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Mary Johnson (1753–1831)

by Natalie Lonsdale

Mary Johnson née Burton (1753–1831), wife of the Rev. Richard Johnson, chaplain of the First Fleet and to the colony of New South Wales, was born in the Parish of St Mildred Poultry, London. The couple’s courtship and marriage were arranged in great haste. They married on 4 December 1786, two months after Richard accepted the role of chaplain and only five months before they set sail from Portsmouth on the Golden Grove. Mary was the only officer’s wife on-board the fleet of 11 ships.[1] Richard would write of the voyage, 'Rough and tempestuous was the eight and a half months’ voyage out; Mary became so ill that her life was despaired of.'[2]

Arriving in Sydney Cove on 24 January 1788, Mary was assigned the youngest convict on-board the fleet, 13-year-old Elizabeth Heywood.[3] Elizabeth worked as a maidservant in the family’s first home, a cabbage palm hut.[4] On 3 February 1788, Mary attended her husband’s first church service held on Australian soil. Lieutenant Watkin Tench described it as taking place 'under a great tree.'[5] The Johnson’s had brought with them a collection of 4200 books, including Bibles and prayer books, likely used for the occasion. This collection would become Australia’s first lending library.[6]

In October 1788, Mary gave birth to a stillborn son, an experience she nearly didn’t survive. Richard wrote; 'my dear Partner, for some time, was in the utmost danger…and continues to recover though but very slowly.'[7] Four months later an unknown incident occurred and Elizabeth their convict maid was convicted of insolence towards Mr. Johnson. She was sentenced to 30 lashes and banished to Norfolk Island.[8]

In May 1789, a young Aboriginal girl named Boorong was brought to the Johnson’s home after surviving smallpox. She '…was received as an inmate, with great kindness, in the family of Mrs Johnson, the clergy-man’s wife.'[9] Mary took on the role of foster mother, tutoring Boorong in English, and encouraging her to wear clothes, and assist with home duties. Mary and Boorong are believed to have engaged in the ‘earliest recorded female cross-cultural relationship in Australian history’.[10] Boorong stayed with the Johnsons of her own free will for 18 months, before returning to her people.[11]

On 23 March 1790, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Milbah Maria. 'Milbah a name amongst the natives'[12] is the first recorded case of a European giving their child an Eora name. Mary chose the name personally.[13]

Two years later, on 19 July 1792, Mary had a son Henry Martin.

Mary continued to tutor Boorong and Milbah but was concerned about the lack of education for the colony’s children. Governor Grose, who disliked the Johnsons, refused permission for a church to be built, so in 1793, Richard took matters into his own hands. He built a wattle and daub building with a thatched roof, to serve as a church on a Sunday and a schoolhouse during the week. Here Mary and Richard taught between 150-200 children.[14]

On 13 December 1794, Eliza Marsden, wife of the Rev. Samuel, gave birth en-route to Australia and wrote of Mary’s kindness on their arrival; ''The Lord preserved us both in a wonderful manner and by good nursing of Mrs Johnson, we both soon recovered…'[15]

Mary wrote one known letter in existence, dated 21 December 1795, where she writes fondly of her two children. Of Henry, she writes; 'harry Bid Fair to Be as fat as your self (sic) he is Determined to Be a Butcher' and Milbah; 'she has made pritty (sic) good progress in her Book she can read a chapter in the Bible pritty well.'[16]

In 1800, the Johnson family returned to England. Mary died in Norwich, Norfolk, on 24 January 1831.

Anglican Church League, ‘Richard Johnson – first Chaplain to Australia’,, Accessed 23 September 2019. 

‘Australia, Birth Index, 1788-1922’, Ancestry, Accessed 23 September 2019. 

Cable, K. J., ‘Johnson, Richard (1753-1827)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, Accessed 17 September 2019. 

‘England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975’, Operations Inc., 2014, Accessed 17 September 2019. 

First Fleet Fellowship Victoria Inc., ‘Elizabeth Haywood’,, Accessed 23 September 2019. 

Haskins, Victoria, ‘The Chaplain’s wife and the native girl re-envisaging a cross-cultural female relationship in the contact zone’, Australian Feminist Studies, no 73, 2012, p. 259. 

Heney, Helen, Australia’s Founding Mothers, Melbourne, Thomas Nelson Australia Limited, 1978, p17. 

Hill, David, 1788 The Brutal Truth of the First Fleet the biggest single overseas migration the world has ever seen, North Sydney, Random House, 2008, p. 56.  

Lake, Meredith, ‘Why we should remember Boorong, Bennelong’s third wife, who is buried beside him’., Accessed 23 September 2019. 

‘London, England, Church of England Marriages and Banns, 1754-1932’, Operations Inc., 2010, Accessed 17 September 2019. 

Mackaness, George, Some letters of Rev. Richard Johnson, B.A. First Chaplain of New South Wales, Sydney, D.S. Ford Printers, 1954, p.2.  

Marsden, Samuel, and Mackaness, George, Some Private Correspondence of the Rev. Samuel Marsden and Family, 1794-1824. Australian Historical Monographs: Vol. 4, Review Publications, 1976, p. 3. 

Mary Johnson to Henry Fricker, 21 December 1795, State Library of New South Wales Collection, Sydney. 

‘Norfolk, England, Church of England Deaths and Burials, 1813-1990’, Operations Inc., 2016, Accessed 17 September 2019. 

Rev. Richard Johnson, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. 

Tench, Watkin, ‘A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson’, in Tim Flannery ed., 1788 Comprising A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay and A Complete Account of the Settlement of Port Jackson, Melbourne, The Text Publishing Company, 2009, pp 45, 106, 265

Original Publication

Citation details

Natalie Lonsdale, 'Johnson, Mary (1753–1831)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Burton, Mary

London, Middlesex, England


24 January, 1831 (aged ~ 78)
Norwich, Norfolk, England

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