Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnson, Robert Ebenezer (1812–1866)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Robert Ebenezer Johnson (1812-1866), solicitor and politician, was born in London, son of Richard Johnson, gentleman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Phillips. He arrived in Sydney about 1833 and on 30 October 1834 at St James's Church married Elizabeth Byrne. He was articled to J. W. Thurlow, then to George Nichols and was admitted a solicitor on 12 February 1842. In March 1843 he sued Thomas Revel Johnson for libel after the Satirist and Sporting Chronicle had attributed his pocked face to 'the commission of sin in early life, and the effects of mercury'. The case was dropped when T. R. Johnson was gaoled for editing an obscene publication. Johnson lived in style but on 8 December 1847 became insolvent 'through misfortune'. Next year he was discharged and his insolvency did not affect his standing as a solicitor. From about 1851 to 1864 he was in partnership with his brother Richard. In the early 1850s he moved to Brooksby, Double Bay, with its famous convict-built garden. In 1853 he was joint secretary and treasurer with Alfred Hamilton Stephen of the St Paul's College Building Committee and contributed £200. He was a fellow of the college until 1866 and a member of the Benevolent Society Committee.

In 1856 Johnson was appointed to the first Legislative Council after responsible government. An active law reformer he carried the Insolvents Act Amendment Act and an Act anent stamps on conveyances. In 1857 he went to England and on his return in November 1858 resumed his seat. He carried the Registration of Deeds and the Supreme Court Verdicts and Judgments Acts but was unable to effect other legal reforms. He served on many committees, devoted himself 'to the details of measures' and was ready 'at all times to give assistance to other members'. In 1860 he joined the New South Wales Constitutional Association which aimed at securing for parliament 'the services of gentlemen whose standing and education are a guarantee that they will support sound constitutional principles', but it failed in the 1860 elections during ferment over the land question. On 10 May 1861 he resigned from the council in support of Sir William Burton. In 1863 Johnson was reappointed and continued his attempts at such legal reforms as arbitration. He introduced thirty bills on nineteen different subjects. Johnson was 'most insistent on the power of the council to amend money bills' and had led the councillors who had threatened to refuse the 1860 Appropriation Act. In 1864 he urged that James Martin's customs bill should be amended. Johnson was 'an effectual speaker and influential leader'. His friend, Sir Alfred Stephen, thought that he was 'probably the most useful man in either House'; he worked with Stephen in many congenial 'pursuits and plans'.

An active clubman, Johnson served on the committees of the Union Club in 1863-66 and the Australian Club in 1866. He was a loyal supporter of the Church of England. Aged 54 he died suddenly at Brooksby from apoplexy on 6 November 1866 and was buried in the Anglican section of Randwick cemetery. Alexander Campbell said in the Legislative Council that 'No one could be in his company long … without being both edified and amused'. Survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, he left goods valued at £5000, but his finances were again 'considerably involved'.

Select Bibliography

  • In Memorium. The Honourable Robert Johnson, M.L.C. (Syd, 1866)
  • G. N. Griffiths, Some Houses and People of New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • Satirist and Sporting Chronicle, 25 Feb 1843
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Nov 1858, 11, 24 Feb 1864, 8, 9 Nov 1866
  • Empire (Sydney), 26 May 1860, 8, 9 Nov 1866
  • P. Loveday, Parliamentary Government in New South Wales, 1856-1870 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1962)
  • Macarthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Minter, Simpson & Co uncatalogued MS 424, item 64 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues, and newspaper indexes under Robert Johnson (State Library of New South Wales)
  • insolvency file, 1709 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Johnson, Robert Ebenezer (1812–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnson-robert-ebenezer-3862/text6145, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 30 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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