Peggie Preston: Tenacious peace campaigner


Margaret Mary Preston (Peggie Preston), occupational therapist and peace campaigner: born Daragaon, India 9 November 1923; died London 16 November 2007.

Peggie Preston spent her life fighting for many of the harshest causes of the post-war years, yet was still able to win the respect of her adversaries. Once, walking past the guardhouse of RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire, where she lived for 18 months in a caravan to highlight the presence of US missiles at the base, she was greeted warmly by an American airman. "Peggie's not a peace protestor," he said to her friend, "she's a peacemaker."

Her style was constructive, to engage in intelligent argument with her adversary, but always to air strongly held views in a forthright fashion. The causes she embraced took her to Vietnam, South Africa, the Balkans, Palestine and, most dramatically, to the border of Iraq and Saudi Arabia in an attempt to stop the first Gulf War.

As with many of her generation, the course of Peggie Preston's life was shaped by war. She was born in Assam, the daughter of a tea planter, but from the age of four lived with an aunt in Dollar, Clackmannanshire. On the outbreak of the Second World War she became a WAAF, spending six years as a Bomber Command radio-operator at Coningsby in Lincolnshire. She saw herself as a "real patriot fighting a war to end all wars". But there were early signs of unorthodoxy when she refused a commission, preferring to remain in the ranks. It was distressing work, the more so when Lancaster bomber pilots she had "talked out" failed to return. At the same time she was dismayed by the fire bombing of Dresden and Hamburg.

This insider view of the futility of war led her to the Quakers. Henceforward, she devoted her life to the underdog. Once she had qualified as an occupational therapist, her horizons were limitless. After the Sharpeville shootings of 1960 had highlighted the injustices of apartheid, she worked in Baragwanath hospital in Soweto, treating survivors of the massacre. She was helped financially to go to South Africa by Trevor Huddleston, who had resisted the black removals from Sophiatown which is where Preston lived, in a nuns' hostel.

Next, there were five years in Vietnam at the height of the war, with a British medical team in a children's hospital in Saigon. She lived with a local family and was paid at the local rate. Of that period, Preston said: "I was trying to bring reconciliation by living by example." She worked with street children as well as with political prisoners and their families. When the powers-that-be caught up with her, she had to leave.

Back home, between missions, Preston returned to the NHS. At Christmas, she would take a rare break at her brother Bill's home in Devon. Her friends Desmond and Leah Tutu came to stay. In the late Seventies she was back in South Africa, at a hospital in Cape Town, and through the Black Sash women's organisation did relief work at Crossroads, a black squatter camp racked by government-orchestrated political violence. They called her "the mother of hope". When the government expelled her, she was heartbroken.

In early 1991, Peggie Preston was among peacemakers from 15 countries who pitched their tents at a pilgrims' resting place just inside Iraq. The idea was to interpose a non-violent presence between the warring forces and so focus attention on the looming Gulf War. The American peace campaigner Kathy Kelly recalls an evening when "Peggie urged us to hold an event in which each of us would offer a representation of our country's culture. It was a bit surreal as the bombers flew overhead, but I remember how grateful people were for her tenacious encouragement." Cut off from the rest of the world, with food and water in short supply, they were reluctantly evacuated to a possibly more dangerous Baghdad. Preston returned to Iraq a decade later to view the destructive effects of international sanctions on the people of Iraq.

By now she had become the veteran among the family of peacemakers. She might almost be seen as the inverse image of the Victorian soldier Sir Garnet Wolseley, who in a long life of warring saw action in four continents. The much-travelled Peggie Preston continued her missions for peace to Sarajevo and to Croatian-controlled Bosnia during the wars in the Balkans. She was arrested at a demonstration near Ramallah, trying to heal wounds in Palestine. After the second Gulf War she resigned from the Labour Party. She could be heard on the loudspeaker at Parliament Square voicing support for the peace protester Brian Haw. A Molesworth base demonstration outside the Ministry of Defence in London led to her gaining a criminal record. "We held hands and had to kneel, but with my arthritis I couldn't get down." She was bound over for a year to keep the peace.

This February, aged 83, Peggie Preston hobbled along Downing Street with the mothers of soldiers killed in Iraq to hand in a petition to Tony Blair. It was her final public act.

Denis Herbstein

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most