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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Ireland and Indian Armenians - Alexander Francis Preston is said to have been the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's famous Sherlock Holmes, Preston's Armenian Wife Saw It All.

As I watered the garden this evening in the fading warmth and pink hues to the sky something reminded me of Ireland. Perhaps it was the damp smell of the watered Irish peat, whatever it was it led me to think of another of my Armenian biographical stories that I have been meaning to tell. Ireland and Indian Armenians? How did I get there? How does this connection work?

This is how.

Alexander Francis Preston was born in Cavan, Ireland 23 May 1842 one of at least 9 children of the Reverend Decimus William Preston and Emily nee Armstrong. Alexander’s mother was a daughter of General Armstrong and his grandfather was a judge of appeal whilst his grandmother was daughter and co-heiress of the fifth Baron Carbery. 
Alexander Francis Preston was the inspiration of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.
See Daily Mail article in the main narrative.
He graduated B.A. and M.B. at Trinity College, Dublin, and he obtained his medical diploma at the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland. After that he was posted to the Netley Military Hospital near Southampton where he continued his medical education. He entered the Army medical Service in 1863 serving in India, Afghanistan and China.
Whilst in India he met and married Elizabeth Agabeg on the 14 September 1867 at St. Stephen’s Church Dum Dum. 
The marriage record of Alexander Preston
and Elizabeth Agabeg
They went on to have a least 7 children all but one was born in India. Elizabeth was one of nine children of Joseph and Salome Agabeg. Elizabeth’s wedding was attended by her sister Ripsima. Alexander was at the beginning of his medical military career starting in India as Staff Assistant Surgeon with the Royal Artillery.

The family tree showing the
children and grandchildren of
Alexander Francis Preston and
Elizabeth Agabeg.
Alexander and Elizabeth’s first child a son, was still-born on 18 November 1868 in Peshawar their second child a daughter named Frances Gertrude died 27 April 1870 aged only 5 months. One can only try to imagine the grief and agony Elizabeth must have endured during these first few years of marriage. Emily Daisy Preston was born 4 January 1871 at Sealkote, India, next came Eyre Evans Preston born 12 March 1872, then William John Phaelim Preston 11 July 1873, next was Frances Dorothea Stella born in 1875 in Ireland and the last known child Rosie born 1883 in Bombay.

By 1 March 1873 Alexander had been appointed Surgeon three years later on 28 April 1876 he became Surgeon-Major. By 1880 he was serving with the 66th Regiment in Afghanistan and was severely wounded at Maiwand when he was shot in the back. He saw the siege of Khandahar and was mentioned in dispatched. After Afghanistan he was promoted to Brigade-Surgeon on 28th April 1886, and on the 28th March 1892 he become Surgeon-Colonel, obtaining the highest ranking position of Surgeon-General on 6th July 1896. In 1901 he was appointed Honorary Physician to Queen Victoria and continued with this position after her death to King Edward. He retired from military service on the 23rd May 1902. He acted for a time as Deputy Director-General of the Army Medical Department, and his staff appointments included those of Principal Medical Officer in Belfast, China and Hong Kong, and Ireland (1896-1902). 

The Family

Having suffered such bitter loses with their first two babies, Alexander and Elizabeth went on to have the following children. 
Emily Daisy Preston 
 4 January 1871 – 26 December 1913 
Emily's marriage to the
dashing Commander
Charles Goodhart May
Although born in India, Emily Daisy Preston married the dashing Commander Charles Goodhart May of the Royal Navy in Portsea, near Portsmouth in Hampshire on the 17 March 1896. Reported in the local paper as a ‘fashionable wedding’, it was clearly an occasion tinged with sadness due to a family bereavement in the bridegroom’s family and, notable by his absence, the bride’s father. The bride’s mother Elizabeth wore ‘a handsome dress of grey silk trimmed with yellow shot brocade with bonnet to match’.
Emily’s marriage to Charles was short, only 15 years, he died on the 20 March 1911 at the Royal Naval Hospital in Great Yarmouth at the relatively young age of 56. Emily cuts a forlorn entry in the 1911 census at the family home at ‘Rosedene’ Claremont Avenue Surrey, ‘a widow, aged 40, no children and two servants’.

