Bruce Johnson's Family History Website

The Wheatleys

The census of 1881 states that John Rayner was living in a bakers shop  in Sunderland High Street, with a wife called Mary who was born in Scotland. Mary was said to be 20 and her daughter, Mary Anne was said to be 12. Clearly something was wrong here. There were no records of the marriage. Mary does not appear in any other  census, neither earlier not later, neither in England nor Scotland, although John is still there in Sunderland looking after two sons,  and there are no records of Mary having died. I spent six months ordering the birth certificates of almost anyone who had married a Rayner in the 1870’s and tracing various widows and single women through the later census records, both of England and Scotland.

By the end of  2008 I had run out of options. Then a conversation with my Uncle Bill put me back on track.  He remembered that my Grandmother, Jenny Rayner, had once gone to Dundee on the East coast of Scotland to visit relatives.   Scotland has a different set of records, for births, deaths, marriages and even for the census returns,  so if  John Rayner's mysterious wife had a Scottish connection then it would explain why vital parts of the evidence were missing.

Once I started to look at the Scottish records the surprises came thick and fast. John Rayner was indeed married in Scotland,  not in Dundee but in Glasgow - in the very same church where my own mother and father would be married a hundred years later.   Other members of the Wheatley family began to pop up here and there in the most unexpected times and places. Some had even been living in Seaham Harbour years before my own Johnson relatives got there.  Gradually the reason made itself clear. The Wheatleys were sailors,  some of them were even born on-board ship, like Robert Wheatley, Captain of a ship "The Restless of Sunderland" . Their lives followed no pattern but the tide.  This is their story.

The Sunderland Sailor Wheatleys

We find William Wheatley,  born 1796 working as a Thames Waterman in the 1841 census.  The record shows he was not “born in this county” but also not from “foreign parts”  He married Ann Williams.  If not "born in this county" then where had he come from ?

Wheatley is a traditinal English name.  The Lee is one side of a hill, the side sheltered from the wind. Wheat-Lee would be a wheat field in that position. The surname Wheatley is found in several parts of the country and not all Wheatleys are related.   However, the greatest concentration of Wheatleys is on the North East coast of England,  for instance in the Cleveland and Redcar area, where 20% of the local people share that name.  Around 1800 there was an extended family of that name who worked as  sailors on the coastal transport routes, being based for the most part in the north -east of England:

John Wheatley,  aged 68 (born 1783) a retired Master mariner,  born in  Sunderland, now living in Hackney,  his wife Suzannah  born in Suffolk, Bury St Edmunds, his daughter Suzannah Mary born in Leyton Essex (1851 Census )

Sunderland - Backrow:  Michael Wheatley (60 ) (born 1780) and wife Jane, son James and daughter in Law Jane - all "not of this county" 1841 Census
Thomas Wheatley (46) (born 1795) Shipwright 1841 Census

Thomas William Wheatley born  (1804)  worked as a waterman in the London docks (marriage records)

  Dorothy Wheatley can be  found in the Tynemouth Union workhouse 1841 , she had been born in 1801 and her husband John Wheatley was a sailor off at sea 1841 Census
Another John Wheatley was born in Monkwearmouth around 1809, 1841 Census

Robert Wheatley, captain of the Restless of Sunderland,  born at sea 1814, found in Scotland in 1861 census  with his wife,  another Dorothy, born 1811. In his crew is  Richard Wheatley born Ireland aged 25 . 1861 census
 By 1881 Robert is retired, widowed and living in North Shields

Thomas Wheatley, Shipwright born 1819 1851 Census

Hallowell Wheatley, Master Mariner, was born 1830 Whitby but married a North Shields girl and the family is found living in Seaham in the 1861 census

1881 William Wheatley from South Shields docked in Forfar on the “Iron King” – no indication as to whether he was a relative)


William Wheatley (1796)  married Ann Williams (1795)  and worked as a Thames waterman.
Their niece, Sarah Williams (1809) married James Barlow (Limehouse 1798),
In 1827  James’s cousin,  Charlotte Barlow(1810), married Thomas William Wheatley (1804)  

So we have three families, Wheatley,  Williams and Barlow all living in the London docks in the period between 1827 and1841, and  each married into the others

William Thomas Wheatley and Charlotte dont feature anywhere in the 1841 census, neither England nor Scotland.  I suspect this is becasue they were on board ship.  Their first son George was probably born in London in 1833  though on some census returns he gave various locations on the south coast.
Charlotte and William Wheatley appear to have had a a taste for exotic names, and although George had escaped lightly the next three boys were to be named after the biblical characters Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, but in reverse order !

George was probably born in London in 1833
Sophia Ann – born 1835, died 1863
Abednego was born 1838
Mesach  born London 1839
Charlotte was born in 1846 (2)
Shadrach born 1843 in Fording bridge near Southampton

William Wheatley, and later his sons, went to sea at a time when Great Britain was the workshop of the world and all trade was conducted by sea. They were not deep sea sailors, but coastal carriers who knew their way around the coasts of Britain, from Poole in Dorset where agricultural produce was loaded to the teeming London docks and from there up to Sunderland for coal, or to the East coast of Scotland where textile mills buzzed beside fast flowing streams.
By 1851 the family had relocated to Angus in Scotland.  It may have been that life on board ship was just not practical with four children.
  In 1868  William Wheatley– died . His final address was given as 196 Overgate .

