Did you hear the one about the Englishman who posted himself?

Published on March 5, 2014
The man who posted himself

Through the years, I have relied on Canada Post to deliver the occasional unusual item for me.

But few if any of them have been anywhere near as unusual as the things Willie Reginald Bray (1879-1939) sent through the post office in the United Kingdom. His story is told in the book, "The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects," written by a British philatelist, John Tingey.

According to the publisher, the initial impression one received of Bray was "of an ordinary middle-class Englishman quietly living out his time as an accountant in the leafy suburb of Forest Hill, London. A glimpse behind his study door, however, revealed his extraordinary passion for sending unusual items through the mail."

My guess is he had too much time on his hands.

Bray’s intriguing hobby began in 1898 when he purchased a copy of the "Post Office Guide," detailing the facility’s services, costs and regulations. He read that the smallest item one could post was a bee, and the largest, an elephant. His interest piqued, he decided to test what the post office would deliver by sending both ordinary and strange objects through the post unwrapped.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

"My object from the beginning," Bray explained, "was to test the ingenuity of the postal authorities, and, if possible, to vindicate them of the ‘charges of carelessness and neglect.’"

He added: "Should these lines come before the eyes of any official through whose hands my ‘trick letters’ have passed, I hope he will accept this explanation as an apology for any extra trouble that I may have caused them."

In time, Bray would send, among other objects, a rabbit’s skull, bicycle pump, frying pan, purse, turnip, Russian cigarette, onions, slipper, clothes brush, pipe, shirtfront, starched shirt cuff, drawing slate, bowler hat, dog biscuits, flask, seaweed attached to a postcard, and one-penny coin.

Tingey writes that the "purse was perhaps (Bray’s) most devious puzzle to solve: he wrote the address and placed the stamp inside before closing and posting it. There was no evidence that it was a letter until the collector opened it (possibly looking for a few coins) and noted the contents inside. The postal carrier delivered it the next day."

The "Post Office Guide" guarantees: "Living animals can be accepted for express delivery, if confined in a suitable receptacle, and special arrangements may be made as to dogs." Not surprisingly, Bray posted his Irish terrier.

"Postmasters may arrange for the conduct of a person to an address by an Express Messenger." The only requirement was the "payment of the mileage charge." Needing no further encouragement, Bray decided to push the boundaries as far as possible by shipping himself through the post on Feb. 8, 1900; Nov. 14, 1903; and again in 1932, earning him the moniker, "The Human Letter."

Tingey comments: "The local post collector must have been both intrigued and slightly apprehensive about what he would find when he opened the pillar-box each day." You think?

Over time, Bray’s passion changed from sending curios to amassing the world’s largest collection of autographs, also via the post office. He succeeded in acquiring thousands of autographs from politicians, military men, performing artists, aviators, sporting stars, among others.

Winston Churchill said he was willing to provide an autograph, but only if Bray would send one shilling’s worth of unused postage stamps "to the funds of the Church Army."

The autograph seeker was spectacularly snubbed not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, but five times, by Adolf Hitler, Bray eventually informing the Fuhrer of his "bitter disappointment." Neither would King Edward VII accede to Bray’s request.

By the time of his death, Bray had sent out more than 32,000 postal curios and autograph requests.

Tingey’s book is enhanced by almost 150 photographs and illustrations – many in full colour – of some of Bray’s most inventive postal creations.

The author concludes: "Bray’s optimism and persistence – perhaps an equal share of each – propelled him forward in the face of obstacles and rejection, and compelled him to find inventive ways to get around bureaucratic regulations and road blocks." Bray was indeed a "most unusual Englishman."

"The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects" is published by Princeton Architectural Press, New York.

I wonder if there is some "curious object" laying around my house that I can take to my local post office and ask to have mailed.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net