Wolton Gray (1836 – 1891) and his family

by Stella Young with additional photographs and information from G. Bridson and K. Lohman

Many Nestonians will remember Charles (Charlie) Gray who lived at the Mill in Leighton Road and no doubt there are some old enough to recall the time when he owned a number of steam traction engines used for threshing and road haulage. However it was his grandfather, Wolton Gray, who first established the business in the nineteenth century.

Wolton Gray 1836 – 1891

Wolton Gray was born not in Neston but in the Lincolnshire village of Bonby in 1836. He was the eldest son of Joseph Gray, an agricultural worker, and his wife Zendonia (nee West). In 1851 Wolton was working as a groom on a farm in Barton on Humber, not far from the village where he was born. Sometime after this he moved to Neston or Willaston, perhaps as an employee on one of the local farms His father Joseph was by then a steam threshing machine operator in Lincolnshire.

On 16th February 1860 he married Ann Price, the daughter of a Willaston farmer, Thomas Price, and settled in Neston. Their first child, Charles Joseph Gray (1861-1915)was born in Willaston but the family moved to Church Street in Neston soon afterwards and their son was baptised at Neston church on 31st March 1861. Wolton and his family are listed on the 1861 census, living in Church Street, Neston and  his occupation is given as engineer. Ten years later the family was living in the High Street and the family had grown to include sons Wolton (1863-1894), Thomas (1865-1933), William (1867-1907) and George(1869-1979). A daughter, Emily, died in infancy and his youngest son, George died when he was ten years old.

Wolton’s occupation was described on the 1871 census as engine driver. Whether he owned the traction engines he was driving at this stage is not clear but certainly from 1878 onwards he is known to have bought his own engines. Interestingly his father, Joseph, and brother, Mark, followed the same occupation in his native Lincolnshire. The machines were used for threshing on farms in Neston and the surrounding areas.  Accidents whilst operating them were all too common and Wolton lost his right arm in accident with a threshing machine at some point before 1878 but continued to be active, developing his business and his occupations went on to  include timber merchant and saw mill owner.  He was also the owner of a fishing boat. In July 1878 he survived an attack by a bull in Hawarden and the encounter was reported in the local newspapers.

North Wales Chronicle – Saturday 27 July 1878
On Friday as Mr. Walter Gray, Neston, was walking through Wepre- park, Hawarden, he was attacked by a ferocious bull. Mr. Gray, who is a one-armed gentleman, possessing great strength, dodged the bull, but eventually was tossed, and on alighting the bull made a terrific butt at him, when he grasped the beast by the nose ring. To this he firmly clung for two hours, during which the bull madly endeavoured to toss and gore him. He was then discovered in a pitiable condition, covered with blood and frightfully lacerated.”

Cheshire Observer – Saturday 03 December 1881
NESTON PETTY SESSIONS.  Before D. Graham, T. Rathbone, and T. B. Forward, Esqrs. Traction Engines.— Wolton Gray, of Neston, was summoned for permitting a locomotive to pass along Park -street during prohibited hours, viz , after 5 p.m. and before 1 a.m. Mr. Gray pleaded guilty, saying that he was ignorant of the law. Sergeant O’Donnell then proved the case. Superintendent Egerton addressing the magistrates said that it was necessary to caution the public against this offence. This being the first case of the kind brought before the magistrates, and Mr. Gray promising that it should not occur again, he was ordered to pay the costs of the summons.”

Cheshire Observer – Saturday 31 July 1886
“AN UNLICENSED LOCOMOTIVE. – Wolton Gray, Neston, pleaded guilty to unlawfully using a road locomotive in Hoole-road without having obtained a license. He said it was quite an oversight, as the engine had been previously used for agricultural purposes solely. – Inspector Britton proved the case, and the defendant was fined 5 shillings and costs.”

By 1881 he and his family were living in Liverpool Road and on the night of the 1881 census his niece, Catherine, daughter of his brother George, was staying with the family. Wolton was now in business as a timber merchant with a yard in Cross Street.

