THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
George Bray (1841- 1905)
Inventor and Business Tycoon
George Bray made his name as the inventor of a new type of ceramic gas burner which produced a much stronger and steadier light and lasted far longer than earlier models. He developed techniques for mass-producing his new burners (Economizers) at very low cost, which meant everyone could afford them – just a penny each. His invention revolutionised gas lighting and improved the quality of life for everyone in this age when gas was still the all-important source of light, brighter than oil lamps and candles. Reading, study, work in the evenings were all made easier for ordinary people, a small but significant contribution to progress.
He liked to tell the tale of his humble beginnings – almost no education, and a wretched life as a mill boy from the age of eleven, then studying late into the night, trying out his new ideas with experiments in the attic. Nothing held him back: when he needed to boost the fire for one of his experiments he ran to get some of his parents’ furniture to throw on the flames! Then he made his great breakthrough, and in 1863, aged only 22, he founded his own company to manufacture his new burners (George Bray & Co Ltd). He quickly won recognition for his products, captured almost all the home market, and exported all over the world. With his genius for invention he continued to develop new products and methods of production, guarded by intense secrecy from industrial espionage – he successfully pursued several legal actions to protect his patents.
In 1878 the prospect of competition from the new development of electricity prompted him to work on an improved gas street lantern which was exhibited outside Leeds Town Hall in 1879 and soon installed in the streets of other major cities across the country, a ‘revolution in street lighting’. Although electricity began to take over for domestic and public lighting after the First World War, the continuing use of gas in industry and for cooking and heating in the home meant an expanding market for the firm’s products, and the firm he founded is still in existence, now as part of an international group.
In the 1880s, at the height of his success, George Bray moved with his wife and five children to the leafy suburb of Headingley, to a fine detached house in Wood Lane called ‘Belmont’, with a view over the green Meanwood valley. Alongside his business, his pleasures were simple – reading (he had a good library), and hiking, with his knapsack on his back, all over the country and abroad. He loved sport, especially cricket, and was one of the three men involved in purchasing land for the Headingley Cricket and Rugby Ground in 1888. He had a combative side and relished litigation, pursuing well-publicised lawsuits against the Leeds Liberal Club and the Leeds Mercury among others.
Known as a ‘hard-hitter’, he was admired for his perseverance, hard work and above all his inventive genius. He died in 1905, aged only 64. By then his inventions and enterprise had made him a fortune, and his name was known across the world.