Roy Frank Preece: a biography

(Note: I wrote this biography as an assignment for the Correspondence Course in Genealogy run by The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies. A large thank you should go to Great Uncle Jim for providing a lot of anecdotal material and many of the quotes included below.)

At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 the Preece's are a small family living in Middlesex. Heading the family are my great grandparents - Victor William Magnage Preece and his wife of two years, Mildred Alice (nee Williams). Both are children of prominent men within their respective communities.

Victor, born in March 1889 in Whitehaven, Cumberland, is the son of William Henry Preece, a seamen's missionary who heads the local Seamen's Institute. Within the next twelve years the family move down the length of the country when William is appointed to head the Institute in the Sussex town of Southwick. Here he establishes the family home at 'Cosy Nook', about half a mile along the coastal road from the Institute. Mildred, born in July 1891, is the daughter of James Williams, a well-known figure within their Abingdon community who runs a large butchers and owns farmland. They meet whilst Victor is undergoing teacher training at Culham College and marry on 5th May 1912 at Islington Register Office. Victor obtains a teaching post in Islington and they initially settle in the Lisson Grove area. By 29th September 1913 they have moved to 53 Princes Avenue and this is where their first child is born - a son who they name Victor William Leslie (known as Les). Two years later, on 1st June 1915, their daughter Joan Ellen is born. (Her life is tragically cut short, however, when she is only 18 years-old. Her death certificate reads that she dies on 18th November 1933 at the Princess Beatrice Hospital in South Kensington, London, from her injuries after being knocked down by a car. She had been training to become a nurse and had been working as a probationer nurse at St. Charles Hospital.)

Sadly, Victor's First World War service papers appear to be among those lost to Second World War bombing. However, from a Medal Rolls Index Card I know that he served with the Royal Garrison Artillery and the Royal Engineers. An entry in Record of Service in the Great War 1914-18 by members of the London County Council tells that he served as a sapper from 1916-19 spending 2 years and 3 months in France (London County Council, 1922). On his return from the war Victor settles back into family life and his teaching career and on 5th December 1919 my Granddad - Roy Frank - is born. He is born at 'Cosy Nook' in Southwick and is baptised the following month on 31st January at Kingston by Sea Church.

Roy at Cosy Nook, c1919; Victor & Roy at Cosy Nook, date unknown; Roy at Cosy Nook, date unknown
Within the next two years Victor and Mildred are back in London and set up home at 46 Petherton Road after Victor gains the Headmaster post at St. Judes C. of E. School. On 4th January 1922 Granddad, aged 2, gains a baby sister - Jean Mildred. Two years later on 14th March 1924 Leonard James (known as Jim) arrives and on the 1st September 1926 Barbara Doreen is born. Their father is lucky to be employed. At the start of 1924 'about 1.2 million people' are still without jobs' (Lee, 1999) - raising a family of six on an unsteady income would be very tough. As a child Jim asked his mother why she had as many as six children. 'She retorted "If I had known what you know, my boy, you would not be here." ' Just before Jean's wedding Jim 'met her in the house in a fit of laughter. When asked what was so funny, Jean replied "Mum has been telling me the facts of life - she learned a lot!" '

Joan, Les, Jim, Roy & Barbara, 46 Petherton Road, date unknown; Roy, Joan, Jean, Barbara & Jim, Southwick, 1931
Within a family of six children it seems natural that the siblings would pair up. Jim describes how:
'My main buddy was [my] sister Barbara ... Roy was far too old - a grown man of 15 or so when I was a kid of 10. So we did not have much in common. He regarded me as a bit of a nuisance though we became closer in later life. Roy tended to form an alliance with Jean whist Les [Victor Leslie] & Joan paired up.'
Jim also describes life at 46 Petherton Road:
46 Petherton Road, date unknown
'At Petherton Road, things were very primitive by today's standards. We had no electricity so the radios were run on accumulators which had to be taken to a shop up the road periodically, for recharging. ... Each member of the family had duties; the girls made the beds, emptied chamber pots etc Les fetched coal up from the basement to the living rooms whilst Roy cleaned shoes, black-leaded the range and so on. Being frail, I got off most of the chores though I do recall polishing the cutlery ... As well as no electricity, our home at the time had no hot water system. The kitchen/living room had a gas oven, sink and cold-water tap. Morning ablutions for the whole family took place there. There was a bathroom on a mezzanine floor but it had no wash basin, only a bath which had to be filled with hot water from a frightening, ancient geyser. The lavatory was down another flight of stairs to the floor below and it had no basin so personal hygiene was sketchy. When we were small, our weekly bath took place in a metal tub in the kitchen, in front of what they used to call the range, a coal fire with ovens on either side and a hob for boiling the cast iron kettle or pots.'
As a child Granddad attends Ecclesbourne Road Primary School and then succeeds in passing the entrance exam to Highbury County School, a local grammar school. However, 'soon after becoming a pupil there, the headmaster advised our dad that he was not academically minded and that he would do better at a technical school.' Subsequently Granddad attends the Day Technical School of the Hackney Technical Institute. From April 1934 to January 1937 he studies chemistry, electrical engineering, English, geometry, machine drawing, mathematics, mechanics, pattern making, physics and workshop practice. In 1937 he leaves, aged 18, with a third class from each year's exams. 'He became very adept at making things and I still use a pair of tin-snips that he forged. He went on to make radios.'

