On 22 June in 1968, Alfred Ernest Cornelius Bray passed away at the Repatriation Hospital, Concord, NSW, Australia, aged 71 after serving in two world wars, being heavily involved in sport, and the RSL movement, starting up his own business while with his wife Belle raising two children. One or my regrets is that I didn’t get to know my grandfather better.
Alf was born on 3 March in 1897 at Hurstville, NSW, the second child and eldest son of the eight children of Alfred Charles and Ellen Louisa (Cole) Bray. Growing up in Hurstville as a youngster he played rugby union but then converted to rugby league which became his passion.
His father was a railway mail guard which probably enabled Alf to get a position as a clerk with the NSW Railways at Railway Yards. However in 1914, at the age of seventeen is father Alfred Charles Bray was one of fourteen people killed it the Exeter rail disaster (see my post if March 16, 2018). This caused considerable problems for his mother Ellen and her family.
Alf was now the male head of the family but just over a year later at the age of just 18 years, in August 1915, he enlisted in the AIF answering the call of mother England to fight in World War 1. Sailing from Sydney in December and after training in Egypt he arrived in France in March 1916 part of A Company of the 3rd Battalion. He served in France and Belgium at the Somme, in Flanders and many other theatres until 22 June 1918 when at Strazelle he was caught in a German gas attack. He was seriously injured and after treatment in Boulogne, convalesced in England for a period before returning to his unit and final back to Australia in February 1919. Alf kept diary throughout the war years and it is now held by the NSW State Library. While in Flanders he bought a souvenir pewter broach of the coat of arms of Ypres and which he later gave to his wife.
He returned home and lived with his family at Woids Avenue, Hurstville before marrying Clarice Belle Bryant on 16 October 1919 at Kogarah, took up his position of clerk in the Railways and a year later their daughter Norma Beryl was born.
His war service entitled him to a War Service home and in early 1923 the family moved to their brand new home in Restwell Street Bankstown. The following year a son, Douglas Arthur was born. He also transferred to the railway sheds at nearby Punchbowl and under doctor’s orders walked to and from work to further help with recuperation from his gas-affected lung problems.
At Restwell Street created a family home making maximum use of the back yard. He laid out paths separating garden beds where he grew vegetables and flowers. He built fish ponds, aviaries, and there was garage that he used as a workshop. Norma would recall how he would arrive home from work, have a cup of tea and then spend all evening until dinner in the back yard or garage. When I was only young we would enjoy visiting Nana and Pa and exploring the back yard with their silky terrier, Skippy.
He encouraged and supported both children in sports with Norma taking up competitive diving while Doug raced bicycles. There were also plenty of family outings, a favourite being boating in his cabin launch on the Georges River.
His own sporting activities had started when he played rugby union but in 1915. He soon transferred to rugby league with the Penshurst R.L.F.C. in the St, George Competition. After the war he took up the whistle, becoming a referee in 1923, and he officiated in the Canterbury-Bankstown Competition until 1933, and was the Hon. Secretary of Canterbury-Bankstown Referees’ Association in 1929. In 1936 he became Secretary of the Canterbury-Bankstown Junior League, and then on the Committee of the District Club when they won their first premiership in 1938. He replaced Frank Miller as Canterbury-Bankstown Club Secretary in 1939 until WWII intervened (refer The Rugby League News July 1, 1939).
Alf’s war experiences also generated a deep interest in supporting his fellow war veterans. He was one of the instigators in the establishment of the Bankstown Sub-Branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSL) in October 1928 and was its first President. He remained in the role until 1933 and was a member of the State Executive of NSW in 1932-3. When a Women’s Auxiliary was also formed, Belle was its first Secretary.
The RSL Club started at the top of Restwell Street in a tin shed near the railway line but meetings were also held on the Bray residence in Restwell Street with Belle baking cakes for supper. The RSL members assisted out-of-work men during the Depression. Working out of Alf’s garage, scrap pieces of timber from timber yards were made into toys for Christmas presents such as wheel barrows, school cases, chairs, etc.
He again volunteered for service when World War 2 broke out, enlisting in July 1940 claiming he was born in December 1900 (giving him an age of 39 years instead of 43). . He served as a Temporary Warrant Officer training recruits at Dorrigo, Uralla and Armidale but was discharged “being medically unfit for further military service” in October 1944, no doubt as a result of his WW1 injuries.
After the war he decided to pursue his passion for gardening and on resigning from the Railways he established Bray’s Bankstown Nursery which operated in the Bankstown CBD in Fetherstone Street for many years.
Alf and Belle finally retired to Toukley on the Central Coast of NSW where they he enjoyed their last years together and he continued to propagate plants while his son Doug took over the nursery business. On his death he was cremated at Woronora Memorial Park and a plaque placed on the Wall of Remembrance in Row 16, Panel R.
At the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bankstown RSL in 1998, Alf’s service to the Club was also commemorated and a special certificate of appreciation presented to his daughter.
Although he had lived a full life, my Pa still died too young surely shortened by his war experiences, and at the same age I am today. I share a common regret with many family historians, after having discovered some details about an ancestor that I didn’t have a chance to get to know my grandfather better.