Reverend Richard Johnson’s Appointment to NSW.


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 evangelical scholars.


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 Minister.


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 the matter.


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 large tree.


Rev. Johnson had spent much time in preparation of his sermon which was based on Psalm 116 v 12.

“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 worse off.


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.


More Convicts.

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 long voyage.”


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 consecrated.


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 1801.


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 master”.


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 Johnson.  

D. McLean/Cedric Emanuel. Hard Times & Rough Justice.

St. Philips Anglican Church, Sydney.

J. Mortimer. M & H Johnson.



Copyright Fellowship of First Fleeters