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How the public helped solve the mystery of what happened to Sgt Gray

a drawing of a soldier reading a paper on a train

Sgt Gray on a train. One of the pictures he sent his young daughter Joan during his military service. © Littlehampton Museum

Back in May we featured a story about the tender letters, stories and pictures sent by a Littlehampton man, Sergeant Gray, to his young daughter during the First World War. Since then our readers have been in touch with the museum with more information about him. Littlehampton Museum’s Alice Millard picks up the story

About two or three weeks after the Museum Crush article about the letters and stories of Sergeant Gray had been published I got an email from family historian Malcolm Crockford in Surrey who had done his own research inspired by the story of the letters.

The biggest news is that we think at least some of the letters were written in the years following the First World War, probably straight afterwards, because we now have his Royal Air Force record card.

Immediately after the end of the First World War it seems Sergeant James Gray transferred from the Army and went into the newly formed RAF.

From the group of letters he sent to Joan we have a sketch of him in a train carriage wearing a uniform but we couldn’t decipher the badges. They looked like the RAF, but this confused me because the RAF didn’t exist until the very end of the First World War.

From the RAF record card it also seems he originally joined the Army in 1914 at the start of the war, so he served throughout the First World War, before joining the RAF.

The record card also reveals his religion – a Congregationalist and his civilian occupation was a joiner, which matches with what we have also been told by a relative who got in contact and who revealed that James was also a painter and decorator.

a drawing of two rabbits watching a procession of insects down a county lane

One of the many drawings Sgt Gray sent to his daughter recounting the exploits of the rabbits Bunty and Marmaduke. © Littlehampton Museum

I find it quite interesting that his civilian job is a joiner. I think he’s clearly seen his service during the war as a stepping stone for other things, and then he’s got this fantastic opportunity to join the newly formed RAF.

The record card tells us he is finally discharged from the RAF in March 1922, so he’s in for quite a while and such a long way from his family in Littlehampton, so he’s very dedicated.

For his RAF service we have a list of movements. He was at Cranwell, the RAF College in Lincolnshire and he was stationed at a place called “Rockside Con Hospital”, which I think is Rockside Convalescent Hospital, which was a Hydro Hotel in Matlock, Derbyshire that was taken over as a convalescent hospital by the RAF.

At one point from 1918 to 1919 he is made a Warrant Officer and then at the end of 1919 he reverts back to being a Sergeant and an X-ray attendant. The record card also reveals a table of good conduct badges and a period of leave for a month in 1920.

There must have been an enormous amount of men needing convalescent care in the years following the war and this probably carried on for a good few years. He would have seen some pretty horrific things; he’d be treating some very life-changing injuries, especially if he was working in the X-ray department.

It’s fascinating building up a picture of the man and his service – it also says on the card that he was a general clerk, so I do wonder if at one point he’s one of the organising managers at the convalescent hospital?

a drawing of a room with a bedstead and bedside table

Sgt Gray’s quarters possibly either at Rockside Convalescent Hospital or Cranley. © Littlehampton Museum

He died in 1969 aged 84, and we believe that he was still living in the same house in Maxwell Road, in Littlehampton, which is where his family was living during the war and his time in the RAF.

Amy Kathleen, his wife, predeceased him in 1958 and then there was his daughter Joan – the recipient of the wonderful letters and stories he wrote during his service. She was called Joan Kathleen and she became a teacher “like her mother” Amy Kathleen, and eventually died in 1994 in Dorset.

It seems that Joan married much later in life; we think she was about 59 when she married a widower called Maurice and we don’t believe she had children. But there’s also Norman, her brother, who was the baby boy who was referenced in the letters, so I believe the living relatives of the Gray family are descendants of Norman.

I had a lady contact me who said she was a distant relation and had an older relative who remembered the Gray family. She had a photo of James, Sergeant Gray, that she was kind enough to donate to the museum – so now we actually have an image – a face for the name.

We think it’s late ‘50s, early ‘60s, and from this we can see he was quite a short man. From his record card he’s listed as being 5’ 4½”, with brown hair, greyish-blue eyes and a fair complexion and if you look again at the charming little self-portrait from the railway carriage, his feet are just kind of dangling off the floor.

James Nelson Gray back row, right. © Littlehampton Museum

a sketch of a family of bunnies eating carrots in a cave

© Littlehampton Museum.

But I’d be fascinated to find out what he did during the First World War, because I’m sure that would explain why he decided to go into the RAF straight afterwards. I’m sure that many men felt that when the war ended that was it for them, and they could try and turn away from that period of their lives.

Yet he’s chosen to serve for another few years in what was quite a heavily responsible job. So he is there at one of the turning points in British military history – the birth of the RAF. Not bad for a man from the little seaside town of Littlehampton.

Alice Millard was speaking to Richard Moss

Littlehampton Museum is planning an exhibition marking the centenary of end of the First World in 2018, featuring the stories of local men including Sgt Gray. 

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Littlehampton Museum

Littlehampton, West Sussex

Littlehampton Museum is in the heart of the town centre and offers a fascinating insight into the community’s social history through a variety of exciting galleries, many with audio points and interactive elements to help guide you through the history of the town. Admission and helpful advice is all FREE…

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