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Sir Walter Gray (1847–1918)

Mayor of Oxford 1888/9, 1893/4, 1897/8, and 1901/2


Walter Gray

Walter Gray was described as “the Father of English Conservatism”.

He was born at Weston, Hertfordshire in 1847 and baptised there on 21 March. His father was Thomas Gray, a farmer’s son from Litlington in Cambridgeshire who had run off with his sweetheart Ann and settled in Weston, where he initially got a job as a hurdle-maker.

Walter Gray grew up in Hertfordshire and was educated at Stevenage Grammar School.

At the time of the 1851 census Walter (4) was living in Wallington, Hertfordshire with his father Thomas (36), who was now a carpenter, his mother Ann (27), and his sister Mary Elizabeth Gray (5) and brother Thomas William Gray  (2).

Walter's father Thomas Gray died in Wallington near the beginning of 1856.

In the third quarter of 1857 in Cambridge, Walter's mother Ann Gray married her second husband, Albert Grundrill.

At the time of the 1861 census Walter (14) was a solicitor's clerk, living in the High Street, Weston with his mother Ann (36) and his stepfather William Grundrill (37), who was a tailor. Also at home were Walter's full brother (Thomas) William (12), and his stepbrother or half-brother Albert Grundrill (4)

Walter's first job was in a solicitor’s office in Baldock; but when the solicitor went bankrupt, he joined his younger brother (Thomas) William in working for the Great Western Railway. His first job was as a porter at Chalk Farm, where he and two other porters shared the same bed in three shifts.

Walter Gray progressed to be a railway ticket-collector; and then at the age of 22 became stationmaster at Waddington in Lincolnshire.

Colonel John Shaw-Stewart, a member of the council of Keble College in Oxford (whose foundation stone had been laid in 1868) frequently used this station and so came to know Gray. He thought that he would make an excellent Steward for the college, and in 1870 Gray started work there: he was given a free cottage in Oxford and a salary of £50 a year. He was successful at the job and also began to educate himself in finance by reading newspapers and talking to members of the Conservative Club to which he belonged.

The 1871 census shows Walter (24) living in Keble College property with other college servants and described as the college butler.

In the third quarter of 1874 in Hertford, Walter Gray of St Giles' parish, Oxford married Emily Alice Savage of Bennington in Hertfordshire. She was born in Hertford in 1846 and baptised at Walkern on 17 January 1847, the daughter of the bricklayer James Savage and his wife Elizabeth. At the age of 15, Emily was a farm servant in Walkern.

They had three children:

  • Maude Alice Gray (born at Blackhall Road, Oxford on 12 March 1877 and baptised at St Giles's Church on 13 April)
  • Hilda Emily Gray (born at Blackhall Road in 1879 and baptised at St Giles's Church on 20 May)
  • Francis James Gray, always known as Frank Gray (born at Blackhall Road on 31 August 1880 and baptised at St Giles's Church on 25 September).

In 1877 it was recommended by a Government Commission that Fellows of Colleges should be allowed to marry, and Gray foresaw the need for new housing in Oxford. He borrowed £600, took an option of a plot of land from St John’s College, drew up plans for three houses, and sold all three to Mr Gorman, who was coming with his wife to Oxford as the new curate of the University Church.

At the time of the 1881 census, Gray’s speculative building career was only just taking off, and aged 34 he was still described as the Steward and servant of Keble College. He was living at 7 Blackhall Road with his wife Emily (34) and their children Maud (4), Hilda (2), and Frank (seven months).

Later in 1881 Walter Gray was elected a Conservative councillor for the North Ward.

Soon after this Gray was able to give up his job at Keble College. He went into partnership with the builder John Money and made his fortune in speculative development. His success partly lay in the fact that he was involved with small houses (such as those in Kingston Road) as well as large ones. In 1883 he was appointed liquidator of a rival company, the Oxford Building and Investment Company, and took over the New Inn Hall Street office of its Secretary and Surveyor, former mayor John Galpin. Henceforth Gray was responsible for most of the development of North Oxford, working together with the architect Harry Wilkinson Moore. Thus Gray was responsible for many of the houses in St Margaret’s, Rawlinson, Polstead, and Chalfont Roads.

In 1888 Walter Gray was elected Mayor of Oxford (for 1888/9).

At the time of the 1891 census Walter (44), described as a Surveyor and Justice of the Peace, was living at 1 St Margaret’s Road in north Oxford with his wife Emily (44) and their children Maude (14), Hilda (12), and Frank (10). They employed a cook and a housemaid.

