Esther Abrahams: a life transformed

Students examine the extraordinary life of First Fleet convict Esther Abrahams through primary source analysis to uncover her farming life, faith, money and the impact of her convict reputation.
Key inquiry question #1: 
Why did Europeans settle in Australia?

Learning intention

Students are learning to:

  • analyse maps, paintings and coins as historical sources
  • understand the variety of lives First Fleet convicts led in the new colony
  • investigate the daily life of First Fleet convicts

Success criteria

Students will be successful when they can:

  • describe how First Fleet convicts adapted to life in the colony
  • compare differences between convicts of the First Fleet
  • explain the challenges and opportunities for convict women

Student Activities

Who is Esther?

Students analyse a portrait of convict Esther Abrahams to begin to understand the changes in her life.

Number of set tasks: 1

Esther’s house reinvented

Students examine images of Esther’s house at Annandale Farm, to recognise her privileged life and design a new purpose for her old home.

Number of set tasks: 1

Providing for her family

Students study a map of Esther Abraham’s farm to understand the details of her daily life.

Number of set tasks: 1

Convict reputation

Students examine Esther Abraham’s husband’s letter to understand the impact her convict past had on her family.

Number of set tasks: 1

Faith and culture

Students investigate Esther Abraham’s faith and the impact she may have had on her community.

Number of set tasks: 1

Money in your pocket

Students review the history of currency, or lack of, in our early colony.

Number of set tasks: 1

We have found something!

Students look at a photograph of Esther’s last home, locate it on a map and discuss the idea of history changing.

Number of set tasks: 1

NSW Syllabus for the Australian Curriculum History K-10

A student:

  • HT2-3 describes people, events and actions related to world exploration and its effects
  • HT2-4 describes and explains effects of British colonisation in Australia
  • HT2-5 applies skills of historical inquiry and communication

Stories of the First Fleet, including reasons for the journey, who travelled to Australia, and their experiences following arrival (ACHHK079)

Students:

  • describe the establishment of the British colony at Port Jackson
  • using a range of sources, investigate the everyday life of ONE of the following who sailed on the First Fleet and lived in the early colony: a soldier, convict, ex-convict, official

Comprehension: chronology, terms and concepts:

  • respond, read and write, to show understanding of historical matters
  • sequence familiar people and events
  • use historical terms

Analysis and use of sources:

  • locate relevant information from sources provided 

Perspectives and interpretations:

  • identify different points of view within an historical context

Empathetic understanding:

  • explain how and why people in the past may have lived and behaved differently from today

Research:

  • pose a range of questions about the past
  • plan an historical inquiry

Explanation and communication:

  • develop texts, particularly narratives

Continuity and change: changes and continuities due to British colonisation of Australia.

Cause and effect: reasons for a particular historical development

Perspectives: different points of view within an historical context

Empathetic understanding: how and why people in the past may have lived and behaved differently from today.

Significance: the importance and meaning of national commemorations and celebrations, and the importance of a person or event.

Contestability: historical events or issues may be interpreted differently by historians, eg British 'invasion' or 'settlement' of Australia.

General capabilities:

  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Ethical understanding
  • Intercultural understanding
  • Literacy

Stories of the First Fleet, including reasons for the journey, who travelled to Australia, and their experiences following arrival (ACHASSK085)

  • investigating attitudes to the poor, the treatment of prisoners at that time, and the social standing of those who travelled to Australia on the First Fleet, including families, children and convict guards
  • investigating daily life in the Botany Bay penal settlement and challenges experienced by the people there and how they were managed.

Additional Information

The following information supports the above activities. Read the activities first.

General comment about Esther Abrahams

Esther’s life story is truly remarkable example of a rags to riches story. Her relationship with her life partner George Johnston, with whom she had seven children, allowed her to leave her convict past behind and become for a short time the unofficial “First Lady” of NSW. George was the Acting Lieutenant-Governor after he led the rebellion against Governor Bligh in 1808. They did use their home on their farm in Annandale as the Governor’s residence. It was from this farmhouse in Annandale that George rode to arrest Governor Bligh. Sadly the house was demolished in 1905.

Activity 3 Answers and Information

Q: Why were kitchens built separately to the main house? 

A: Kitchens were built separately due to the risk of fire. Large fireplaces for cooking were part of the kitchen building and would have been lit all day, every day. Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta, which was built in 1793, had its kitchen burnt down but the house was saved as it was a separate building.

Q: What could the other buildings be used for? Are there any clues?

A: Besides the farmhouse, there were extensive storehouses and stabling, and a two storey red brick building that housed a number of soldiers. As an officer in the Marines, George would have had soldiers under his command in this building. Under the eaves of one of these outbuildings was a bell and up until the 1870s, it would ring at 6 o’clock in the morning. There was a dam at the back of the property. The farm had an orange grove, smithy (blacksmith), vineyard, bakery, slaughterhouse, butchery and even beehives. Housing needed to be provided for the numerous convict servants required to work the farm and household of such a large wealthy family.

