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Esther Johnston and Michael Issacs

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Esther Johnston’s story is a classic tale of rags to riches and back again. Esther rose from the lowly status of a convict girl to 'first lady' of New South Wales, successfully managing properties in early Sydney until a family dispute left her with nothing.


Esther Abrahams was about fifteen years old and may have been pregnant when she was charged with stealing lace from a London draper's shop on 27 July 1786. At her trial at the Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey), Esther was sentenced to seven years' transportation. She travelled on board the Lady Penrhyn in the First Fleet, and arrived to help establish the new colony of New South Wales with baby Rosanna in her arms. On board the Lady Penrhyn, she had commenced a relationship with Lieutenant George Johnston of the Royal Marines. The relationship prospered, and the couple had seven children together by 1806.

Esther adopted the surname Julian around 1800. The reasons for this are unclear, but it may have been the surname of the man who had fathered Rosanna. George Johnston finally married Esther in 1814, possibly under the influence of governor Lachlan Macquarie who was keen to see long-term relationships become legitimate marriages under Church of England rites.

By this time George had become a legendary figure in New South Wales. He had spent time as an officer on Norfolk Island, commanded a company in the New South Wales Corps, had helped put down a rebellion of Irish convicts at Castle Hill in 1804, and was a key figure in the overthrow of governor William Bligh in 1808. Major George Johnston then became lieutenant-governor, meaning that Esther assumed the unofficial role of first lady of New South Wales and performed vice-regal duties with her husband. Johnston was tried in London for his role in Bligh’s overthrow, and was absent from the colony for four years. In this time, Esther successfully managed Johnston’s large estates: Annandale (named after Johnston’s birthplace in Scotland) and George’s Hall, near Bankstown. She oversaw the convict servants, managed the finances of both properties and sold meat and grain to the government stores.

Following George Johnston’s death in 1823, the Annandale Estate was bequeathed to Esther on the understanding that it would transfer to their son Robert on Esther’s death. George's Hall, meanwhile, was bequeathed to son David. Robert Johnston was most unhappy with this situation, and claimed in 1829 that Annandale was in decline under his mother’s management. A very public trial ensued, at which it was claimed that Esther's mental health had declined and that she had become an alcoholic since George’s death. Esther was officially declared 'not of sound mind, nor capable of managing her affairs', and the property became Robert's. Esther lived the rest of her life at George's Hall, dying there on 26 August 1846. She was buried on the Annandale Estate, in accordance with her late husband's wishes, and her remains are now in the Johnston family vault at Waverley Cemetery.

The extent to which Esther's Jewish faith impacted on her life in Australia is unknown. However, Esther's grandson George Robert Nichols – son of Rosanna – was a lawyer and politician who forcefully argued that the colony's Jews and Christians should receive equal amounts of government assistance for public worship. Thanks to his efforts in 1853, the minister of the Sydney Hebrew Congregation was paid a stipend of £200 from government coffers.

Michael Isaacs

Few convicts have left behind as detailed an account of their criminal careers as Michael Isaacs (1798-1833). Born into the Jewish faith in London, Isaacs' conviction at the Surrey assizes in 1818 for horse stealing was just the latest in a long list of criminal offences. Transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) on the Hibernia in 1819, Isaacs worked initially as Governor Sorell’s stock keeper at Elizabeth River, where he was supervised by Thomas Scott. So intrigued was Scott by Isaacs’s criminal past that in 1821 he asked Isaacs to dictate his whole sorry story. Eight pages of that narrative survive and, in the late nineteenth century, these were acquired by David Scott Mitchell .

The narrative is a 'warts and all' account of Michael Isaacs’s criminal career, which began in London while he was still a teenager. After his mother's death, Michael’s father became his first victim when the younger Isaacs robbed him of £75, and Michael's criminal activity escalated from there. Even joining the army failed to keep him out of trouble. His military career took him to France and America, and to Waterloo (in present day Belgium) only a few days after the defeat of Napoleon. On the battlefield at Salamanca, Spain, Isaacs robbed the bodies of his fallen comrades and, as the narrative tells, he continually failed to suppress the urge to steal whenever the opportunity arose.