A series of Locomotive or Red Flag Acts from 1861 imposed an increasing number of regulations and restrictions and also introduced the need for registration numbers. It was not uncommon for traction engine owners to be prosecuted and fined for breaching them and Wolton Gray was no exception. In December 1881 he appeared before the Neston magistrates for having a traction engine on a public road, Park Street, in the evening during prohibited hours. He was unaware that this was an offence and the magistrates were equally unfamiliar with the legislation so he was not fined on this occasion but had to pay costs. And as the engines frequently travelled some distance from Neston, especially when they began to be used for road haulage work, licences were required for travelling in each town or county.

One ambitious removal undertaken by Gray’s was moving a sizable iron building which had been used to house a creche in the High Street in Neston to Parkgate where it was to provide additional accommodation for the Parkgate Infant School (see Creches in Nineteenth Century Neston)

Despite the loss of his right arm, Wolton continued to enjoy sporting activities such as shooting and after his death in 1891 an obituary was published in The Sportsman.

The Sportsman – Saturday 17 January 1891
“Death of a well-known Wirral Sportsman. The death took place at Neston, Cheshire, late on Thursday night, of Mr. Wolton Gray, one of the best known merchants and sportsmen in the hundred of Wirral. Some years back Mr. Gray lost his right arm in a machinery accident, but he was sure shot with his left, frequently killing his 21 birds in succession. Mr. Wolton Gray had only been ill a week, and died in his 55th year.”

Wolton Gray died on 15th January 1891 leaving his businesses to his four surviving sons.


The business was divided with Wolton Gray (1863 – 1894) and William Gray (1867 – 1907) operating the timber and saw mill side of the business and Joseph Gray (1860 – 1915) and Thomas Gray (1865 – 1933)  continuing as haulage and agricultural contractors and timber merchants.

Wolton Gray married Susan Mary Hough, the daughter of Heswall farmer, William Hough on 26th February 1887 at Christchurch, Kensington in Liverpool. After their marriage they lived in Raby Road. However, ill health forced Wolton to retire from the timber business leaving his brother, William, to run it alone while he combined farming with a small threshing machine business. His obituary reports that he, like his father, was an enthusiastic sportsman and was a member of the Bowling Club and Quoits Club.

Cheshire Observer – Saturday 21 April 1894
“Death of Mr. Wolton Gray.— We regret to state that Mr. Wolton Gray, second son of the late Mr. Wolton Gray, of Neston, died at his residence. Park-street, Neston on Saturday” aged 31 years, after an illness which extended over a period of ten years. After the father’s death, three years ago, the four sons took over his business of timber merchant, traction, engine proprietor, and farmer. Messrs. Joseph and Thomas Gray took charge of one portion, | and Wolton and William of the other, but in consequence of his failing health the deceased retired from the timber trade, leaving his brother sole proprietor, and devoted himself to farming and a small threshing business. Owing to the state of hi health, however, he was seldom able to leave the house, although so late as Wednesday he was wheeled out in a bath chair. A marked change for the worse took place on Friday, and his relatives were summoned to his bedside, death ensuing, as stated, on Saturday. He retained consciousness until the last, viewing his approaching decease with the utmost composure, and made the final arrangements connected with his worldly affairs, even including those connected with his interment.
Notwithstanding his uncertain health, Mr. Gray was an active supporter of all forms of manly exercises, and was the first winner of the Clover Challenge Cup in connection with the Neston and District Bowling Club, of which institution he was a valued member. He was also a member of the local Quoit Club, and the Neston and District Literary Society, Library and Club, while as a Volunteer he has carried off many valuable prizes, He leaves a widow and two children.
The funeral took place at the parish church on Wednesday afternoon, when there was a large gathering of relatives and friends. The remains were enclosed in a coffin of polished oak, which was covered with beautiful wreaths. Four of the former employees of the deceased acted as bearers, and the mournful procession was watched by a large number of inhabitants. Following the coffin came the immediate rela tions of deceased, viz., Messrs. Joseph, Thomas, and William Gray (brothers), Messrs. James Wood (Liverpool), Thomas Wood (Willaston, ; uncles), T. Price (Raby, uncle), W. Hough , (Heswall, father-in-law). Messrs. S. T. and W. Hough and Jas. Kitchen (brothers-in-law), Master C. Gray (nephew), Messrs. S. Hancock (Birkenhead), Joseph Totty, and John Totty (Heswall), H. Ambrose (Wigan), James Hampson (Wigan), John Morley (Livererpool). The Bowling Club was represented by the following:— Messrs. W. Jones, I. Cottrell, i James Grundy, W. Fleming, B. Molyneux, W. Chambres, M. Robinson(Neston),W. Bradshaw, S. Mealor, W. Burkey and J. Royden (Little Neston). Others present were Messrs. W. McDowell, j T. Molyneux. T. Jones, R. Kameen, senr, M. Flood, senr., S. Scarratt, J. Fleming, J. O’Neil, E. Jones, James Birch, John Birch, K. Webb, J. Radcliffe, D. Broster, S. Hancock, J. Newton, J. Tierney, S. Anyon, J. Anyon. H. Vicars, T. Pritchard, H. Stringer, R. Bridson, W. Jackson, A. Small (Neston), R. Hambleton (Heswall), J. Lee, G. Burkey, J. Johnson (Ness), J. Tickle (Burton). The bearers were Messrs. J. Cartmel, Thomas Bell, J. Cottrell, and T. Smith. The Rev. Canon Turner (vicar) officiated.

