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Gray, William (Sir)

The Cottage Greatham

His early years

William Gray was born in Earsdon, near Blyth in Northumberland, on January 18th 1823. His father, Matthew Gray, owned a successful drapery business selling fabrics, hats, stockings, etc. William was educated at Dr John Bruce’s Academy in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, before joining his father’s firm as an apprentice. He was sent to spend some time in a fashionable drapery shop in London, where he made some important business connections.


The move to Hartlepool

When he was 20 years old, he moved to the Hartlepool Headland area to start his own drapery business. Although he had to use his family’s money to get started, William soon proved that he was a very clever businessman in his own right. William went to London to get his supplies. This meant that his stock was the most fashionable to be had and was very much in demand. He had soon opened shops in both towns. Two of the earliest were on the Headland at Victoria Street, Hartlepool, and 7 Southgate (later renamed High Street), Hartlepool.


Family Life

William married Dorothy Hall in 1849. She was the daughter of Royal Navy Commander and shipowner John Hall. The Halls, like the Gray family, were originally from Blyth, but now lived in London. William and Dorothy moved in above the shop in High Street, Hartlepool, and went on to have seven children.


From drapers shops to ship owning

In 1862 William was elected Mayor of Hartlepool. Around this time he sold the drapers business to Messrs Callendar, Richardson, Peverell and Kilvington, three of whom had been assistants in his shops. Gray agreed to stay on with the business for a year, to guide the managers in their new role. At some point during this time he moved his family to Cliff Terrace, Hartlepool.


William’s father was involved in ship owning, and he himself already had investments in several wooden sailing ships. It was while serving on the committee of the Hartlepool and Durham Shipping Company that William got to know John Punshon Denton, a local shipbuilder.  At this time, iron ships were beginning to replace wooden vessels, and shipbuilding was seen as a good investment.  In 1863 the two men decided to form a partnership, Denton, Gray & Co. They launched their first ship, the iron built barque Sepia, the same year. The firm prospered until J.P. Denton died in 1872. After some legal problems, William Gray took over full control of the yard in 1874.  He renamed the firm William Gray & Co., and a few years later took on his eldest son, Matthew, as a partner.


The public benefactor

Around 1865 the Gray family moved to The Cottage, Greatham, where William would continue to live for the next thirty years. In spite of its name, The Cottage must have been quite large to house a family of nine with their servants. William gave money to the community, and helped to build a new Chapel at Greatham between 1882-3. The family were Presbyterians, and made generous donations to Churches around the country. William donated the site of the West Hartlepool Free Public Library, and gave money to build a hospital.


Civic work

In 1887-88 he became the first Mayor of West Hartlepool, the only person ever to have been Mayor of both towns.  In 1890 Queen Victoria knighted him for his services to the two towns and industry. In the same year he was made the first Freeman of the Borough of West Hartlepool. Sir William’s elder son Matthew died in June 1896, and in the same year he retired from the council, after 34 years service.

Among the many public offices he had held were:

  • chairman of the Hartlepool Port and Harbour Commissioners
  • member of the Improvement Commissioners
  • member of the town council
  • director of the North Eastern Railway Co
  • member of the Committee of Lloyd’s Register
  • member of the Parliamentary Load Line Committee
  • Justice of the Peace
  • director of a number of marine insurance clubs in the north-east, including  the Well-Deck Steamship Insurance Association.



Death of Sir William Gray

Sir William Gray died on 12th September 1898 He had become an extremely wealthy man, and left a fortune of £ 1,534,704. This would be worth over £93 million today. On the day of the funeral, banks and many businesses in town closed as a mark of respect. He was buried in West Hartlepool cemetery, and it took an hour for the thousands of workmen from the shipyards, engine works and rolling mills to file past his grave.


His younger son, William Cresswell Gray, inherited the family business.



Newspaper Obituaries:


‘ DEATH OF SIR WILLIAM GRAY. FROM DRAPERY TO SHIPBUILDING. Sir William Gray, the well-known shipbuilder, died at eleven o'clock on Monday night at his residence, The Cottage, Greatham, West Hartlepool. Deceased, who was 76, was seized with a paralytic stroke Sunday morning when preparing for church, and never rallied. Born at Blyth, Northumberland, he began business life as a linen draper at Hartlepool, and subsequently took shipbuilding. He also established the Central Marine Engine Works, and carried on & steel works. Deceased received the honour of knighthood in 1890, and the following year was defeated as the Unionist candidate for Hartlepool. He was a Presbyterian, and gave largely to local charities.’


‘Sir William Gray, the well-known shipbuilder, died at eleven o’clock Monday night at his residence The Cottage, Greatham, West Hartlepool, after two days’ illness. Sir William, who was seventy-six years of age, was seized with a paralytic stroke on Sunday morning as he was preparing to go to church, and never rallied.  He was a native of Blyth, Northumberland, and commenced business as a linen draper at Hartlepool 1843, subsequently taking up shipbuilding at the same place. After the failure of Messrs. Pile, Spence, and Co., in 1866, he took over these yards, and afterwards added two other yards. He also established the Central Marine Engine Works and carried on the steel works owned by his late son, Matthew, and employed fully 1.000 hands, and paid £1.600 per week in wages, the total pay the whole concern being between £8,000 and £9.000 per week. Sir William was in the Jubilee year (1887), by common desire, elected West Hartlepool’s first Mayor, and until last November was continuously one its Aldermen. He was chairman of the Port and Harbour Commissioners up to the time of his death, and the leading spirit the East Coast Marine Insurance Association: an active and useful member of the Hartlepools Chamber of Commerce,  J.P. for the county, of which was High Sheriff a few years since, and was also a Deputy Lieutenant. In addition to this he was also a director of the North-Eastern Railway Company, and. in conjunction with Mr. G. Pyman, senior,  J.P.,  was one of the founders of the West Hartlepool Free Library. On the death of Mr. Thomas Richardson, in 1891, the deceased knight, who had received the accolade in the previous year, came forward as a Unionist candidate for Hartlepool, but was defeated by Sir Christopher Furness.  Sir William was Presbyterian, and his benefactions to the local churches of that body amounted to £18.OOO. He also gave £6.000 to other local Nonconformist churches, and was a large contributor to the London Presbytery for the liquidation of outstanding debts.’


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