were put on a pedestal which if fallen from could result in a disastrous fracture, like some marble statue. Their supposed ‘delicacy’ meant that exposure to the rough side of life, any male coarseness, or perhaps sight of or even any hint of the male sexual apparatus would send them into an attack of ‘the vapours’. The correct response to any suggestion of indelicacy was to swoon, or if they couldn’t manage that, to weep uncontrollably, no doubt sneaking illicit glances from beneath fluttering eyelashes at whatever was the cause of their embarrassment. Because there was little financial independence for women outside of marriage few revolted against this moral straightjacket. Away from the centres of industry and outside of the mansions of the elite, the countrywomen, as already mentioned in the section on Lily’s early days, were kept to the path of virtue by the conventions established by a patriarchal society which relied mainly on the rules of evangelical Protestantism.
For upper-class men it meant that wives were there for procreation purposes only. Such purity would be affronted by demands for any sexual approach outside of that unfortunately needed to produce children, especially if it was accompanied by any hint of enjoyment or other coarseness. And women of the right class would not of course entertain any sexual approach outside of marriage. Neither were men entirely able to escape this obsession with ‘purity’. Masturbation was looked upon as one of the great evils of the age and the cause many thought of insanity and general mental deterioration. The loss of seed would result in a reduction in manliness and the ability to father children. Devices were produced even to prevent inadvertent nighttime emissions. One such was an American invention of a ring with internal serrations, which fastened over the penis before sleep giving timely warning of any unwanted erections. (Ouch, bloody hell and prickwillikins!) Both men and women could arrive in the marriage bed without any idea of what they were supposed to do or even of the nature or appearance of each other’s sexual apparatus. Men were frequently advised by their doctors to visit a harlot on the eve of their wedding to gain much needed experience.
So that is the generalisation or stereotype of Victorian English society. Perhaps it is possible that there was a lot of deviation from our perception of the Victorians. But certainly there was enough truth in this perception to encourage a huge industry in London, catering for the entertainment and sexual gratification of Victorian males from all classes.
The London ‘Season’
The London ‘Season’ which attracted the nobility, the nouveau riche, and anybody who aspired to be anybody and had the means, into the West End for a whirl of balls and assorted social occasions required thousands of domestic and service workers, mostly female, to support it. This frenetic activity lasted from April to August. While the upper-classes then departed to recover in their country seats or more exotic locations abroad, the support staff had the options of employment from dawn to dusk in various sweat shops for subsistence wages, or the alternatives of crime and prostitution – both male and female. By the start of the Edwardian era, in 1901, it has been estimated that there were 80,000 whores working the streets of London and undoubtedly during the whole of the Victorian, Edwardian period prostitution was the major occupation for women in the capital, behind domestic service and industry.
The morality which was applied with a certain amount of rigidity through the middle and upper strata of society, disappeared altogether at the top of the tree. The title of Prince of Wales, which has been conferred on the eldest son and heir apparent of the King or Queen of England since the reign of Henry I, was carried in Victoria’s time by her son Edward. From 1898 until his death as Edward VII in 1910 he openly carried on an affair with his mistress, Alice Keppel, who had previously married into money and had then conceived two children by two other rich lovers. This blue-blooded upper echelon of society had little to do but proceed from one lavish entertainment to another where the unmarried men were kept chaste as marriage prospects, but the married swapped partners frequently. Edward was following in the footsteps of his great-uncle George IV, who as Prince of Wales had built the Royal Pavilion at Brighton in 1785 to honour his illicit Catholic mistress, Mrs FitzHerbert. Our current Prince of Wales has plenty of role models when it comes to Camilla, who just happens to be Alice Keppel’s great grand-daughter.
The New Woodlands Family
This is the society then, that Harry was beginning to make an impression on. Now married to his first wife, Ellen, for eight or ten years and with one child, what was his incentive to look for pleasure elsewhere? Was it the idea we now have of Victorian husbands that considered their wives too refined to be bothered with animal desires once the business of procreation was over? Seems doubtful to me, Harry having mixed with the lower end of London society for several years was unlikely to have had those sorts of illusions about the feminine character. A woman of mystery then, his wife Ellen Lovelace/Griessen/Boor and wildly fluctuating ages. Did she tell one too many lies to Harry – or do we malign her? Was Ethel, her daughter, fathered by George Chitty Boor, or by someone unknown, or by Harry? Perhaps the marriage bed was beginning to lack something, or perhaps Ellen, who conceived for the third time at the age of 35, actively kept him out of it in order not to risk a further pregnancy, but it was more likely to be the effect of the company he was now keeping. Cultivating and entertaining, and being entertained by the upper-classes on his frequent visits to London, where female company of all sorts was available for the entertainment of his male friends, married or not, Harry would have had plenty of opportunities and temptations to resist, and it could be his resistance failed at times. Maybe he wasn’t consciously looking for anything but things just happened, as they often do.
