The other day, I was having a chat with a friend about New South Wales’ early colonial history, and we happened across a figure by the name of Esther Abrahams. The name rang a bell, and I’m glad I followed it up, because Esther led a rather extraordinary life. This is the story of how a teenage, pregnant, unmarried Jewish convict from London became the First Lady of NSW.
Born in 1771, Esther Abrahams (at times also Esther Julian and Esther Johnston) is variously described as having in England been a sex worker and a milliner. The latter is what went on her record when she was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing fifty shillings’ worth of lace. (Here’s a transcript of part of the proceedings at her trial.) There was only circumstantial evidence, and, in spite of character witnesses and a petition for royal mercy, Esther received a sentence of seven years. She was shipped off to Australia with the First Fleet along with Roseanna, the child she gave birth to while imprisoned in Newgate in 1787.
It was on board that Esther met George Johnston, a First Lieutenant of the Marines. The couple were to have seven children together. The family named their farm Annandale, now the Sydney suburb of the same name, for George Johnston’s birthplace in Scotland. In 1808, George Johnston overthrew the Governor, William Bligh, in the Rum Rebellion. He became for a time the Lieutenant-Governor of NSW, and Esther his de facto First Lady.
Esther administered the land, the cattle, and so forth while George Johnston had to absent himself from New South Wales at various times, and for a four year period following the Rum Rebellion. In 1809, Esther received a land grant of her own, so she must have had quite a time of it. I can’t find any information on what her interactions might have been with the Aboriginal people whose land it really was. George Johnston returned, and they married at last in 1814, in an Anglican ceremony. They only had a few more years together as George Johnston died in 1823. His will said that their son Robert was to inherit Annandale on Esther’s death. However, in 1829, Esther announced that she wished to mortgage the property and return to England. Robert had Esther declared insane, taking the property and forcing her to go live with her son David.
Esther died in 1846, and many of her descendents have gone on to occupy significant places in Australian history. Her Wikipedia page notes that ‘While her husband is remembered in various geographic names, there was, until 2002, no such feature in Sydney named in Esther’s memory. In 2002 a pavilion was dedicated in Bicentennial Park, in Johnston Street, Annandale, New South Wales, near the Anzac Bridge.’ That’s pretty telling.
There’s such a lot I’d like to know about her. I wonder, if she really was a sex worker, how her life might have been coloured by the European construction of Jewish women’s sexuality as deviant, insatiable, and destructive. (See… every nineteenth century English novel featuring Jewish women not written by George Eliot.) I wonder how her experiences might have been shaped by the English alignment at the time of sex workers and non-white women as having a pathologically flawed sexuality based on the kinds of bodies they inhabited. I wonder how much it would have reverberated for her, living at that intersection, particularly when her son pathologised her again.
And I wonder how a woman with this kind of history held any kind of place in early colonialist Australian society at all, let alone as a First Lady. It’s not every day that you hear a story like Esther’s, to say the least.
Also see Esther Johnston in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and a site by, I think, a descendant, only I can’t access the index page to see.