J.A. Llewellyn Peniston (1945-2020)
Ambitious, eloquent and driven — the late J.A. Llewellyn Peniston was remembered yesterday as a power broker who rose from a humble background.
“Llew” Peniston, who died last weekend at 74, was a man who gained much, and lost equally in the process.
Mr Peniston, who set up his own business before he qualified as a lawyer, struggled with bankruptcy and was disbarred from the legal profession in 2012 after years of legal tribulations.
A forceful senator for the then ruling United Bermuda Party, Mr Peniston was made to quit the Upper House in 1987 after an incident with a rival politician blew up in his face.
Friends and colleagues said he was a tenacious character who shrugged off his losses and cared little about what others said about him.
Sir John Swan, who took office as Premier in 1982 when Mr Peniston was a senator for the UBP, said he was “an intelligent young man, a wordsmith, a lover of words”.
Appointed to the Senate in 1980 by Sir David Gibbons, Sir John’s predecessor, Mr Peniston was then a junior member of staff at the shipping and travel firm John S. Darrell, but climbed the company’s ranks to become a partner.
Sir John said he was “very eloquent in the Senate — he used his grassroots skills”.
He added Mr Peniston was also “an adventurous thinker who lived in an interesting era”.
Living through the social unrest culminating in the 1977 riots, followed by the industrial action of 1981 that dealt a major blow to Bermuda tourism, Mr Peniston spotted an opportunity in the burgeoning cruise ship industry, and went out on his own to pursue it with his own travel agency and shipping line business in 1986.
Mr Peniston, with Walter Sharpe — who died in January — as running mate, tried without success to unseat UBP incumbent Harry Viera and transport minister Ralph Marshall in a UBP primary in 1985 for Southampton West under the old two-seat constituency system.
His Senate career ended after he tried to pressure the late David Allen, a Progressive Labour Party Opposition senator and the shadow tourism minister, who criticised the Government’s cruise ship policy during a Budget debate.
It later emerged that Mr Peniston passed Mr Allen a note that threatened to pull advertising from Mr Allen’s magazine in retaliation.
Mr Allen showed the note to the late Freddie Wade, then the Leader of the Opposition, who passed it on to Sir John and Mr Peniston’s Senate career came to a swift end.
Mr Peniston, in typical fashion, was unrepentant.
Sir John said that, in private, Mr Peniston was “disappointed that things never quite went how he wanted them to go”.
He was a strong campaigner for gambling on the island and Sir John said he had agreed with Mr Peniston’s position.
He added: “If Bermuda had followed the ideas that were out there, we would have been in a much better place.”
Mr Peniston built a large home in Southampton during his first marriage, which he would ultimately lose in his bankruptcy struggles through the 1990s.
Mr Peniston reinvented himself as a lawyer after he attended the University of Buckingham’s law school in Britain in 1994.
Maxwell Burgess, a friend and former UBP MP, said that “to describe Llew as powerful could be the understatement of this new decade”.
“Llew was instrumental when I came into politics in the early 1980s.”
He said the late Quinton Edness, the minister in charge of housing, appointed Mr Peniston to the housing corporation during a crisis in housing on the island.
Mr Burgess added: “Llew had political gravitas that was second to none. He struck the right balance — he managed that ship and managed it well.”
Mr Burgess said his friend cut crucial deals for Bermuda in the cruise industry that were the envy of rival jurisdictions.
He added: “One of his slogans was ‘I’m not interested in what you call me — I’m only interested in what I answer to’.”
Sources told The Royal Gazette that in later years, Mr Peniston lent his influence to the failed bid for the redevelopment of the Hamilton waterfront by Michael MacLean.
Few of the details emerged, but Supreme Court documents made public in 2015 showed Mr Peniston’s involvement in the controversial deal, which never went ahead.
Wayne Furbert, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who was earlier a UBP MP and minister, said he had first met Mr Peniston in the political sphere and later discovered they were cousins.
Mr Furbert said: “Llew was a commander of the English language. In the Senate, you could rely on Llew to respond to the Opposition. He was a brilliant orator.”
He added Mr Peniston “always had his mind on politics” even after he left the arena.
Mr Furbert said he often met Mr Peniston for coffee and valued his advice.
He added: “He supported the PLP in the 2017 election. He always gave advice on what he felt we should do. He will always be remembered for his brilliant ability with words.”
Clement Talbot, a philanthropist and banker as well as a close friend, said he got to know Mr Peniston when he helped renovate his home at Cedar Hill in Warwick.
Mr Peniston, who had skills as a mason, worked on the house.
The two became golfing buddies and Mr Talbot said Mr Peniston was “extremely competitive”.
Mr Peniston sometimes sliced the ball into the undergrowth and Mr Talbot said he soon learnt to accompany his friend when he went searching for the ball. He said: “He would always find the ball. I started to follow him, saying I was helping him find it. After that I was beating him on a regular basis.”
Mr Talbot said his friend “knew everyone” and could always “streamline and assist” by connecting his banking clients with the right people to cut through paperwork.
He added: “He was very outgoing, extremely ambitious. As a black person from a humble background, he was most successful.
“There were still a lot of barriers in those days.”
Mr Talbot said a high point of his friend’s career had been the construction of his catamaran, the MV Longtail, a 65-foot vessel known for extravagant parties, which Mr Peniston had to part with as his bankruptcy case continued. But in 1994, at a low point, Mr Peniston was threatened with six months behind bars for perjury during his bankruptcy hearing.
Mr Peniston married four times, with Shelley Bascome, a former Miss Bermuda, his second spouse.
He is survived by his widow, Ave Maria De’ Agrella-Peniston, and two sons, Llewellyn Jr and Alex.
James Arnett Llewellyn Peniston, lawyer, politician, businessman, was born on July 4, 1945. He died on May 10, 2020 after a short illness, aged 74
UPDATE: This story has been amended to reflect that Mr Peniston’s house in Southampton was built with his first wife, Orreta Peniston, and not acquired during his second marriage.
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