In 1893 Walter Gray was elected Mayor a second time (for 1893/4), and in 1897 a third time (for 1897/8).

His son Frank was educated at Rugby School.

At the time of the 1901 census Walter (54), described as a surveyor, auctioneer, &c, was still living at 1 St Margaret's Road with his children Maude (24), Hilda (22), and Frank (20) who was a solicitor's articled clerk. They employed a cook and a housemaid. His wife Emily Gray (52) appears to have left him and was living with her widowed mother Elizabeth Savage (84) and three of her unmarried sisters at Stevenage.

Later that year he was elected Mayor a fourth and last time (for 1901/2). He was thus Mayor at the time of the Coronation of King Edward VII on 9 August 1902, and as a result was knighted in 1903.

Gray’s arms in glass

Gray’s arms

 

Gray’s arms (left) appear in stained glass in the high windows of the Council Chamber.

A wooden version of Gray’s arms (right) was also added to the wall of the Lord Mayor’s Parlour when he served as Chief Magistrate

Walter Gray


 

Because Gray was on the Municipal Buildings Committee when the new Town Hall was opened (1897), his head is carved in stone in the Council Chamber corridor (right).

On the census night of 1911, Sir Walter Gray (63), described as a county magistrate) was staying at a big hotel in Russell Square, London, while his son Frank (a solicitor of 31) was staying at the Clarendon Hotel in Oxford. His wife Emily Alice, Lady Gray (64) was living with her brother Walter Savage and his wife Clara at Hatfield in Hertfordshire. Their two unmarried daughters Maude Alice Gray (34) and Hilda Emily Gray (32) were staying at a private hotel in the Bayswater Road, London.

By 1914 Sir Walter Gray was living at 50 New Inn Hall Street.

In 1917, when Lord Valentia retired from the House of Commons, Sir Walter Gray decided to try for Parliament, but the Tory selection committee chose instead the historian J. A. R. Marriott. Gray went off on holiday to Northumberland to get over the disappointment, but died there.

† Sir Walter Gray died at Rothbury, Northumberland at the age of 70 on 17 March 1918 and was buried in Wolvercote Cemetery (H1/173) on 21 March 1918.

His effects came to £212,234 1s. 7d., and his address at the time of his death was given as still being 50 New Inn Hall Street. Probate was granted to the Public Trustee in London.

His wife Emily Alice, Lady Gray died at The Gables, Pangbourne, Berkshire at the age of about 77 (recorded as 75) on 30 June 1923 and was buried on on her own in Wolvercote Cemetery on 4 July (H1/161). Her effects came to £1866 12s. 1d., and her son Frank was her executor.

His son Frank Gray, was to represent Oxford in Parliament from 1922 to 1924, but as a Liberal. He then took up the interest of tramps, and disguising himself as a vagrant he saw for himself the conditions in local workhouses, and also welcomed tramps at this home at Shipton Manor, Shipton-on-Cherwell and tried to find work for them. In 1928 he helped to found the Oxford Mail. He died at sea of a stroke on 3 March 1935 when returning from South Africa at the age of 54 and was buried at Wolvercote Cemetery in the same grave as his father on 6 March. His home was then Still at Shipton Manor. His effeccts came to £30,160 0s. 11d., and his bank was his executor.


See also:

  • Obituary of Walter Gray in the Oxford Chronicle of 22 March 1918, p. 7
  • Entry for Frank Gray, Walter's son, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Charles Fenby, The Other Oxford: The Life and Times of Frank Gray and his Father (London: Lund Humphries, 1970)
  • Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford (Yale University Press), pp. 52, 60–3, 78–80, 85, 119–20, 123, 146, 210
  • Portrait of Walter Gray in the Assembly Room of the Town Hall (shown above)
  • Oxfordshire County News, 25 February 1898, p. 11
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 19 May 1915, p. 9 (“Who’s Who in Oxford”)
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 20 March 1918, p. 3c (obituary)
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 27 March 1918, pp. 1, 7, 8a–b (funeral)
  • Oxford Journal Illustrated, 15 May 1918, p. 10b–c (will)
  • 1871 Census: Oxford (St Paul), 1436/83
  • 1881 Census: Oxford (St Giles), 1499/143
  • 1891 Census: Oxford (St Giles 4), 1166/87
  • 1901 Census: Oxford (St Giles), 1381/36

©Stephanie Jenkins

Last updated: 3 January, 2021

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