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James Stewart Johnston (1811–1896)

by Carole Woods

This article was published:

James Stewart Johnston (1811-1896), politician, newspaper manager and vigneron, was born on 7 February 1811 in West Lothian, Scotland, the only son of James Johnston, part-proprietor of the Adambrae papermill at Mid Calder, and his wife Mary, née Stewart. Orphaned early, Johnston was brought up by his mother's family. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh but in September 1834 went to Demerara, British Guiana. He returned to Edinburgh in September 1836 and was briefly a book-keeper. In May 1838 he arrived in the Jane at Hobart Town where he joined the office of the superintendent of convicts. In April 1840 he moved to Melbourne where he became a book-keeper to the merchants J. F. Strachan & Co., opened the Southern Cross Hotel in West Bourke Street which he ran until about 1846, and bought land at St Kilda. In 1841-46 he held the Eumemmering cattle station near Dandenong with Edward Wilson. Late in 1848 Johnston and Wilson bought the Argus; in 1852 Johnston sold out to James Gill who was soon replaced by Lauchlan Mackinnon.

In 1844 Johnston was returned unopposed to the Melbourne City Council for Bourke ward and became an alderman in 1848. A fluent, pungent speaker, he joined the anti-La Trobe party in the council. He advocated the separation of the Port Phillip District from New South Wales, addressed public meetings on anti-transportation in 1849-50 and in 1851 was elected to the Victorian executive of the Australasian League. A familiar figure in the celebrations of the St Andrews and Burns Societies, Johnston was invariably welcome for his rousing after-dinner speeches and rallying songs.

In November 1851 Johnston was elected with William Westgarth and (Sir) John O'Shanassy to represent the City of Melbourne in the Legislative Council where with other urban liberals he opposed government nominees and squatters' representatives. In the council he denounced transportation and in December 1851 and November 1852 advocated the substitution of an export duty for the gold licence tax. He also proposed the opening of agricultural lands near the goldfields and the limitation of pastoral leases to intermediate districts. He argued for a National education system and initiated an abortive voluntaryist bill. Scornful of the colony's administration, he moved a want of confidence in the 'weak, vacillating and spiritless executive' in November. When it was defeated he resigned and left for Scotland.

Back in Victoria in July 1858 Johnston stood for Southern Province in the Legislative Council but lost. Next year he was returned with (Sir) Archibald Michie for St Kilda to the Legislative Assembly. He supported the Nicholson ministry while it lasted, but was only a shadow of the former 'fiery, knock-down Johnston'. His inability to identify with the 'popular party' became apparent in debates on the 1860 land bill when he opposed Land Convention demands for selection before survey and deferred payments, though he genuinely sought enactment of the bill. After the Nicholson ministry was defeated in November, he declined the post of chief secretary but accepted the portfolios of vice-president of the board of land and works and commissioner of public works in the Heales ministry. In February 1861 he resigned from the ministry with his colleague Robert Stirling Anderson when Heales compromised with assembly demands to reduce expenditure. In May Johnston became a commissioner of National education. He was commissioner of public works in the O'Shanassy government from November 1861 to June 1863 and held his assembly seat until 1864. A street in Collingwood commemorates his parliamentary career.

Johnston attracted public notice again in 1865 as one of the executive councillors who petitioned the Queen against the McCulloch government's controversial handling of financial matters. Johnston contested the 1868 general election as a constitutionalist who believed that the assembly was attempting to coerce the council in the Darling grant controversy. He was defeated at West Bourke in January and Warrnambool in February but because of his involvement with the Argus did not again try to re-enter parliament.

In 1867 Johnston represented Mackinnon's interests in the Argus and was admitted to editorial council meetings in 1870. He was temporarily general manager of the Argus in 1871 and from June 1879 to May 1881. One of his other business interests was the Australian Alliance Assurance Co. of which he was an original director. He leased his Marli Terrace flats on the Esplanade, St Kilda, and the Saracen's Head Hotel in Bourke Street, and became increasingly absorbed by his vineyard at Sunbury. In 1863 he had applied for twenty-six acres (11 ha) at Sunbury but later increased his acreage, ordered a variety of vine cuttings and built a concrete house, Craiglee, where he lived with his family from January 1866. His wines later won awards at overseas exhibitions. He was a Shire of Bulla councillor in 1869-70 but his Melbourne interests demanded supervision and in 1872 he moved his family back to Marli, St Kilda. He often visited Craiglee but entrusted much of the work to his younger sons. An original member of Scots Church, Melbourne, he defended Charles Strong in the 1880s but did not defect to the Australian Church.

In 1887 Johnston went to Scotland with his wife and youngest son and on 12 August 1892 made his last public appearance in Melbourne. Confined for months to his room after a fall, he died at Marli on 10 August 1896 and was buried in the St Kilda cemetery. About 1830 he had married Louise Austen who soon died in Ireland; their daughter Louise married John Lang Currie in 1852. On 22 September 1837 he married Henrietta Swanston in Edinburgh but she died after a mental illness in Melbourne, leaving two sons and one daughter. On 17 January 1854 at Edinburgh he married Mary Inglis; the eldest of their four sons, William Edward Johnston, became a judge.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 May 1881, 11 Aug 1896
  • Johnston letters (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Johnston diaries (privately held).

Citation details

Carole Woods, 'Johnston, James Stewart (1811–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 February, 1811
West Lothian, Scotland


10 August, 1896 (aged 85)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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