Saturday, June 18, 2011

History: George Johnston

George Johnston (1764 – 1823)

Born at Annandale in Scotland, Johnston became an officer in the marines and served in America and the East Indies before travelling to New South Wales as a lieutenant with the First Fleet in 1778.  After serving as adjutant to Governor Phillip, he became a captain in the NSW Corps in 1792.

Johnston received extensive land grants in the areas of modern Petersham, Bankstown and Cabramatta, Both the Georges River and the suburb of Georges Hall are named after him, the latter from the farmhouse of the same name built on land grants received by him.  The building still exists.

Johnston also received grants of land which now comprise the suburb of Annandale, named after his property of that name which, in turn, was named after the place of his birth.  He and former convict Ester Abrahams (transported at age 15 for stealing fabric) farmed and lived on this land with their children until the 1870s when it was sold and sub-divided for residential development. The main street of Annandale, Johnston Street, is named for him and the gates of their property now stand in the grounds of Annandale Public School.

In 1800 he was arrested for providing spirits to a sergeant as part of his pay and for disobedience.  Objecting to trial by court martial in the colony, Governor Hunter had him sent for trial in England.  With the witnesses being in New South Wales but the court martial being held in England, the charges were dropped and he returned.  In 1804, in command of the military, he quelled the convict rebellion at Castle Hill.

On 26 January 1808, Johnston led the troops that deposed Governor Bligh in what later became known as the Rum Rebellion, the only time in Australia’s recorded history that there has been an armed takeover of government.  It was he who was responsible for arresting Governor Bligh at Government House.  Johnston took the title of Lieutenant-Governor and controlled the administration of justice, to the increasing discontent of the settlers.  In 1811 he was obliged to return to England, where he was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny.  He was given the relatively mild sentence of being cashiered, ie tossed out of the military, possibly because he was seen as being the tool of others.

He returned to New South Wales as a private citizen, lived on his land at Annandale and died in 1823, leaving behind a large family.  His remains were first interred in a private mausoleum at Annandale but were moved to Waverley Cemetery in 1904 when the land was subdivided.

As a further point of interest, Johnston’s son Robert was the first Australian-born man to serve in the navy and was responsible for naming Nelson and Trafalgar Streets in Annandale.

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