The oldest son, George Wheatley (b1833)  had  joined the Royal Navy to fight in the Crimean War which began in 1853.

The Battle of the Alma was a “soldiers battle”. It was not won by clever tactics but by the solid dogged tenacity of the British troops. The army been landed from ships but needed to make their way in land. Their Russian opponents commanded the high ground which overlooked them.

On 20th September 1854 the British had to fight their way up a steep slope under fire. In an incident symptomatic of the poor command which characterised the Crimean War, the main army never arrived, and it was the British advance guard, the skirmish line, which fought their way up those hills, taking terrible casualties but eventually winning through to the top.

Meanwhile out in the bay the Royal navy ships used their guns to provide supporting fire, starting at about noon. On board the Agamemnon a gun burst free from it’s station and crushed the leg of 21 year old George Wheatley. (or was he hit by a cannon ball) His naval career had met an abrupt end.  The list of wounded incorrectly gives his name as George Whitby.  (These records need to be checked. A local historian in Houghton le Spring claims it was not at the Alma but  14th October at the bombardment of Sevastopol)

George returned the east coast of Scotland where is father William Wheatley and his mother Charlotte now lived around Montrose. He was an energetic, charismatic character and despite his wooden leg, or perhaps because of it, he soon found a girl who would marry him.

Marriage of George Wheatley to Jane Findlay  1855
10th October 1855, George married  in Montrose Scotland – but it was a Church of England wedding. His bride was Jane Findlay, a local factory girl – a power loom weaver.  It appears that his father William had now settled down in the local community as his profession, on the wedding lines, is given as a flaxweaver.
George could perhaps be described as prolific. Some sources in County Durham suggest that he was to have 20 children from 2 different marriages. Unfortunately confusion has arisen because he had three brothers away at sea and this led to a lot of small Wheatleys in the census – but few older ones!  I estimate the real total is more like 12 , but a one legged man is somewhat limited in his choice of sports and pastimes and George quickly began to fulfil his duties a s a husband and father

Children of George Wheatley and Jane Findlay

George William Wheatley born 1856 – Montrose / Angus Scotland
Josephine born 1857
Ann Wylie Wheatley   born 1st October 1860 in Forfar – Montrose district.
Cathrine  1862  ?
John 1863 ?
Charlotte Wheatley born  1866  (died aged 3)

Death of Jane Wheatley (Findlay)
Sadly the records report the death of  Mrs Jane Wheatley (Findlay) 23rd March 1867  “in childbed”  at Dundee aged 32, possibly giving birth to the child registered as “Fanny” or “Johan” her husband’s occupation now listed as a “Spirit Dealer”  The informant was her brother John Findlay, her parents were  listed as John Findlay, Spirit Dealer and Catherine Laing (deceased).  Interestingly George had picked up the trade of spirit dealer from his father in law.

So by the summer of 1867 George was in his mid thirties. He had lost a leg and lost a wife. He found himself with several young children to care for and was now in the liquor business. His three brothers,  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were all off at sea and difficult to trace in any of the official records.

Meshach Wheatley marries Maria Anderson

Georges brother Meshach Wheatley (Sailor) married Maria Anderson in 1861  Her parents were John Anderson and Mary Findlay, and John Anderson had family in Sunderland. 

When we look up the birth entry for their daughter Isabella we find
22nd October 1870  , 196 Overgate Dundee  (6)
Fathers Name  Meshach Wheatley: Spirit Dealer 
Mothers Name Maria Wheatley (Anderson)
The 1871 Scottish census lists his brother’s  family as follows
Dundee, District of  St. John
196 Overgate  Flat 91
Meshach Wheatley (Male)  Married 30 Spirit Dealer born London (7)
Maria (Female) Wife  Forfarshire Arbroath
Moira 5
Joan 3
Isabella 5 months
Jane Clarke 26 Lodging
Marriage of Charlotte Wheatley
Meanwhile, Georges sister, Charlotte Wheatley, who had been born 1846, married John Lowson, an engine fitter from Perth,

Georges Wheatley’s  Sister Charlotte died in 1902, aged 66

Abednego Wheatley, married  Ann  Anderson
Georges brother Abednego Wheatley, married  Ann  Anderson , on 12th January 1869. She was the younger sister of Maria Anderson who had married Meshach.  Ann was 20, Abednego was 30.
1871 census Abednego Wheatley was still working as a Merchant  Seaman. At home in Montrose – Scotland his wife Anne Wheatley, (maiden name Anderson ) gave birth to a daughter , another Anne Wheatley in 1871

