W Reginald Bray had a passion for testing the limits of the postal delivery services – and collecting autographs. Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, recalls the life of a Lewisham man who became known as the ‘human letter’
Aware that some of my recent posts have had something of a darker hue, I lighted on a most entertaining book by John Tingey* based on the life of a remarkable local eccentric who was noted not only for his prodigious collection of famous autographs, but his somewhat unorthodox passion for exploring novel ways of stretching the definition of normal postal delivery!
Willie Reginald Bray (often abbreviated to W.Reginald Bray) was born in 1879 in Stanstead Road, Forest Hill and attended nearby St Dunstan’s College, Catford.
He seemed to have enjoyed the full range of sporting activities normal for a middle-class boy growing up in nineteenth century London.
In 1898 he started work as an accountant – a profession noted for its ordered thinking and one which appears to have greatly aided his later deltiological endeavours.
He purchased a copy of the Post Office Guide – a quarterly publication which detailed costs and regulations – setting set in train a quite extraordinary quest of building the world’s largest autograph collection garnered entirely through the post!
Marriage to Mabel Hargreaves in 1908 and the birth of their daughter, Phyllis, did not seem to dim his impish enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries on ingenious methods of mail delivery both here and abroad.
After discovering that the smallest item one could post was a bee, and the largest, an elephant, he decided to experiment with sending ordinary and strange objects through the post unwrapped, including a turnip, a bowler hat, a bicycle pump, shirt cuffs, seaweed, a clothes brush, even a rabbit’s skull.
There are simply too many wonderfully quirky postcards available to view on line sent from his SE23 address to cite in this brief article. But one card posted locally was to a Mr Arnold of Crofton Park (which was deemed ‘not addressed’ by the Post Office).
This undelivered missive may give the reader a flavour of his versatile and inventive mind (see below).
Another time, this prolific collector and postal prankster, gave a new meaning to the phrase hand delivered when he opted to mail himself for the third time in 1932, a feat that earned him the moniker, ‘The Human Letter’.
At the time of his death aged 60 in Croydon in 1939, having explored to the nth degree so many myriad and curious ways of posting mail, he had also amassed a staggering collection of between 15,000 and 20,000 autographs (at the time the world’s largest collection).
During his time collecting he had sent out more than 36,000 autograph requests. Not everyone signed and sent back his requests. Among those who declined were members of the British Royal Family (who have a policy not to sign autographs) and one Adolf Hitler, who declined five times!
It appears that most of what was then the greatest collection of autographs in the world and other postal curios was sold off in the 1950’s by his daughter, Phyllis.
If readers have any unusually addressed fading postcards connected to this wonderfully eccentric local notable, I am sure that John Tingey would be greatly interested to hear from them .
W.Reginald Bray website : http://www.wrbray.org.uk/r
W.Reginald Bray’s parents Edmund Henry d.1925 and Mary Caroline d.1934 are buried in Ladywell cemetery.