Transcript: 

[Page 1]

I was born in the city of Lond. and was reared by my parents tenderly being 
their youngr Son they took great pains with me till I was 13 yrs old. My 
Mother died when I was young. My Father gave me good advise; but I did not 
take it. I began to know myself pick up with bad compns

The first of my transactions was I robbed my father of £75 - I being so young I 
did not what to do with such a great sum of money but I soon found some of my 
companions who soon learnt me how to make away with it, and then the way to 
get more elsewhere - then soon began to be very knowing, as good as themselves. 
I never met with my Fr not for 12 mths After when he heard what a pretty game 
his son was carryg wd soon bring him to the gallows he fetched me home and 
told me if I wd leave off this time of life he wd bind me apprentice to a 
respectable tradesman I told him I would and making faithful promises he bd 
me appce to an upholsterer -- with him I did not stop very long my fingers 
wd itching to be at my old game.

One day my Master sent me to a Gentleman's house with some furniture where 
I was to draw the money and bring it to him, he putting a deal of trust in me 
I drew this my I kept it and ran away with it

I wnt to my comps who I picked up with at first till my money was gone - 
one day as I was wkg the street I met with my Br again he told me I had been 
playg a pretty game with my master after faithful promises I had made to 
him but my master declared when he saw me He wd put me in Goal I then said 
to me Fr I did not care what he said for I wanted none of his advise and I 
woud take good care he wd not put me in Goal and on the same night I went 
out with two of my comps where we broke open a house wh we cleared off 
everything to the value of [£90?] we directly went and sold our swag for 
fear of being found out - I received my share of 27£ & then went down to the 
country - one of my comps being taken for the same robbery got transported 
for life.

I went to Worcester and for fear of being apprehended myself I enlisted for a 
soldier; I was then 15 yrs old. That time of life seemed very strange to me – 
when the Sergeant took me down as far as Gloucester where I secd. 8 Gun; 
then 1/2 of my bounty which seemed very little in my hands after what I had 
been lately used to that I very soon spent about 2 mths after I went to join the 
Regt then lying in Jersey where I soon became acquainted with new comps 
with two of my comrades and myself was on guard one night together we laid 
our heads together to break open the Gr. Mastrs stores that same night at 12 
o'clock when we completed our business we planted the swag down by the sea 
side - on the next night we took the greatest part of it and sold it -- consisting 
of shovels pickaxes blankets sheets etc, to the amount of £550 - 2 weeks after 
as we were coming home from the country from the people to whom we had 
sold it, being half past 8 - we met the Corpl of the picket he asked us where 
we had been I told him we were going home I had some tea and sugar for 
my own use I had got from the people we had sold the property to, which tea 
and sugar was off a great value

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p1
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695001
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 2]

and I was determined to get it by some means or other The Corpl put us all 
in the Gd House & there we remd till next morng when the Adjutant came down 
& said we were the 3 who had robbed the Gr. Mastsr. Stores he said to me, 
what the other two did not know I learnt them, and d----d the sergt that 
ever enlisted such as scoundr. brought as disgrace upon the Regt he told me 
he woud flog me about all the rest if I did not tell him where the 
property was - at the same time he might as well have asked the stones where 
it was for I shod never have told him he then related the circumstances to 
the Colonel who the next day tried us by court martial for the robbery and 
then we were sent to the Guard house again we remd there 2 days & then upon 
solitary confinemt upon bread and water

Then began to be very well pleased think I it wd. be all that I wd. receive - we 
remd there 30 days in that condition one morning & previously unknown to us 
we were suddenly taken out and received 300 lashes apiece by the tap of 
the drum I then began to feel very sorry off not takg my Frs advice when 
I was at home - but all this I did not mind - I then got well and remaining a 
few mths in the Coutr. to whc. I belonged steady a yr 2 gentlemen lately 
come into the Regt as an officer picked me out to be his servt I thought to 
myself he could not pick out a worse - he used to put very gt trust in me 
till one day I took the liberty of going to his desk where his money was and 
took out 5 dollars – he did not miss this small sum I continued this very often 
thinkg he wd not miss such small sums till one day he hapd to miss 15£ 
he called me to an accnt I told him I knew nothing about it he said he 
wd not report it to the Coln. or he wd get me a good flogging if I wd not 
tell him whether I took the money or not - I told him I knew nothing about it 
he might do as he liked - he sent me to my duty again - a few months after 
our regt was ordered to Spain we set sail from Jersey & in 7 weeks we arrived at 
Lisbon where being formerly used to pilfering I still carried it on but fortune 
favrd me here so that I was never found out

Sometimes there when I was short of money I would take my blanket & sell it 
to a Spanh woman and get sometimes 5 or 6 dollars for it, when I had sold it 
I wd go and put 2 stripes upon my arm as a corpl and go to the person I sold 
the blanket to and demand it back again I soon found that this was a good way 
of doing here, I sometimes sold it to 5 or 6 people in a night, and always got it 
back again.

