The showbiz legend traces the colourful life of his great-grandfather, Joseph Forsyth Johnson.
Entertainer Bruce Forsyth puzzles over a letter that he’s received from Atlanta in the USA. Written by a lady called Linda Mundy, it claims that Bruce’s paternal great grandfather, Joseph Forsyth Johnson, was a bigamist. Is this true?
“It did start me thinking, and thinking deeply,” says the 82-year-old host of Strictly Come Dancing, who’s determined to find out more about Joseph, a well-known landscape gardener who worked on both sides of the Atlantic. His first visit is to a cousin, genealogy enthusiast Alan Johnson, who has an extensive collection of family documents and photographs. These include a diary kept by one of Joseph’s children, Christina, which makes reference to a visit by her father from the USA to England in 1894, and a business card that lists Joseph’s CV.
Alan helps Bruce piece together biographical information about their great-grandfather. As a 21-year-old assistant gardener, Johnson married Elizabeth Trowsdale, a housekeeper at Gilling Castle in Yorkshire and eight years his senior, in 1861.
By 1869, Joseph was curator of Botanic Gardens in Belfast. At the height of the Victorian parks movement, Joseph did well for himself. Reg Maxwell, another ex-curator of Botanic Gardens, says that Joseph’s flower shows were renowned for their “showmanship” – an idea that appeals to the showman in Bruce.
According to research by social historian Katherine Hughes, Joseph subsequently set up a landscape gardening shop on upmarket Bond Street. London. Yet she also finds hints that all wasn’t well in Joseph’s family. The 1881 census shows his family living in Wilmslow, Cheshire, suggesting a schism. By 1891, Elizabeth had returned to London, to Tottenham. The census shows the couple’s children working in comparatively humble jobs – Christina was a kitchen maid.
Katherine also reveals that, in 1885, Joseph sailed for New York. He didn’t travel alone, but in the company of Frances Clarke, a 26-year-old linen draper’s assistant. The couple are shown on ship’s records as man and wife.
Bruce follows Joseph to New York. Beginning at the Municipal Archive, he learns that Frances was probably pregnant when the couple set sail with the first of the couple’s three children. Joseph became a superintendent of horticulture in Brooklyn, responsible for overseeing work at Prospect Park, a position he lost after clashing with local commissioners.
Better fortune awaited him in Atlanta, Georgia, where his work on Piedmont Park was hugely acclaimed. He also designed Inman Park, an elegant garden suburb. Joseph had joined high society.
And yet, as so often in Joseph’s story, there’s a twist in the tale. A city directory from the early 1900s lists Frances as a dressmaker and Joseph’s widow, but liner records show him heading from the UK to the USA in 1903. Joseph, it seems deserted his second family, just as he did his first. “He’s let his family down, he really has,” says Bruce, who can only conclude that Joseph was “a bit of a blaggard”.
Bruce has one final meeting in the south, with Linda Mundy, whose letter keyed off his research and whose husband is descended from Joseph and Frances, and her family. He’s able to tell them that he’s found no evidence that Joseph was a bigamist, for the simple reason that Joseph and Frances never married.
This leaves one final matter to research: Joseph’s death. Bruce learns that Joseph died suddenly in New York in 1906, not at sea as Linda’s side of the family thought. He left just $389, barely a month’s income when he was in his prime. Bruce goes to see Joseph’s grave at Brooklyn’s Evergreens Cemetery. It’s an unmarked plot. Bruce, who has now commissioned a headstone, lays flowers and sadly walks away.