Esther Abrahams – convict, farmer, drinker and an all-round admirable woman

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Esther Abrahams in 1811 (aged 39). State Library of NSW

In July 1786 a teenage girl with dark hair and a long, attractive face, stepped into a shop, took two cards of black lace to the counter and asked the price.

“Twenty-five shillings,” she was told.

Young Esther Abrahams, for that was her name, tartly replied that she would pay no more than a guinea and soon left without buying anything. Moments later, the shop assistant rushed out onto the London street and caught up with Esther, angrily accusing her of theft. Esther denied it, but the shop lady was insistent. The disputed goods were found and, ever so predictably, Esther was charged, jailed and – despite excellent character references – sentenced to transportation. Seven months after the incident in the shop Esther gave birth, inside Newgate Gaol, to a baby girl she called Rosanna.

So far, so very much like every other story of convict-girl-with-heart-of-gold-forced-into-theft-by-circumstances-beyond-her-control.

Except that Esther and her family made a genuine and important difference to the course of Australian history. And she lived quite an interesting life along the way. Oh, and she was Jewish – the first Jewish woman to arrive in New South Wales. Australia was, right from the first days of colonisation, a multicultural society.

Esther and little Rosanna sailed out to New South Wales on the First Fleet, with 101 other women aboard the Lady Penrhyn. Her dark good looks caught the eye of one of the marine officers, a handsome and good-natured blond about seven years her senior, called George Johnston. The pair would remain together until Johnston’s death in 1823.

George Johnston (1764-1823)

In 1790 Esther gave birth to a son, who George happily acknowledged as his own. Shortly after the baptism Esther, George and the new baby departed for Norfolk Island. Little Rosanna, however, stayed behind in Sydney with a foster family. George Johnston was by all accounts an amiable man, but clearly even he had his limits. It was just over a year before Esther was able to return to Sydney, and to Rosanna.

Convicts, Ceremonies and Children

In 1792 Esther gave birth to a second son, called Robert. He would become the first Australian-born officer in the Royal Navy. Governor Phillip stood as godfather at Robert’s Anglican baptism, the only child in the colony the Governor so favoured. Esther was clearly a pragmatic woman where religion was concerned but she could hardly be otherwise. There were only about ten other Jews on the First Fleet, all of them men, and so not enough to constitute a congregation (even if they were willing to push that barrow). This remained a problem for many years and the first official Jewish ceremony (a marriage) did not occur until 1832. Of the first 250 Jewish convicts who arrived before 1820, only 45 married in Australia and all of these were married in the Anglican church, so as to be married in the eyes of the law.

Annandale House in Sydney, built by Esther Abrahams and George Johnston. (artist JC Hoyte 1835-1913). The State Library of NSW

In February 1793 Johnston, who had by now transferred from the marines over to the NSW Corp, was granted 100 acres (which soon became 390 acres). The land he chose was four miles along the Sydney-Parramatta road and he called it Annandale, after his Scottish birthplace. In 1796 Johnston was sent back to Norfolk Island, taking his oldest child (then six) along with him. Esther stayed behind, to manage the farm. Sound familiar?

By 1799 Johnston was back in Sydney and Esther had done well enough that the family was able build a fine brick home (click here for photo). Within a few years Annandale resembled a little village. There was a slaughterhouse, butchery, bakery, blacksmith’s shop and stores, an orange grove and a vineyard. An avenue of Norfolk Pines, thought to be the first in the colony, led up to the house. Esther Abrahams took to calling herself Mrs Esther Julian. Perhaps, in her still unmarried state, it sounded more genteel. Perhaps it was the name of Rosanna’s father. No-one seems to know for sure.

Over the next ten years, despite Johnston being sent briefly to England and back, the couple had five more children – another boy and then four girls. One of the girls died before her third birthday but the others all lived into old age.

Rebellions

In 1804 it was Johnston who quelled the Castle Hill uprising of Irish convicts and in 1808 it was Johnston who officially led the so-called Rum Rebellion against Governor Bligh, although it wasn’t actually known as the Rum Rebellion until prurient Victorian scholars started writing about it, much later in the nineteenth century. Macarthur and Johnston were professional colleagues and occasional rivals. Esther Abrahams and John Macarthur’s wife Elizabeth were in no way social equals, divided as they were by Esther’s criminal history, de facto living arrangements and Jewish religion. But in the small world of the colony, with husbands who were colleagues and gentlemen farmers, they must have at least been on nodding terms.