I then found out another scheme that when the army wd be engaged I 
wd always be in the rear robbing & plundering their dead but one day I was 
picked up at that by an officer who asked me what I was about I mad him no 
answer, but he told me to go with him he then ordered his drummer to tye me 
up to the Ast tree and gave me 5 dozen this was at the battle of Salamanca 
and sent me by a corpl to me regt when I joined my

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p2
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695002
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 3]

Regt they were ordered then for to march farther up the country After 
arriving in the Camp I fell in with a Corpl belong to another regt he said 
ne knew me very well, & if I would go with him he cd take me to a Spanh 
womans house where we could get something worth - I told him I did not care 
much when we came to the house it seemed a poor place - we went in & found 
very little money only about £5; that I took & shared it wh him - I soon 
found out he was no judge of houses; I wd have nothg to do with him any 
more.

2 nights before the Action of Toulouse we lay in a village where I saw 
the door of a house open I went in and found an old woman who asked me in 
Spanh what I wanted I wanted money she went to the cupbd & brought me to 
the amount of 9 1/2d and said it was all she had, & then I stamped on the 
floor & as much as to say it was not enough & I wd have more till I 
searched the house all over I could find nothing but a pair of sheets of any 
value them I took & the 9 1/2d - the sheets I sold to a woman in the Regt she gave me only 4/6 for them

When the Action commenced at sunrise in the morning I was at my old trade 
the same as at Salamanca I was very fortunate in the midst of the battle I 
fell in with an officer who was killed - I searched his pockets - I took his 
purse & watch & epulets - in the purse was 10 guineas in gold 5 dols 2 
Crowns, then I thought for fear of being catched it was time for me to leave off 
I went up and joined my regt one or 2 of my comrades asked me where I 
had been - but I made them no answer and the action was then very near upon 
a closure - after the action we advanced into France and were quartd in the 
country villages - I was quartered in a house by myself, where there was an 
old woman with 2 daughters &1 son - the one daughter was 22 & the other 19 
both unmarried the boy 16 - when they asked me what religion I was I told 
them I was a Catholic as I understood they liked all to be of their own 
religion - the soon learnt me to talk French - I was 2 months with them 
before I did anything amiss until I found out all corners - The first that I 
took from them was 7 francs out of a basin in the cupbd they did not blame 
me for it - but I heard them breiding a disturbance with the son about it - 
one day I was watching the oldest daughter as she was counting out some 
money & saw her tye it up in a piece of cloth and hide it underneath the 
cupbd -- at night when they were all gone to bed I got up softly and took 
the bag. And in the morning the young girl went to look for it - I heard her 
tell her

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p3
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695003
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 4]

Mother in French that the money was gone, although she had done as she 
desired her with it - She told her daughter to ask me if I knew anything of 
it. I told her I did not and wondered how she could ask me any such thing, 
and asked her if they thought I had robd them - She said it was all that She 
& her Mother Sister & Br were worth and she did not wish to make any more 
complaint about it so that she got it again for no stranger cd come into the 
house to take it - she then made a complaint to the offr who told me if I 
did not bring the money to light, that he wd flog me I made him no answer. 
He went & ordered a serjent to confine me I still had this money 
concealed. I was brought before the Coln. he told me if he cd prove it agt 
me he wd hang me.

But fortune was in my favour, so that they cd not bring it agt me -- & they shifted 
my quarters; and put me in another house under the eye of a sergeant - where 
I had but little opportunity of getting anything - One day as I was walking in a field 
by myself about a mile from the town I overhauled my former deposit, and found it 
to consist of 7 louis dors 65 dols 5 half dols & 27 francs.

I then thought I might rest myself a while, & I could make a very good shift 
without doing anything for some time. In a short time after we got routd for England - 
we shipped at Bordeaux and in 16 days arrived at Plymouth marched to Portsmouth 
4 days after arrival I got short of money & said to one of my comrades I will go 
out tonight and try what luck. He was agreeable to what I said, we went together 
& in the street fell in with a drunken Gentln I said now is our time to see what he has. 
Whilst he was looking in at a cooks window I served his pocket and found 2 
1/2d I then went round to the other side of him whilst my comrade was 
looking over his shoulder I went to the other side and got his handkerchief 
which only brought 1/7d I said to my comrade this is a very poor nights work 
& as we were going to the barracks we fell in with a drunken whore we asked 
her where she was going she told us tonak her a---e I gave her a push & 
knocked her down & searched her all over as she lay and only found 7 1/2d & 
a little snuff box with a silver sixpence in it I says then we will go home taking our way thro the Market Place I saw a drunken sailor he said he had 
been robbed of all the money he had I said to him it was a pity that he shd 
be servd in that manner & told him to go sleep till he got sober

