Alexander Gray arrived in Ventnor sometime in the 1890s. His place of dwelling, though, was not of the kind that any ordinary inhabitant would wish to savour: in summer, it was, by turns, a natural bower among trees and bushes in Steephill Cove or a shelter near La Falaise on the western cliffs; in winter, he found refuge in a natural cave on the Steephill Castle estate – in what is now Castle Close.
In appearance, he had a greying black beard, greasy long black hair and sometimes sought to affect the appearance of a gentleman by dressing in an old frock coat, a top hat and carrying an umbrella. He acquired the name ‘Holy Joe’ on account of his evangelising street sermons. He would preach of the dangers of hellfire and damnation to all and sundry. A favoured location was somewhere along the Esplanade, even on the entrance steps to some of the boarding houses.
He appears to have survived largely on the charity of townsfolk and, on occasions, people gave him food just to try and get him to move on. He also had a habit of entering a café, ordering a meal, consuming it and then refusing to pay. His typical response was that ‘the Lord would provide’. He had a fine ability, too, to smell out a dinner cooking and would enter the house from whence the inviting aroma came, sit himself down at table, say grace to the company around and wait to be fed.
He was regularly in trouble with the authorities for obscene language or for shouting and behaving in a disorderly manner in public places, especially on the Esplanade. In August 1909, he was convicted in absentia by magistrates and fined the sum of 20 shillings, with 9 shillings costs, or suffer three weeks imprisonment. However, he clearly had a different side to his character, for he had his own portrait reproduced on post cards and sold them to visitors, the cards now collectors’ items. Gray died in January 1915, although the circumstances of his death are unclear.
Michael Freeman, Ventnor & District Local History Society