Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Esther Johnston (1767–1846)

by G. F. J. Bergman

This article was published:

Esther Johnston (1767-1846) née Abrahams, was a milliner aged 20 and of the Jewish faith when she was sentenced on 30 August 1786 at the Old Bailey, London, to seven years transportation for having tried to steal twenty-four yards of silk lace, value 50s. When sent to Newgate prison she was pregnant, and on 18 March 1787 a daughter was born, Rosanna, who in 1805 married Isaac Nichols. On 3 May 1787 Esther was mustered with the child in the Prince of Wales, but later transferred to the Lady Penrhyn. On board she met Lieutenant George Johnston, and after the landing at Sydney Cove became his de facto wife. On 4 March 1790 her first son, George Johnston junior, was baptized, and two days later she accompanied Johnston to Norfolk Island. In May 1791 she returned with her son to Sydney and two years later her sentence expired. In the following years she bore Johnston two more sons and four daughters. During his absence in 1800-02 she lived on his grant at Bankstown, and after his return at his residence, Annandale House.

From 1800 instead of Abrahams she called herself 'Julian', after a renowned Judeo-Spanish family, originally Juliano and presumably the name of Rosanna's father. Under this name bills were drawn by the Treasury to her for the sale of grain and meat and in 1809 she received a land grant of 570 acres (231 ha) near Bankstown, which was confirmed in 1813. While Johnston stood trial in London for his part in the rebellion against Governor William Bligh, she proved an able administrator of his large estates. A year after his return to the colony, at Concord on 12 November 1814, he married Esther, the bride using the name Julian. The marriage was celebrated by Samuel Marsden and witnessed by Isaac and Rosanna Nichols. When Johnston died on 5 January 1823 he bequeathed to his wife 'Esther Johnston or Julian' the estate of Annandale for her natural life.

In the 1828 census she appeared as a free settler in possession of 2460 acres (996 ha), but the years were beginning to take their toll. In 1829 her son Robert instigated court procedures to have her declared insane and unable to administer her estates. The jury found her 'insane, but having lucid moments', for she was then probably becoming senile. The jury also found that 'Robert Johnston was not heir at law' and application was made to the Supreme Court to appoint trustees for Esther's estate. She retired to the property of her son David, George's Hall at the George's River, where she died on 26 August 1846. She was buried in the Annandale family vault, and when it was demolished her coffin was transferred to the new Johnston vault at Waverley cemetery.

Destiny had allowed her to climb from the depths of degradation to the heights of social respectability; but she was a modest woman who effaced herself and stood always in the background. It was this attitude which probably won her the respect of the 'exclusives' among whom her husband moved. She was very attractive, with black hair, a long face, almond formed eyes, small lips and a long, but straight nose. Deeply devoted to her husband and her children, she remained 'through evil and through good report the faithful wife and companion'.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 7, p 217
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3, 4
  • G. F. J. Bergman, ‘Esther Johnston: The Lieutenant-Governor's Wife’, Australian Jewish Historical Society, vol 6, part 2, 1966, pp 90-122
  • Sydney Gazette, 19 Mar 1829
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Aug 1846.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. F. J. Bergman, 'Johnston, Esther (1767–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Abrahams, Esther
  • Julian, Esther



26 August, 1846 (aged ~ 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Passenger Ship
Key Events
Convict Record

Crime: theft
Sentence: 7 years