In 1809 Esther again held the fort at home while Johnston returned to England to face a court martial for his role in the overthrow of Governor Bligh. If found guilty, he may well have faced the noose. Yet the 1811 trial of the rebel officers was, in the end, something of an anti-climax.

While it was Lieutenant-Colonel Johnston who officially stood trial as the leader of the rebellion, the focus was also very much on the activities of civilian John Macarthur (whose fingerprints were all over the rebellion) and his nemesis Bligh. None of the three men emerged very cleanly from the treasonous mire. Bligh was in the witness stand for three and half days and managed to lose his temper several times, confirming the defence’s argument that he was too easily provoked into ungentlemanly behaviour. Johnston opened his defence by reading a statement that too clearly had all the hallmarks of Macarthur’s rhetoric. And Macarthur himself began with his usual confidence and bluster but soon discovered that while his dissembling, evasions and outright contradictions might serve in a colonial kangaroo court, they soon dissolved in the face of fierce and intelligent cross-examination.

When it was all over Johnston was found guilty of the act of mutiny but he was given the lightest of sentences – he was to be Cashiered. That is, Johnston was dishonourably discharged from the army and sent on his way. The judges acknowledged that the circumstances existing in the colony in 1808 had threatened peace and good order, providing at least some justification for the mutiny and Johnston avoided the prison or death sentence many of his peers, and indeed even the Prince Regent, had thought inevitable.

Families – for better and for worse

A year after Johnston arrived back in the colony, in November 1814, he regularised his family life and married Esther.

Most historians argue the marriage occurred at the urging of Governor Macquarie but I wonder if, cashiered and free of the burdens of upholding regimental honour, Johnston simply and finally followed his heart. The pair had been together for some twenty-seven years. In a brutal act of academic vandalism, during the 1950s Johnston’s descendants destroyed all his many diaries and letters, apparently hoping to conceal the already well-known fact that Esther and George’s children had all been born out of wedlock.

Formally witnessing the wedding were Esther’s daughter Rosanna and Rosanna’s husband, Isaac Nichols. But marriage wasn’t quite the happy ever after that Esther may have hoped for. In the course of the next ten years Esther lost a son-in-law (Isaac Nichols died  in 1819) and then her eldest son George (who died in a horse riding accident at the Macarthurs’ Camden property). In 1823 her husband George died too, at which point the beleaguered family went to war with itself. George Johnston had left to “the mother of his children … for the term of her natural life the estate of Annandale” and Esther hoped to mortgage the estate and return to England.

Robert Johnston, by Richard Noble, 1850s
State Library of New South Wales

Her surviving son Robert held different hopes for the estate. Sent to England at age seven for schooling, Robert had joined the navy at thirteen and didn’t return to New South Wales until he was twenty-four. With his father and older brother now dead, Robert saw his future in a new light. He subsequently took his mother to court, seeking to have her declared insane.

The subsequent court case, played out in full in the newspapers of the day, to the modern eye reads like a case study of how society viewed (and indeed still views) women who fall victim to family violence.

A witness for the children’s case, physician Dr William Bland, testified that Esther was ‘of rather eccentric habits, hasty in temper, and with an abrupt mode of expressing herself.’ He had seen her ‘driving most furiously through the streets’. Bland explained that he had to ‘distinguish between excitement caused by drinking and that which is the effect of insanity’ but in his view she was definitely mad, not drunk, and that as a result ‘she ought to be under personal restraint.’

Esther engaged Jewish free settler David Poole as her defence lawyer, and even he admitted that Esther had eccentric habits, heightened by the occasional practice of drinking too freely. But ‘if all persons in the habit of drinking or committing extravagances in consequence were supposed to be mad,’ Poole believed ‘it would be difficult to find Jury men enough to decide upon their cause.’

