From hearsay to confirmation. The birth certificates and signatures that connect Sir Harry Preston to the Woodlands family...
The Story, As Far As It Is Known
Here, pieced together and written-up ineptly by myself, Ron Woodlands, is the story, as far as it is known, of the lives of my grandparents Harry Preston and Lily English, together with an attempt to describe something of the age they lived in.
I apologise for the occasional injection of ‘lower deck’ type humour and language, together with the odd reactionary opinion. But, after all, I did spend a lot of time on the lower deck, and my dinosaur status now legitimately allows me to groan about the state of the world and the doings of all you young pterodactyls.
The Secret Grandfather
I had two grandfathers, possibly like most people really (well you never know these days), but possibly unlike most people, I did not get to meet either of them. The reason for this was that one was dead before I was born and the other was secret. The secret one, my father’s father, of whom I was not aware of until quite recently, was Henry John Preston, commonly known as Harry, and later to become Sir Harry Preston and well-known celebrity in the seaside town of Brighton. My father, Harry, John (‘Jack’) Woodlands, successfully kept the fact of his illegitimate birth from his sons during his lifetime and it wasn’t until sometime after his death that I learnt of his dark secret.
My other grandfather was Philip Heuser, born in England of German immigrant parents, who became a publican. He only enters briefly into this story, but I mention him because my parents named me Ronald, Phillip, Harry, presumably to commemorate both grandfathers. It was common practice then to pass Christian names down the family line.
My mother, Chris, divulged the bare bones of the story to me sometime after my father’s death. She mentioned, quite casually, that my grandfather on my father’s side had been somebody of import connected with Brighton, but gave no details.
It is only recently, having the time to indulge an interest in history generally and family history in particular, that I have started to investigate the detail. My first step down the trail that has led to the story presented here was to contact my cousins, Pam and Marion, with whom I had regretfully lost contact with for many years and who, despite that, were kind enough to spend time giving me the recollections passed to them by their mother.
Henry Woodlands was the alias Harry Preston gave himself at the registrar’s office for the birth certificate of his son, Jack Woodlands, in 1898. His mistress Lila (Lily) Pamela English became Lily Woodlands for the benefit of the registrar, and for all contact with the outside world, they were the respectably married Woodlands family from that time on. However, on his daughter Winifred’s birth certificate, three years previously, he was Harry John Preston, and Lily was Lily Preston.
Have a look at the copies of these birth certificates. Note that Lily is ‘formerly English’ on both of them, and both Winifred and Jack appear to have legitimacy but with different surnames. There could be other explanations for a brother and sister with a common mother having different surnames; adoption or remarriage for instance, but the birth certificates rule out adoption and no marriage certificate for Lily has ever been discovered, although searched for. The 1901 Census has also been searched, without success, for any Henry Woodlands or Harry John Preston who could have been married to Lily, and the legitimate father of Jack Woodlands or of Winifred Preston.
Winifred informed her daughters, Pam and Marion, about their grandfather, Harry Preston, as soon as she thought they were mature enough to be told, whereas Jack kept the secret of his parentage from his sons throughout his life. Why was it that Winifred could share the secret while Jack could not?
Winifred spent her early life going to school and obtaining her first job using the surname, Woodlands. Only when she was 21, in 1916, did she find out that her birth certificate carried the surname, Preston. This little detail prevented her from taking the offer of permanent employment in the telephone exchange (high tech at the time), where she was employed on a temporary basis under the name of Miss Winifred Woodlands. Employers, and practically everybody else, in those days, looked with great suspicion on any suggestion of confused identity, particularly if there was the slightest possibility that the dreadful scourge of illegitimacy might be lurking in the background! She was understandably bitter about the lost opportunity and about not being told her real identity.
Jack, on the other hand, had a birth certificate that appeared to bestow legitimacy under the name of Woodlands, and Harry Preston was quite ready to support him with the necessary paperwork required to go to public school and to enrol in the Army. Harry most likely considered using the name Preston to ensure his son’s future job prospects would be too dangerous, whereas he would not have considered that Winifred had any job prospects when she was born back in 1895, well before women sought equality with men by becoming work slaves. So, upset about her concealed identity and the greater opportunities arranged for her brother, Winifred would have nursed a sense of grievance which she would have wanted to share with somebody. Pam lived with her mother almost throughout her entire life, a situation that would encourage the sharing of family secrets. Jack, however, was separated by circumstances, mostly the war, from both his sons when they were still in their teens and spent little time with them from then on until his premature death in 1953, and in any case, probably did not have the inclination to discuss a subject which still carried the stigma of social disapproval.
Confused by the characters in Sir Harry’s story?
Find out who’s who in Harry’s family tree…
Jack Woodlands, who was obviously named Harry John after his father, was Harry Preston’s only son (unless Harry had other assignations we don’t know about). Jack was sent to Merchant Taylors School from 1911 to 1915, which was then situated in Charter House Square London. This was a public school of some standing and pupils would have required the support of serious money to attend. Harry Preston, owner of the Royal York and Royal Albion (from 1913) hotels, Brighton, undoubtedly would have had the necessary financial clout, whereas his alias Henry Woodlands, commercial traveller (from Jack’s birth certificate and school records), might well have been struggling.
Both Winifred and Jack received an allowance from Harry Preston in the post-war period until his death, which according to Winifred was as much as £5 a week, quite a substantial sum for the time. It certainly must have been fairly generous because Jack bought a house on the strength of this additional income. The house had to be repossessed in 1936 when Harry died and both of his children from the ‘wrong side of the blanket’ found themselves cut out from any further financial support.
The following items are pointers to the true identity of Henry Woodlands:
- According to the 1881 Census, Harry Preston had a younger sister named Winnefred, which although spelt differently may have influenced the choice of Winifred for the name of his daughter by Lily.
- My father was named Harry John Woodlands, and I was named Ronald Phillip Harry Woodlands, no doubt following the then common practice of using Christian names to commemorate parents and grandparents, in this case via the name Harry. The name Phillip is after my maternal grandfather, Philip Heuser.
- He was a great friend of Jeffery Farnol, the author of much popular historical fiction at the time. (The Jeffery Farnol Appreciation Society website has a list of Farnol’s book dedications amongst which is Voices From The Dust – 1932 which was dedicated to “my old friend Harry Preston.”) Jack Woodlands was very keen on Farnol books and passed his enthusiasm on to me. Possibly Harry introduced them to Jack.
Signature Comparison… The Clincher
Most of the evidence for the true identity of Henry Woodlands is hearsay from Pam and Marion passed to them verbally by their mother, and although there is the name of Harry John Preston as the father on Winifred’s birth certificate it doesn’t necessarily prove he was the Sir Harry Preston who made his name in Brighton. However, Jack’s father, H J Woodlands, signed Jack’s application for a commission in the army in 1917.
Compare this rather distinctive signature (note the H, J, and the underlining) with that on the will of Henry John Preston, or that on the outer cover of Harry Preston’s book, Memories, and it is evident that they are made by the same person.
That, backed up by the considerable weight of hearsay evidence which would have taken a very devious mind to fabricate (and for what purpose?) is surely enough to convince most people. Undoubtedly it was Harry Preston who signed himself as HJ Woodlands, father of Jack and who was therefore the Harry John Preston named as the father of Winifred Preston, Jack’s sister. Keeping the first names of Henry (or Harry) John consistent, to go with either surname, was a useful detail which Harry Preston employed to avoid any mistakes when providing signatures.What's the origin of the Woodlands name?
Part of a series: The World Of Harry Preston by Ron Woodlands