After his death his wife, Susan, with son William Hough Gray and daughter Annie Gray went to live with Susan’s father in Heswall.

William Gray married Emily Jones of Wellington in Shropshire at Christchurch, Kensington in Liverpool on 20th October 1889. They lived in Birches Weint after their marriage before moving to Cross Street where he had a timber yard and saw mill. He was for some years a councillor on the Neston Urban District Council and was a member of the Neston Bowling Club. When he died in August 1907 the business was facing some financial difficulties made worse, possibly, by the fact that he had been in poor health in the months before his death. On the day that he died he was declared bankrupt at a meeting of creditors in the Liverpool Official Receivers Office. He was buried at the new cemetery in Neston.

Joseph  and his brother, Thomas  for some years operated in partnership as J and T Gray.

Joseph married Mary Ann Forrest on 16th January 1887 at Christchurch, Kensington in Liverpool. They had two sons Charles Joseph born in 1889 and Wolton Gray born in 1892. His wife, Mary Ann, died in 1892, aged 32, when her youngest son was only a few months old.

In November 1893 Thomas was seriously injured in an accident and was not expected to survive. A traction engine was being used to move a boiler and heavy machinery from the Mwlr lead mine to Gronant Mine. He did recover, however, and the partnership continued until 1897 when it was dissolved and Thomas left Neston for South Africa. He may have been motivated by the ‘rambling tendencies’ or  spirit of enterprise which the local newspaper noted was infecting many young Neston men to the extent that there were ‘few countries of this empire upon which the sun never sets in which the district is not represented, and it has furnished its quota to both arms of the service.’ Equally he may simply have wished to avoid the consequences of fathering an illegitimate child. Whilst in South Africa he worked for the Transvaal Coal Trust Company and the South African Road Transport Company. Extracts from his letters home were reported in the local newspapers describing the growing tension between the Boers and British settlers.

Meanwhile Joseph continued the business in Neston.

 Cheshire Observer – Saturday 02 December 1893

“Shocking Accident to a Traction Engine Owner

On Tuesday afternoon, Thomas Gray, traction engine owner, met with a very serious accident while engaged in removing boilers from the Milur Lead Mine, where a month ago there had been a great break up sale. Gray was walking in front of his engine which was drawing a boiler down to the high road when, noticing a length of twisted iron in front of the engine’s course, he stepped in front to remove it. He had partially lifted it when one of the engine wheels caught it at the bottom, and the pressure this put upon it wedged the unfortunate man between the pipe and the other wheel, inflicting shocking injuries to the lower parts of his body. The man in charge of the engine at once stopped it, and Gray was extricated and medical assistance obtained. He now lies in a very serious condition.”

