Reverend Richard Johnson’s Appointment to
On 13 May 1787, the 11 ships of the First
Fleet embarked on their voyage to Botany Bay.
Rev. Johnson and his wife Mary were on
board the store ship Golden Grove.
Richard Johnson was born in the
Humberside Village of Welton, Yorkshire in 1755. He
attended Grammar School at Hull where the headmaster was
Joseph Milner who was one of the leaders of the
evangelical movement in Yorkshire. William Wilberforce
was also a student there; Wilberforce became a great
campaigner against slavery and played an important part
in Johnson’s selection as Chaplain to the penal colony
of New South Wales.
1780 Johnson entered Magdalene Collage,
Cambridge to study for the ministry of the Church of
England. Magdalene Collage was at that time the most
active intellectual centre of Anglican Evangelicalism in
the whole country, as the three senior positions in the
college were filled by brilliant and dedicated
Reverend Richard Johnson was ordained
Deacon in 1783 and ordained priest at the end of 1784,
then early in 1785 an assistant to the Reverend Henry
Foster, a leading evangelical preacher in London.
In1786, Johnson was offered the
appointment as chaplain to the Botany Bay expedition. By
about June that year the Government had settled on
Botany Bay as a most suitable place in which to found a
penal settlement to replace the lost American colonies,
and relieve the congestion in the dangerously
overcrowded gaols and prison hulks of Great Britain.
William Wilberforce, who only in April of the same year
had come to clear and settled adherence to evangelical
principles, heard of the Botany Bay plan through his
close personal friendship with William Pitt, the Prime
Wilberforce had been for several months
in close contact with the Reverend John Newton, the
former slave trader, who, after a remarkable conversion
to Christianity, had eventually become Rector of the
Church of St. Mary Woolnoth in the heart of London.
Newton was the leader of a small group of evangelical
clergy and laymen of various denominations called the
Eclectic Society which met once a fortnight for
discussion on the practical overworking of the Christian
faith. It was in one of these discussions that the idea
of proposing that a chaplain or missionary be sent with
the convicts to Botany Bay was put forward. Newton then
consulted Wilberforce, and Wilberforce, supported by
John Thornton, who was himself and evangelical,
approached Pitt. The Prime Minister agreed to include
provision for a chaplain in the Botany Bay plan and
acknowledged his indebtedness to Wilberforce for raising
William Wilberforce wrote to Johnson and
officially offered him the chaplaincy which Johnson was
hesitant. Johnson paid a visit to the prison hulk
Leviathan at Woolwich in order to see at first hand the
type of person to whom he would later be ministering.
Johnson was introduced by Wilberforce to
the Societies for the Propagation of the Gospel and for
Promoting Christian Knowledge. These societies, the long
– established and orthodox missionary department of the
Church of England, would supply him with a large number
of religious books and tracts. After a long sojourn at
London and Lymington, Johnson took up his appointment.
As well as gathering the various things he would need to
take with him, he then started to search for a wife.
Rev. Richard Johnson with the assistance
of Newton found a wife in Mary Burton. Mary was young
with similar religious convictions of Richard. They
married on 4th December 1786 at St. John’s
Clerkenwell by fellow Yorkshire man and member of the
Eclectic Society, the Reverend Henry Foster.
Mary accompanied her husband through all
their subsequent adventures in the colony. Mary bore a
stillborn boy in October 1788. On 3rd March
1790 a daughter Melba Maria was born. A son, Henry
Martin, was born on 19th July 1792. Mary also
cared for an Aboriginal orphan girl Baraboo for several
years. Mary had earlier sensed an insight into her new
role in life; she became a thoughtful, loving wife and a
person who adapted to a different lifestyle.
On 13th May 1787 the First
Fleet set sail from Motherbank, Portsmouth bound for New
South Wales. There were eleven ships in all: Two Naval
Ships, HMS Sirius commanded by Captain of the Fleet
Arthur Phillip, HMS Supply. Six transport ships,
Alexander, Friendship, Scarborough, Charlotte, Lady
Penrhyn and Prince of Wales. Three store ships, Fishburn,
Borrowdale and Golden Grove-on board were Rev. Johnson
and his wife Mary.
The Canary Islands were reached on 3rd
June 1787 and at the port of Teneriffe stores were taken
on board. On 6th August, Rio de Janiero was
reached. More stores were taken on board, the ships were
caulked. The Fleet arrived in Cape Town on 13th
October, where negotiations took place to purchase
provisions. The stock such as oxen, six cows, sheep and
hogs… All the people were thoroughly clear of scurvy as
the Dutch supplied us with mutton, vegetables etc.
