June 1, 2012 8:19:43 AM
You sometimes come across a person who says, "This is the book that changed my life." What if the book is the British Post Office Guide? This is what happened to the otherwise rather ordinary W. Reginald Bray, who nineteen years old in 1898, plunked down his sixpence at the Post Office to buy the large quarterly reference book. It is not at all clear what inspired Bray to make his purchase, but studying it, he learned of various postal regulations, and determined to test them out and to push limits. He had a lifetime of this curious hobby, which branched into collecting autographs by mail, and he meticulously kept records of what he sent out and got back. The results of his lifetime of postal adventures are beautifully recorded in The Englishman Who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects (Princeton Architectural Press) by John Tingey. The author is a philatelist who chanced upon a few of the odd postcards Bray had sent out, and started to hunt up more. Though Bray kept and filed all his postal experiments, his family sold the bulk of his archive after his death in 1939. It isn't clear where it all went, so Tingey has had his own adventures in finding specimens (and will be very happy if you can tell him of more). The handsome book is a tribute to the lifetime's work of a remarkable British eccentric, and it is crammed with beautiful illustrations of some of Bray's postal experiments.
Bray had a middleclass upbringing in a suburb of London. At age fourteen, he was awarded a certificate for Latin, but did not have a distinguished academic career. He collected stamps, as well as train tickets, and he enjoyed cycling with friends to visit different parts of Britain. He had a career as an accountant. All very dull and quite respectable, except for his one prankish streak manifested in his postal efforts. When his Post Office Guide said, "Letters, &c., should be clearly and legibly addressed," or "All letters, &c., must be delivered as addressed," Bray must have wondered how far postal officials would go to follow their own rules. Would, for instance, a postcard clearly and legibly addressed, but in mirror writing, be delivered? Why, yes, it was; some postman took the extra effort to hold it up to a mirror and see it through. Bray drilled a hole through a coin, threaded through a string with a label on it, and addressed the label; this was returned to him, only because he omitted a stamp, and he was charged tuppence for return postage. He made a postcard out of two pieces of starched shirt collar. He enlisted the help of his mother, who crocheted an envelope with a needlework address; stamped, it was delivered just fine. He wrote a poem in which parts of the address were included and underlined. When he wrote an address on a postcard with sealing wax, however, the wax came unstuck and could not be read, so the card was returned. Returned also was the postcard sent "To Any Resident of London;" the unforgiving rubber stamp from the Post Office said, "Insufficiently addressed." A postcard to "Santa Claus, Esq." was also returned; Bray would have had to have waited until 1963 when the Post Office began helping Father Christmas answer such letters. He sent postcards with rebuses for addresses; illustrated here is one that was delivered and one that was returned. He had a picture postcard of locomotive number 773 steaming down the tracks, and he sent it to "Driver of Locomotive no. 773, Caledonian Railway, Glasgow Station," and it reached its destination. A bunch of onions with an address tag was properly delivered, as was a turnip with the address carved into it. He put a purse into the mail, with no address or stamp except inside it; the postman opened the purse, saw the contents, and delivered it the next day. As you'd expect, many of these objects no longer exist, but only Bray's logging of each experiment survives. Besides the perishables, also missing are the bicycle pump, frying pan, and other objects that were successfully mailed, probably because Bray needed them upon their return. And no longer in existence is the rabbit's skull he sent, with the address written on the nasal bone and stamps affixed to the back.
Bray was interested that living specimens could be mailed; his post office manual specifically mentions the mailing of bees, for instance. It also stated, "A dog furnished with a proper collar and chain may also be, at the discretion of the Postmaster, taken to its address on payment of the mileage charge, in addition to any charges that may have to be paid for the dog in respect of its carriage by public conveyance." He successfully mailed his terrier. He achieved some notoriety in his lifetime for his postal antics, and in 1932 wrote an article for a newspaper, "Dogs as Letters." It begins, "It may interest readers to know that should they wish to send their DOGS by post to a friend, it is quite possible to do so." The ultimate in his experiments was, as the book's title asserts, mailing himself. He did this three times. When he first mailed himself in 1900, there was no proof that he had done so, so in 1903 he re-mailed himself using Registered Mail, and the book includes a reproduction of the registry form to show that "Person Cyclist" was successfully delivered to Bray's father, who signed for the "Letter or Parcel." He mailed himself for the third time (he got the nickname "The Human Letter") as a publicity stunt in 1932.
Bray developed an interest in postmarks, and invented ways to get letters back to himself postmarked from places he would never himself visit. He experimented with notes sent in bottles upon the sea, and he persuaded hot air balloonists to release postcards which were themselves attached to balloons while aloft. He branched out into collecting autographs by mail. He would send requests to every general fighting in the Boer War, for instance, one going to "Major General Lyttleton, British Field Forces, South Africa," with a request that an autograph be sent in return. Film stars, radio stars, rat catchers, criminals who had been in the newspaper, and dignitaries all got their requests; his records show that he sent out over 30,000 such appeals, and just under half were successful. Hitler never sent an autograph (an underling sent more than one letter explaining why, because Bray asked more than once). Neither did King Edward VII.
John Tingey has produced a funny and unexpected book with many amusing illustrations. Bray would not have been pleased that all his documentation was dispersed and that only bits and pieces of his life's work can be picked up here and there. He would, however, have been satisfied at how much Tingey has found and with how much delight Tingey has presented the results here. There have been more important lives, and more detailed biographies, but few that can match this for eccentricity and drollery.