In 1899 William Cartmell, one of Gray’s drivers, was killed in a serious accident near Ruthin. Originally from Neston, at the time of the accident he was living in Saughall with his wife and family. The accident happened when he was driving one of the engines down Blwch hill towards Ruthin, transporting three furniture vans belonging to Messrs W. and H. Brown of Chester. He lost control of the engine and it, and the three vans and went over the edge into the Wernog Dingle along with the three men who were on it. Local newspapers reported the details of the accident and the inquest that followed. (click here for full articles about the accident and inquest).The engine was a Fowler general purpose engine which had been recently bought from Thomas Lindsay, a farmer, of Sandycroft. It was only seven years old and evidence was heard as to the condition and suitability of the engine and from witnesses to the accident. The jury’s verdict was ‘That the said William Cartmell was killed accidentally by the traction engine running away into the Wernog Dingle on the 12th of July, owing to the, control of the gear having been lost’.

The removal of the engine from the dingle where it had fallen was a formidable undertaking and it took two days to recover it and return it to Neston.

Cheshire Observer – Saturday 15 July 1899
On Sunday thousands of people visited the scene of the accident, and some of the visitors carried off the whistle, taps, and other detachable parts of the engine as mementoes. This means a loss to Mr. Gray of some £15 or £20, and a reward is being offered for information leading to the discovery of the persons concerned. The locomotive was removed from its position on Monday. It had gone down to a depth of about 150 feet below the road, and to bring it back to the highroad was a feat very difficult to accomplish. All these difficulties were, however, overcome under the able management of the owner, who, together with his brother, Mr. W. Gray, Messrs. J. Ross, J. Mason, J. Marks, R. Slyghford, T. Smith, G. Powell, and J. Clarke carried it out most successfully in a short time. Leaving Neston with another traction engine at 3 o’clock on Monday morning, they journeyed to the spot where the accident occurred, about 24 miles, and at once sat about their task, and by ten o’clock that night the engine was brought from its awkward position, turned over, and hauled up into the road. After a short rest, and breakfasting at 2 am., they set to work and put all the furniture vans right, and afterwards set off for Neston, where they arrived, with the unfort“unate engine in tow, about 7 p.m. on Tuesday…

(photo copyright G. Bridson) Gray’s traction engine following accident.

On a lighter note, in the following year, one of the traction engines unwittingly conveyed some unusual passengers; hens belonging to Joseph Gray and it was not, it appears, an isolated incident.

Cheshire Observer – Saturday 23 June 1900
“…The other day a traction engine, with threshing machine and other wheeled appliances attached, journeyed from Neston to Dunham- o’th-Hill. The customary officers were in charge, and on arriving at Dunham they found, to their astonishment, that they had also conveyed a passenger in the shape of a hen seated on a nest of 15 eggs. The matronly fowl betrayed no astonishment, having evidently come to the conclusion that the procession had been got up as a little attention to her in her interesting and anxious situation. A little while ago quite a family of hens belonging to Mr. Joseph Gray— the owner of the engine— mysteriously disappeared, and were missing until the steam thrashing machine began to work at Back wood, when with a series of blood- curdling shrieks, that made the engine-men’s knees smite together with terror, the missing party of hens dashed from the innermost recesses of the machine and took to the woods…”

In August 1900 Joseph married Elizabeth Lucy Hancock of Neston at Christchurch, Kensington, Liverpool. They lived at Elm Villa in Liverpool Road with Joseph’s two sons and his mother, Ann. Joseph and Elizabeth had two children, Tom Hancock Gray born in 1902 and Elsie May Gray born in 1903 but Elizabeth died soon after the birth of her daughter. She took her own life most probably as a result of what we would know recognise as post natal depression.

In 1905  the family left Elm Villa and moved to the Mill House, formerly occupied by Bridsons, in Leighton Road.

Little Neston

In 1904 Joseph Gray’s traction engine was employed in the removal of a large boulder from Little Neston to Thornton Manor, the home of Lord Leverhulme. The stone weighed over three tons and had, for as long as could be remembered, been a familiar landmark in the centre of Little Neston though it had at some point been moved from Badger Butt, where it was an unwelcome obstruction, to the green. Neston Urban District Council had offered it to anyone willing to move it and  it appears that Lord Leverhulme was the only one able to take up the offer. He employed Joseph Gray to carry out the work and the event attracted a number of interested spectators and was reported in the local newspapers.

