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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
Life and Style
life – it's not, says Rachel McKinnon
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
travelFrom Notting Hill Carnival to Zombeavers at FrightFest
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

Service Delivery and Support Manager

£55000 - £75000 per annum + excellent benefits: Harrington Starr: Service Deli...

Corporate Tax Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL ...

Relationship Manager

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Relationship Manager, London, Banking, Accountant...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home