Sunday, February 4, 2007

Johnnie Walker hypothesis

This morning, I was pleased to receive an e-mail indicating that the time might be ripe to investigate a tantalizing genealogical challenge, which I refer to as the Johnnie Walker hypothesis. There are strong reasons to believe that our ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860] of Braidwood, New South Wales, might have been a brother of the grocer John Walker [1805-1857] of Kilmarnock, Scotland, who invented whisky. In the context of my maternal family-history research, I also refer to this hypothesis as the Billinudgel legend, since I first met up with it in a letter sent to me in 1980 by Walker people living in the village of Billinudgel near Mullumbimby, in northern New South Wales.

When I brought up this subject with the woman—employed by the international corporation Diageo—who's in charge of Johnnie Walker company history, she was incapable of either substantiating or disproving my hypothesis, and she asked me to keep her informed of the evolution of my research.

This morning, I learned that the Scottish authorities in charge of records at Edinburgh have finally digitized their ancient archives.
[Click here, or on their banner, to visit the site.]

Apart from the amusing idea of a possible relationship with the famous grocer, this hypothesis casts doubts upon the social and religious roots of our Braidwood patriarch, who has always been thought of as an Irish Catholic. Indeed, certain present-day Walker descendants would be surprised—to say the least—if they were to learn that their ancestor was a Scottish Protestant. I've always imagined that 32-year-old Charles Walker might have told a white lie about his birthplace and religion in order to persuade the parents of a 16-year-old Catholic Irish nymph named Anne Hickey to allow him to marry their daughter.

The only obstacle in my forthcoming research concerning this Johnnie Walker hypothesis is that the old parish registers in the Scottish archives for the period 1553-1854 would appear to contain some 50 thousand records concerning individuals named Walker!


  1. It would be nice if there was an actual (and accurate) family tree for Johnnie Walker.
    It would be nice to know the names of all his brothers and uncles.
    There seem to be lots of people claiming descendancy from him, with lots of stories as to why there are no records to match.

    Does anyone know?


  2. Tony: Two years ago, a Caithness lady named Betty Heath sent me a quite complete description of the descendants of her great-grandfather John Walker [1805-1857] of Kilmarnock, the inventor of Scotch whisky. Other documents provide data on John Walker's parents: Alexander Walker and Elizabeth Gemmell (spelling ?). For the moment, no references have been found to the possible existence of siblings of John Walker, but I have not yet attempted to delve seriously into various archives in Scotland.

    Concerning the story in my mother's family that I referred to as the "Billinudgel legend", I discovered recently that the interesting principle of historical research that lends weight to such a family legend is known as the criterion of embarrassment. A few weeks ago, I wrote a short blog post on this subject.

    Meanwhile, I consider that males bearing the Walker surname who think they might descend from the whisky inventor could do no better than to obtain their Y-chromosome values. While advocating this approach, I'm obliged to admit that I've never yet succeeded in convincing any of my Australian male relatives named Walker to carry out such a DNA test. They're not practicing what I've been preaching...

    1. I chanced upon your article through a google search and I’d like to add another Johnnie Walker legend to yours. My great-grandfather was a chap called James Alexander Walker who was kicking around western NSW from about 1870 to 1900. The story, as handed down through my family, is that James Alexander Walker was a part of the Johnnie Walker family but was a black sheep – he had been despatched to the antipodes and given a remittance on the condition that he stay here.

      James A Walker married a South Australian lass, Isabella Woolley, in 1873 and they had several children – Esther, Isabella, Jessie, Alexander (my grandfather), and Edward (known as Fred). The births were registered in Wilcannia, Menindie, and Broken Hill.

      The story goes that James and Isabella perished in a fire but their children survived them. I've hunted through Trove and Ancestry and can’t find any articles or coroners reports, nor can I find any death certificates. I have never found a record of James’s birth but I also have not found any record of immigration. Admittedly, to date, I’ve limited myself to web based “research”. There is certainly evidence that the children were without their parents from about 1900 – but a fire may not have been the cause.