It was at Rio de Janiero the Johnsons had
gathered orange and lemon seeds hoping to grow crops in
the near future.
During the voyage Johnson was a very busy
man who preached to the convicts on some of the
transport ships, and baptized children on board. The
next leg of the journey was to Botany Bay. The fleet was
divided at Cape Town in the hope the faster ships would
reach Botany Bay to prepare for disembarkation. Phillip
transferred to a faster ship the Supply.
Christmas was celebrated sailing across
the Indian Ocean, some difficulties did occur.
Chaplain Richard Johnson reported his
Christmas meal was consumed with difficulty:
“Our plates tumbling down and we scarcely
able to keep upon our seats.” Rough seas continued to
toss the ships, and a week later Bowes Smyth wrote;
“Many of the women were washed out of their berths by
the seas we ship’d.”
The eleven ships arrived at Botany Bay
within two days of each other. We are told that on
making contact with the original inhabitants Philip
ordered all weapons must be laid down.
After visiting port Jackson, Phillip
decided to prepare a settlement at Sydney Cove.
On the 26th January 1788 all
the ships were anchored in Sydney Harbour.
General orders for the first official
Christian Service to be held 3rd Feb.1788.
Convicts who were on land assembled for Divine Service.
The women convicts were still on the ships. The site is
believed to have been somewhere between the present
George Street and Macquarie Place, apparently under a
Rev. Johnson had spent much time in
preparation of his sermon which was based on Psalm 116 v
“What shall I render unto the lord for
all His benefits toward me”,
‘His benefits are so many that we cannot
number them, and our ways of acknowledging his
bestowments ought to be varied and numerous”.
A text that reflected the sufferings all
had undergone on the voyage but survived to give thanks
to God for their deliverance and new life.
John Newton wrote a hymn for The Reverend
Richard Johnson before he sailed.
“The Lord who sends thee hence”
Second verse: “Go bear the Saviour’s
Name to lands unknown”.
Governor Arthur Phillip had first of all
to find means of feeding and housing the soldiers and
convicts, labour could not be spared for the building of
a church. Services were mainly held in open air and four
years later, when Johnson appealed to Phillip for
churches at both Sydney and Parramatta, he had no
success. Under lieutenant governor Grose Johnson was
Rev. Johnson preached at the settlement
of Parramatta regularly and his labours in his religious
duties were arduous and were carried out with exemplary
hard work and devotion which had a severe effect on his
health. He served as a civil magistrate and earned the
gratitude of his flock. “Few of the sick would recover,”
wrote a convict in 1790 after the arrival of the Second
Fleet, “if it were not for the kindness of the Rev.
Johnson, whose assistance out of his own stores makes
him the physician of both soul and body”.
Johnson held services, either in the open
air or in a store-house, at Sydney and Parramatta,
performed the occasional offices of the church-baptisms,
marriages, churchings, burials—attended the execution of
condemned men and worked hard among the convicts. He was
known to ride a horse to and from Parramatta & Sydney.
Rev. Johnson was given a grant of land
and worked it so successfully with the help of some
convict labour that, in November 1790, Captain Tench
called him the best farmer in the colony. The Johnsons
had planted the seeds of oranges and lemons they
obtained at Rio de Janeiro, which later on produced good
crops of fruit.
Sydney’s first church was built of wattle
and daub and was opened at Johnson’s own expense. It
stood on the corner of Bligh and Hunter Streets. During
the week it served as a school house. The T-shaped
church could seat 500 people. Johnson and his wife Mary
taught between 150 and 200 children. Johnson was
concerned about the lack of education for colonial
children, so helped established a school at Parramatta
in which William Richardson and his wife Isabella Rosson
were appointed teachers. Another was set up on Norfolk
Island under the care of a convict who had teaching
experience in London. Chaplin Johnson took the word to
Aboriginal people and the convict population who held
him in deep affection.
Before the end of June 1790 three
transports arrived. This was the Second Fleet: Surprise,
Neptune and Scarborough. Its voyage had been disastrous
in that of just over 1000 convicts who had left England
a total of 267 had died on the voyage. The prisoners had
been treated with brutality. They were starved, kept
chained and seldom allowed to walk on deck.
Those who survived the voyage were in a
sad state when they reached Sydney. Roughly 500 were
sick and in need of medical treatment and those who were
regarded as well were “thin and emaciated”.