Chester Courant 19th October 1904

….. The principal objects which have met its strong gaze for some time have been the village “pub,” the disused village pound, and an iron lamppost of grim and unornamental aspect. It has exchanged these soul-inspiring surroundings for a charming situation by the entrance hall of a county magnate, where, standing a full head and shoulders over the ether curios that have congregated here, it looks out upon the graceful curve of the well-kept drive and the gay parties who from time to time pass over it.
It’s a long step from the village pinfold to the front door of a millionaire, but in the hands of an expert haulage contractor, Mr. Joseph Gray, whose name deserves to go down to posterity along with the stone, it was accomplished with a celerity that left the worthy folk of Little Neston standing open-eyed and open-mouthed long after it had vanished from their gaze. A chain a little larger than that worn by a Lord Mayor was insinuated about its ample waist, and a wire rope was attached thereto and connected with the huge-3 traction engine standing by. All was in readiness for the word of commend, and when this was given the engine gave a couple of snorts, walked a pace or two away and the stone stepped nimbly up a couple of beams and sat on the special haulage wagon that awaited it. The work of lifting the stone from its resting-place and putting it on the wagon consumed exactly three minutes
The procession passed up Lees-lane to the Telegraph- road and proceeded to Thornton Hough, via the Clegg Arms. At the latter hostelry the stone was placed upon the weighing machine, where it turned the scale at 4 tons 11cwt. 2qrs., or rather more than the weight of the heavyweight champion. The journey to Thornton Hough Manor, the residence of Mr. W. H. Lever, was afterwards completed, and, as previously intimated, the stone found a resting-place by the entrance hall. It is confidently asserted that this is by far the largest boulder of the kind in Wirral, and perhaps the whole county might be safely challenged to produce its equal. It was photographed at several points of the journey

1907 was not a good year for the Gray family. It started badly with a fire at Dunstan Farm in Burton which resulted in the destruction of a threshing machine and a van belonging to Joseph Gray. On the 26th April Joseph’s mother, Ann, died followed in July by the death of his brother, William.

Thomas Gray returned to Neston from South Africa in May of that year to work in the business. In 1908 he married Margaret (Maggie) Rees, living at first in Prospect Cottage in Park Street before moving to Raby Road.  In 1909 Joseph was responsible for carry out a contract for the Telegraph Department of the GPO, transporting telegraph poles in the area of Colwyn Bay. Following this Colwyn Bay Council took both Grays and the GPO to court to recover the costs of repairing damage caused to the roads allegedly by one of the traction engines. According to the evidence the damage was caused when the brakes were applied rather than by the weight of the load.

Agricultural work such as threshing was essentially seasonal but Joseph Gray, like many other traction engine owners, used their machines for other types of work during the year including – “Steam Dredging and excavating, Cleaning of Ponds, Rivers and Ornamental Waters with the most up to date plant yet introduced”.

Traction engines and their operation were now subject to legislation under the Heavy Motorcar Act and in 1915 Joseph was summoned in Frodsham for not having a weight plate ‘legibly and conspicuously attached to a locomotive’. He argued the case saying that the weight was marked on the front of the engine, albeit not very legibly and in any case the machine had been out of his hands for most of the previous six months as it was being used ‘night and day’ by the War Office. On this occasion the case was dismissed on payment of costs but he was summoned a few months later for the same offence with several  similar offences taken into consideration at the same time and he was fined 20 shillings. On this occasion, he did not appear.

Later in that same year Joseph died, on 28th November 1915.