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p4
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695004
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 5]
 
We left him & he went to sleep. We came back to him again when I found he 
had a good pair of shoes on and a handker which we took and went home. On 
the next day we got the route for America the night before we marched sailed 
I took the liberty to stop out all night & sold all my necessaries

In the morning I was taken, & brought into barracks where the Adjutant asked 
me where my necessaries were I told him I knew nothing about them he said he 
wd get me a good flogging - I was tried by a [drum?] head Crt Martial and 
sentenced 200 lashes & got it upon the spot. The next morning we embkd at 
Portsmth on board the Ceylon E.Im [?] for America in May 1814.

After a long passage of 3 mths we arrived near the town of N. Orleans on the 
banks of the Mississippi to the east of the town we landed upon the Tuesday 
and marched up to 5 miles to the Camp before the City, & on the Sunday 
following the 8th Sept in the morning we engaged after a long & bloody engagmt 
of 24 hours we began to cease firing a little while, & every man felt very 
fatigued & hungry.

I then says to my comrade I must go out and see what I can find - I then came to a 
black man laying on his belly I kicked his hat off & I thought I had found a prize for 
that hat was full of biscuit & beef I then went a little farther among the wounded I 
then came to an officer belonging to one of the W. India Regt with part of his skull shot off. 
I searched his haversack & there I found a pair of fine roast duck and some white 
biscuit - then thot within myself I had my good luck - I found besides in his haversack 
a shirt & pair of stockings & a purse with 5 dollars. But before I could get cleverly 
back to my own Regt the Americans were beginning to fire harder than they had 
done before from the walls at us I then met my comrade (who had been out upon 
the same game as myself, just as I came into the ranks he says comrade what luck 
I told him very indifferent, he says its not so with me for I have fd a small box of dollars, 
very good says I, that will do well, we were the ordered to retreat out of the field, 
that night we went back for 2 miles & then halted - I on that same night was put 
on the outline picket. I about 1/2 hour after I was stationed the Indian Squaws 
came from the army without provisions there were no distinctions, the 
Officers getting the same as the men - The Captain of our Compy cried who 
will roast me a piece of my beef I will cried I - I roasted him his meat & gave 
him a piece of biscuit & then I saw his canteen full of rum laying by his side – 
Ah says I to myself I must have this

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p5
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695005
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 6]

I immedtly went & filed my own canteen with water placed it in the place 
where his was full of rum and took his away. I and two 3 more of us went & 
enjoyed ourselves - In 1/2 hour after the Captain called out where is my rum 
he finding the canteen full of water standing by his side - he called for me 
as I had cooked his supper, & asked if I had seen the rum I said no sir and 
then I changed the canteen again leaving his own empty & took mine away with 
the water - he then said he could find neither the Rum nor Canteen - I then 
turns round & said Sir here is your Canteen standing here but no rum in 
it - he said he wd give £5 to know the man who took it, I told him I wd try 
to find him out –

At about 2 in the mg the Americans began to fire again which caused all the 
pickets to be engaged & brought the whole body of the army down & there 
we semd firing till daylight - At 8 in the morning we sent a flag of truce to 
them for 12 hours, to by the dead - at 12 next night we were forced to retreat off the field altogether for 6 miles - In 2 days after we were forced to take 
refuge on bd the ships where we came from - being only 10 days ashore – 
We were landed upon an island called Dolphin Isd - the whole army 2 
Compys from each Regt were drafted to go & storm the Fort of Mobile 
about 12 ms from the Island - we went in flat bottomed boats & landed 
at 12 at night and at daylight we had everything ready for storming the fort 
We were commd by Major Monroe of the Artillery - we sent them 
word whether they intended to surrender or not - they sent that if they got 
until 12 noon they wd surrender - they were allowed to march out with the 
honors of war - 350 fine young men - We immdly took posision We began to 
look about the place & cd find nothing in it but sand bags, it being built 
of wood & mtd 26 guns -- we were in the fort 15 days and were very badly 
off for want of provisions -- they at one time gave us pork that we 
refused - they buried it in the sand it was so bad; in about 10 days after 
there being no provisions they dug the stinking pork up & served it out to 
us & said we must take it or want - In about 5 days after we were embarked 
on board the fleet & (in conseqce of peace being proclaimed) embarked

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p6
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695006
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 7 ]
 
