Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Postal Adventures of W. Reginald Bray

W. Reginald Bray spent the majority of his life collecting autographs.

Known as the 'Autograph King' he ended up with a collection of over 15,000 autographs sourced from people from all walks of life. Bray's selection of the autographs he would hunt down was eclectic. He targeted the obvious celebrity names, film stars such as Gary Cooper, Charlie Chaplin and Laurence Olivier as well as other notable figures such as the explorer Ernest Shackleton, cricketer W.G. Grace and even managed to get a personal reply from the Pope. The fact that Bray had written to the pontiff in Latin may have aided his cause.

His success was based around the tremendous amount of requests he sent out. He only received responses from half the people he wrote to and was especially disappointed to not manage to get autographs from King George V, Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler despite repeated requests. Bray was so persistent that he eventually was sent a reply from Germany explaining that the Fuhrer was too busy to respond personally to him and he should 'refrain from further letters in this regard.'

Bray also attempted to track down autographs from more unusual places and managed to get signed replies from the first person to write while flying in an aeroplane, a policeman who stopped Winston Churchill driving the wrong way up a one-way street and John Rankin, the oldest bell-ringer in England.

The postal service was invaluable to Brays project and he had every faith in the system having tested its limits in a series of experiments before he began to collect autographs. Bray was fascinated by the scale of the operation that the Royal Mail undertook and was intrigued by the limits of what this service could provide.

Initially he experimented with the finite nature of the post, it being sent simply from one point to another, by producing a postcard that had an address on both of its sides. This allowed the card to be sent through the post and redirected an infinite amount of times through a refusal to accept the card at either address and asking it to be returned to either of its 'senders'. Bray went on to post cards that were slightly smaller and larger than the Royal Mail allowed, sent cards out to addresses that were formed partly from images he drew or stuck on the card and addressed cards in rhyme form or as a picture puzzle. He also began to send cards out to people or locations with the vaguest information. Some of his cards were sent to 'The daughter of the postman who has walked 232,872 miles', 'The deserted village of Havvanah' and 'A Resident of Hallingbury where land used to be held by handing over yearly to the King's exchequer a packet of postcards and a Silver Needle'.

Eventually Bray realised that, as long as the postage was correct, the Royal Mail would send more than postcards. The official line was that the Royal Mail would deliver anything as 'small as a bumblebee and as large as an elephant.' This was a policy that Bray would exploit to the full. Over the years he posted a bowler hat, a turnip with the address carved into the surface of the vegetable itself and a rabbit's skull with the address written across the nasal bone and the correct postage attached to the surface of the skull itself. Eventually Bray hit upon the absolute limit of what the Royal Mail would be prepared to do.

He posted himself.

Presenting himself at his local Post Office with his home address tied to his wrist on a label he paid the correct postage to be delivered to his house. He was then taken to the local sorting office, processed and accompanied home by the postman.

Fortunately his delivery wasn't redirected or refused…

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