Chester Chronicle – Saturday 04 December 1915
NESTON. DEATH Mr. JOSEPH GRAY.—Neston has lost a well-known resident in the person of Mr. Joseph Gray, of Leighton-road, well-known throughout Cheshire and Wales as a haulage contractor and threshing- machine proprietor. He was in his 55th year, and was a good shot with his gun, very popular with a host of friends, and a keen player of bowls. He died on Sunday, and was interred Parish Church on Wednesday afternoon, the Rev. C. Brooke Gwynne officiating. Among those present were Mr. C. Gray, Mr. W . Gray, Mr. J. Gray, Mr. R. Gray, Messrs. S. Hancock, W . Hancock, H. Grundy, C. Leonard, R. L. Price, J. Jones, H. Peers, T. Tickle, J. Woods, J. Kitchen, W. Molyneux, E. Box, G. Radley, W. Kemp, T. Johnson’, J. Johnson, J. Cross, R. Norris, E. Grimes, J. Woodward, T. Swift, F. Pritchard, J. Crawford, J. Grundy, and W. Piper. The bearers were Messrs. W. H. Ashbrook, J. P. Scarratt, J. Ashton, G. Newcombe, F. Birch, and J. Whiteway.

Thomas Gray had his own tragedies. His son, Thomas William, born in  1914, died in 1919 at the age of 5 from diptheria. His son Charles (born in 1918) died  on 3 Aug 1933. He drowned in the river Dee whilst trying to save his brother Jack (b1920) from drowning. He was buried in Neston cemetery on 7th August

Two days afterwards, on the 9th August, Thomas Gray died at the age of 68.


The business was continued by Joseph’s son, also named Charles Joseph Gray (1889 – 1970) but known as Charles or Charlie. He continued to live at the Mill in Leighton Road and in 1917 he married Margaret Tyson.

His brother Wolton (1892 – ?) married Violet Lewis in 1924 then, shortly afterwards,  he and his wife left England for South Africa. He was initially employed by John Fowler of Leeds to sell steam rollers in South Africa but there was very little interest in buying the engines at that time so he established Fowler Tar Spraying in partnership with a Mr Lowman and a Mr Fishwick. At first they hired out the Fowler steam rollers but later established themselves as contractors. They were employed by the South African Railways and Harbours in Cape Town working on roads and wharves in the area. There is still today a road repair and construction company in Natal, South Africa operating under the name of Wolton Gray and Son.

Charles was active in the community as well as running his business. In 1940, during the Second World War, Charles, along with Albert Tilley, formed a local Voluntary Salvage Corps with a view to collecting any salvage, especially metal, remaining in the area. A number of local women’s organisation supported the effort by visiting houses within their area to inform householders what sort of material was needed and to arrange collection days, collections being made by owners of lorries who had volunteered their services. The women’s organisations included Burton and Puddington Women’s Institute, Willaston Mothers’ Union and Womens Institute, Women’s Labour Party, Women’s Conservatives and Women’s Guild. The effort raised £190 which was distributed to locally, £148 to the Cottage Hospital and donations to Willaston and Burton Red Cross Detachments, Willaston Nursing Association, Neston and Willaston Comforts for the Forces Fund, Women’s Voluntary Services Evacuees Fund and Neston Sewing for the Forces class.

His brother Wolton, now settled in South Africa,  initially sent £5 towards the fund raising and afterwards wrote to say that he would send a payment of £5 per month to be used for the relief of any local distress arising out of the war or for local war charities.

Chester Chronicle – Saturday 26 August 1944 Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD

In 1844 Charles sold off the threshing part of the business to Coopers of Burton and a few years later, in 1949, wound up the business completely. In the years since his grandfather
first established the business in Neston Gray’s had owned at least 16 traction engines though none have survived to the present day.

London Gazette, 9th December 1949

He continued working as a local councillor on the Neston Urban District Council and was on the council when Morgan Crucibles first began their search for a site for a new factory on the Wirral. He was also one of the trustees for the Matthews Monk Charity in the 1950s (see Charity of Nessie Matthews and John Monk).

Charles Gray died in Neston in 1970.


British Newspaper Archive articles accessed online at http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk. (This is a paid for service but newspaper articles are also available through Find My Past which may be accessed free of charge in most Cheshire libraries)

Welsh Newspapers Online accessed online at http://newspapers.library.wales/

Ancestry.co.uk. This is a subscription based site but may be accessed free of charge in most Cheshire libraries