Postal service obsessive was a first class male…

The “Man who Posted Himself” was a notorious eccentric from Forest Hill, Lewisham, who was also a pioneer in the niche hobby of autograph hunting. Our regular historian JAN BONDESON, ever on the trail of a good yarn, tells his story.

A few weeks ago, I purchased a heraldic postcard addressed to The Mayor of Edinburgh in March 1905, by the notorious autograph hunter W. Reginald Bray, of 135 Devonshire Road, Forest Hill.

Although there was no Mayor of Edinburgh, there was a Lord Provost, who fills a similar function.

The bonhomous Lord Provost, Sir Robert Cranston, signed the card on the front and returned it to Bray, who put it in his huge collection of autographed postcards.

Brigadier Sir Robert Cranston had a distinguished military career, largely spent in the Volunteer Force, and was a popular Lord Provost from 1903 to 1906.

He died in his house at 19 Merchiston Avenue [it still stands] in October 1923 and is buried in the Grange Cemetery.

Willie Reginald Bray was born in April 1879, the son of the solicitor’s clerk Edmund Henry Bray, of Forest Hill in Kent.

In 1898, He amassed stamps, postmarks, train tickets, and girlfriends, and tried posting an unimaginable array of things, to see whether the post office would deliver them.

Apparently, at the time, the smallest item that could be posted was a bee, and the largest an elephant.

So this eccentric youngster developed a mania with posting curious postcards, and indeed other objects, through the Royal Mail, to have them delivered back to himself.

He stamped and sent some onions, a bicycle pump, a frying pan and an Irish Terrier.

A Churchman’s cigarette card of W.R. Bray

A rabbit skull had the address spelled out on the nasal bone, and the stamps pasted to the back. He also sent out a purse, a slipper, a clothes brush, seaweed, shirt collars, a penny and a turnip – with the address and a message carved into it.

Bray even posted himself through the Royal Mail, being delivered back to Forest Hill without any drama.

He sometimes addressed his postcards in rhyme, sometimes in mirror writing – they were duly delivered – cards addressed to Santa Claus Esq. or to Any Resident of London was returned as being insufficiently addressed, nor did he get away with an attempt to send a postcard all around the world for just a penny postage.

W. Reginald Bray married Mabel Louisa Hargreaves in 1908 and had the daughter Phyllis Mabel, born in 1910.

He worked as an accountant and lived a contented suburban life in Lewisham.

With time, his obsession with the workings of the Royal Mail changed into a fanatical pursuit of autographs.

He sent thousands of postcards to famous or notorious people all over the world, asking for them to be autographed and then returned to him.

Major-Generals French and Lyttleton, both on active service against the Boers, found the time to sign and return his cards, but Winston Churchill and President Kruger, of Transvaal, both refused.

As the years went by, he added autographs of General Nogi of the Imperial Japanese Army, the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava who had served as Viceroy of India, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Laurence Olivier and Maurice Chevalier to his collection.

Using newspaper cuttings, he sometimes approached people of more humble rank, amassing autographs of stationmasters, hotel owners, lighthouse keepers and hermits.

From Germany, General Gerd von Rundstedt and Nazi official Franz Bracht both returned autographs, but Adolf Hitler sternly refused.

Although Bray wrote to him five times, the obdurate Führer refused to supply an autograph, having his Kanzlei writing back to the collector that such activities were beneath the dignity of Germany’s great dictator.

W. Reginald Bray kept on leading his quiet suburban life until the end, ending up in Croydon where he died from a myocardial infarction in 1939.

He had treasured his immense collection of autographs until the end; it has been estimated that he sent off 30,000 requests for autographs, of which half were responded to.

He had indeed been Britain’s unchallenged autograph king, as he styled himself in his later letters.

After his death, his collection was dispersed and many of the cards may well have been lost.

I had never heard of this obsessive collector until I spotted the card signed by the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, put up for sale for £4 on eBay.

I snapped it up without delay.

Main Pic: The postcard sent to the Mayor of Edinburgh

 

 


 

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