Son of a Blacksmith
John Ray was born on 29 November 1627 to Roger and Elizabeth Wray in the small Essex hamlet of Black Notley. Roger was the village blacksmith and Elizabeth a local herbalist who used plants for medicinal purposes. His father’s cottage and forge still stand on what is now Bakers Lane to the west of the village. Ray had an older sister Elizabeth, and an older brother Roger who died in childhood, possibly from smallpox.
Ray’s background was therefore very humble, one of the aspects that makes his story so remarkable. However, his parents’ work clearly influenced Ray, as he spent hours watching the exacting work of his father and accompanied his mother on her plant collecting trips.
Ray attended the two local church schools, first St Peter and St Pauls in Black Notley run by Thomas Goad and then Joseph Plume. Plume instilled in Ray an early devotion to religion which continued with Ray throughout his life. Ray saw his life’s work as revealing ‘the Glory of God manifest in the works of nature’.
He then attended Braintree Grammar School, based in the Jesus Chapel of St Michael’s Church. Originally built as a chantry in 1535 it was turned into a school in 1548 during the Reformation. The marks from where the children sharpened their slate pencils on the wall are still visible. The school gave him a good grounding in Latin and taught him beautiful, legible handwriting. Ray’s contemporary Thomas Hearne wrote of ‘The famous Mr John Ray, and tho’ he writ so much, writ a fair hand and very slow’.
Ray’s teacher Samuel Collins noted Ray’s unusually high abilities for a local tradesman’s son and sought funding to send him to the University of Cambridge. This was found in the will of local man Thomas Hobbs, who had left money for Collins to send two or three poor scholars to Cambridge: ‘£5 yearly for two or three hopeful poor scholars being of sober and Christian conversation’.