Esther Abrahams: From Convict to ‘First Lady’

Last February in Australia, an 1823 portrait in Sydney’s Jewish Museum riveted my attention.  Just a few tantalizing facts identified its dark-eyed society matron.  I had to know more . . . .


Her Newgate Prison jailors never imagined how far Esther Abrahams would travel.  In 1786 London, pregnant prisoners like this young Jewish woman often died before or soon after giving birth.  Yet fifteen year-old Esther and her infant daughter Roseanna survived and  made an astounding journey—one that spanned thousands of miles and a vast social gulf.    Esther Abrahams arrived in colonial Australia as a convict but became for a time its ‘First Lady’!  With determination and sharp sense, she founded a dynasty that included illustrious military and political leaders.   Ironically, she also fought—and lost—a bitter legal struggle with one of her own sons.

Esther’s amazing story began officially in the courtroom of London’s “Old Bailey.”  On August 26, 1786, shopkeeper Hannah Crockett testified that she had seen the unemployed milliner steal 24 yards of black silk lace.   Three character witnesses spoke for law-abiding Esther, but could not sway the jury.  She was convicted of shoplifting, punishable then by hanging.     

The British government, though, had plans to transport some convicts to its newest, most distant colony—Australia.  This would empty Britain’s disease-ridden prisons while establishing its claim to Australia with a permanent settlement.  Esther Abrahams—unmarried and recently pregnant—would not hang.  Instead, she received the standard sentence: seven years “transportation.”  Once this First Fleet of convicts with its military guards reached Australia, she and others would work as prisoners.   In May, 1787, Esther and two month old Roseanna boarded one of the fleet’s six convict-bearing ships, the Lady Penryhn, moving from one harsh prison to another.

The fleet’s 193 women prisoners were kept apart from the 582 convicted men.  Aboard the Lady Penryhn, female convicts were housed far below the waterline, in a low-ceilinged area with boarded-up portholes.  The guards, fearing possible fires, forbade candles.  The lice-ridden, feverish women could smell but not always see dead rats nearby.  Dirty bilge water added to the stench.  Rations were skimpy.   When sailors offered extra food in exchange for sex, older prisoners advised the younger women to accept.  Some desperate women stole from each other and fought.                              

In these bleak conditions, Esther Abrahams met Lt. George Johnson, a well-born, 23 year-old Marine officer.  Johnson, battle-hardened in North America, was responsible for keeping order among the Lady Penryhn’s prisoners.  Guards might have called him below deck to help settle a fight.   Perhaps he first saw Esther then.  Possibly Esther went out of her way to catch his eye.  The account in Johnson’s diary of their first meeting is lost to us, destroyed by an embarrassed descendent.  But ship records show that in October, 1787, when the Lady Penrhyn docked in Cape Town, South Africa for supplies, Lt. Johnson purchased a nanny goat.  It provided Esther and her baby with fresh milk.  They no longer had to “make do” with convict rations of salt pork, dried biscuit, and pea gruel.   Johnson’s protection also saved Esther from the horrors undergone by women convicts during the colony’s first months in Sydney Harbor, after the fleet arrived in January, 1788.  Rape, lack of shelter, and near-starvation were common.  This alliance benefitted George Johnson too, since Esther brought brains as well as beauty to what became a lifelong relationship. 

During the next years, Esther (or “Hetty,” as Johnson affectionately called her) gave birth to two sons and miscarried another child.  Johnson was then promoted, receiving a land grant of 600 acres that he named “Annandale.”   Esther supervised the construction of their home when Johnson was away.   Annandale House, one of the first large brick buildings in Australia, became the center of its own village.  Johnson and Esther raised wheat, maize, and livestock that they sold to the government.   Another son and four daughters expanded the still-unmarried couple’s family.  When Johnson was promoted again and spent even more time away, Esther managed their land holdings and thriving cattle business.  Disgruntled traders complained to officials about bargains struck by “Johnson’s woman, a Jewess.”  One of Esther’s supporters testified, however, that she “accumulated her property by hard struggling, that it was not [Johnson] who got the money” for Annandale’s household.   As one grandson later said, Esther was “a strong industrious woman.”

In 1808, Johnson supported a mutiny by other wealthy settlers and officers against the  colony’s new governor, William Bligh, infamous as captain of H.M S. Bounty.  Johnson arrested Bligh and for the next six months was the acting Lieutenant-Governor of Australia.  Esther Abrahams by association became its ‘First Lady.’   Yet Esther cannily avoided public attention, knowing that her convict past would weigh against her.  Johnson did not move into Sydney’s Government House.   Even while Annandale served as the governor’s residence, Esther remained in the background.  This shrewdness kept Johnson’s business going and earned Esther a land holding in her own name while Johnson was in Britain, recalled to defend his part in the mutiny.  Johnson was cashiered from the army, but was cleared of the worst charges.  He returned to Australia a free man four years later.                  

In 1814, after twenty-five years and seven children, Esther and Johnson officially married.    Australia’s governor had insisted that the couple become socially “respectable.”  Esther probably gave little thought to marrying outside her faith, since colony officials considered children legitimate only if their parents had wed in a Christian ceremony, and the 30 to 40 Jews in Australia had no rabbi.    Esther’s daughter Roseanna also had a Protestant marriage, to emancipated convict Isaac Nichols, who became Sydney’s first Postmaster.   Esther had identified herself willingly as a Jew for First Fleet records, unlike some of the 14 other Jews transported then.  Their religion is officially known only because they took oaths in court on the Hebrew Bible.   Yet when Sydney’s first synagogue was built in 1844, none of Esther’s children or grandchildren were members.  They had assimilated into Christian society.

Ironically, Esther’s “respectable” position as Mrs. Johnson brought grief to her last years.  Her wealth divided her family after her husband’s 1823 death.  Johnson had left the Annandale estate to Esther for ‘the term of her natural life,’ after which son Robert would inherit it.  Robert was not willing to wait.  In 1829, he took his mother to court, seeking to have her declared senile.   Aging, sometimes eccentric Esther did have short term memory problems, but was shocked when a jury declared her “insane with lucid moments.”  Dismaying both Esther and Robert, the court appointed a trustee to manage her property.  Mrs. Johnson retreated to the country home of youngest son David, where she lived quietly until her death in 1846.   

Yet the amazing saga of convict Esther Abrahams did not end there.  Some of her descendants became renowned, influential leaders in Australia.  Grandson George Nichols, born to daughter Roseanna, was elected to the New South Wales legislature.   He successfully argued for the right of rabbis to receive the same public funding as Christian ministers.   When the Sydney Synagogue officially thanked him, it described Nichols as the “grandson of Esther Abrahams.”  Nichols also donated 100 pounds to Sydney’s proposed Hebrew Grammar School.  He served as the colony’s Auditor-General before his death in 1857.

In 1988, Admiral Sir David Martin, chief of Australia’s navy, was appointed Governor of New South Wales.   Before he died in 1990, this great-great-great grandson of Esther Abrahams and George Johnson established a foundation to help needy, homeless young people.  Perhaps Sir Martin, a proud member of the Fellowship of First Fleeters, thought of teenaged Esther Abrahams’ plight as he began this charity.  How that young Jewish woman, whose portrait is now displayed in Sydney’s Jewish Museum, would have marveled at this turn of events! 


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