Home > Education > Fred Gray

Fred Gray

A bit of a Grey area

Will the real Fred Gray please reveal himself!

Fred Gray is a true man of mystery. Is he really an Irishman called McGrath?

Family research can be hard work, the truth difficult to find. Dark alleys, wild goose chases and the dreaded Deed Poll are all part of the game. Fairground historian Steve Smith digs as deep as ever into the famous Grays of old London town.

Fred Gray was one of London’s best known showmen, or so you would believe. As is so often the case the truth is a little further from that. When Dave mentioned he was doing something on Lord Lascelles it reminded me of all the times I have read that the famous Burrell engine travelled with Harry Gray’s Scenic. This poses one small problem for true fairground enthusiasts: Harry Gray NEVER owned a Scenic Railway.

Harry Gray was the son of Fred Gray. A few years ago I was talking to a London showman, related through marriage to the Grays. I was told an intriguing story about Fred Gray having been involved in some “dirty business” in Ireland, allegedly resulting in a murder. He had to leave and came to England to live. At the time, of course, Ireland was part of Britain, the partition of Ireland not occurring until 1922. Was Fred Gray Irish? The name hardly sounded so.

A visit to his grave in Hampstead might have helped explain the situation better. I am indebted to John Comino James who found the grave of Kate Carlton Bond who died November 12th 1918. Kate was the daughter of Fred and Elizabeth (nee Gess) who married John Bond. Buried in the same grave is Frederick George McGrath (Gray), father of the above who died 1st February 1941. Aged 79 years. So his real name was not Gray but McGrath. Sounds much more Irish.

Extensive searches of the shelves of the Family Research Centre in London have failed to find Fred Gray or McGrath. If he was 79 when he died in 1941 he should have been born in 1862, but no records can be traced.

Fred Gray married into the business, presumably whilst travelling in the West Country. Around the 1870/80s it has been suggested that he worked as centre engine driver on Hancock’s dobbies. He met Elizabeth Gess, daughter of Henry Wilkins Gess, one of the best know travellers of the period. The marriage took place before 1891 as Elizabeth appears in the 1891 census, visiting her family at Battersea. It recorded that she was then aged 28 and born on Guernsey. Unfortunately there is no reference to Fred, nor does he seem to appear in either the 1881 Census or the 1901. An elusive character indeed!

Fred Gray’s Burrell 3886 (unnamed at this time) at Battersea in 1932, lettered out for the Steam Yachts.

Another lead from World’s Fair regular Ernie Taylor suggested that his family came from Bristol, and that they ran a butchers business in the city. This offered another lead. In 1881 there was an Edward Magrath, born in Ireland, with a shop at 105 Newfoundland Road in the St. Pauls district. Coincidentally when William Hancock married Sophia Jones in 1883 they gave their address as Newfoundland Road.

Fred followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps, travelling a boxing show, and later acquiring roundabouts. He probably travelled machines earlier, but took delivery of a brand new Savage 3-abreast in 1896. This is the machine discussed on these pages a couple of months ago, and now at Thursford.

After moving to London, based at 222 Lavender Hill, Clapham Junction, and later 3 Victor Road, Kensal Green, his business grew, but under the assumed name, Fred Gray (changed by Deed Poll according to members of his family).

One of the most intriguing stories concerning Fred Gray and his son, Harry occurred at Mitcham on 12th August 1910 when they were shot by Henry Harris. It was the opening day of Mitcham Charter Fair and a disagreement took place over a site which Harris, who ran a small coal business in Battersea, claimed was his for a Houpla he travelled. In court it was claimed that Gray offered Harris £5 to move his houpla, which he had erected on the ground where Grays wanted to build up Switchback. On Friday Harris’ stall was still in the way, and it seems that Grays had left a packing truck blocking the stall. Between 1.30 and 2.00 p.m. Fred and Harry, were walking around the ground when Harris ran in front of them and, without a word, pointed a revolver at them from a distance of 8-9 paces.

Fred was wounded in the chest, the bullet having struck the breast bone; an inch further to the left and the wound would have been fatal. Harry had been shot twice in the left hip. They were saved by the heroic actions of a young woman named Miss Marie Herrick, who took the revolver away from Harris.

Later Harris was charged with attempted murder. Harris claimed that Frederick Gray had threatened to murder him and Harry had hit him in the eye. At Croydon Police Court, Frederick’s age was given as 50, and his address given as Wandsworth Road; Harry was aged 26, and lived at Kensall Rise. Guildford Assizes on 2nd December 1910 Henry Harris (51) was sentenced to ten years penal servitude for shooting with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

A further recount of events showed that Grays had expected to be able to stand on their usual ground, but when Harry arrived with his living wagon, he found Harris had already occupied the ground. He was given £6 to move, but then reneged on the agreement. In an example of how impartial Judges spouted their usual nonsense even in those days commented that “this was a very good sample of what would happen if Socialism were to prevail and there was no ownership of property. Everyone would seize the first the first bit of property he could lay hands on, and then someone else would come along and fight for it.”

There are some other accounts of the Gray’s travelling life. In 1912 a young girl and her boyfriend were riding on Gray’s Motor Car Switchback at Barnett Fair when she claimed side of motor car gave way and they were thrown out whilst ride going at full-speed. Harry Gray was in charge of the Gallopers at the time and saw the two larking about on the machine, playing with ticklers and confetti. Police examined car afterwards and saw no damage nor any rope holding it together. (How unusual!) In court they found in favour of defendant.

At Hampstead on August Bank Holiday 1915 accident on Motors again, and this time Gray of Victor Road, Kensal Green in Clerkenwell County Court for negligence. Mrs Henry Manners had her three children on the Switchback when she claims: “there was a crack and ad the whole things came down, and they were thrown out. Several cars were thrown in a heap and some twenty people were injured sustaining cuts, bruises and shock.” John Bond, who was employed by Fred Gray (and married to his daughter) was collecting on the ride at the time had seen a boy apparently throw a brick on to the tracks. The brick hit a car and then bounced on to the track, derailing the cars. It was steam driven and had only just started up and three cars were derailed. No damage had been caused to wheels or couplings. Judgement was made for defendants with costs.

In 1915 Grays took delivery of a set of Steam Yachts. The order was placed by Fred Gray, but they were travelled by son Harry. It is reckoned that Harry always had to have the best of everything. In 1923, for example, when he ordered a set of Gallopers it was a 4-abreast.

So, not surprisingly, in 1921 when Harry ordered two new locomotives the top of the range Burrell scenic-style road locomotive (No 3886, which became Lord Lascelles) went to Fred.

Harry Gray’s Burrell 3884 “Gladiator” in 1939. It was this engine which was lettered “F.Grays New Scenic Railway”.

At some time between being ordered and being delivered the allocated engine numbers were switched, and according to G.F.A Giberts Burrell book on “Burrell Style” 3886 was delivered to Harry Gray with the wording on the cab sides “H.Gray’s Steam Yachts” and was un-named at the time. The other locomotive (No. 3884 “Gladiator”) had its cab sides lettered “F.Grays New Scenic Railway”, and was with the Scenic until the ride was broken up.

Fred Gray had the last electric Scenic Railway built by Savages, and it survived until the 1950s. Only the organ was rescued and is now owned by Carol Jonas. Later rides owned by Fred Gray include Chairs, Noah’s Arks, Loch Ness Monster and Dodgem Tracks. Frederick Gray died at St. Albans on 1st February 1941. His death was registered under both McGrath and Gray. Mrs Gray died on 11th May 1954, aged 92.

One day more evidence may come to light, but at present there remains an air of mystery around the origin of this once famous London showman.

Author: Steve Smith