We are very fortunate to have two obituraries for Michael Gray, one of – as Nick Fogg describes – Marlborough’s great characters, who passed away on Saturday 24 November.
His many friends are in a state of shock after hearing of the death of one of Marlborough great characters, Michael Gray. That there are no understudies waiting in the wings to replace outstanding personalities was certainly true in his case. He will be sorely missed, particularly in the Merchants House Trust, of which he was the first begetter.
Marlborough was a part of Michael’s genetic inheritance. On his mother’s side he was a Duck, a family whose roots go far back in the town’s annals. Many will remember Duck’s toyshop, when it was run by Harold and Sylvia Gray, his father and mother and later by Tony and Mary Gray. He attended St Peter’s School and sang in the choir at St Mary’s Church when Jeremy Walsh, later Bishop of Tewkesbury, was Rector. At Marlborough Grammar School he met Jenny, his future wife and mother of his three sons, Matthew, Tom and Sam. On leaving school, he became a solicitor’s clerk in Bristol. He must have been amongst the diminishing number of people who had heard a prisoner sentenced to death, black cap and all. To his great relief, the man was reprieved.
The law was not for him, however. His great interest was in history, a passion he indulged by becoming a noted antique dealer. Such was his knowledge of old furniture and artifacts that he was commissioned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to complete an inventory around its properties, including Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
Perhaps his greatest coup in the trade came when he found an Edwardian shipboard menu in a dusty corner of a junk shop. It turned out to be signed by members of the 1904 cricket tour to Australia, including such legends as “Plum” Warner, “Tip” Foster, Wilfred Rhodes and Bernard Bosanquet, the inventor of the googly. After a wealthy collector bought it an auction, Michael, a noted enjoyer of life, characteristically celebrated with a lavish lunch for some of his friends.
Michael was an early example of what would now be called a conservationist. The 1960s was an era of terrible destruction of historic townscapes. Marlborough was fortunate to have one who fought all the way. He lost the fight to save Waterloo House, an elegant Regency building in the High Street. The emptiness of the arguments of Borough Councillors who merely repeated the meaningless mantra, “Tt’s progress” was demonstrated when the building was replaced by a nondescript newsagents shop. With his brother Tony he did have a success when they prevented the destruction of the arch leading into Hillier’s Yard. This led to a greater victory when the old Corn Exchange was saved. He saw the irony when Waitrose received great acclaim for the sensitive conversion of the building.
Michael’s greatest success was in getting people, planners and councillors to look at things in a different way – that historic buildings could be given a new lease of life to give pleasure to a new generation. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Merchant’s House. With his great historical knowledge he realised that this was a rare survival, a working building from the Cromwellian era that was virtually intact. He persuaded a much-changed and by now bemused Marlborough Town Council to buy it and set to work carefully exploring its secrets with his son, Tom. Wall paintings were uncovered – unique survivals – and even the signature of the original builder at the top of the attic staircase. He was instrumental in forming a trust which has continued the careful work of conservation. Michael was active to the last. His myriad tasks included the buying in the period furniture, advising on the most skilled craftsmen and editing the hugely entertaining journal. Today the Merchant’s House is Marlborough’s gem. In seeking an epitaph for Michael we need look no further than that of Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s Cathedral. “Lector, si monumentum requirjs circumspice”: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
Founder Trustee and Historical Adviser to the Merchant’s House
Michael Gray died on 24th November after a short illness.
He will always be associated with Marlborough’s built environment and its history. He was educated at the old Grammar School and initially trained to be a solicitor. However he did not follow this choice of career and after a few further employments took up what was his first love, trading in antiques. His brother Tony recalls that at school he even purchased one or two flint-lock pistols. For some years he had shops in the town including at Cavendish House in the High Street although latterly he traded at an antiques emporium in Lechlade and at his recently opened shop in Devizes.
However it was Michael’s vigorous defence of the old buildings of Marlborough for which he will chiefly be remembered. In the 1970s he chaired the now-defunct Civic Society and was instrumental in several campaigns, for instance to save the old cinema building (now Waitrose) and to try and improve the plans for the original redevelopment of what is now Cromwell Court in the High Street. At this time he had a reputation as something of an enfant terrible so far as council planners and developers were concerned.
His chief achievement was undoubtedly his pivotal role in the Merchant’s House project. It was his concern about the fate of the historic building at 132 High Street, up for sale in 1990 by WH Smith, which helped to persuade the Town Council to purchase the freehold in 1991. Shortly afterwards the Council resolved to lease the house to an embryonic trust comprising Michael, the late Vic Chinnery (a renowned expert in 17th century oak furniture), Diana Keast and John Sykes. Since then, thanks to discoveries of unique wall paintings in the house and to a large and enthusiastic body of volunteers both in the house and in the thriving shop, the Merchant’s House Trust has gone from strength to strength and is of national reputation and importance. Throughout its life the Trust has benefited from Michael’s commitment, expertise and knowledge of Marlborough and of the seventeenth century. As the Trust’s Historic Adviser he guided the Trustees on matters such as presentation of the house and its contents, he worked with Vic Chinnery in the acquisition of appropriate furniture and other items, and he saw to the establishment of its comprehensive library and growing amount of local historical archives. He trained many guides and latterly had been closely involved in setting up the recently opened Marlborough Museum in the house. He gave talks about the house both in the town and elsewhere. He edited all 63 issues (to date) of the Trust’s banner publication, the Marlborough Journal, which for many years has been of a very high standard both of presentation and of content, a mine of information for generations to come.
Michael has left a gap at the Merchant’s House which can never be completely filled. Not only was his knowledge of the town and its history unparalleled in recent years but, as a member of a long-established Marlborough family, he was also a living link with the past. His contribution to the success of the Merchant’s House was enormous and we will all miss him greatly.