Lighting up Leeds: The Story of George Bray & Co

Discover the history behind Leeds businessman George Bray – the 19th century gas lighting pioneer who changed the face of Britain – with Social History placement student Bryn Pickles.

In 1863 local Leeds businessman George Bray started his own company ‘George Bray & Co’.  Later, he would re-invent gas lighting and Britain would not be the same again. During my placement with Leeds Museums from Leeds Trinity University, I stumbled across an early 20th century gas mantle from the company ‘George Bray & Co’.  This intrigued me to look deeper in to what made it such a successful company that managed to run for over 150 years.

While the company now might be owned by an Italian company, the original business had humble origins in the Leeds industrial sector. The Bray Company was famous in Leeds and across the rest of the country: indeed, they made some of the first gas lights used in Leeds. Not only did Bray invent new ceramic gas burners, but he also made a way for them to be mass produced and therefore cheaper, meaning they were widely available to the public.

an image of an old cardboard box with "Two dozen Bray xxx inverted gas mantles" printed in red. Next to it is a small inverted mantle.
Box of 16 Gas Mantles from the Early 20th Century in the Collection.

Reading about George Bray sparked my interest when I discovered his house was a mere 5 minute walk from my own and felt implored to discover more about the man behind the company. George Bray came from very humble origins, starting out as a mill boy at the age of 11. He also worked long into the night to study and better himself. He would experiment with trying to produce helpful products and is even said to have burnt some of his parent’s furniture to boost the fire he was using to create new products.

In 1863 he founded his own company, George Bray & Co, after making a breakthrough with gas burners that would propel him to the forefront of Leeds society.

Bray was an extremely intelligent man that initiated change in British society. He saw the need for change within his company, too: in 1878 the competition from electricity could have run him out of business. Instead of giving up he persevered, and improved his gas lights further and exhibited them outside of Leeds town hall in 1879. The company continued to produce gas lighting before slowly moving into gas cooking and heating appliances at the start of the 20th century.

Around the 1880’s George Bray moved to the ‘Belmont’ on Wood Lane in Headingley with a view over the Meanwood valley. Here he, with his wife and five children, enjoyed living in the green, leafy suburb on the outskirts of Leeds at a time when his company was at the height of success.  At this residence he became a pillar of the community. As an avid sports man and entrepreneur he helped to fund long lasting local projects such as Headingley Cricket and Rugby ground in 1888.

George Bray died in 1905 at the age of 64. In his lifetime he managed to become one the most famous people to make their mark on not only the Leeds area but the rest of the world. His affordable gas lighting revolutionised the way in which the world used light and made it readily available to everyone. By the time he died he was a revered figurehead within the community and is a lasting reminder of the great heritage Leeds has to offer the world.

By Bryn Pickles, Placement Student

To find out more about our Social History collection, click here.

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