John Ray was born on 29th November 1627 to Roger and Elizabeth Wray (John changed his name to Ray in 1670). His birthplace, Black Notley, about one and a half miles due south of Braintree, was then a hamlet consisting of an inn, some houses and a few cottages with, as John Ray later wrote: ‘a little brook that runs near my dwelling’.The forge, owned by Ray’s father, the local blacksmith, was on the west side of the village, now called Bakers Lane.
The Early Days
Behind the forge was the six-roomed smithy cottage of timber and plaster in which the blacksmith and his family lived. Tradition has it that Ray was born here and the cottage survives to this day.
The cottage was a building running north-south with wash-house, kitchen and parlour on the ground floor built round the great chimney, which served hall and parlour and rose directly in front of the entrance door. Above were three bedrooms, one with a dormer window, approached by a built-in staircase from the hall. The third chamber was originally approached by a second staircase from the laundry.
Ray’s birth was registered at the church in Black Notley, as were other family births, including his elder sister Elizabeth, and elder brother Roger. Roger suffered smallpox, but it is not known if that was the cause of his death in childhood.
Ray’s father was a craftsman smithy, a prosperous career at that time and vital in the days of horse transport and bad roads. Always keen to see how things were manufactured, Ray spent hours watching the exacting work of his father.
Dr. Derham, who published works by Ray after his death, wrote in 1760 that … ‘Elizabeth, Ray’s mother, probably had an even greater influence on his life … She was a very religious and good woman, and of great use in her neighbourhood, particularly to her neighbours who were lame or sick, whom she did great good …’
Ray would have accompanied her, and learned from her, on her plant collecting trips. She was the local ‘herb-’ or ‘plants-woman’ and would have used plants, like the apothecary doctors of the time, for medicinal purposes, and earned great respect for her knowledge.