Posted by on 20 July 2010 in General

On last night’s Who Do You Think You Are?, Bruce Forsyth experienced that rare mix of pride and shame that only family history can provide. His story was unusual, though, in that both the good and the bad came from a single ancestor – the landscape gardener Joseph Forsyth Johnson, who rose to the top of his profession, but plumbed the depths in his personal life.

In my opinion, the first show of Who Do You Think You Are? series eight was a definite success. I felt an hour was a little long to concentrate on just one man, and I would have liked to hear a little more about the family Joseph left behind in Tottenham. However, the programme featured the perfect mix of historical interest and family research. I was particularly pleased to find a far bigger emphasis on the records than in previous series – it was tremendous to hear the archivists actually explaining where they had found the details of Joseph’s career, and how they’d traced his movemements around the world.

The greatest focus was undoubtedly on passenger lists. These thrilling resources are often under-used, so I was delighted to see such a perfect example of how they can paint a picture of how, where and even why our forebears sailed to other shores. Bruce’s face when he saw a pretty young thing listed as his devious forebear’s wife was a treat!

You can follow your own ancestors’ journeys using the exclusive passenger lists on our site. We have a fascinating collection covering almost a century, from 1878 to 1960, with records detailing voyages to the UK from as far afield as America, Africa and Australia.

The other records that came into their own last night were city directories. We saw archivists in New York and Atlanta scouring huge volumes for mentions of Joseph and his companion at their home addresses. You can find equally useful directories for different areas around the UK, which can help you to fill in gaps in your research between census years. Take a look at our huge City and County Directories collection to see what you can find.

I can’t wait for next week’s Who Do You Think You Are? episode now. Apparently Rupert Everett delves into his grandfather’s life, and finds it isn’t quite what the family thought…

UPDATE: Our new-look newsletter goes out next week. Among the latest news and top tips, you’ll find a detailed guide to discovering your ancestors in city and county directories. Make sure you’ve signed up to receive it in your My Account settings.


Clare M. Blake 

I thought Bruce’s programme was excellant but I would have liked him to have taken his family a little further and not concentrate on his gt grandfather quite to much. The parents of this rather strange man would probably have reveiled how gardening was such an interest for Joseph. Also there was far too little on Bruce’s mother’s famiy. Nevertheless an interesting hour.

20 July 2010 at 1:57 pm

Normally I would agree ref Clare’s comment but concentrating on Joseph for the whole hour not only showed some nice tips on research sources but also that some information can be badly flawed, the book extract where his son (IIRC) clearly states that his father contracted pnemonia and died on a trip back to England when in actual fact he’d dumped yet another family and gone off on his own was eye opening to say the least!

20 July 2010 at 4:04 pm

Bruce’s story was fascinating & sad as so many have been in the past. It was good that he is paying for a headstone. His 92 yr old USA relative took the news of her family history very well. My father was in a similar situation – he was one of six – but in his case it was a stepfather & step daughter within a year of the wife/mother dying. Presumably they couldn’t marry in the 1920’s?

20 July 2010 at 4:26 pm

I do agree 1 hour for one man mind you it was interesting, so what really is Bruce name is it Forysth or Johnson as one said what about Bruce mother why no mention of her family they make it look so easy on the programe,if only we were all payed to go to in my case Italy to have help with my family research, I did notice that not a lot of showing for the English side perhaps they were not as Bruce would have wanted,

20 July 2010 at 8:25 pm
Wendy Charnley 

I actually liked the fact that they concentrated just on Joseph Forsyth-Johnson. It highlighted all of the different places that you can look in order to check out just one individual.
Bruce was suprised that he did not leave a will, but surely had he have done so, he would have given the game away to both families.
I was very touched that Bruce is having a memorial stone erected. This is something that we have to rely on our families providing, and if one family thought that he was dead, and the other was thousands of miles away, who was going to do it?
I would list this programme as one of the best that I have seen – Bruce certainly had a lot to take in. Fancy Joseph’s secret coming to light 100 years after his death!

20 July 2010 at 9:32 pm

I am currently researching my own family tree and am an avid viewer of the programme. the programme last night featuring Bruce Forsyth was really interesting and the journey to America for him I thought was quite moving at the end. I have always believed that my father’s family are Welsh going back generations but have recently found out that the further I go back the more of my ancestors were born in English. I have also recently visited the area where one of my grandfather’s lived as a boy in the early 1900’s. As for Bruce arranging for a headstone for his great grandfather, given the genorosity of the man I would not have expected him to do anything less for a “family” as a whole.

20 July 2010 at 9:34 pm
Jackie Alderson 

I thought Bruce’s story was fasanating and sad at the same time. There were so many twists and turns just with the one family member. The programme gave me some food for thought as I am having some trouble tracing one of my ancestors from that era. Looking forward to the next programme.

20 July 2010 at 10:52 pm
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21 July 2010 at 10:11 am

Another great show and story, but would be nice to have an episode where the ancestors have normal live and follow them back through the ages, rather then people who had a secret or interesting people. For example an episode on Michael Parkinson.

22 July 2010 at 1:06 pm

Who Do You Think You Are? needs variety in the types of stories it relates to keep it fresh.

Concentrating on one person who had a ‘varied’ life and is the source of a mystery in a family, in Bruce’s case Joseph Forsyth Johnson can be just as interesting as a family history that goes back hundreds of years.

According to Wikipedia, Joseph Forsyth Johnson’s great grandfather, William Forsyth, was a founder member of the Royal Horticultural Society. If this is true, it could have provided some background and explanation about Joseph Forsyth Johnson’s interest and talent for gardening.

22 July 2010 at 7:05 pm
Derek North 

As always, an interesting programme. My comment is directed only at the ending. It may be that the programme makers didn’t want to go into more detail but I thought further progress could be made out of the circumstances of his death. This took place in an hotel in New York. Living there alone, the hotel keepers would only be concerned to remove the body. The authorities would have taken over from there. Did anyone try to find out more about him at the time? He only had 309 Dollars but he may have well had a bank account locally. He had publishers.The fact that there was no headstone suggests to me that it was dealt with by people who did not trouble to look further.

23 July 2010 at 7:53 am

I found it a fascinating but sad story. It made a change for the programme to concentrate on one individual. Bruce must be very proud of what Joseph Forsyth Johnson achieved on a career front but obviously sad that he abandoned his two families in the process. He must have been extremely ambitious.

Apparently back in those days it wasn’t unusual for some people to have two families although in England bigamy was still a criminal offence, but in the majority of cases it happened and people got away with it. I suppose it must have been hard and expensive to get a divorce then. Also, maybe he thought that getting an official divorce could have tarnished his career if it came out in the newspapers, plus the story of Frances being pregnant, so hence his need for leaving the UK and secrecy. But why he left his second family we shall ever know.

25 July 2010 at 11:02 am
Joanda Bradford-Reedle 

Love Brucie and what a fab story.

26 July 2010 at 10:23 am

Very interesting story but I think at the New York Archives, he didn’t find Joseph and Frances’ son.
Their son’s name was Roy, not Joseph as shown, and the age of the father shown is 43, when 46-47 would have been expected. I think there’s a lot more to his 1899-1903 visit to London—where he eludes the census takers yet again–that received no mention. Joseph is mentioned on his wife’s grave in London as dying in New York 1906, so someone in the family already knew about it.

27 July 2010 at 8:24 pm