Monday, 17 November 2008

W Reginald Bray, the autograph king

For more information, and examples of some of his cards, there is an excellent site on W Reginald Bray here

In 1899 a young man began sending postcards to people who had achieved some measure of success or notoriety. He asked them to sign the card, and return it to him. In time he accumulated several thousand cards, autographed by soldiers (for example, Lord Roberts, who had a house in Sydenham for a short time), politicians (Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson), sportsmen (including W G Grace, who lived in Lawrie Park Road), churchmen (he wrote to the Pope in Latin), actors, explorers (including Shackleton, who lived next to St Barts), scientists (John Logie Baird, who lived in Crescent Wood Road) and authors.

He also collected the signatures of many less well-known people: the first person to write while flying in an aeroplane, the policeman who stopped Churchill driving the wrong way up a one-way street and he wanted the entire population of Tristan da Cunha, although they didn't all sign. He claimed to be the owner of the largest collection of modern autographs in the world, and he proclaimed himself "The Autograph King".

He was, in reality, W Reginald Bray, born at 155 Stanstead Road (on the site of the present fire station) in 1879. Reggie (as he was called by his family), attended St Dunstan's College from 1889 to 1895. His family moved to 135 Devonshire Road in about 1899, and at this time Reggie began sending postcards and other postal curios.

Bray was a clerk in the City and each evening, on his return from work, he would write his cards, and post them. There was, and still is, a pillar-box almost directly outside his house in Devonshire Road. It is an octagonal "Penfold" (designed by the architect J W Penfold in 1866, with several variations). There are two Penfolds in Devonshire Road, both listed Grade II. The box outside Bray's house is of the fifth type, and is one of only eight surviving examples. One would like to think that the presence of such an unusual pillar-box outside his house provided the inspiration for Reggie's lifelong passion.

Between 1899 and 1939 Bray amassed a collection of over 15,000 autographs. He posted over 30,000 requests and, as he pointed out ruefully, half of those failed to respond, including George V, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. After several requests to Hitler he received a firm but polite refusal, stating that as the Fuhrer was already overburdened with work would Bray "refrain from further letters in this regard".

Many of Bray's cards were chosen to reflect the recipient's interests; the stationmaster of Forest Hill station signed a postcard of the station, MPs were asked to sign cards of the Palace of Westminster and I have a postcard of an advertisement for Nestlé's Milk, signed by Henri Nestlé.

During the 1930s Bray appeared on the radio programme "In Town Tonight", not because of his autograph collection but as "The Human Letter". Apparently, he posted himself. One imagines Reginald, wrapped in brown paper and stuffed into a mailbag, but the truth is simpler. He lived not far from the then newly opened Postmen's Office in Devonshire Road. I suspect he turned up there, perhaps with an address label and the correct postage, and was taken home by a postman. He also claimed to have posted, amongst other things, a turnip with the name, address and message carved on it!

Reginald seemed to enjoy challenging the postal service; his addresses were often inaccurate, sometimes misleading. One of his earliest postcards was addressed to "Daughter of the Postman who has walked 232,872 miles, Kirriemuir PO". It never reached its destination.

Between about 1909 and 1911 Reginald lived at 13 Queenswood Road, moving to Queens Garth, Taymount Rise in 1912. He lived at Queens Garth until 1938 when he moved to Croydon to be nearer to his family. He died in June 1939.

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