At sometime before 1895, he met Lily English. The hearsay evidence is that he met her in London at the Metropole Hotel, where she was a housekeeper. But the English family lived not far away from Bournemouth, settling in Minterne, Dorset where they are shown in the 1881 Census, so it is possible he met her in the local area and could even, with his connections, have got her the job at the Metropole. Who knows, but even if the liaison started as some casual fling it obviously developed into something far deeper and he was smitten enough to install her as his permanent mistress, a fairly common procedure among the upper-classes in the days before divorce became commonplace.
What would be the pressures on Lily to accept Harry’s advances? As a country girl she would have had few illusions about the reasons for any male approach, but in any case she was now aged in her late twenties and so would probably have gained some reserve when it came to matters of love. But Harry, the self-made businessman and entrepreneur on the way up might have been difficult to resist. After all what were her options? To marry some lad from her local area and become a human production machine like her mother; to carry on towards spinsterhood as an employee in the hotel industry; or to become the mistress of the romantic and exciting hotel owner. Or was it none of these? Did that old elusive notion called love obscure all these options and make only one choice available? So many seemingly ridiculous decisions are taken because of such emotion that speculation in the end is pointless.
Probably their first child was a mistake because although the ‘French letter’ or ‘sheath’, as condoms were then known, had been mass produced since the 1870s they were still not widely accepted and certainly not something to be contemplated in the middle of a passionate affair. When Winifred was born, at the tail-end of 1895, Harry like many of his contemporaries, could have abandoned Lily to the gutter (mistresses or illegitimate children had absolutely no rights) but instead, to his credit, set her up in reasonable affluence at No 7 Darlan Road in Fulham. He reported the birth to the registrar at the end of March 1896 and gave his name truthfully as Harry John Preston. The occupation of the father was entered as ‘of independent means’. The period of three months between the birth and the registration, which even for this era seems to be lengthy, suggests there may have been some soul searching before taking the step of making things official. Was Harry considering his position and perhaps wondering about the possible consequences of lying to the registrar? Lily is entered on the certificate as Lily Preston, formerly English.
And then Harry moved his little illicit family to Sea Road Pokesdown just on the outskirts of Bournemouth, where Jack Woodlands was born in 1898. This seems a surprisingly risky location considering Harry was living not far away at either the Central or the Grand Hotel in Bournemouth with his wife and young daughter. On Jack’s birth certificate Harry became Henry Woodlands, commercial traveller, and Lily became Lily Pamela Woodlands formerly English. The family became the Woodlands family from then on, including Winifred who was of course a Preston. Perhaps Harry thought this name change gave him safety from discovery, and after all Bournemouth even then was a large town. In between conceiving Winnie and Jack, Lily gave birth to two sets of non-surviving twins. The trauma of these little tragedies would have had a very disabling effect on Lily, and Harry could have had a hard time resisting her wanting to live either nearer him or her family, and it could be that there was a real need for Lily to live somewhere nearer her mother. Thomas and Sarah English are shown as aged 65 and 54 in the 1881 Census, so there is a good chance that Thomas was dead by 1898 when he would have been 82. Sarah would have been 71 and probably poorly because she does not appear in the 1901 Census. It might be that Harry was forced into renaming his alternative family because of this period of proximity to his legitimate one.What's the origin of the Woodlands name?
By 1901 he had moved them to a safer distance but still in the same area, to Portswood Southampton, and shortly after that the available evidence seems to suggest he moved them back to London where it would have been easy for him to visit them safely on his numerous business trips. The photograph [above] shows Lily with Winnie and Jack aged around 7 1⁄2 and 5, making the year around 1903, and carries an address in Clerkenwell. Probably Harry moved his little Woodlands family at least twice more, because Jack’s address from his school records in 1911-15 is Highbury, and from his army records in 1916-18 is New Cross, which is where Lily died in May 1922 aged only 56.
On July 30, 1913, Ellen Preston passed away from heart failure, aged 62. At some time, before or shortly after Ellen’s death Harry met Edith Ellen Collings, who, along with her sister, Beatrice, was a housekeeper at one of his hotels. It seems that Harry had a fatal attraction for hotel housekeepers because on March 12 1914, Harry married Edith, and just six months later, on September 28 1914, he welcomed his third daughter into the world. This one was named Edith after her mother but, maybe because of the possible confusion over two women with the same name in one family, she became known as Nancy. In those days premature babies had little chance of survival, so it looks like the marriage was hastily arranged to legitimise the birth which would have been very likely conceived in the December of 1913 or January 1914. In this same year, Ethel, Harry’s first daughter (or stepdaughter), married Victor Railton Willard. At this time Harry was 54 years old, his new wife, Edith, was 39 – some 15 years younger than Harry – while Lily was 48, Winfred 19, and Jack 16. It could be considered that Harry, despite his small stature, did all right with the ladies.
