Bray was born at Shere, Surrey, in 1736, the youngest of the three sons who survived their father. He was educated at Rugby, and then articled to a lawyer in Guildford. In 1761, he was appointed a Clerk of the Green Cloth, in the St James’s royal household, a post he held for nearly 50 years. He married Mary Stephens in 1758, and they had eight children, of whom only a son and two daughters lived to maturity. When both his older brothers had died without children, Bray inherited the manors of Shere and Gumshall in Surrey.
Over time, Bray became solicitor to many county families, but was also steward of Surrey manors, treasurer of charities, and an indefatigable antiquary. In 1777, he published Sketch of a Tour into Derbyshire and Yorkshire. He joined the Society of Antiquaries, and became its treasurer, and, on the death of the Rev Manning in 1801, he took over his work on compiling a history of Surrey, a work published in three volumes over the next 15 or so years. He also transcribed John Evelyn’s now famous journal, and edited his memoirs.
From 1785, Bray was a regularly contributor to the Gentleman’s Magazine, writing first literary articles and later focussing more on antiquarian discoveries and the history of Surrey. He also contributed articles to Archaeologia, the transactions of the Society of Antiquarias, and was treasurer of the society for two decades in the early 19th century. He died on 21 December 1832, aged 96. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, Sussex Archaeological Collections Vol. 92 (2005), or Exploring Surrey’s Past.
Bray’s own diaries were first published privately in 1876, and then reprinted, with some omissions, by the Surrey Archaeological Collections Vol. 46 (1938). In 2008, Bray’s diaries were in the news because a 1755 diary of his came to light - pre-dating all published diary material - which appeared to contain the very first reference to the sport of baseball, see Base ball and cricket records. Here are a few extracts from Bray’s published diary. Although the first entry is in 1756 and the last in 1832 - covering 76 years - the entries are often very brief and few and far between. For instance, the two extracts below for the year 1796 are all that were published for that year.
18 March 1767
‘It pleased God to release my child William from his sufferings, when half a year old he was seized with convulsions which never left him.’
9 June 1767
‘With Mr Hollingworth to the Downs Guildford Races. Sir John Evelyn being taken ill, went off the Downs to Wotton.’
19 June 1767
‘Jack was taken with the smallpox, and on the 28th the dear soul died. Polly was taken on the 1st of July, I sent for Mr Kerr who gave her Sutton’s powders, and she recovered.’
22 December 1767
‘With Mr. Waddington to Drury Lane; “ Suspicious Husband,” Mr. Garrick.
14 December 1796
‘My wife died about 5 in the afternoon; the most affectionate of wives, tenderest of parents, and most sincere of Christians; to her great prudence and discretion I owe the prosperity with which God has blessed me.’
24 December 1796
‘Very hard frost.’
15 November 1806
‘This day, I completed my 70th year, without having ever met with any accident of consequence and with very little interruption to my health, except in January last, when I had a very serious attack by an inflammation in my lungs, but from which I am perfectly recovered. My eyesight is so good that I can and generally do use my eyes in reading or writing from the time of getting up in the morning till 10 at night. My hearing is in no way impaired. I have not lost one front tooth and very few others. I am able to walk or ride 4 or 5 hours together, but I do not ride fast. My memory is perhaps not so good as it has been. On the whole I seem to be in a perfect good state of health, thanks be to God.’
15 November 1808
‘This day I completed my 72nd year; and thanks to God’s mercies I find myself in as perfect health as I ever enjoyed in my life, and the only perceivable difference in any of my senses that I am aware of is a little degree of deafness in my right ear, but as the other is perfect, I do pretty well. My left eye I think has not perfectly recovered the severe inflammation which I had two or three years ago, but the other being sound, I read and write as well and as much as ever. My teeth remain perfect in front and without any additional loss to those which decayed some years ago.’
15 April 1810
‘I quitted the Board of Green Cloth, after having had a place there for 49 years and a half. I was put on the superannuation list at my request, the Lord Steward having kindly procured leave for it. He also, unsolicited, gave me leave to resign my place of Clerk of the Verge to my son.’
14 November 1810
‘After dinner, I found a giddiness in my head making me unable to walk, and a kind of dumb confusion in my head. I wrote to Mr. Heaviside to come, which he did and ordered immediate cupping. The next morning my complaint was gone.’
30 May 1814
‘Received from Mr Sydenham Malthus the melancholy news of my son’s death at Exmouth, from the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs.’
19 September 1896
‘With Mary and Miss Davis, in a chaise, by Horsham and Henfold to the ‘Albion’ at Brighton. Dined and lay there; walked on the Chain Pier.’
24 December 1828
‘Such has been the decay in my eyesight the whole of this year that I have not been able to read either print or MS., though I have continued to write letters, as I am writing on this 24th of December. I cannot read it when written. I have also lost my hearing in one ear in a great degree; subject to this, my bodily health has been what may be called good. I have been obliged to pay more than 1,100 pounds by the treachery of a clerk, and the malice of one who had been long attempting, and at last effected a loss of long friendship with Mrs. Wigzell.’
5 July 1832
‘Mr Linnell, a portrait painter was sent by my grandson Reginald to paint a portrait of me. I had five sittings.’