Eyre Evans Preston O.B.E. 
12 March 1872 – 1 December 1937
Eyre Preston, married Amy Catherine Bennett on the 7 April 1896 in Bangalore, India making it almost impossible for the Preston family to be in attendance as his sister Emily had married in Portsmouth just a few weeks earlier. 
Eyre served with The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and was quickly promoted to Lieutenant on 24 July 1891. On the 16 May 1893 he was made a Second Lieutenant. Rising through the ranks as the years went on, he was promoted on the 25 July 1917 from Major to Lieutenant-Colonel of the 19th Punjabis Supply and Transport corp. On the 11 June 1920 he was awarded the Most Excellent order of the British Empire O.B.E. returning to India in October of that year. He died on 1 December 1937 at the Grange Lodge Hotel in St. Peter Port Guernsey. His estate was probated on 10 June 1938 “Admin with will limited London 10 June to Patrick Guy Carbery Preston Capt HM Army attorney of John Carbery Preston Maj.HM Army. Effects £1273-4s-9d.”
Their first child, John Carbery Preston was born 1 February 1898 in Guernsey in the Channel Islands, a place where many of the Prestons went to live later in their lives. Continuing with the high achieving military theme John was honoured with the Most Excellent Order M.E.O. on 17th June 1921 at just aged 23. His military career dominated his life and it wasn’t until he was in his late 30’s that he contemplated settling down. However, it appears all did not go smoothly. His engagement to Elisabeth Brind was announced in The Times on 15 March 1935 but it appears that marriage did not take place as no records can be found confirming it happened. A marriage did take place on the 15 July 1944 to Mrs. Mary Watson Lovegrove nee Smyth (correction supplied by grandson Nick Preston 13 May 2016, I had previously written Mary Watson Smith nee Lovegrove) . Whether there were any children is unclear.

The second son of Eyre and Amy was Patrick Guy Carbery Preston born 4 November 1902 in Peshawar India. He also took up the family military baton and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order D.S.O. on the 26th April 1945 aged 42. In August of that year, he saw combat in Greece and was awarded the Commander of the order of King George I. 


William John Phaelim Preston D.S.O., O.B.E. 
11 July 1873 – 18 January 1943
Yet another high achieving son of Alexander and Elizabeth nee Agabeg, William John Phaelim Preston’s entry in Who’s Who cannot fail to impress. “PRESTON, Lt-Col William John Phaelim DSO 1916; OBE 1919 Born 11 June 1873; s of late Surg.-Gen. A. F. Preston, KHP, AMS of Co. Meath; m 1912, Ina, e surv. d of late Rt Hon. Sir Christopher Nixon, 1st Bt, PC, MD, Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland; one s ; died 18 Jan. 1943 late 97th Deccan Infantry, Indian Army Education St Helen’s College, Southsea; RMC, Sandhurst Career Gazetted to 2nd Batt. Middlesex Regt 1892; Kalat Expedition, 1893; joined Indian Army, 1896; served European War in Mesopotamia in temporary and full command of the 97th Deccan Infantry (severely wounded, despatches, DSO); Afghanistan and Indian Frontier, 1919; with Baluchistan Field Force; retired from the Service, 1922 Recreations Music, tennis, golf Club Roehampton Address C/o Lloyds Bank, King’s Branch, 6 Pall Mall, SW1.”
He married Mary Christina Nixon on the 17th August 1912 at St. James’s Church London. Within a couple of years of their marriage they were based in Calcutta where he served with the 97th Infantry Indian Army being decorated in 1916 with the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.) and in 1919 with the Most Excellent Order OB.E. it is impossible to say if he ever met up with his large Armenian family there. Upon his return from India he retired to Ireland where he died in 1943.
Frances Dorothea Stella Preston 
1875 – 27 November 1891
The next child of Alexander and Elizabeth nee Agabeg was Frances Preston. Born in Ireland it is safe to say that Elizabeth experienced many differences in life as the wife of an army officer. One can only try to imagine what she thought as she travelled between India and Ireland. During Alexander’s colourful career he was briefly stationed in Hong Kong and it would have been almost impossible for him NOT to have run into Sir Catchick Paul Chater who was an unofficial key member of the government in many areas. Alexander’s wife Elizabeth would have welcomed the opportunity to mix with and reacquaint herself with the Armenians from Calcutta, some of whom she would have been related to. However, their stay in Hong Kong has to have been yet another bitter-sweet moment for them as their beloved daughter Frances died at the tender age of 19 from inflammation of the lungs. Elizabeth no doubt would have been comforted by the other Calcutta Armenians in Hong Kong and their natural hospitality would have extended to her during this tragic and difficult period. Frances’s grave can still be seen in the Hong Kong cemetery today.
Alexander died in 1907 in Kensington his full obituary could of course, be nothing but glowing.

