Rev. Kerr Johnston (1812-1887)

Kerr Johnston

Much of Kerr Johnston's story is told in a book by Laurence F. Rowston. See also entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography: Some further details are to be found in a report by Aileen Brown in Garnered Sheaves. The substance is as follows.

Early Life, Ordination and Marriage

Kerr Johnston was born 26 Aug 1812 and grew up in Greenock, Scotland (on the Clyde near Port Glasgow), where his father William printed the first newspaper in the town. It was in his father's printery that Kerr Johnston learned bookbinding.

He was a member of the George Street Congregational Church in 1837 when he entered the Glasgow Theological Academy to train for the ministry of the Scottish Congregational churches. Here he studied under Dr. Ralph Wardlaw. Johnston was also a student at Glasgow University. It was during his University years that he became interested in the Seamen's Mission. On completion of his studies, he was ordained at Greenock and on 4 Aug 1842 in Berwick-on-Tweed married Elizabeth Denovan Gowan (known as "Eliza"), the daughter of Arthur B. Gowan (1789-1867), a shipbuilder of that town.

Johnston became pastor of the Mill Street Church, Perth, from 1842 to 1847. It is recorded that the membership of the Perth Church declined a little during his ministry.

From Congregationalist to Baptist

At this time, KJ became convinced of the rightness of believer's baptism, and on 9 April 1848 the Rev. Kerr Johnston, previously Congregational minister, was baptised by his brother, the Rev. Robert Johnston, in Well Lane Chapel, Beverley, Yorkshire.

From 1848 to 1852 Johnston was pastor of the Bethel Baptist chapel, Shipley (nr. Bradford), W. Yorkshire. The family appears in the 1851 census, living at Low Well, Shipley. The household consists of Kerr J., 38, his wife Eliza, 34, b. Berwick-on-Tweed, and children Margaret, 7, Eliza, 5, Lydia, 4, Janet, 2, and Mary, 1, plus an Irish servant.

In the written history of the Bethel Baptist chapel it is recorded that "'God makes no two men alike.' This was very true concerning Peter Scott and his successor, Kerr Johnston. It was almost a change from Isaiah to Amos. Mr. Kerr Johnston was a fearless preacher, who spoke plain unvarnished truths." At Bethel, Johnston encountered hyper-Calvinism, which stressed predestination. Believing in aggressive evangelism, he rejected this theological viewpoint. How Johnston found a pulpit in the Harrington Street chapel for four years where the likes of the hyper-Calvinist Henry Hinsby were so much at home, remains a mystery.

Migration to Hobart

We have no news as to the circumstances surrounding the Johnstons' decision to emigrate but KJ had been in touch with the London Seamen's Mission before leaving.

After a six-month journey aboard the Sir William Molesworth, Johnston arrived in Hobart Town on 30 April 1853 with his wife and children (three girls and one boy at that time - see table below). The church manse, considered too small for the Rev. William Wade, his wife and their six children, was to accommodate the new arrivals for four years, during which time another two boys were added to the family. His first service at the chapel was on 8 May. At the Congregational Colonial Missionary Society meeting on 24 June he informed the gathering that he was grateful for this opportunity to join his Christian brethren in the denomination to which he once belonged.

Opposition to sectarianism amongst the Protestant professions over "frivolous and insignificant points of doctrine or ritual" was a constant refrain of Johnston's ministry in the colonies. He appreciated the Bible Society for its catholic spirit. Ecumenism was his watchword. During his four years in Hobart, KJ, who proved to be an outstanding public speaker, participated in interdenominational meetings at one time or another not only at his Baptist Chapel but at the Van Diemen's Land Colonial Missionary Society, the Tasmanian Branch of the Australian Wesleyan Missionary Society, the Hobart Town City Mission, the Ragged School, the Young Men's Christian Instruction Society, the Wesleyan Sabbath Schools, Berea Independent Sabbath School and the Evangelical Union.

On the other hand, the ecumenical Rev. Johnston inveighed against a parliamentary bill for the distribution of State Aid to all denominations because it might encourage "error". (More than anything, he seems to have feared the institution of a link between the State and an established church such as had led to so much persecution of dissenters back "home" in Britain.) And he did not shrink from reprimanding the Anglican Bishop of Tasmania, in an open letter, for his position on infant baptism which did not accord with his own.

