A Radical Grandfather

I’M now 92, and I suppose my earliest recollections of Grandfather Preston would have been when I was six or seven and his family celebrated his birthday.

At 64 or 65 Grandfather was an old man to our generation, but he still worked at his trade as a boot-maker. I remember playing with the lasts, each with the name of the person for whom the boots were made by Grandfather at his home in Earlsfield. All the work was done by hand, and at times he’d would hit his fingers. I remember him swearing as he continued to hit his fingers! He’d been known to pull out an aching tooth with his pincers!

When the First World War came our father joined the Army and life became hard for Mother.

When our boots needed repairing we were dispatched to Earlsfield from Raynes Park to see Grandfather. While he mended them my brother Jim and I were left to our own devices. At the bottom of the garden ran the River Wandle, only a low wall separating the garden from the river. We’d spend many hours in the water – it was shallow then – but when Father was young it was deep and fast, and he told us that when he was young he and his brothers would swim naked but wearing top hats (plentiful in those days).

Of Grandfather’s past we knew very little, but as we grew up we knew all his children. In our teens brother Jim, Cousin George and I would visit Grandfather one evening a week, and it was then that we began to know him.

He’d talk to us for hours about his early life, and one thing always stood out – he was an out-and-out radical and an atheist.

When he was young Navy press gangs would arrive in Christchurch, but of course Grandfather, who was one of nine children, always eluded them.

He’d describe the suffering caused by the infamous Corn Laws, making it difficult for the poor to buy flour, bread and so on. Wages were very low, a few pence being the norm, and this must have been the start of Grandfather’s rebellious life.

He never mentioned the mother of his own ten children, the first and last of which died at birth. By the time the second child was born it was law for all babies to be vaccinated against smallpox. He refused to have his son vaccinated and was restrained while the vaccination was carried out, but as soon as the authorities had gone he sucked out the vaccine and spat it away!

When his next child was born the regulations had been altered so that he had to give his consent. He refused, and the local policeman told him he would be arrested next day. During the night Grandfather disappeared and somehow made his way to America. How long he was there I don’t know: his family lived with other family members on his side.

Eventually he returned and settled in Battersea, then moved to Ealrsfield, where the rest of his children were bom.

Still a radical, he became a Labour man, and in his 85th year he was on the platform in the Wandsworth Town Hall from where he made a long speech on behalf of Bevin, who won the seat from the sitting Tory member. This was the year of the first Labour government, and Grandfather was delighted.

On his 100th birthday he received congratulations on the BBC read by Wilfred Pickles.

In 1942 his house received a direct hit by a bomb: not a fragment of house or contents survived. He was taken to Somerset by daughter Ada, and never knew what had happened to his house. He died in 1943 at the age of 103.

He’d have been happy to know that one of his grandsons is a strong Labour supporter!

Ronald Preston