As Victor is a teacher the family are able to take long holidays during the summer months, often returning to the Preece family home in Southwick. Jim describes:
'Our Granddad, William Henry, was principal of The Christian Mission for Seamen so we spent a fair bit of time on the premises or in the grounds of the Seamens' Institute ... ... On one of our holidays at Southwick, Roy fell in the locks and was hauled out, unhurt, by workers. On a later occasion, in Highbury, he was knocked down by a motor vehicle but escaped serious injury though he had badly cut knees and had great scars across both knees for the rest of his life. At Southwick he taught me how to fish, off the pier, with a handline.'
After finishing school Granddad enters a world wary of the prospect of another war and proceeds to take his career into medical research - his skills in close-work were an ideal preparation. 'Britain began 1940 in a freezing northerly wind. For the first time in more than half a century the Thames froze, and for he first time since 1918 ration books, with their coupons, were kept by every household' (Lee, 1999). Despite the gloom, Granddad has found work that he enjoys and becomes very skilled in. In February he receives two glowing references relating to his work as a laboratory technician at University College, London. The first is from K.C. Richardson (Lecturer in Histology) certifying that Granddad has completed three years training as a senior technician in his laboratory:
Roy Preece at UCL, x-ray room 1937
'This is to certify that Mr. R.F. Preece was trained for three years in my laboratory in all aspects of the technique of Histology. He proved himself to be a very competent and reliable technician and was promoted to the personal technician to the Reader in Embryology last year.His training makes him very suitable for technical work in a Pathological or Hospital laboratory. In addition he has taken a course in Biology and has interests such as First Aid and Scouting, which, in my opinion, have contributed to his success as a technician.'
The second reference is by the Reader of Embryology, G.R. DeBeer (who, at the time of his writing, holds the position of Captain, General Staff, War Office):
'Mr R.F. Preece was senior technician in histology in the Institute of Anatomy and Embryology of University College, London, of which, at the outbreak of war, I was Head.He is thoroughly competent in all matters relating to the fixation, butting, staining and mounting of preparations for microscopical study for histological, neurological and pathological purposes. He is also fully conversant with the various routine duties and techniques involved in laboratory work, including the keeping of records.My personal knowledge of his abilities, as shown in my laboratory, encourages me in the hope that he may be able to join the medical section of the R.A.F., as a laboratory technician. He would in this way not only be in a position to use his exceptional qualifications in the service of the State, but also to 'keep his hand in' with this skilled and delicate work for when the war is over.'
Both of these men at University College were highly respected men. Professor Ruth Bellairs writes the following in her history of how the UCL Anatomy Department ran in 1947:
'Within the Anatomy department the third floor (the top floor at that time) was given over mainly to histology; At the south end the Reader in Histology, Mr Keith Richardson occupied the suite of rooms facing the Foster Court. He was a cherubic-looking bachelor in his fifties who published little but whose high technical standard was legendary. He was a strict disciplinarian in his teaching and no chattering or whispering by the students was ever permitted in his practical classes. ... ... The north end of the second floor was occupied by Professor GR de Beer, head of the sub-department of Embryology and the most senior member of staff apart from Professor JZ Young. He had served in the Grenadier Guards in both the first and second world wars ... during the inter-war period he had exerted a great influence in the subject. His monumental tome, 'The Development of the Vertebrate Skull' (1937, reprinted in 1985) remains the standard work on the subject. ... He was a highly cultured man ... and appeared a kindly man. He left UCL in 1950 to become Director of the Natural History Museum and was, in due course, knighted, becoming Sir Gavin.' (Bellairs, 2010)
I have contacted UCL asking whether they have any further information about Granddad's time there but, unfortunately, they have no remaining records relating to him. His brother Jim once asked how he would describe his occupation. 'He replied that Histologist probably best described him as he spent much time preparing and staining human tissue for microscope slides or for photographing for others to include in papers they were writing.'