For Engd - I have to mention a circumstance that hapd in their fort - when 
we first came into it we began to pull up the sand bags that wee heaped one 
above the other I struck something with my bayt and pulling up some more 
boards & bags found a small box full of dollars about 360, which we spent 
aftwds. Some of the ships went one way & some another - Our ship met with a 
contrary wind so that we could get with much ado into Halifax - before we 
arrived we were short of water & had no bread bur flour aboard we were for 6 
weeks upon 1 pint of water & a quarter pound of flour a day - till we got in 
sight of Halifax harbour - we were 10 weeks from Dolphin Id to Halifax

When we arrived there we got ashore & remained there a month till the ship got 
victualled & then imbkd for Engd and took an agent who had been left there 
on board our ship - one day as I was walking the dock the Agent came to the 
forecle for something that was the matter for with the

sailors - I turned round not thinking he was coming having a large quid of 
tobacco in my mouth I threw away the quid and as bad luck wd have it, it 
fell upon his epaulette he turned round & said who was that d---d rascal & 
one of the sailors told him it was me, he went & lodged a complaint to our 
officer aboard & insisted on my being punished for it, & I was tied up to 
the gratings & got 75 lashes

We were a month on our passage till we anchored at Spithead we had 
scarcely droped before we got orders to go round to the Downs & there we 
were ordered to be in readiness to go over to Ostend - when we were fitted out 
in 7 days we landed at Ostend & to my joy I hd that the Battle of W'loo was over. 
We were then put in boats & went up the Canals as far as Ghent being 4 
days on our way - when we arrived there we were all billeted in different 
houses in the town. During our stay here every man got a weeks liberty to go 
about the town & no duty to do - I was quartered upon a baker who kept a shop; 
every time I used to go into the house for my meals I used to take a silver spoon 
&/or fork, with me which I put in a secret place till I went away – 
The night before we went away I went down at midnight to the shop where 
I began to search for their money, but I found it all gone - I then went up the stairs 
& thought a pair of sheets & boots were the only thing I

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p7
1821
Isaacs, Michael, 1798-
Digital ID: 
a695007
View collection item detail
Transcript: 

[Page 8]
 
Could take away with me - At 4 oclock in the morning we got the rout & 
marched 7 leagues that day upon the road to Paris - when I came into my quarters at night I sold the sheets - boots & silver forks & spoons for 3 
luis dors to the people I slept with - Next day we went for 5 leagues Me & 
my comrades were quartered up on a poor man & woman In the town - we took 
from them a pair of trousers & sheet & blanket & 6 small cheeses - which was 
all we cud fd worth taking we making it a rule to rob every house as we went 
along - we were 10 days in going from Ghent to Neully Camp within 3 miles of 
Paris & 2 from St Dennis - the last night but one of our journey me & my 
comrades were quartered at a shoemakers house - before we came away in the 
morning very soon eer they were up we stole 4 hides of red morocco leather 
but before we could get all the parties together we were fd out by the 
shoemks wife who missed her leather, she found it upon my comrade & went & 
reported it to the Captain of the party - he was tried by a drum head crt 
martial & gave him 150 lashes & then made him march on –

After I had been a month at Neuilly Camp as I was one day on guard I fell in 
with an Irishman belonging to the Regt. he says to me d---m my eyes if I don't 
desert & says I d---m my eyes if I don't too & in the morning at 6 oclock 
happening to be both on sentry together we thought it the best time to go 
off - and we went in full marching order with our arms & accoutrements - we 
travelled the first day all the way through the camps of the Camps of the 
Allied Army without being known - at night we found ourselves within 3 miles 
of the village we left in the morning - I was jarring [?] upon this & did 
not like what I had done - but I thought as I had begun I might as well go 
through it - I then took fresh courage & went into a wine shop & laid myself 
down upon a from close by the fireplace the woman asking me in French if I 
was unwell I told her I was & she took me backwards up some stone steps &

[end of manuscript]

Thomas Scott - 'Life of a Convict named "Isaacs" a Jew in Van Diemen's Land taken down from his own dictation in the year 1821 at Elizabeth River where he then was - Servant to Govr. Sorell as his Stock Keeper' - p8 View collection item detail
Digital ID: 
a695008

Frustratingly, the narrative ends suddenly - in mid-sentence - and concludes with Isaacs deserting his military post at Neuilly, near Paris. We do not know the events that led to Isaacs’s eventual transportation, his voyage to Van Diemen’s Land or about his exploits there.

While under sentence in Van Diemen’s Land, Isaacs was further convicted for a string of misdomeanours such as disobedience, absence from work, forgery and fighting. It was only his sudden death in February 1833, at the age of 34, that freed Michael Isaacs from the rigours of convict life at the notorious Macquarie Harbour penal station. 

 

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