Abednego  Wheatley the sailor must have died by 1877

In the 1881 census it appears that a 9 year old Annie Wheatley from Montrose is living with her mother, 34 year old Annie, who has now remarried William Oswald 35, her siblings are 11 yr old John and George Wheatley  but there are also two children of the new marriage, Mary 1 and Isabella 3

Her sister Maria Anderson has gone with them as a servant 35 unmarried   (her age wrongly given as 35 when it should be 45.)
Shadrach Wheatley
Georges brother Shadrach Wheatley – Born 3rd ¼ of 1843 in Fordingbridge nr Southampton, appears briefly in the 1771 English census. Now aged 27 he is a ships Captain with a crew of 4 docked in Goole (1871 English Census)
George's younger brother William Wheatley would also marry a Scots girl, Margaret.
Marriage of George Wheatley to Josephine Lowson, his second wife.
26th April 1869 George Wheatley Married Josephine Lowson (aged 17) a confectioner from Dundee, possibly a relative of John Lowson, whom his sister had married. (4)
So Josephine, at 17 became stepmother to Georges four children.    George for his part appears to have shown the same affection to his new young wife as he had shown to his first one and his family continued to grow.

George William was born in 1869 but died by 1870
1870 William ?
1872 James ?
1873 John ?
1873 Birth of Robert Wheatley

Robert Wheatley was born on  April 8th 1873 at “The Cattle Market Inn” .    George has signed the document himself and it seems that he was managing the pub, as his trade is listed as “Spirit Dealer”.  His younger brothers followed him into the trade.

During the next five years the family appears to have left the East coast and moved to England .  The fascinating question is why ?

It may be that the Wheatleys still kept links with extended family members in the North East.,  but also one of Georges nieces, Sarah Anderson living in Sunderland, had married James Rayner, and John Rayner was courting George Wheatley's daughter, Ann Wylie Wheatley.  Whichever way we look at it George had strong links to the Sunderland area.  He came down to Sunderland bringing his wife,  his children,  and even his widowed mother - in - law.   His new wife  Josephine Lowson was a "confectioner"    and so was James Rayner. 

George Wheatley  soon set up a new business ventue,  the local sweetie factory at Houghton Le Spring.  We can only wonder whether this was a collaborative project with John Rayner,   or was it in fact a rival operation.   Did it play any part in James rayner leaving home and going back to the south of England?
George continued to add to the size of his family:
1877 Birth of Sophie Wheatley: County Durham
1879 Thomas Wheatley County Durham
1881 William Wheatley born County Durham
1884 Elizabeth Wheatley
1887 John Wheatley
1881 William
His Wife’s widowed mother Elizabeth is also living in England with the family
George spent the rest of his life in Houghton. A local conservation group have recently rejuvenated the graveyard where he is buried.  Their website has this to say:

He died in December 1906.  The name Wheatley is well known in Houghton as in that he was the founder of the sweet factory in Houghton Le Spring.  He had 2 wives throughout the duration of his life.  The first died in childbirth and he fathered approximately 10 children with her and he went on to father another 10 with his second wife.  His second wife is buried with him at Hillside The leg isn’t buried with him!  From what is understood he was quite a colourful character.  His mother in law is also buried in the grave with George and his second wife.  He was in the battle of the Alma in the siege of Sebastopol during the Crimean war, a young lad of 19 on board a ship, the cannon on the ship back fired and blew off his leg so the rest of his life he had to walk around with a wooden leg.  He was pensioned out of the navy and returned to returned to Scotland where he ran pubs and eventually found his way to Houghton Le Spring and opened his sweet business. 

Ann Wylie Wheatley and the Rayner Connection

One of  George’s children from his first marriage was Anne Wylie Wheatley, born 1860.  When her father came South to England she found work as a domestic servant in Glasgow but it would seem she was already well known to John Rayner who went north to marry her in 1877

John Rayner married Ann Wheatley in Glasgow

28th September 1877 St Johns church Coatbridge Old Monkland District, Glasgow, Lanarkshire

The Groom:  John Rayner, 20, bachelor, son of Thomas Rayner, Confectioner, and Mary Ann Rayner, formerly Natt. 
The groom’s witness was the clergyman – which suggests he had no family living in the area.   Lodging with bride’s family at John St. Govan – a shipbuilding area.
The Bride: Ann Wheatley, domestic servant, 18, daughter of George Wheatley, confectioner, and Josephine,   maiden name Lowson, witnesses were Thomas and Elizabeth Ferguson

 So several mysteries were solved.   Now I know why people kept appearing and disappearing from the census. It was because most of the men in the family were sailors who kept going off to Scotland.   Grandma's brother had not lost a leg in the Boer  War,  it was grandma's grandfather  who had lost a leg in the Crimean War.   It all made sense,  her  widowed mother had been offerd a sweet shop by the Wheatleys, but had turned it down out of pride  but had still worked in a bakery in the  Rayner tradition.

But the questions still remain.   Why did George move down to Seaham,  and how  did his new found  confectionary factory relate to the established  shops owned by his sons in law,  the Rayners.    Did they find that you really cant have your cake and eat it ?


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