Despite references from such prominent men Granddad's service during the Second World War was not as they had hoped. He did indeed join the R.A.F. but as an engineering in Bomber Command. Jim says that:
'He wanted to get into the medical side of the airforce ... I can remember him complaining about what had happened and me telling him that putting down a reference would cut no ice with the authorities and that he was lucky not to have been made a tail-end Charlie (rear gunner in a bomber). I am sure that he would have been proficient at what he did servicing aircraft though he was not enthusiastic about it and never rose in the ranks above corporal.'
Roy Preece, c1940
The following information is from Granddad's RAF service record. On 18th April 1940 Granddad enlists with the RAF. He is allocated the service number 993532 and is described as being 5 feet 9 3/4 inches tall with a 33 1/2 inch chest, dark hair, brown eyes and a fair complexion. (His physical description also mentions the scars from the accident in Highbury.) Granddad begins his service in Cheshire with basic training as an aircrafthand/flight mechanic for airframes with the 3RC Padgate Reserve Unit and continues in the role for the duration of his service. In July, he transfers to the 4 School of Technical Training. The School is based near Cardiff and still runs today as the RAF's General Engineering Training School. (The next entry in the record is for '5 BY G 8' in December 1940 for which I have been unable to establish a meaning.) About six months later, in February of 1941, Granddad transfers to the 7 School of Technical Training at Innsworth near Gloucester. Here, the school trains 'engine and airframe fitters and mechanics. Over 2000 officers and men were based at Innsworth by the time training began in earnest in 1941' (Forces War Records, 2013). He spends about two months here before being transferred again to No. 10 Operations Training Unit. the Unit is based in Abingdon and serves to train night time bomber aircrew of the No. 8 Group RAF Bomber Command (Minns, year unknown and Author unknown, 2013). It must be a worrying time for him. By the time of his enlistment Victor and Mildred have moved to 78 Woodfield Way. During the blitz from October 1940 - June 1941, whilst not heavily bombed, the Bomb Sight bomb census map shows a number of high explosive bombs landing within a half-mile radius of their house (Bomb Sight, 2013).
Bomb census map showing number of bombs falling during the Blitz with 78 Woodfield Way circled in orange
At the end of the year Granddad moves to 13 Maintenance Unit at RAF Henley and from there, in April of 1942, to No. 29 Operations Training Unit. 'No. 29 OTU was formed in April 1942 at RAD North Luffenham as part of No. 7 group RAF Bomber Command to train night time bomber crews using the Vickers Wellington' (Author unknown, 2013). Next in the service record is an entry for '1 S of J J (A)' which I have not been able to decipher but the following entry shows Granddad back with 29 OTU in March of 1943. This time, however, he has been promoted to the rank of corporal. 'between 24 May and 1 June 1943 the unit moved to Bruntingthorpe' (Royal Air Force Air of Authority Organisation, 2008) and I have a photographs of the servicing squadron, including Granddad, in front of one of the aircraft.
Servicing Squadron at RAF Bruntingthorpe, 1945: Roy Preece is back row, 7th from the left
This appears to be the longest post in which he serves and during his time here he is awarded a 1st class good conduct badge. In June 1945 he returns to No. 10 Operational Training Unit and in December moves to RAF Graveley. By this time the base was 'put on care and maintenance ... and no more RAF units were based there' (Bomber Command, 2004). Three months later he transfers for the final time to 100 Personnel Dispersal Centre at RAF Uxbridge where he is released from service. At the end of the war Granddad returns to laboratory work as a medical research worker. In later years he registers with the Medical Laboratory Technicians Register which enables him to use, if he wishes, the title of "State Registered Medical Laboratory Technician". I have contacted the Health & Care Professional Council (who now manages registration) but they are unable to provide any further information other than confirming that Granddad does appear within their records. On the 13th April 1947 my grandparents marry - 27 year-old Roy to 26 year-old Barbara Anne Forney - at St Michael's Church in Wood Green. Grandma is living at 3 Station Road working as a secretary. She is the daughter of Frank Herbert Philip Forney, an insurance broker and was a school friend of Roy's sister Jean.
Roy & Barbara Preece, 13th April 1947

