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

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