Date of Birth: 8 March 1940, Scarborough, North Yorkshire, UK
Birth Name: Christopher John David Wray
Nicknames: Christopher Wray
Christopher Wray, was an out-of-work young actor when he discovered a passion for antique lamps; he went on to become the head of his own multi-million-pound domestic lighting business.
Trying to make ends meet during an actors’ strike in the early 1960s, he started selling vintage lamps from a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market. Having made his first sale with a Victorian paraffin oil lamp with a round white globe, he started buying similar ones from junk shops at the Fulham end of the King’s Road, giving five shillings (25p) each for them before polishing them up and selling them for £3.
“The people at the Chelsea end of the King’s Road would not be seen dead frequenting the shops at the Fulham end, so I was doing them a service,” he explained.
As the business evolved Wray started to sell traditional oil lamps that had been converted to run off electricity, but as these became increasingly difficult to find he began to make them himself.
In 1964 he opened his first shop on the King’s Road just as the famous thoroughfare was sprouting trendy boutiques and becoming a focal point and shop window for the new “swinging” London. Dudley Moore would occasionally drop in to play the harmonium that Wray kept in his store. Although a friend at the London School of Economics predicted Wray would go broke within a year, business was brisk from the outset, and when Wray found that his first week’s takings were enough to cover the rent for the year, he called a halt to his acting career, even turning down a permanent role in the ITV soap opera Emmerdale Farm.
The business continued to grow with Wray opening his own workshops in Chelsea and Birmingham. At one stage he had more than 20 shops around Britain, making his firm the largest dedicated lighting retailer in the country, and cornering the niche upper end of the market.
At his grandiose King’s Road shop, with its wide stairs sweeping down to the lower floor and enormous spreading palms, Wray was renowned for his vast range of Victorian lights and Tiffany-style shades, but with the arrival of low-voltage LED he also moved into retro and contemporary lighting.
The son of an agricultural engineer who serviced ploughs and tractors, Christopher John David Wray was born on March 8 1940 in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Sent to Abingdon School in Oxfordshire at the age of 11, he abandoned his A-level studies in 1957, planning, aged 17, to become Britain’s youngest professional magician. He took a summer job on the promenade at Bridlington as assistant to a balloon-toting clown called Windy Blow and performed magic tricks during his show.
When the season ended, he turned to acting, and after training at the Italia Conti school in London was cast in television shows such as Upstairs, Downstairs, Doctor Who and Z Cars. In 1963 he played the part of the Fat Boy in the West End production of the musical Pickwick, starring Harry Secombe.
During a spell organising stage props for Tommy Cooper and Arthur Askey, Wray developed a taste for antiques and bric-a-brac. As assistant stage manager for a repertory company touring Ireland, it was his job to scour junk shops for props, and, when an actors’ strike made it difficult to get work in London, a friend suggested he hire a stall in Chelsea Antiques Market and sell the bric-a-brac he had collected for himself.
A year or so later, Wray heard that a post office on the King’s Road was closing down. With a loan of £1,000 from his mother, he reopened it as a specialist lighting shop, but being unable to afford £4,000 to buy the freehold, rented it for £750 a year . Wray employed runners to track down new stock and was soon turning over £45 a week, most of it profit. He scoured flea markets in Paris in search of stock and in Ireland became known as the Lamp Man by tinkers with whom he haggled over price.
When customers started asking for replacement glass shades and chimneys for their antique lamps because originals were hard to find, Wray moved into manufacturing. He discovered old moulds at a Yorkshire glass works, Hailwood and Ackroyd, and persuaded the firm to produce shades for him. Another factory in Birmingham supplied replacement brass parts. As he expanded by buying up more shops around his own by the late 1970s he had no fewer than 10 outlets on the King’s Road alone he consolidated his business in a single large, purpose-built emporium in 1990.
By 1992 the Christopher Wray Lighting Emporium in the King’s Road was said to be the largest decorative lighting shop in Europe, selling a range of more than 5,000 different lamps and light fittings. The company owned 14 shops around the country, two factories and employed more than 240 people. In 2005 he opened a northern branch shop in Manchester, a theatrical space of glass and high ceilings where he also sold modern and contemporary classic furniture, as Christopher Wray became a “lifestyle brand”.
In his spare time he combined his love for adventure, travel and vintage cars by taking part in rallies to India, Iran, Pakistan and China.
With his personal fortune he bought a huge Edwardian house in Putney, moving some 10 years ago to a contemporary Thames-side penthouse apartment.