      I’m very doubtful as to whether there is a connection with the famous whiskey vendor, but there is just enough in it to make it interesting. There is even a story of a Walker executor’s representative arriving in Australia and attempting to seek out Fred Walker but again, the evidence is rather absent.

      Naturally, given the profile of the Johnnie Walker legacy, there are numerous family trees around. I’m struggling to find a candidate who matches up.

      I wondered if in your probings of the "Billinudgel legend” you may have stumbled on to anything that may relate. It crossed my mind on reading your article that he could be the son of your Charles, for example.


    2. Hi Graham:

      Your James Alexander Walker would have been born, say, between 1840 and 1855. My ancestor Charles Walker [1807-1860] married in 1839, and did in fact have a son James Walker [1855-1894], but he was not the individual who concerns you. If your great-grandfather James Alexander Walker came from Scotland (in particular, from Kilmarnock), then the dates indicate that he could well have been either a son or a grandson of the whisky inventor John Walker [1805-1857].

      I would imagine that members of your Walker family context have already noticed the significant presence of the given name Alexander. However, it's hard to imagine Johnnie Walker's son Alexander Walker [1837-1889] as the father of your ancestor. Besides, we have a rather good knowledge of the identity of Alexander's two wives and 7 offspring. On the other hand, we know almost nothing about Alexander's young brother John Walker, born in 1845. Could he have gone to Australia and called himself James Alexander Walker?

      You didn't mention whether or not your own surname is Walker. In general, in this kind of situation, if there's a living male named Walker, he should obtain his Y-chromosome data. Unfortunately, I've never been able to find out whether clearly-identified Y-chromosome data exists for the Johnnie Walker line. In my maternal family, it would be theoretically feasible to obtain such data, but no male Walker relative has decided to get tested yet.

      Best wishes with your research,


    3. Thanks William,

      I don't carry the Walker name but only because my father was adopted by his aunt (Esther) after the death of his mother. As a consequence he took on her married name. I am one of many living male descendants so maybe in time a DNA test might reveal something - if, as you say, the data is available.

      John Walker is a possibility and on at least one Walker family tree I have noticed other siblings but without substantiation.

      The great thing about these mysteries is that the imagination can run wild - perhaps the truth wouldn't be nearly as interesting!

      Thanks again.


    4. Hello to you both,
      The James Alexander Walker you refer to is also my great-great grand father and I too have been researching this branch of my family tree. If either of you have any information regarding him I would love to know it as I can find very little.
      Thanks Katie

  3. Alexander Walker, who ran Johnnie Walker until his death in 1889, had three sons. Most commonly only two are written about, George Paterson b. 1864 and Sir Alexander b. 1869 (he was knighted in 1920 for his war efforts) both were directors of the whisky business. The Oxford National Biography of Sir Alexander refers to three sons.
    There is a grave stone in St Kildas Cemetery in Victoria which refers to John Walker born in Kilmarnock in 1868 and died in 1890, married to Colina Evelyn Campbell who died in 1905. They had a son called James Campbell Walker. In the census of 1911 in the UK there is a reference to a James Campbell Walker aged 21 who lived on his own in a smart apartment building in Buckingham Gate in London. His lists his income as "Private Means" He was born in Australia but of UK parentage. There is also a probate reference to a James Campbell Walker of Scotsbridge House who died in 1921 at the age of 32 leaving £300,000 in his will. The executors of his estate were George Paterson Walker and Sir Alexander Walker, He left behind two sons, Robert Walker, who became a racing driver and Major John Walker. All the evidence suggests that the John Walker who died in Victoria in 1890 was the middle son of the Johnnie Walker brothers. In which case their connection with Australia ended in about 1905 when James Campbell Walker returned to the UK after his mother died. Although the Johnnie Walker website only refers to Alexander having two sons, I think is simply a mistake made because John Walker died before he could have any significant role in the firm.