Posted: Tuesday 02nd June 2020
Joining Claud Butler in 1932, Bill Gray was among the remarkable school of fine framebuilders who learned their trade there, including Les Ephgrave, Fred Dean, Bill Hurlow, George Stratton and Bill Philbrook. During the Second World War Bill Gray served in the RAF as an airframe fitter and towards the end of the conflict was with de Havilland in Canada making strengthened rear fuselage members on Mosquitos to fit arrestor hooks so they could be used on aircraft carriers at sea although this eventually proved impractical and the project was dropped.
Returning to Claud Butler’s in 1947 as a civilian once again, Gray rose to be chief foreman framebuilder and worked with the company until they went into receivership in 1956/7 due to them owing large amounts of tax to the government. In the early 1960s Gray started his own framebuilding business with a workshop previously belonging to Saxon, directly behind the well-established (1927) Wandsworth, London cycle shop of George W. Stratton that is still trading and family-owned. The shop had originally been a Claud Butler outlet and Stratton had worked for them in the shop before taking over when C B cycles collapsed. Like many of the better London shops it offered its own range of custom-made racing cycles and Gray built most, if not all of them, over some 20 years.
Gray also made bespoke frames for many London area cycle shops in addition to Stratton’s including Dave Russell (Slough), Dave Davey (North London), Fred Dean (Wandsworth), Clive Stuart (Catford), and H.E.”Doc” Green (South London). Most of these bear his unique serial number sequences which help identify them as Gray-built. One example of this numbering is 694 444, quite straight forward with first two numbers denoting year of build followed by month. The last three numbers are sequential as an overall record of frames built by him. It is believed that Bill used this numbering system on all frames he built including those for other builders.
In addition to road racing frames, including those for the Clive Stuart racing team, Gray built track frames and even novelty bikes for stage and circus performers. He was the first British framebuilder to use welded aluminium. His frame-making output was reduced for a time when he fell into a lucrative side job working on contract to the garage next door to his shop welding new floor pans to replace the rusted out ones on 1960s Minis!
Giving up framebuilding in the early 1980s, he went on to work for British Oxygen and finally part-time at a boatyard in Colliers Wood, South London, although he still continued to do frame repairs and kept a stock of Claud Butler frames and bits for sale. Aged 85, Bill Gray passed away in August 2002 after a short illness; one of Britain’s top framebuilders of the classic era and whose work, whilst less well known than others who built under their own name, is no less well regarded by those in the know.
I knew Bill Gray back in the 1990s when he was working for ‘Brocky’ (Keith Brock) at The Boat Harbour in Colliers Wood. I would nip out of College in Camberwell where I worked, take a bus to the Oval then the Tube, carrying or going to collect a repaired frameset. Bill worked in the back of the shop, in a cold cluttered draughty dimly-lit workshop.
Most of his work was making tow bars for cars and boat trailers and associated repairs. He had all his old frame-building tools and jigs there along with many old and new frames in various states of cannibalisation. I recall seeing a tandem made out of several mountain bike frames. There was a Unicycle hanging on the wall and two tiny ordinaries made for children, part of a limited production from the ’60’s if I recall correctly. He did many frame repairs for me, mainly replacing pump pegs and filling bottle cage holes. He also made me a replica Thanet stem complete with ‘T’s’.
He was very modest and self-effacing but told me that in the course of his career he built over 2000 tandems. When I bought a Claud Butler SWB owned and ridden by Ron Sherit and Pat Wright of the Redmon he lent me one of his tandem-build books which had the entry for my frame in it. I copied every page and gave the book back. It dates from 1947 to 1956 and details tube lengths for strut tubes and centre bar tubes, angles, position of stops for hub brakes and so on. He built Show Tandems and these are listed, and for other shops including Lidell, Baines, O’Brien, Read Bros ( a Lot), Duckett, Berry, Bone, Quinn, Holmes, The Lightweight Shop, J.R.J Cycles, Evans, Bache Bros,. Harvell, Westend Cycles, Chas Mann, Duke, H.E Cycles, Bryants, Rotrax, Everyman Cycles, Sun Cycle, Cliff Pratt, Strudwick, Ulster Cycles, Waltho, a tricycle for ”Invalid Children”, a unicycle for a Mr Marshall – ”as drawing”, Williams, Priory Cycles, Buntings, Nadgett (Madgett?), Deans, Prossers, and Reynolds’ Staff. Plus many for Export. These are only the tandems remember. Looking at his notes I am sure that Bill was dyslexic.The entry for Shiret reads Thiret.
The frame builders employed by Claud Butler each had a letter code which they stamped under the bracket. His real name was Thomas Edward Gray but he wanted ”W” for William. He used a ‘T’ until ‘W’ became available. I don’t know when that happened or why he eschewed Thomas. Can anyone explain this? I was told this by his late friend David McMeikin who died last year. David, Bill and Jim ”Godfrey” Burrows used to meet for tea and buns every Saturday afternoon at The Arndale Centre, Wandsworth. I went with David and Jim one Saturday but Bill did not turn up. Bill and Godfrey were kept on at Clauds by the receiver in 1957. They had to fulfill the outstanding orders after the Inland Revenue foreclosed on the business. This from Alec Bird who was employed there at the time.
Bill recalled Claud Butler delivering framesets in a 1920’s Matchless motorcycle combination in the 1930’s.
He told me a tale about Evelyn Hamilton. She was very chummy with Claud and often used to pay him a visit. Bill recalls her putting her bag down on his workbench and with a wink saying ”Put a couple of brackets in there for me Bill!’
Bill’s story about Frederick Pratt went as follows. Fred worked for Claud and was married to his sister Joan. Fred and Claud fell out and as a result Fred set up on his own. Fred designed the unusual ”Jacknife” frame with 26” rear stays as opposed to the usual 17”. Bill built five of these frames for Fred in the 1960’s.