Johnson did what he could to minster to
both the physical and spiritual needs of those people,
who were housed at first in the most primitive
conditions. The usage the convicts met on board was
truly shocking. Sometimes for days, nay for a
considerable time they had been up to the middle in
water chained together hand and leg, even the sick not
exempted. Many died with the chains upon them. Promises,
entreaties were all in vain and it was not until a very
few days before they sailed into the harbor, that they
were released out of irons.
Governor Phillip, as we know, was a
humane man and the sight of the convicts sickened him.
He informed the British Government of the disgraceful
state in which the convicts had travelled and said that
the mortality had been caused by “contractors having
crowded too many on board and from their being too much
confined during the voyage…I believe”, said the
Governor, “while the masters of transports think their
own safety depends on admitting few convicts on deck at
a time and most of them with irons on, which prevents
any kind of exercise, numbers must always perish on a
In October 1791 Johnson went by Atlantic
to Norfolk Island, where he performed services,
baptizing children he is said to have married several
couples there, but any record of these kept by him have
not been traced. He returned to Port Jackson by Queen,
sailing on 19th December.
1798 the church was burnt down. Governor
J Hunter initiated a new stone church built across the
road from the present church. Old St. Philip’s Church
served until 1856 when the present church was
The five years which the Reverend Richard
Johnson spent under the colonial administration of
Captain John Hunter, proved to be much happier ones than
the preceding three. There were still difficulties and
hardships in abundance, to be sure, but the wanton
opposition and deliberate misunderstanding to which he
had been subjected by Francis Grose were gone forever,
and in Hunter the chaplain found a man who was once more
humane and sympathetic on a personal level and also more
genuinely concerned about progress of religion and
morality than his immediate predecessors.
Rev. Johnson’s health was deteriorating
and eventually on medical advice he came to the
conclusion that he must at least seek leave of absence
to return to England in the hope of recovering his
health to some extent. The Johnson family sailed by
Buffalo with Governor Hunter, who had been replaced by
Philip Gidley King, in October 1800 arriving in May
Born in the colony of New South Wales,
Milbah and Henry Johnson witnessed the background to
Australia’s early development; one wonders what their
thoughts were as they sailed out of Sydney Harbour,
October 1800. The Johnson children were yet to see a
large city with British architecture such as Westminster
Abbey, the Palaces of St. James, Whitehall and many
other fine buildings.
From the time of Johnson’s arrival in
England he tried to secure some compensation for his
colonial service and some preferment in the church at
home. For the former he received a year’s salary, though
he might have had two had he not thought that Marsden
should be given an allowance for his extra work at
Sydney; in the latter he secured nothing, and late in
1808 was still ‘wholly unproved for, and under the
painful necessity of serving as a Curate’, as he had
been doing chiefly in Kent, Essex and Norfolk. For some
time this had been due to uncertainty about his return
to Australia. In March and August 1801 King had asked
that Johnson be sent back or replaced. Lord Hobart
thought it ‘probable that Mr. Johnson will not return to
New South Wales’, but Johnson characteristically did not
give a tentative verbal resignation on the ground of
illness until March 1802.
In 1808 Marsden, on a long visit to
England, made representations on Johnson’s behalf to the
missionary and evangelical friends. It may have been as
a result of his intercession that Johnson was presented
by the Crown in 1810 to the united rectories of St.
Antholin and St John the Baptist in the City of London.
In 1812 he made his last contribution to Australia by
giving evidence before the selected committee of the
House of Commons on transportation.
Richard Johnson died on 13th
March 1827 and his wife died on 24th January
1831. Their daughter had predeceased them and their son
Henry and his wife Hannah have no evidence of children.
“A good and faithful servant” of his
St. Philip’s Anglican Church at Church
Hill, 3 York Street. Sydney.
St. Philip’s has a chapel dedicated to
the memory of Richard Johnson, who came to the colony as
Chaplain to the First Fleet and for some time was the
only clergyman in New South Wales. The Parish is
custodian of the Bible and Prayer Book used by Reverend
Richard Johnson at the first Christian service in the
new colony on February 3rd 1788.
On Sunday nearest to the 3rd
of February a special service is held to reflect on the
first Christian service held in Australia.
Submitted by J. Mortimer # 6409
M. Gillen. Founders of Australia.
N.K. Macintosh. The Reverend Richard
D. McLean/Cedric Emanuel. Hard Times &
St. Philips Anglican Church, Sydney.
J. Mortimer. M & H Johnson.