My Paternal Family
Cousin: Charlie (and Elaine) Wray - shoe repairer of Hitchin Second cousin: Rodney (and Judith Wray) and featuring Val Rivenell of Chequers Lane, Preston
Charlie and Elaine with Rodney and Judith Wray (far left and far right) in the early 1960s
Charlie Wray (not Charles) was born at Gosmore, Herts on 17 May 1910. He wrote in A Parish Remembers Ippollitts, “When my brother Bill (William) and I were children, we lived with Mum and Dad in Gapin Row, now known as Letter Box Row.” (shown below):
Of all the Wrays, Charlie was probably the most well known in the Hitchin area. From around 1931, he had a shoe/boot repair shop in West Alley, Hitchin.
Charlie continued, “….my mother was very kind and would often send us boys to take bits and pieces to our neighbours. In those days there was a lot of poverty about and families were so poor many a child went to bed hungry. “I lost my leg when I was seven and a half years old and was cared for in the old North Herts Hospital. (Rodney Wray: “his leg was amputated at the hip because of blood poisoning after a fall”). Dr Billie Grellett did the operation and I missed nine months schooling The nursing staff were so kind to me, one nurse was Nurse Meen - she was known affectionately as “Nurse Meanie”. When I left hospital she gave me a photograph of herself in uniform which I have treasured all my life. “I couldn’t go with the boys to garden lessons. I used to read a book in the girls class while they did sewing…still, I liked being with the girls.” This didn’t prevent him from earning a second prize by the Horticultural Society for his school garden. “When I left school and started work, my father had a little dog cart made to get me back and forth. Any of the boys would call and take me in it. All was well until one day when coming down the hill, they decided to have a ride on the back. We crashed on the hump of the road where the brook runs under. My father said, ‘That’s it! It’s a bath chair for you from now on’. “I still had a good time at school. I never let it hold me back and managed my crutches very well. I always went for walks around the lanes with the other boys and girls. They liked it if I was there as I could hook down the high birds nests”.
Charlie at school (standing, second from right)
In around 1929, Charlie opened a shoe and boot repair shop at West Alley, Hitchin. Because he was under twenty-one years of age, he had to get special references. As he commented to a news reporter, “I came into the repair business because I lost a leg as a boy and I thought it would be a ‘sitting down’ job. How wrong I was; that was twenty-four years ago and I’ve never had time to sit down yet”. He then married Elaine Gordon Smith at St Ippollitts Church on 17 January 1934. “I married my childhood sweetheart”.
The couple had one son, Rodney. Looking at the 1939 Register below, there were two other boys of Rodney’s age living with the family. They were both born in the Edmonton area of North London which suggests that they had been taken in by Charlie and Elaine after being evacuated from the city at the start of WW2. The household was living at 16 Crow Furlong Lane, Hitchin, which even today is an unmade-up lane with a hedge and open fields on one side. Charlie lived here until his death.
Charlie Wray’s shoe and boot repair shop in Hitchin
Charlie’s shop was in a row of single story shops, which had distinctive small. rectangular windows. I remember the shop being painted green in around 1960. The row is still there and is remarkably unchanged:
Charlie said, “I started in a small way with sundries - the usual polish and laces - and I let the demand build up”. During the 1931 depression, the dole queue stretched right past his shop door, “Yet I got more business from the queue than I did from working customers. They used to bring their shoes in while they were waiting for their dole’. In the early 1950s, he had a ‘four-window shop’, by which I think he meant that he was in four units. One was devoted to selling shoes and employed eleven men besides himself and his son, Rodney. He had the business philosophy, ‘If it’s to do with footwear, then that is my business’ and thought of himself as a shopkeeper/repairer (in 1937, he was classified as a boot representative) and as his shop carried out about a thousand repairs a week, repair work was the foundation of his business. Charlie stressed that ‘he never put more capital into the selling side than he could afford’ He also believed in paying promptly and getting full discount’. He specialised in any leather repairs. He became so well known for this work that he started a ‘While you wait’ bag repair service aimed at housewives whose bags broke while shopping. He said, I have no fixed prices on this work, but always try to keep them reasonable and bear in mind the original cost of the article’. When he had some odd requests he tried to avoid the work by quoting ‘a very high price’. He gave an example of a customer who inquired about having a pair of leather bellows repaired. It was obviously a very difficult job, so Charlie said, “Yes, but it will cost you’. The customer said, ‘that will do fine’. It was a very awkward job but he made a good profit, so everyone was satisfied. Charlie commented on his sense of values: ‘the man who taught me repairing (was he an apprentice, I wonder?) hated patching of any description. I make more money out of patching proportionally than I do out of repairs. I have one man who does nothing else all day’. However, if his customers wanted to do their own repairs, he caters for them by supplying bag handles, various leathers and lambs wool inserts. He always repaired shoes as they were made but with better quality materials where possible.