“Many readers will have seen with great regret the announcement of the death of Surgeon General Alexander Francis Preston, who was well known both at. Montreux and on the Riviera. He was only in this 65th year but he had seen much service.
He was a son of the late Rev. D.W. Preston, Rector of Killinkere and Rural Dean, his mother being a daughter of General Armstrong, RA. His grandfather was a judge of appeal, and his grandmother was daughter and co-heiress of the fifth Baron Carbery. Having graduated B.A. and M.B. at Trinity College, Dublin, he entered the Army Medical Service in 1863. He served in India, Afghanistan and China; was in medical charge of the 66th Regiment in Afghanistan in 1880, and was severely wounded in two places at Maiwant. He was all through the siege of Khandahar, being mentioned in dispatches and promoted to Lieutenant-colonel. His commissions were thus date: Assistant-Surgeon, September 30th 1863; Surgeon March 1st 1873; Surgeon-Major April 28th 1876, Brigade-Surgeon November 30th 1886; Surgeon-Colonel March 28th 1892; surgeon General July 6th 1896. He retired from the service, may 23rd 1902. In 1901 he was appointed Honorary Physician to Queen Victoria, the appointment being continued by King Edward. He acted for a time Deputy Director-General of the Army Medical Department, and his staff appointments included those of P.M.O. Belfast, China and Hong Kong, and Ireland (1896-1902). He held a distinguished Service Pension of £100 a year. His great abilities were hidden by his geniality. He was a zealous whist and bridge player and found of golf, travel and sport, being well known at Ranelagh and the Royal Irish Yacht Club.”

Alexander’s estate was surprisingly modest at £6274-0s-3d with probate being granted to Elizabeth and their son William John Phaelim Preston who was a Captain in the Indian Army.
Hotel Bristol in Mentone
Where Elizabeth died
Meanwhile, Elizabeth is still in London she can be found on the 1911 census at the Bailey’s Hotel Kensington. She is listed as widowed having had 6 children in total but with only 3 still living. By 1912 she was living at 38 Park Mansions Kensington when the engagement of her son William to Christina Nixon was announced. However, she did not stay in the UK for long but migrated to France where she died on the 30 October 1919 at the Hotel Bristol, in Mentone. She left a modest estate of £1333-5s-4d probate being granted to her son William Preston Lieutenant-Colonel of H.M. Indian Army. 
She was born in Calcutta and buried in France and inbetween had THE MOST extraordinary life as the wife of a high achieving army officer.
Both her sons Eyre Preston and William Preston were awarded O.B.E.s with William also gaining a D.S.O.
Eyre’s two sons (Elizabeth’s grandchildren) John Preston and Patrick Preston followed in the family military achievements, John gaining the M.E.O. whilst Patrick was also awarded the prestigious D.S.O.
It is very unlikely that Elizabeth’s Armenian Agabeg family of Calcutta had any idea of the mettle and accomplishments of her children and it is very unlikely that they were in touch regularly with their Indian Armenian cousins.
Alexander Francis Preston is said to have been the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's famous side-kick Dr. Watson. Read the article by the Daily Mail on this link.
Crucially, Patrick Mercer the author of "Red Runs The Helmand" failed significantly in establishing whether Alexander Preston married and had a family, in the article he says: 

"Unlike Watson, who became a civilian, Preston rejoined the army and served in Hong Kong, China and Ireland, rising to Surgeon General. He retired in 1902 and became Edward VII’s honorary physician. It seems he never married and he died in 1909, aged 64."

Patrick Mercer should have checked with me :)

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating article, thank you. A colleague and I both army medical officers who served in Afghanistan wrote an article comparing Preston and Watson's experiences at Maiwand and speculating on whether Doyle and Preston may have met. I could e mail you pdf copy if you are interested. Are you in contact with any living descendants of Alexander F Preston?
    Matthew Roberts