FIRST PERSON: Newport toastmaster Harry Polloway tells of red-coat roll of fame
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: Harry Poloway, toastmaster for more than sixty years, looks back on his extraordinary life
War veteran, electrical engineer and toastmaster to the world’s rich and famous for more than 60 years, Newport’s 96-year-old Harry Poloway has had quite a life. He talked to NATALIE CROCKETT.
ONE day I went to my father, who was a tailor, and said ‘Dad, I want a red coat’.
He said ‘What do you want a red coat for? Are you going hunting?’ I said ‘No, I’m going to be a toastmaster’.
He didn’t know what it was but he made me my red coat, and there I was – a toastmaster.
Well, soon I got one or two functions and I seemed to be popular. I could do a bit of dancing and did a bit of acting so, between that and my day job as an engineer with the electricity board, where I worked until 1975 for 42 years, it was quite a hectic life.
One particular night I was doing a function at the Westgate Hotel, Newport, and all the lights went out. We had a sub station in Friars Walk and the breakers had tripped out. I said ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it back on.’ So I went down in my red coat and put the supply on before the dance started.
From there my career grew and grew and I did quite a bit in Cardiff, Bristol, and the Valleys.
I had a call one day and it was the Lord Mayor of Cardiff’s secretary asking could I come and do a function. She said ‘we have seen your work and you are very good’. And that was it, I was the Lord Mayor’s toastmaster for 60 years.
I was there when Cardiff, Swansea, St David’s and Newport were made cities.
But the Royal functions were some of the best. The Queen was wonderful – and Prince Charles.
When I see him he always says ‘hello, Harry’.
At one garden party at Buckingham Palace he said ‘What are you doing here?’ I said ‘I have come to see if you are OK for tomorrow, sir.’ He said ‘Why, what am I doing tomorrow?’ I told him ‘You’re in Newport.’ He said ‘Oh, am I? I didn’t know.’ He always pulled my leg about that.
When I received my MBE from the Queen in 2005 she said to me ‘We dodged the snow and wind in Cardiff last night, didn’t we?’ because I was working next to her the day before – she’s a charming lady.
Years later the Queen came to Newport to make us a city in 2002 and we had a banquet in Newport Centre to celebrate.
When you go to Royal functions the Queen is usually on time but this time they were about 20 minutes late. The Archbishop was there and lots of ambassadors and the organisers were saying ‘what can we do?’ So I tapped a table and announced: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have just had a message from the Queen. They landed safe in the helicopter and they were coming along the A48 and as they passed through they saw Jack’s Café and wanted to stop for a coffee.’ Well, it made them all laugh.
I also worked on the Royal Yacht Britannia in Milford Haven with Prince Charles.
That was one of my greatest experiences, and also when I had a call to attend a state visit to America with the Royal family.
A man called and said ‘Mr Poloway, we have got a job for you.’ I said ‘Yes, good, what is it?’ And the man said ‘It’s in Washington.’ I told him that was good because my daughter lives near there so wouldn’t even have to pay for my accommodation.
I was thinking of the Washington near Manchester, where she lives, but he said ‘No, no – in America’.
I was already booked down for a job with the Licensed Victuallers so I rang the president and told him I had the chance of a lifetime to go to America with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
He came back five minutes later and said they would let me go. I was away for nearly a week.
There were a couple of presentations and a big do at the Congress Library.
While I was rehearsing on the first day, the chief of protocol said ‘Where do you want to sit?
On the right or the left of the Queen? I said no, I wasn’t there as a guest – I was working.
I stayed at the Watergate Hotel, which was huge and I met all the stars there, for instance the actor Richard Attenborough.
I’ve met a lot of the big names over the years: the Dalai Lama, Princess Diana, Harry Secombe, the Queen Mother, Margaret Thatcher.
James Callaghan once wrote me a letter when he was Prime Minister thanking me for working at his first official engagement.
I loved doing it, I just love meeting people and making people happy. As long as they were happy I was happy.
I miss it but I am not crying over it. I know that other people have got to take over, I have had a lot of fun over the years.
I love Newport and I would never leave. I was born in 1915 in St Vincent Road near my favourite rugby ground, Rodney Parade. I went to Maindee Primary School, Church Road Junior School, Belle View Central School, then Newport Technical College, where I did electrical exams and joined the electricity board.
At the outbreak of the Second World War I was one of the first people on the scene at an air raid in which the petrol depot in Eastern Dry Dock was bombed and I was responsible for under ground mains for Newport.
Later I joined the RAF Voluntary Reserve and served all over the world, starting in Cape Roth in Scotland, where I looked after the power station, and later on to Egypt, South Africa and Italy.
I did my bit and went back to the electricity board, where I stayed until I retired aged 58.
I helped during the building of Uskmouth Power Station and Rogerstone Power Station.
I did the opening of Maindee Baths, I was also there on its 50th birthday and when they closed it.
That’s why I love talking to children in schools – to give them the first-hand account. Then it’s not second-hand knowledge. I still do that from time to time and still help the Mayor of Newport out with the charities from time to time. I have always done charity work, I am Commander of the Order of St John, and an honorary barker of the children’s charity Variety Club of Great Britain.
I don’t regret anything in life but I miss my wife. We were married nearly 70 years and never had a disagreement.
Vicki was 92 when she passed away. We met while I was in Blackpool, at a party, and I took her out to my first dance in the Tower Ballroom.
We have two children, Linda and Michael, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
I do less now because of my age. Former England cricketer Tony Lewis would always joke that conservation charity Cadw was going to take me over because I’m so old.
Now I sit in the evenings and relish my latter years, doing whatever I can for my beloved city, Mayor and council who have done so much for me.
Also the Rotary Club of Newport, St Woolos branch, who made me their first honorary member – it has given me a new lease of life.
So may I just say thank you to the South Wales Argus, the Mayor and council of Newport and may this city continue to go from strength to strength.