JOHNSON, Richard (1753-1827)


JOHNSON, Richard (1753-1827)
first clergyman in Australia
was born probably in 1753. Four different years have been given as the date of his birth, and the authorities also disagree in the details of his education. The most consistent account is in F. T. Whitington's life of Bishop Broughton (q.v.), which quotes a letter written in October 1786 by Henry Venn which gave Johnson's age then as 33. This agrees with the inscription on Johnson's monument which states he was aged 74 at the time of his death in 1827. He was the son of John Johnson and was born in Norfolk and educated at the grammar school of Kingston-upon-Hull, where he won a sizarship which took him to Cambridge in 1781. He graduated B.A. as a senior optime from Magdalene College in 1784. In 1786, through the influence of William Wilberforce and Pitt, Johnson was appointed chaplain at New South Wales; his commission was signed on 24 October. Two days before he had visited 250 of his future charges on board the hulk at Greenwich. He sailed with the first fleet, arrived on 26 January 1788 at Port Jackson, and shared in the early privations. Governor Phillip (q.v.) had first of all to find means of feeding and housing the soldiers and convicts, and labour could not be spared for the building of a church. Services were held in the open air and even four years later, when Johnson appealed to Phillip for churches at both Sydney and Parramatta, he had no success. Under lieutenant-governors Grose (q.v.) and Paterson (q.v.) Johnson was in even worse case. Grose made vague charges against him, but brought no evidence to substantiate them, and Johnson made many complaints about the treatment he received. He was married with a large family, and with a salary of only £182 10s. a year he found it difficult to pay his way. He was given a grant of land and worked it so successfully with the help of some convict labour, that in November 1790 Captain Tench (q.v.) called him the best farmer in the country. He planted seeds of oranges and lemons he had obtained at Rio de Janeiro, which later on produced good crops of fruit, and occasional references are found to his having made a fortune by his farming; in all probability an overstatement of the case, though he sold his land and stock to good advantage when he left the colony. In June 1793, tired of waiting on the authorities, he began to build a church himself, and by September completed a building capable of holding 500 people at a cost of about £67. Even allowing for the difference in the purchasing power of money and the comparative flimsiness of the structure, this was a remarkable achievement. This church was burnt down a few years later. An assistant chaplain, the Rev. Samuel Marsden (q.v.), was appointed in the same year, and arrived early in 1794; and henceforth Johnson had the support of a stronger personality than his own. In 1794 he published An Address to the Inhabitants of the Colonies established in New South Wales and Norfolk Island, and in 1800 obtained leave of absence to visit England. He sailed on the Buffalo in October and did not return to Australia. In June 1802 King in a dispatch said: "I understand that Rev'd Mr Johnson does not mean to return." Practically he retired in 1802, but so late as July 1805 he appears on a list of officers as "On leave in England, no successor or second clergyman appointed". In 1810 he was presented by the king to the united parishes of St Antholin and St John Baptist, in London, and at the time of his death he was also incumbent of Ingham in Norfolk. He died on 13 March 1827.
Johnson was a good man within his limits, but had no great force of character, not much tact, and a habit of complaining. He worked under many difficulties as a clergyman but pluckily stuck to his post, and he also deserves great credit for his work as a cultivator, when the little community was often near the edge of starvation.
F. S. Whitington, William Grant Broughton, pp. 3-11; J. Bonwick, Australia's First Preacher; Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. I, pp. 7, 43, 119; G. A. Wood, ibid, Vol. XII, pp. 237-70; Walter Hibble, ibid, vol. III, pp. 265-71; Historical Records of N.S.W., vols. I to V; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. I to V.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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