James William Gray was born in 1912 at Reform Lane, Lerwick.
He was an unassuming man with a passion for using his hands. Skilled in craftwork, building ships inside bottles was an intricate skill for the Lerwick man.
James was also a rather quiet entrepreneurial character.
He worked in Theo Kay’s warehouse before buying the Thule Bar on the esplanade in Lerwick. Later, Jeemie, as he was known in his native town, started a small wholesale business simply called Gray’s.
Following hostilities in 1945, Jeemie’s younger brother John returned to Lerwick in 1947 after staying on in the navy from service in the Second World War, he was a submariner. John worked at the Herring Industry Board (HIB) as an electrician, he also worked “aboot da nights” with his brother in the Thule Bar. John later became a partner in the electrical business Shetland Electrical Services (SES), it was said locally that they wired most of Shetland at a time when electricity supply was being rolled out to every remote community and household across the islands.
In 1961, after selling up out of SES, John somewhat quietly became the “& Co” in his brother’s small wholesale operation and the business of J. W. Gray & Co. was born.
The first premises the business occupied stood on Fort Road at the top of Mill Lane. A very small shed with a basement but a stunning office view over Lerwick harbour and Bressay.
The business quickly outgrew its modest start and a new premisses was purchased at Garthspool, the building that had been Williamson’s Kiln.
At this time beer and ales were brought into Shetland in barrels with bottling and labelling caried out by various small businesses. J. W. Gray & Co. were prominent in this trade. Many brands, some still instantly recognised today, assisted in providing labels for the finished bottles with the labels all applied by hand.
In 1965 Gray’s manufactured and launched a soft drinks range. A firm favourite in the isles, lemonade, sparkling orange, Vimto and cream soda were among the products produced. Modest manufacturing and bottling plant were installed at Garthspool and very many Lerwick boys worked holiday and Saturday jobs on this production line. The process included semi-automatic bottle cleaning, filling, gas and flavourings added, with labels applied last.
As the economy grew during the late 1970s, largely due to the oil industry arriving in Shetland, there was a general increase in socialising, particularly eating out, which saw J. W. Gray’s business grow.
A rather warming tale surrounds the appearance of a first Chinese restaurant in Shetland, The Golden Coach on the Hillhead, Lerwick in the premises that had been Marnock’s shop.
The new venture was owned by the very popular Mr Ma. Not being yet up to speed on local tipples and habits, Mr Ma met John Gray who helped greatly in providing the service and goods the restaurant required. It was said that after the first day’s opening, a call came requesting re-supplies quickly. Local knowledge had certainly been right! The Golden Coach is still trading in Lerwick, and J.W. Gray & Co. are still providing much of the same service to the business now.
At the time, such was the brisk trade that the owners of the famous Irish stout, Guinness, flew a private plane to Sumburgh to present and congratulate J.W. Gray & Co. on their successful local growth, one of the largest accounts they had in Scotland at the time.
Yet another example of caring about customer service occurred during a shipping strike. No freight was moving between Lerwick and Aberdeen to the obvious disadvantage of J.W. Gray & Co. customers, not to mention the local economy. John Gray decide to take it upon himself to do something about it. The charter of a freight ship was arranged, and the logistics of getting suppliers to deliver to dockside, we think at Scrabster, and having goods shipped to Lerwick were sorted. All before email, mobile phones, and the connectivity of today.
Such was the demand that almost the entire ship load hit the floor at the Garthspool warehouse and went straight out the door to desperate customers. Questions were asked in the community as to why an entrepreneurial local business could achieve this while the council couldn’t.
The business had been driven by a hard-working local couple, John and Ann Gray. The former the driving force out on the floor so to speak and Ann quietly keeping the books very much in order. They were certainly due retirement in 1980 and took the decision to sell the business. It was bought locally, and John spent a considerable amount of time and effort in providing a smooth hand-over. The consortium that bought the business sold it on and the current local owners incorporated J.W Gray & Co. PLC on 11th July 1984.
The current staff and owners hold the same business ethos the founders did: Serving the local retail, food service, on-trade, off-sales, ship’s stores, and other sectors. They simply stock and supply what the customers in Orkney and Shetland need to maintain their own businesses.