Bruce Johnson's Family History Website


A bit about myself
I loved the study of History from before I could even read, strange but  I don't know why.  Perhaps it was because all the exciting TV programmes of the early 1960s were about Robin Hood,  William Tell and Richard the Lionheart,  or maybe it was due to my other great passion,  playing with toy soldiers.  For whatever reason I was a curious, slightly geeky child who could happily spend the whole of Saturday in the local library and read four childrens history fiction novels a week.
I had a happy childhood, safe and secure in a wonderful family.  I once calculated I had over a hundred cousins,  though some of them were second cousins. In time I went off to study at Exeter University and became a schoolteacher.  I drifted towards London and sampled many of the distractions of the capital city,  falling in with good friends and occassionaly having the odd pint of beer. I toured Turkey, Crete and Greece collecting information for my book on the Trojan wars,  and later I went behind the iron curtain,  to see what communism was really like in Russia and Romania.  Whilst in prison in St Petersburg I wrote postcards home to various aunties telling them not to let my mother know until I got out.   To this very day I am convinced that the best Guiness served anywhere in the world is sold in the duty free bar at St Petersburg airport. I only had time for one glass before I got onto the plane that would take me home,  but nothing else ever tasted that good.

The years have passed and I sit here typing these lines on the day before my 55th birthday.  I suppose I have been reasonably successful in life,  to go to university, to study Archaelogy, History, Psychology and to teach these disciplines to lively young people,  to own my own properties in London,  all these would be seen as achievements by my parents and grandparents.   But the passing of time has also brought great sadness as I have lost one by one my beloved sister, mother, brother and father.  And so I am driven to get the story written down.   For the past two years,  since my wonderful father passed away, I have thrown myself into a study of the family history.  Ideally  I hope that perhaps one of my cousins may find it interesting to learn of the deep old roots from which we have grown.

My family tree and the Wheatley Problem

Grandma Johnson had given me a few clues. Back in my teenage years when she was not getting out much but still had a sharp brain, I would visit her for a cup of tea and we would talk a bit.

Her father was a Rayner and she told me how he had gone “down south” in the first world war, looking for work and had got himself gassed. She came back with her mother and they both got a job in a local bakery. It was a hard life with three younger children to feed. Her and her mother could only afford one white overall. They would meet outside the bakery as the nightshift changed to the dayshift and there they would hand over the working clothes. Sometimes Grandma would go and collect the seacoal that had drifted up on the beaches and sell it at the harbour top to make a bit of extra money so she could buy something to give the younger ones for breakfast.

His family, she said, were called the Wheatleys and had offered to set her widowed mother up with a sweetshop, but she was too proud to accept.  “There was always loads of money running through our family” she told me once “The problem was you could never get to it.”  The dilemma with oral sources is that one never knows what to believe. My father once told me that Grandma had an uncle who lost a leg in the Boer War.  I eventually found that this wasn’t true, well not entirely, it wasn’t her uncle and it wasn’t the Boer War, but a leg had gone missing somewhere from the history of the family. At the time I didn’t take too much notice – my Dad was also in the habit of telling people that his grandmother was the first woman to swim the channel. If you believe that you believe anything.

All these, and many other snippets I carried around in my head for years. Before I was twenty I had drawn a family tree going back four generations but had no proof that it was reliable. Thirty years later with the benefits of that marvellous modern invention the “Internet” I returned to the search for my roots. At first I found it rather easy to trace back my family tree. The Johnsons, the Dorans, The Broster-Lowes, each surrendered their secrets without a struggle. The Rayners were more difficult, a restless clan of travelling bakers and itinerant traders, they never stayed put for long enough to leave many records. But I was lucky.  A smart and helpful lady had already done much of the work and she set  me firmly on the right path.  John Rayner, was my Great Great Grandfather,  his marriage was a loose end I needed to tie up, almost as an afterthought. That was when I hit the wall.

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.  What I learned was that even official records are not completely reliable.  By the end of  2008 I had almost run out of options. It was time to switch to plan B.

The Tap and Spile in Morpeth is an excellent pub for those who enjoy real ale. On Christmas Eve 2008 I sat by their fire and shared my dilemma with Uncle Bill. He remembered my grandmother telling  him that she once had to go to Scotland, to visit relatives who kept a pub in Castle Street in Dundee. With Christmas over I returned to London, to my books, my students and my computer. I cleared my mind of all that had gone before and turned my attention to Scotland. If Grandmother had once had a relative in Scotland then there then there was a chance that some fragment of a clue still remained. If it did, then I would find it. 

 

An enigma wrapped up in a puzzle.

What I found was a girl called Ann Wheatley.  Like the mysterious Mary of the 1881 census she appears in the records then disappears again. In fact this is true of all the Wheatleys. Whole families appear in one census but are missing from the next, then turn up in another part of the country 20 years later. This what I call “The Wheatley Problem” In order to solve it I eventually had to place every single person with the name Wheatley in Scotland over a period of 60 years, in order to work out their relationships and eliminate them from my enquiries. Those who were left could be linked together through the maiden names of their mothers as given on wedding certificates and the register of deaths. Sadly it was true that although their births may not have been registered in the 1830’s their deaths would certainly be registered in the 1890s when the system was better established.   When I had solved the Wheatley mystery I went on to dig deeper in to the Johnsons,  and the Mountfords, the Barlows, the Mudfords,  and perhaps best of all the Rayners.

Before I encountered the Wheatley Problem I was just another amateur looking up his family tree. On the day I finally made the pieces fit I felt I had taken my first steps as a genealogist.









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