Q: Could Esther and George have done all the work on the farm by themselves the farm on their own? If not, who would have helped them?

A: The Johnston children would not have helped on the farm as families of wealth at this time had a large staff of convict servants to do all physical labour. George and/or Esther would have made the decisions and directed servants to do the work. As their children grew they may been involved in the management of the farm.

Further information on the house and farm

They ran horses, pigs, sheep and cattle at the farm. They also grew fields of barley, wheat, and oats. This fresh produce would be delivered to their own slaughterhouse, butchery and bakery. The farm supplied meat to Sydney Town as it was only about 5 miles away and it was the first farm to import merino sheep. They also cultivated their own vineyard of wine-making grapes.

It has been suggested that the house at Annandale Farm was loosely based on the house at Elizabeth Farm at Parramatta, the home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur, which was built in 1793. The house at Elizabeth Farm is a much smaller building than the house at Annandale Farm.

Activity 4 Answers

Q: Why did Esther and George send their children to the other side of the world for to attend school?

A: We don’t know the answer for sure. We know that the schools in Sydney were not considered high quality, as other families, such as the Macarthurs, were sending their sons to England for their education. After attending school in England, there were many more career opportunities available to these children. Also, Esther’s convict past in NSW may have been less obvious or even not known in England.

Activity 5 Information

Inter-faith

For most convict women, finding opportunities for a better life were through marriage or a de facto relationship. Esther was able to make a new life for herself. In this early colony, relationships between people of different social standing was possible. Esther and George did not marry until 1814, after starting their relationship in 1787. Their relationship was also one of inter-faith, Jewish and Anglican.

Kosher Food

We do not know if Esther Abrahams ate kosher food as there is no primary source to support that idea. It appears she adopted many Christian traditions. Kosher means ‘fit’ or ‘proper’ or ‘appropriate’ in Hebrew. Kosher food is food that is suitable for a Jew to eat. It is a long tradition. Today it is about the separation of dairy and meat products including the use of separate pots and pans and even allowing time between eating these foods so they don’t mix in your digestive system! Put simply, there are three Categories of Kosher food; meat, dairy and pareve. Pareve means ‘neutral’ and this is food that is not dairy or meat such as fruits, vegetables, nut and seeds. Pareve foods can be mixed with either dairy or meat.

Activity 6 Answers and Information

Currency history in NSW

There was no currency in the early days of the colony, apart from some coins from other countries that were brought out in the coat pockets of the officers and officials. The British government had decided there was no need for money initially. Convicts were being fed and not being paid for their work. The military and officials were supplied with what they needed and there were no shops to do business with. Due to the shortage of coins, corn and particularly rum were used as currency, some offered promissory notes (IOUs) and bartering was used. In 1800 Governor Phillip Gidley King standardised the value of all of the foreign coins due to disputes of value and distributed the Cartwheel coins. All 18,000 were stamped with 1797 but arrived in 1800.

Q: What two dates can you find? Why are there two?

A: 1813 (NSW) and 1773 (Spanish). In 1813 Governor Macquarie requested currency for the colony. The British government sent 40 000 Spanish dollars. They were then stamped with New South Wales, the date 1813 and their value.

Q: Why do you think the coins are shaped that way?

A: Each coin was cut into two pieces to provide some small coinage and also to prevent the Spanish dollars from leaving the country. The outer ring was called the ‘holey dollar’ and the centre, called the ‘dump’.

Q: What is the monetary value of each coin?

A: The ‘holey dollar’ was 5 shillings and the ‘dump’ was 15 pence.

Q: What does HISPAN ET IND REX mean?

A: HISPAN ET IND REX translates loosely as ‘By the Grace of God, King of Spain and the Indies’.

Source list for image details in student activity

Who is Esther?

Image 1: Johnston Family Photographs [not digitised], ca. mid 1830s

Esther’s house reinvented

Image 1: Samuel Elyard, Annandale, 1877 / Samuel Elyard, 1877

Image 2: J.C. Hoyte. Annandale House, Johnstone Estate/ J.C. Hoyte, undated

Providing for her family

Image 1: P.L. Bemi, Map of the Estate named Annandale situate in the Parish of Petersham and District of Sydney the property of Robert Johnston Esq. R.N. [cartographic material]/Surveyed by R.W. Goodall and P.L. Bemi, 1843

Convict reputation

Image 1&2: George Johnston, George Johnston letterbook, 1803-1807; includes some letters received by Johnston, 1804-1805, 1803-1807