One of Esther’s witnesses, Jacob Isaacs, described how she frequently sought refuge in he and his wife’s home, where she would display ‘bruises and kicks and describe other acts of violence’ inflicted by her second son, Robert. Isaacs noted that Esther had ‘accumulated her property by hard struggling’ and he had seen her ‘personally superintending the concerns of the farm’. He considered her ‘a woman fully capable of minding her own affairs … she takes a glass, so do we all, the higher classes as well as the lower.’ Poor Esther – even one of Rosanna’s children testified against her, with the young man claiming that his grandmother ‘was always a strong industrious woman but of late she had become altered’. Part of the alteration was apparently that Esther frequently complained to him of ‘things occurring at Annandale’ and ‘raving’ about her son Robert.

In the end the jury found that although Mrs Esther Johnston ‘had lucid intervals’ she was ‘not of sound mind, nor capable of managing her affairs.’ But it wasn’t an outright victory for son Robert. It was declared that he was not the heir at law and instead trustees were appointed for the estate. Prevented from mortgaging Annandale and returning to England, Esther instead went to live with her third son David, a pastoralist with substantial properties near Bankstown, on the Georges River. There she died some fifteen years later but there is a fitting post script to her story.

Esther’s Jewish Legacy

Rosanna’s second son, called George Robert Nichols, became a prosperous lawyer, newspaper proprietor and politician. Given his background, it is unsurprising to learn that he appointed the Honorary Secretary of the Sydney Synagogue as his personal secretary but perhaps quite surprising to learn he was also a leading Freemason. In 1854 Nichols used his substantial political powers to ensure Jews were placed on the same footing as Christians in the distribution of State aid for public worship, successfully arguing that Jews and Christians contributed equally to the revenue of the colony. The grandson of a Jewish convict, born to an illegitimate girl and her convict husband, was presented with a silver cup in recognition of the Sydney Synagogue’s gratitude. Surely his grandmother, had she still been alive, would have raised her glass to that.

The point of all this? Well, there is no point really – other than to raise yet another ordinary/extraordinary Australian woman up into the historical light.

And also to note that today, 26 August 2017, is the 171st anniversary of Esther Abraham Johnston’s death in 1846. Cheers.

 

References

G Lemcke, Reluctant Rebel: Lieutenant-Colonel George Johnston 1764-1823. Published by the author, 1998.

JS Levi & GFJ Bergman, Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788-1850, Rigby, 1974, pp 19-29.

G. F. J. Bergman, ‘Johnston, Esther (1767–1846)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-esther-2276/text2923, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 21 August 2017.

G. P. Walsh, ‘Nichols, George Robert (Bob) (1809–1857)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nichols-george-robert-bob-4296/text6957, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 August 2017.

A. T. Yarwood, ‘Johnston, George (1764–1823)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, viewed online 11 October 2013, <http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-george-2277/text2925&gt;.

‘Johnston, Robert (1792–1882)’, Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/johnston-robert-19530/text30893, accessed 21 August 2017.

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8 responses »

  1. Glad to read another ‘extraordinary woman’ story. Interesting that her children were Jewish, the easy course would have been to accept their father’s nominal Anglicanism. Two other points – the First Fleet was made multicultural by the considerable number of Irish, and do you think Esther had any say in who chose her for concubinage?

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    • I’m not sure which religion the children actually formally identified with, but clearly they maintained links with (and sympathy for) the Jewish population. Not sure there were many Irish on the First Fleet – they came out in large numbers after the failed Irish rebellion of 1798. But I’m writing this from memory so might be wrong! But there were definitely a number of different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds on those ships – including people of African descent.

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      • All of Esther and Rosanna’s family and descendants were practicing Anglicans. FWIW Richard Daniel Read painted an oil based portrait just after her marriage to Johnston. It better reflects the opinion of her beauty frequently commented on. Sadly this picture, although frequently used does not…. Also, George Johnstons letters are contained in the NSW state library. It would seem there was a genuine fondness and love between George and Esther, exceeding many relationships of today.

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  2. Is this the next biography? I hope so – Esther’s life is such a great story. On Rosanna and her children, I’ve always assumed they identified as Jewish, whereas the Johnston children didn’t. Judaism is matrilinear, so having Esther as a mother was enough for them to BE Jewish, whether they were observant or not.

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    • Next one? Hmmm, best finish this one first! Esther really is great, isn’t she? Yet another woman we should all know more about. I think you’re right about her children, although even her children by Johnston seemed sympathetic to other Jewish people in the colony.

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