A Centenary History
The firm of John Bray & Sons was founded in 1872 by the elder John Bray who subsequently became an Alderman of the Borough. It was a modest start, financed with a small capital and supplemented by a railway agency.
Born at St Leonards-on-Sea in 1844 John was 28 when he started in business at South Colonnade St Leonards. This was approximately the time when the new town of St Leonards was being laid out and developed by James and Decimus Burton and this expansion provided an excellent opportunity to a progressive estate agent. The population of Hastings and St Leonards together had increased from 10,000 in 1831 to nearly 30,000 in 1871. In John’s own lifetime Eversfield Place had risen, Robertson Street was laid out and Warrior Square had been built. The new and fashionable Queens Hotel had been opened, to complement the St Leonards (later Royal Victoria) Hotel completed in 1829. All this indicated the mounting popularity of the twin towns and the promising opportunities in the house agency field.
The Business Grows
Centred on the small office at South Colonnade the business steadily grew, and in 1879 the second office at 2 St John’s Road opposite Warrior Square was opened. Here John lived with his family.
Early in the 1880’s John Bray made a further important step, taking his brother Arthur into partnership. Together they traded under the name of John & A. Bray at 28 and 219 White Rock, Hastings. In 1885 the partnership was extended to additional premises at 12 Claremont, Hastings, and at this time Arthur Bray was responsible for furniture sales at the Claremont Auction Room.
A further office was opened from Leamington, under the style of John Bray & Proctor.
In 1883 yet another branch was opened, this time at 5 Devonshire Terrace, Bexhill-on-Sea, again with the two brothers in partnership. The office boy at the time was Ernest Sheather, who eventually went on to establish his own business in the town.
Around 1904, for various reasons, the partnerships were dissolved, and John Bray continued on his own. The left him with the St Leonards offices at South Colonnade and 2 St John’s Road, the Hastings office at White Rock and Bexhill office. During this year, the father was joined by his tow sons, John and Charles Bray.
The First World War Years
Young John Bray always showed an interest in the sea and perhaps this should have been his career. However, to broaden his experience in the profession, he left the family firm in 1912 to take up a post as Assistant Valuer in the Land Valuation office at Eastbourne. Here he remained until the outbreak of the first World War in August 1914 when he was mobilised in the RNVR, having joined the service earlier. By now his father, aged 70, was leaving much of the running of the business to his assistant, Mr Charles Hodge, but amid his Admiralty was duties, John Bray made a point of visiting St Leonards as often as possible to supervise the firm’s affairs. Meanwhile the Bexhill office was carrying on under Ernest Sheather, aided by John junior’s brother Charles. The association was, however, eventually broken when both Sheather and Charles left the business.
Demobilised early 1919, the youngest John Bray returned to the town to find the Firm in a weakened financial position because of the difficulties of the war years. His father had unhappily suffered a stroke in 1918 and was taking no further part in the business. The son, therefore, assumed full responsibility at St Leonards and Bexhill, naming the firm John Bray & Sons.
Between the Wars
In September 1921, John Bray the elder died at the age of 77 just short of half a century after founding the Firm. But such was the respect and goodwill attached to his name, that his son kept the Firm’s designation John Bray & Sons, a title that was to continue unchanged to this day, even though no member of the Bray family is any longer connected with the business.
In 1925 the Firm’s South Colonnnade (now re-named Marina) connection was ended when John Bray bought the old-established business of Beagley’s at 27 Grand Parade and moved his St Leonards business there. By now the towns of Hastings and Bexhill were recovering from the effects of war.
Among the Firm’s assignments were the Agencies for Sir Frederick Richmond’s Wishing Tree Estate, the Hall Estate, Fairlight, and the Warrior Square Estate. There were also the sales of substantial properties like the Coghurst Estate, Westfield Place, and the sea front Eversfield Hotel. In addition, John Bray carried out large scale valuations on behalf of the Corporation and acted as witness for and on behalf of the Corporation and acted as witness for and against the Corporation in important inquiries. And – as he was fond of recounting – he personally negotiated the ale and acquisition of all fifteen Marina properties require for the site of lofty Marine Court which, with its 168flats and 21 shops, arose to dominate the frontline at St Leonards in the late thirties.
With the coming of the Second World War in 1939, John Bray, who held the rank of Commander RNVR and commanded Sussex Division of the RNVR, once more departed for war service, again leaving the business in the hands of Mr Charles Hodge. For Hastings and Bexhill, the war years that followed, were, as affecting property, infinitely more disastrous than the years 1914-1918. In 1940-1041 over 6,000 houses in Hastings were damaged by bombing and 2,600 in Bexhill. Among the premises ‘bombed-out’ were those of Brays themselves at Grand Parade,. The business moved to 43 Eversfield Place and again to 10/11 Eversfield Place only to be forced by bomb damage to move once more, this time to 11 Warrior Square.
When peace came in 1945 John Bray returned to a heavy legacy of business deriving directly from the German bombing. Much of the Firm’s post-war work comprised negotiating the settlement of War Damage Claims; and, as rebuilding got under way, it was also heavily involved with Town Planning Claims and Compulsory Purchase Orders.
Bray’s keen interest in the sea had, besides gaining him the rank of Commander RNVR, extended to the lifeboat service and he was proud to have been Chairman of the Hastings Branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Another love of his was music. He was an accomplished organist and after his retirement was to gain much pleasure in playing regularly in village churches in the area. In 1950, in recognition of his professional work, he was elected Chairman of the Sussex Branch of the Chartered Auctioneers’ and Estate Agents’ Institute, of which he had been a member since 1930.
After an active career of 46 years, John Bray retired, and in the following year he arranged for the business to be acquired by Nigel Petts, FSVA, who waw then associated with the local firm of Dowling & Co.
Family Connection Ended
After some 80 years the Bray family had now severed its connection with the Firm. But the latter still (as already mentioned) retained the well-known designation of John Bray & Sons. Under its new owner, the Firm’s activities took a different direction. Realising that the sales of large private estates and country properties on which John Bray had substantially relied were likely to become less productive, Petts soon decided on a policy of securing land for residential and commercial development. He was thus responsible for the opening of the Alexandra Park and Wishing Tree Estates for comprehensive residential development.
The first such scheme, at Bromley South, was in competition with 37 other major developers, and the Firm’s clients P.I.C. , were the winners and carried out the £1 ½ million project in three phases. Other successful schemes followed – at Burgess Hill for The Land & House Property Corporation Ltd and at Orpington for Star (Great Britain) Holdings Ltd. These proved highly successful developments.
Alongside such wider activities, which increasingly characterise its business in 1872, the Firm of John Bray & Sons (as well as the associated Firm of Dowling & Co) continued to serve local interests at Marine Court office, where its acts as Agents for the flats in Marine Court, at the Warrior Square office, and also at the Bexhill office in Sackville Road – the latter business re-joining the Firm in 1967 on the death of Mr C. E. Killick who had taken over from John Bray, having been first his manager and then his partner. This reunion John Bray lived to see. He died in 1968 at the age of 79 a figure as well-known in the town as his father had been before him.