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Claire Lawrence

Former British Ambassador to Lithuania

Part of UK in Lithuania

31st January 2018 Vilnius, Lithuania

Lithuanian centenary – the people who built our friendship – Sir Thomas Preston

2018 sees the centenary of Lithuania’s modern statehood. Congratulations Lithuania!

I wanted to blog this year, then, about some of the many people who have contributed to a close relationship between our countries over the past 100 years. (Although I may go further back in time than that, given Lithuania’s longer history).

My first choice is Sir Thomas Hildebrand Preston. He was the British representative in Kaunas in the 1930s (as the interwar capital – called Kovno by the UK Foreign Office at the time). As my predecessor, his portrait hangs outside my office alongside the more recent Ambassadors. He was the sixth British Consul in Kaunas, and the representative who stayed the longest. He seems a bit of a polymath, composing a ballet – The Dwarf Grenadier – during his time in Lithuania; it was first performed at the State Theatre in Kaunas.

Thomas Hildebrand Preston, the British representative in Kaunas
Thomas Hildebrand Preston, the British representative in Kaunas

Thomas Preston had an interesting career before arriving in Kaunas. He was posted as Consul to Ekaterinburg at the time of the murder of the Romanov family in July 1918. He held a number of other roles in the Soviet Union before moving to Kaunas in 1929.

He also served in Lithuania during a critical time in the nation’s history. His was the advice which went to London on what was happening politically, economically and socially in Lithuania at that time. His report to London from late 1940 on the Soviet occupation of the Baltic States makes fascinating reading, even today.

In September 1940 he left Lithuania, travelling via Moscow to Odessa. As well as the political impressions, there is plenty of local flavour in his report: ‘The Lithuanian train, (our last trip on a civilised train until we reached Turkey) in which we travelled as far as Vilna, was on time; and an excellent lunch, at a moderate price, was served in the Restaurant car.’

There is another reason to recall Thomas Preston’s contribution to Lithuania. Last week, the UK honoured him with a Heroes of the Holocaust award. In 1940, in Kaunas, Thomas Preston issued 800 legal travel certificates (and at least 400 illegal ones) to enable Jews to travel to Palestine in 1940. Hundreds of Jews were able to flee.

Of course the British Consulate in Kaunas then shut. We reopened our diplomatic premises in Vilnius in 1991. This year, to celebrate the Centenary, we want to restore the plaque on the building which served as our Consulate in Kaunas until 1940. I hope we can remember all those British diplomats posted here in the first half of the 20th Century, and the work they did to support Lithuania and Lithuanians.

8 comments on “Lithuanian centenary – the people who built our friendship – Sir Thomas Preston

  1. Thank you Claire for this article. I am currently working on my parents archive– Polish Lithuanians who lived in Vilnius until 1946. Your information helped me to identify my mom’s identification papers (as a citizen of Poland in Exile) signed by Thomas Preston on August 16, 1940 in Kaunus– just before the legation was asked to leave on August 25th. Knowing that he helped Holocaust victims makes his help to my mother in establishing her identity that much more alive. I have looked at this paper for years but cannot read Polish, so you have helped me immeasurably. You have made a great contribution in advancing Lithuanian history during the celebration of its Centennial.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I’m so pleased we’ve been able to help you with your family history and to hear of the personal link.

      1. I just came across this entry which I was absolutely thrilled to read. Sir Thomas Preston was my grandfather. My mother (now in her late 90s) remembers growing up in the legation in Kaunas in the late 1930s. We are immensly proud of all the good that he did.

        1. How nice to make a link with his family! The whole team here is delighted to hear this, and that your mother remembers Kaunas.

        2. Hello: I was thrilled to see your messsage. I am a retired atty and historian living in Decatur, Illinois, USA. I have going thru publication by Abbott Press in Chicago a book detailing details of the Ipatiev house murders. Consequentially I am very interested in your grandfather. I have his book and a number of articles re him. Would you be kind enough to answer this. I might be able to give you some information you would like and I greatly like to ask you some things about Sir Thomas and Lady Preston and her sister. Thank you very much. T G Bolen, 99 Montgomery Place, Decatur, Ill, usa. tel 217 429 1949.

  2. I would be grateful if you could at some time make mention of the efforts of the Royal Navy, under the direction of Admiral Walter Cowan in 1919 .

    Many thanks

    1. We will certainly look at the role of the British military in support to Lithuania over the past 100 years. My understanding is that Rear Admiral Walter Cowan had a remit in 1919 to support the Armistice Agreement by keeping the sea lanes open for the Allies and providing support for the nationalist governments of Estonia and Latvia. So the British naval support to Lithuania was less than to her fellow Baltic states to teh north. But the Admiral’s work and that of the Royal Navy was very important for the region.

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About Claire Lawrence

Ms Claire Lawrence was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania in June 2015. Ms Lawrence joined the FCO in 2000, working on European issues. She has worked…

Ms Claire Lawrence was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Lithuania in June 2015.

Ms Lawrence joined the FCO in 2000, working on European issues. She has worked on various international issues since, including a posting to the UK Representation to the EU. She has most recently served as Deputy Western Balkans Director.