Three generations of Wrays: Rodney, Patrick and Charlie
Tommy Thompson in the shop
Rodney commented that ‘at one time, their shoe repair trade (with 50% contract work including Police and Fire Brigade work) was so busy that it occupied five units - which was most, if not all that row of shops at West Alley. An article in the North Herts Gazette (1982) entitled ‘Family Business That is the Heart and Sole of the Town’, described the ‘four-unit factory and shop groans with heavy weights, ironwork, spare soles and a new press for modern heels which shone like a beacon amid the shoes, laces and dust’. Tommy Thompson said, ‘The business hasn’t changed much no matter who runs it. Rodney runs it in much the same way as his father before him’. Rodney explained, ‘we still try to be a bit old-fashioned, giving a good service. It’s the service that still counts’. However, they had stopped repairing handbags - ‘their quality is such that they are just not worth doing’. Rodney picked up a pair of dusty, black old Oxford toe-capped shoes. He turned them over. ‘These soles’, he said pointing to smooth repair lines, ‘were repaired for a pin work exhibition of shoes. Look at the hand-sewing and the brass rivets. You can see the work in it.’ And you could. It was a pre-war shoe, but it had the look and style of today. It was classic. All the work was done by hand. He put it back under a bench supporting two ancient oily presses. Few yards away stood the new modern press with automatic nail guns and weights to hold together the glued-on soles of modern shoes. “Styles and repair techniques may have changed over the years but there’s one thing that the Wrays can be sure of….their service hasn’t.”
Charlie and Elaine’s home at 16 Crow Furlong, Hitchin
Elaine died in the summer of 1986.
Rodney and Judith P (nee Davison) Wray
Rodney Gordon Wray was born on 19 July 1934. He married Judith P Davison (born June Qtr 1939 at Hemel Hempstead, Herts) in the summer of 1959. The couple had three children who were born at Hitchin:
Patrick G Wray Dec Qtr 1960 Frances J Wray June Qtr 1963 Rosalind J (Sal) Wray June Qtr 1965
Rodney attended Hitchin Grammar and after his death on 8 May 2011, the school printed this brief history of his life:
Rodney Gordon Wray was born at Hitchin on 19 June 1934. He was the only child of Charlie and Elaine who were living at 16 Crow Furlong, which is off the Pirton Road, Hitchin. He attended Queen Street School, Hitchin and, later, Hitchin Grammar School. After leaving school, Rodney learnt the family business of shoe making and repair, later developing the retail side of the shop. In the 1950’s, shoes and boots mostly had leather soles, so that the core of the business was repeat orders. Rodney was called up for National Service in the early 1950’s. In around 1952, he was sent to the battle zone of the Korean War. Just prior to his death, he revisited South Korea and was amazed and moved by the dramatic transformation of what had been a war-torn, barren country. He returned to the family business at Hitchin and also continued his enthusiasm for veteran two-seater, open-top cars, attending hill climb venues and track events at Brands Hatch and Silverstone. Rodney married Judith Patricia Davison (a girl from the School on the Hill ) at Hitchin in the summer of 1959. The couple had a son and two daughters. They lived locally in Ickleford, Gosmore and Hitchin. He succeeded his Father in his close involvement in the Hitchin Arcade Company, becoming a Director and actively working to retain the Arcade as a core feature of the Town. Latterly he attended several of the Old Boy reunion dinners including the events of the Centenary Year. He was a friendly, easy going and well liked son of the School.
Rodney and Judith first settled at Thatched Cottage, Lower Green, Ickleford. They lived at Mill Lane, Gosmore (below,left), where I met them first and then The Tilehouse, Tilehouse Street, Hitchin (below).
In 1982, an employee said, “Rodney carries things on in much the same way as his father before him”. But Rodney remarked, “After the war, everything changed a lot, but we still try to be old- fashioned - to give a good service…Wrays used to repair bags, harnesses, straps, leather belts and had all the latest machinery. Welted shoes had the soles sewn on and shoe repairers within a twenty- mile radius used to bring in shoes to have the soles stitched”. The business expanded to include engraving, photocopying and printing. Both Rodney (January 1995 to May 2011) and Judith were directors of Hitchin Arcade Ltd, Judith having an interest in a bric-a-brac shop, The Willow Room, in the alley.
Rodney recalled, “In the 1950’s. Brolia’s cafe (Paynes Park Cafe) was where Stapleton’s is now. The buses used to park in Nun’s Close and the drivers and ticket ladies would get out and have a cup of tea or a ‘full English (breakfast)’ in the cafe. “One of my first jobs, even though I had been to Grammar School, was to go and fetch the tea….take an enamel jug that tall (gestures) up to Brolia’s with all the orders for rolls and buns…Any boy who started at our place, that was his first job, lunch-time and tea-time’.
Judith Wray and Val Rivenell (of Preston) - artists
In June 2018, The (Hitchin) Comet ran a story which featured an exhibition by the Lilley Group painters. This included a photo of Judith Wray (above, with dog, the widow of Rodney Wray) and Preston resident, Val Rivenell of Chequers Lane, Preston. As well as being part of the Lilley Group of painters, Judith was a life-member of Hitchin Art Club. She was described as an artist ‘with a strong love of colour and lively use of paint’. She largely works in acrylics and inclines towards abstract art. Examples of her paintings are displayed below.
Val Rivenell was also part of the Lilley Group and a member of Hitchin Art Club. Impressive samples of her work are shown below.