Attention Internet Explorer User

Your web browser has been identified as Internet Explorer .

In the coming months this site is going to be updated to improve security, accessibility and mobile experience. Older versions of Internet Explorer do not provide the functionality required for these changes and as such your browser will no longer be supported as of September 2020. If you require continued access to this site then you will need to install a different browser such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome.

Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Johnson, George Raymond (1840–1898)

by Peter Johnson and George Tibbits

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

George Johnson, 1888

George Johnson, 1888

from Illustrated London News, 3 Nov 1888, p 501

George Raymond Johnson (1840-1898), architect and surveyor, was born on 7 February 1840 at Southgate, in the Edmonton district, Middlesex, England, one of eight children of William Johnson, carpenter, later a contractor at Derby, and his wife Fanny, née Noon. George was articled to George Hall, architect to the Midlands Railway Co., and then worked in London. Before leaving for Queensland, on 24 July 1862 he married Emma Louisa Wood at the parish church, St George the Martyr, Holborn.

In Brisbane Johnson joined John Townsend Godfrey as a house- and ship-builder and claimed experience in both London and New York. In 1863 they had contracts for the Toowoomba Gaol, Woogaroo Asylum and Woogaroo Congregational Church, but the partnership was insolvent by April 1864. In 1865 Johnson was at Bowen and next year was licensee of the Criterion Hotel, Townsville.

Again in financial difficulties, in 1867 he moved to Melbourne, where he began modestly, building cottages, villas and small hotels; he may have gained clients through Masonic connexions, though many commissions came from competitions. His earliest works included cottages for the Old Colonists' Association (1869), Fitzroy, the Eastern Arcade (1872), Bourke Street, the New German Club (1878), Adelaide, and the Austin Hospital for Incurables (1881), Melbourne.

His town halls (still in use in 2003) mostly had landmark towers and the distinctive and powerful designs that sustained Johnson's reputation. They were at Hotham (North Melbourne, 1875), Collingwood (1885), Fitzroy (1887, an addition to the first part by W. J. Ellis) and Northcote (1888), in Melbourne, and at Daylesford (1882), Maryborough (1887) and Kilmore (1893). These were all classical designs with bold and rich character from Johnson's mannerist palette, an idiom in which he was a master. Another of his dominating classical works, featuring giant Corinthian pilasters, was the Metropolitan Meat Market (1879), North Melbourne.

He was a prolific architect of theatres, long since demolished or radically altered, including the Prince of Wales Opera House (1872), the Cyclorama (1888) and the Bijou Theatre (1889), Melbourne, the Theatre Royal (1878), Adelaide, the Criterion Theatre (1886), Sydney, and the early plans for Her Majesty's opera houses in Sydney (1883) and Brisbane (1884). Johnson's greatest contemporary acclaim came from his design for the extensive and wonderful Centennial Exhibition complex (1887), which he added with sensitive deference to the northern side of the earlier Exhibition Building (1880), by Reed & Barnes.

Johnson's success created some professional enmity and he had disputes with the Victorian Institute of Architects. He served on Hawthorn Borough Council in 1870-73. On 2 December 1882 he was seriously injured in a railway accident at Hawthorn for which he received £2481 in compensation.

During the financial depression of the early 1890s, Johnson sought opportunities elsewhere. In Western Australia he worked on the Theatre Royal (1896), Perth. While returning to Melbourne in the Pilbarra, he took ill and died of septicaemia on 25 November 1898 at sea. Intestate he left an estate of £150. His wife, three sons and four daughters survived him. One son Harry Melbourne Golding Johnson (1867-1931) became an architect.

Select Bibliography

  • Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • D. Watson and J. McKay, Queensland Architects of the 19th Century (Brisb, 1994)
  • Institute of Architects (Victoria), council minutes 1872-90 (State Library of Victoria)
  • M. Lewis, Australian Architectural Index (Architecture Library, University of Melbourne)
  • Johnson family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Peter Johnson and George Tibbits, 'Johnson, George Raymond (1840–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 8 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

George Johnson, 1888

George Johnson, 1888

from Illustrated London News, 3 Nov 1888, p 501