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Esther Abrahams arrived in Sydney in 1788 on board the Lady Penrhyn, one of the ships of the First Fleet. Sentenced to seven years' transportation for stealing 24 yards of black silk lace, she brought her daughter Rosanna, who had been born in prison, with her to Sydney. On the voyage she established a liaison with Lieutenant George Johnston, and on arrival at Sydney Cove took on the role of his de facto wife and bore him three sons and four daughters.
The Johnstons were prominent in colonial society. George became Major George Johnston and received benefits from successive governors, acquiring significant land holdings. Like Elizabeth Macarthur, Esther managed her husband's affairs when he returned to England, first under arrest for illegally trading in spirits in 1800 and again when he was court-martialled in England for his part in the Rebellion against Governor Bligh (1809–1813). In George's latter absence, she was granted land at Georges River in her own name.
Despite George's involvement with the deposition of Governor Bligh – for which he was cashiered out of the army - the Johnstons were popular with Governor Macquarie who had known George when they were both serving in America during the War of Independence. Despite her convict background, Esther was a guest of the Macquaries at Government House and her daughter Rosanna married Isaac Nichols, who was also prominent in colonial affairs. Although Esther could not hide her convict background or the nature of her relationship with Johnston, she assumed a semblance of respectability by calling herself Mrs Esther Julian, until she and Johnston finally married on 12 November 1814.
Esther was the mistress at Annandale House, built on land on the road to Parramatta granted to Johnston in 1793, and he left the property to her for her life when he died in 1823. But her children proved a source of sorrow for Esther. Her son George Junior was appointed Superintendent of Government Herds and Flocks, and after his accidental death his brother David took over the position. For five years following the death of her husband, Esther lived on at Annandale with her eldest surviving son, Robert, and two of her daughters, Julia and Blanche. Robert, who had been educated in England and served in the Royal Navy, was to inherit the estate on his mother's death. Friction between them culminated in Robert attempting to have his mother declared insane in 1829. Esther was found by the court to be incapable of managing her own affairs, and she left Annandale to live with her son David on his estate at Georges Hall. Robert managed Annandale for the trustees but did not inherit until Esther died in 1846, as his father had intended. Eventually one of Esther's descendants, her great-great-great-grandson Admiral Sir David Martin, would become Governor of New South Wales.
Esther was buried in the family vault at Annandale which was transferred to Waverley cemetery when Annandale House was demolished in 1905.
George FJ Bergman, 'Johnston, Esther (1767–1846)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967, pp 19–20
JS Levi and GF Bergman, Australian Genesis, Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788–1860, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002
G Lemcke, The Reluctant Rebel: Lt Col George Johnston 1764–1823, Fast Books, Sydney, 1998