Michael Leslie Gray – Hackney historian and community activist: born London March 3rd 1938, died Toledo 10th January 2015
Mike Gray, who has died in Spain at the age of 76, said that his life was defined by three locations Dulwich, Hackney and Mora de Toledo (the small town in Spain where he lived the last years of his life). He was a lifelong community activist and animateur who will be most remembered for his leading role in saving Sutton House Hackney, and in changing the soul of the National Trust along the way.
Mike was an old style polymath – a leading figure in the Dulwich Communist Party in the 1950s and 60s; an excellent photographer; keen naturalist and gardener, and knowledgeable local historian. He loved art, architecture, music and the cinema – the more experimental the better. He was a passionate follower of modern jazz and was often to be found at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho and in the nearby pubs and cafés where musicians and artists gathered.
After school Mike did his national service in the RAF. He then worked in the technical department at Peek Frean’s biscuit factory in Bermondsey, trying to make Marmite adhere better to ‘twiglets’ and later, as a hospital porter. Mike trained for teaching as a mature student at Goldsmith’s College but quickly realised that teaching was not for him, and finally found a professional home as photographic technician in the geology department of University College London where he remained until retirement.
Mike grew up in a rented Victorian house in East Dulwich. He was born into the communist party – his mother was a lifelong member, and had the Daily Worker delivered every day. His father was a conservative but read the same paper because he was ‘too mean’ to buy another one! Mike became a member of the party at an early age but was never a Stalinist and fought hard to convince others that communism could have a human face.
In the 1960s he toured Eastern Europe with his first wife Kathy Brown on a tiny Lambretta scooter. In 1968 he joined the demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Stockholm and was in Prague for Alexander Dubcek’s Prague Spring. His hopes were dashed that summer when he photographed Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square and talked with Russian soldiers who seemed bemused and uncertain about where they were, let alone why.
During the 1960s his house in East Dulwich became a hub of anti-establishment activity and artistic creativity, and a welcoming destination for left wing young people from all over the world. There were regular exhibitions of the work of local artists and frequent political debates.
In the early 1970s he moved to Hackney with his second wife, Andrea Place, and his political interests and activities became more oriented towards community work, alternative theatre, art and music. He played a leading part in establishing the Hackney Marsh Fun Festival and acted as its chair for several years.
When Hackney Council closed its library at Chatsworth Road Clapton, with its impressive Doric portico, he campaigned that it become a community arts centre, came up with its name – Chats Palace – and served as its first chairman. Early events were adorned with buckets under leaks in the ceiling but under his leadership “Chats” combined artistic vibrancy with deep community roots. Its immersive and irreverent pantomimes, staged on a shoestring, were famous. “Robbin’ the Rich” – in which the entire auditorium was transformed into the Greenwood, was especially memorable. Mike’s enthusiasms were reflected in regular Music Hall and jazz events and he also found time to persuade the GLC to erect a blue plaque in Graham Road Hackney to Marie Lloyd, Hackney’s most celebrated Music Hall artiste. He was supported by his partner, Eufemia (“Ufi”) Agasee, with whom he had a son, Nicolas, following his separation from Andrea.
Then in 1987, the National Trust, still in the shadow of James Lees Milne’s obsession with aristocratic country houses, shamefully decided to dispose of Hackney’s Tudor Sutton House for development as flats. Shameful not least because the people of Hackney had supported a subscription to restore Sutton House after it was donated to the Trust in the 1930s. Sutton House – subject to malign neglect by the Trust – had been squatted, looted of its linen fold panelling and its interior was in a ruinous condition. Mike was determined to ensure that the Trust would not get away with it. “Save Sutton House” was set up, with Mike as its chairman and early meetings at his basement flat in Clapton Passage. He led working parties to peel back accumulated layers of neglect and show the architectural importance of the house and his diligent historical research revealed the unsuspected fact that the House had been built by Rafe Sadleir, right hand man to Thomas Cromwell. Under his leadership the campaign ignited, supported by a constellation of activists from Hackney and beyond, and the Trust had no realistic option but to cave in. Central to the objectives of Save Sutton House was the demand that Sutton House not merely be restored but that it become a centre and resource for the community. The campaign had an electrifying effect on the Trust itself, galvanising its revisionist wing seeking to resile from Lees Milne’s priorities and establish closer connections with cities and communities.
Restoration of the Sutton House by Richard Griffiths was completed by 1995 but Mike’s role was not at an end. He chaired the Sutton House Society and ensured that the House was a fulcrum of the community with talks, meetings, performances and parties and he became partner to Sutton House’s talented first director, Carole Mills, who predeceased him in 2007. His diligent historical researches continued and he co-authored an impressive monograph on Sutton House and its history, published by English Heritage. Mike was an impressive self-taught photographer. A major retrospective of Mike’s photography ‘Can you trap shadows like this?’ was held at Sutton House, Hackney in 2000.
Mike’s talents as a self-taught historical researcher were impressive; his researches established where Joseph Priestley had lived in Hackney after being driven out of Birmingham and he was later delighted when a wine bar named Priestleys was set up on the site, and spent many evenings there enjoying white wine. With Sean Gubbins he led local walks around Hackney sharing his immense local knowledge larded with anecdote, humour and opinion.
After Carole’s death Mike retired to Mora, a small town near Toledo in Spain. He bought and restored a traditional Spanish house which he filled with books and manuscripts. Mike was mesmerised by the vast plateau and endless-seeming olive groves of Castilla La Mancha studded with blue distant hills. He later moved to a retirement home outside Mora and died in Toledo of cancer. He is survived by his son Nicolas and his sister Nina.
Laurie Elks and Sylvia Steward
Mike Gray was a very talented photographer and for the first Hackney Marsh Fun Festival in 1974 Mike organised and displayed a photographic exhibition about Hackney in a marquee on Daubeney Fields. Mike became Chairman of Hackney Marsh Fun Festival and was instrumental in the promotion of the Festival and documenting it’s progress. The Festival grew from a two day event to a programme of events throughout the year in local pubs and community halls. The Hackney Marsh Fun Festival was one of the founding members of Chats Palace the former Homerton Library. Mike was voted Chairman and it was he who came up with name Chats Palace ( an abbreviation of Chatsworth Road and Peoples Palace).
Mike loved Music Hall and Jazz and one of the first events in Chats was Professor Alexanders Music Hall, which became a regular part of the programme as did Sunday lunchtime jazz. He also managed somehow to find time to get a blue plaque to Mary Lloyd erected in Graham Road. Mike was chairman for 5years his tireless creative energy was crucial to the development of Chats Palace a legacy that continues to this day.