The following year, on the 18th April 1948, David Stuart, my Dad, is born. He is born at home in 3 Merlin Court, Pellatt Grove in Wood Green. Before the birth of their second child, Christopher on the 9th August 1958, they move to 55 Goring Road. It would have been a very exciting time to be living in London. They would have witnessed the Olympics being held in London in 1948, the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951 and the crowning of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 (Lee, 1999).
Roy & David, Cleethorpes, 1950; Roy & David, date unknown
Having spoken to Dad I know that Granddad went on to work for the Medical Research Council at Mill Hill and later moved to the London School of Tropical Medicine where he worked until retirement. I am currently contacting both the Medical Research Council and the London Schools of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine to see if they can offer any further details.
'At one time he had hopes of entertaining the medical profession but being in the forces for 6 or 7 years and getting marries and having a family to support put paid to that. I don't think he could have made the grades as a medical doctor, however, as he was no academic' [Uncle Jim]
In the first of Granddad's two references, K.C. Richardson refers to his interest in Scouting. Granddad carries this interest throughout his life. From May to September 1939 he had been Assistant Cub Scout Leader of the 23rd North London Group. After the war, from February 1959 to February 1970, he holds the position of Assistant Cub Scout Leader for the relatively new 1st Southgate Group after which he is appointed Cub Scout Leader. He retains this position until May 1984 during which time he receives a Long Service Award in 197 and a Medal of Merit in 1980. Grandma also becomes involved with the Scouts and is an Instructor in the 1st Southgate Cub Scout Pack from the 8th April 1970 to the 9th May 1984. Dad too is involved and becomes Assistant Venture Scout Leader from 1979 until 1984.
1st Southgate Group, 1975: Roy & Barbara may be in the 3rd row from the bottom, 4th & 5th from the left
My grandparents remain living in Goring Road until the end of the 1990s when they move to private accommodation within a nursing home near my parents in Stowmarket. Granddad dies aged 82 of heart failure (brought about by heart disease) on the 16th June at Chilton Meadows, Onehouse in Suffolk. Grandma survives him by four and a half years. She dies on the 15th January 2006. They leave behind two sons and 5 grandchildren.

Les, Jean, Jim, Barbara & Roy, date unknown
Granddad's eldest sibling Les becomes a police constable and marries age 24 on 30th October 1937. He is living at 14-17 Tavistock Square in Enfield, Middlesex. His bride in 28 year-old Ida Emma Hudson. She is a clerk living at 6 Pear Tree Road, the daughter of accountant Arthur Weekly Hudson and Emma/Emily nee Perkins. Les and Ida have two children - Michael and Marion. On his death certificate in 1995 Les is described as a "Local Government Officer (retired)". Jean marries John Francis Ward and they have two children, Patricia and Barry. I never met either Les or Jean. Jim marries Elizabeth Wood on 25th September 1948. Unfortunately things do not work out well and in 1965 the divorce. However he later marries Phyllis Mary Pollett (known as Mary) and they have two children - Andrew and Lucy. Their youngest sister Barbara marries Albert Ambridge on 8th September 1951. Aged 25 she has completed training to become a state registered nurse. They have three children, Lesley, Frances and Gillian.
'He had a very healthy appetite though always remained as thin as a beanpole ... ... his favourite occupation was sitting in an armchair listening to classical music, preferably with a cushion wrapped round his head and his eyes closed. He was a great reader too ...' [Uncle Jim]
I remember my Granddad as a quiet man who, when we visited them at Goring Road, could be found either in the garden smoking his pipe, or sitting in his favourite armchair in the living room. As a young child and teenage I was never very interested in learning about my grandparents' past. Now, though, I feel proud to be researching and remembering his achievements.
Roy Preece, 2005

Author unknown (2013) List of Royal Air Force operational training units. Available at: (Accessed: 13 June 2013).

Bellairs, R. (2010) UCL anatomy department - 60 years ago. Available at: (Accessed: 18 June 2013).

Bomb Sight (2013) Map. Available at: version 1.0 9 (Accessed: 12 June 2013).

Bomber Command (2004) Graveley. Available at: (Accessed: 13 June 2013).

Forces War Records (2013) Unit history: RAF Innsworth. Available at: (Accessed: 12 June 2013).

Lee, C. (1999) This sceptred isle: twentieth century. London: Penguin Books.

London County Council (1922) Record of service in the great war 1914-18 by members of the London County Council. London: London County Council [Online]. Ancestry (2013). Available at@ (Accessed: 18 June 2013).

Minns, P. (year unknown) History. Available at: (Accessed: 13 June 2013)

Royal Air Force Air of Authority Organisation (2008) Operational training units. Available at: (Accessed: 13 June 2013).

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