In the early 1960s a new (to Downley) pub was built near the junction of Plomer Green Avenue and Littleworth Road, and the brewery invited the villagers to choose a name. The name “Downley Donkey” was suggested in recognition of the popular Victorian resident- Dickie Gray the Donkey Man. The pub closed in 2014 and was initially converted to a Morrisons Local before reopening as the Downley Co-Op Store.
Richard (Dickie) Gray, son of Thomas and Ann (née Biggs) was born in 1840 in the parish of Hughenden. In 1851 Dickie, aged 11, was living with his parents and siblings at Naphill. His father, Thomas and two elder brothers, George and Frederick, were working as chair turners and his sisters, Rebecca and Sarah, were lace makers.
By 1861 Thomas and Ann Gray had moved to Downley common. George, Frederick and Rebecca were no longer living with their parents. Dickie, who was then 21, and his father were working as chair turners. His mother and sister Sarah were lace makers: two very common occupations for Buckinghamshire people.
At that time, the Chiltern Bodgers, as the chair turners later became known, were not all itinerant workers living in the woods but many lived with their families very close to their place of work. In particular, the turners often worked on their pole lathes alone or in groups in wooden sheds adjacent to their homes. It is likely that Dickie Gray and his father worked in this way.
10 years later Dickie had become a “coal merchant”. An article by Noreen Talbot in the Village News (July 1992) states “coal was brought from West Wycombe station by a two-horse cart. A heavy farm horse was needed to help them up Plomer Hill”. Subsequent census returns described Dickie Gray as a “carrier”. He would have been a familiar sight travelling round the Downley lanes and surrounding area with his donkey cart, but there is no record of the types of goods he carrried..
Dickie Gray never married but continued to live with his parents for many years. However, when the land survey took place in 1910 and the population census the following year, he was living alone at 2, Tilbury Cottages, Moor Lane and was described as a donkey dealer. His donkeys would have grazed on the common.
Dickie Gray passed away in 1916 at the age of 75.
Many people have recounted their memories of this popular Downley character. Interviewees for the book “Downley in Times Past ” recalled the old-fashioned “Donkey Man” with a long grey beard wearing a cap with ear-flaps and a sacking apron tied around his waist with a piece of string. His string of five or six donkeys, stabled in the grounds of Mountjoy’s Retreat, would plod behind him as he set off down Plomer Green Lane and one could hear such sounds as “Whoa Parker! Hurry along Jenny!” until he was out of sight and hearing. As well as being used for light carting jobs the donkeys were taken to fetes for children to ride on.