Life for Lily
What was it like for Lily, this life with two children and an ever absent ‘commercial traveller’ of a ‘husband’? No doubt she was reasonably provided for and probably quite happy at the beginning with two young children to care for. But later, as the children grew up, made their own friends and were out at school all day, and perhaps as the ever more successful and busy Harry visited less and less she would have become lonely and discontented. Did she regret becoming a rich man’s mistress rather than the wife of an ordinary Joe from Dorset, perhaps a brick maker like her father and brother George, or the drayman that married her sister Emily?
What did she think about Harry’s huge success in Brighton and his increasing notoriety? Did she ever think about going public? (This probably wasn’t an option then, newspapers being far less intrusive and more respectful of people in the public eye.) And how much did her father and mother (if they were still alive when Harry and Lily got together) and numerous siblings know of her status as mistress rather than wife? Did she hope that Harry would make her legal when Ellen died, only to have her hopes dashed when he married the much younger Edith? Whatever may have been her state of mind, Winifred reported that Lily had a drink problem towards the end of her life. For the last six years of her life Jack was mostly away from home, initially in the army, so most of the caring for Lily in her final years must have fallen on Winifred. When she married Richard Harris in 1919 they lived at the same address in New Cross as Lily, and Richard was the informant shown on Lily’s death certificate.
And what about Harry during this period from 1895 until Lily died in 1922, a period of 27 years when he supported his rogue family? Did his first wife, Ellen, ever find out or have suspicions, and if not was it a constant anxiety to him that she would? As having a mistress was such an established thing among the elite of Victorian and Edwardian society, perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered much if she had. But Harry, and probably his wife, did not originate from the upper classes and so it is on the cards he did have to worry, although as previously mentioned he had a built in alibi to explain frequent absences. When he had to appear as Henry Woodlands to register Jack for Merchant Taylors School in 1911, Ellen may well have been ailing because she died only two years later. But in 1914, when he married Edith, it is just possible he came clean to her about his mistress and two illegitimate children. After all it was something from his past, and something she could have accepted, provided he was now only offering financial support. So he may, or may not, have been on tenterhooks when he had to appear once again as Henry Woodlands to sign up Jack for his army commission in 1917. But the fact that he did all these things, and carried on supporting his illegitimate children up to his death implies a good deal of concern and affection.
When Jack joined the Queen’s Westminster Rifles as a rifleman in May 1916 one month before his eighteenth birthday, did Harry have anything to do with the fact that he wasn’t sent to France until October 1917? By then he belonged to all the right clubs and knew all the right people, but if he did so it would imply that at least some of these people knew of his mistress and family, although he could have said he was acting for a close friend or relative. And when he signed Jack’s application for officer cadet training in February 1917 did he do so with a heavy heart, knowing the high casualty rate for subalterns at the front? Jack went to France that October and returned to England at the end of December suffering from severe but temporary aphonia (loss of speech), bronchitis, and an enlarged heart due to inhaling mustard gas during the tail end of the Battle of Cambria. Did Harry visit him during his six months of hospitalisation and convalescence and did he have to worry about his only son in secret? How did things work out towards the end when Lily was apparently heavily into the booze? Did she, perhaps, threaten to blow the gaff in a drunken rage? Winifred told her daughters that Harry offered Jack a job in his hotel business provided that he pretended to be his nephew, something that Jack refused to do, and that he kitted out Jack and Winifred’s husband in full evening gear to attend one of his hotel functions, so he must have been very confident of keeping his secret, certainly at this later stage of the deception.
And when he died he might have thought he had paid off his debt – after all Lily was dead, Winifred was 40, and Jack was 38, both old enough to look after themselves – and any acknowledgement in his will would only have caused distress to his widow, even if she did have an idea of what was going on. Nevertheless both Winnie and Jack may have been a trifle disgruntled when their allowances abruptly stopped, although it was all a question of degree – Winnie by then had a fairly affluent husband, whereas the drop in income was traumatic for Jack. The small semi-detached house in South Norwood that he had mortgaged on the strength of his allowance was repossessed, the Woodlands family moved to a local authority rented house in Selsdon, Surrey, and the young Ron Woodlands found himself moved from the comfort of a middle-class private school to the relative roughhouse of a council elementary school!
Part of a series: The World Of Harry Preston by Ron Woodlands