KJ's interests also extended to that of education; he was in attendance for the half-yearly examinations at Home's Academy and Somerset House, of which latter the Rev. W. R. Wade was Principal. His daughter Janet attended Somerset House and, in the annual examinations of 1855, won first class honours in Latin, Etymology, Geography, Writing and Science.

The Crimean War

11 August 1854 was a day appointed by proclamation for the people of Hobart Town to humble themselves before the Almighty so as to avert the calamities by which the nation, and the British Empire were threatened because of the war in the Crimea. The churches of Hobart, including Mr Johnston's Baptist chapel, were filled with attentive and devout congregations, and the collections for the wives of soldiers exceeded 600 pounds in Hobart Town alone.

At the service, Johnston took as his text Habakkuk 3.2 and treated it as a prayer for the revival of religion and consequently as a prayer that the calamitous necessity for the war would be followed up by the civil and religious emancipation of European lands.

Two years later, concurring with the invitation of His Excellency, the Governor-in-Chief, Sir William Denison, sermons were preached on 6 July 1856 in the various chapels around Hobart Town in celebration of the cessation of the war and the restoration of peace. Again at the Baptist chapel Johnston preached a suitable sermon.


Temperance was one of the key issues of the 1850s. In 1854 there were 180 public-houses in Hobart Town for a population of approximately 23,000. Further, it was calculated that approximately 12 pounds per head, including women and children, was paid yearly for strong drink.

Johnston, as a member of the Total Abstinence Society, eloquently and energetically pleaded the objectives of the Society. It was his opinion that the spirit trade was worse than the slave trade in that the latter was a merchandise of bodies, while the former was a traffic in the souls of men. He gladly participated in public demonstrations. (This seems to have been a lifelong crusade for he was later to be found railing against the consequences of drunkenness in a letter to the editor of the Melbourne Argus, 12 Feb 1872.)

From Hobart to Melbourne

In May 1857 Kerr Johnston announced that he was "finally" taking up his appointment with the Victorian Bethel Union for Seamen. This was to be a mission to the seamen coming into Hobson's Bay and Williamstown.

In 1857, the family sailed in the Goldseeker to Melbourne where the Emily, a large, old American hulk, granted for the purpose by the Government, became their home. The hulk was painted a light colour, with "Bethel Sailors' Church" in large, black letters on the side, and this strange church was officially opened in July 1857 by Bishop Perry, who arrived by boat from Williamstown.

Both the Victorian Bethel Union and the Victorian Seamen's Mission, being non-denominational, had to rely on donations for their finances.

Soon after his arrival in Victoria, Johnston attended William Buckley on his death bed. Buckley, the "wild white man", had escaped from a convict party and lived with the aborigines in the Port Phillip district for thirty-two years.

For two and a half years the family lived on the "Bethel," then Leigh Terrace came to be their home at Port Melbourne. As time went on an old boathouse on the beach was used for services, and it is on that site that the present Port Melbourne Institute stands. In 1858 we have records of a public meeting held in the Mechanics' Institute, Collins Street, to interest people in the welfare of sailors. His Excellency, Sir Henry Barkly, K.C.B., was chairman of the meeting, and a very strong committee was formed. Soon after, funds were collected for a building. This building was formally opened by Lady Loch, and became known as "The Bethel."

The "Bethel Floating Church" was last seen turning turtle after catching fire, as reported in the Melbourne paper The Argus on 14 February 1860:
Sinking. We understand that the hulk Emily, which sank in Hobson's Bay on Saturday evening, and has been used for the past three years as a Bethel ship, was abandoned a few weeks since, in consequence of the Committee of the Sailors' Mission deciding upon dispensing with the vessel (owing to the non-attendance of seamen), and finding a residence for the chaplain on shore at Sandridge. The Rev. Kerr Johnston has resided on board the vessel, with his family, for nearly three years, and it may be regarded as a providential circumstance that they left the ship before the accident occurred. The Emily was taken charge of some weeks ago by Captain Ferguson, the Chief Harbour-master, so that the vessel was not identified with the Sailors' Mission at the time of the unfortunate sinking.
A "Sailors' Rest" was opened at Williamstown, where shipping was very heavy. A faithful band of local residents attended to the needs of the men while in port. In later years, owing to the more extensive use of Port Melbourne and Yarra wharves and docks, Williamstown became ever less important.

After 26 years of active service on the reverend's part, The Argus of 3 December 1885 reported:
Retirement. At a largely attended meeting of the committee of the Victorian Seamen's Mission, held on Tuesday, at which Captain Pasco, RN, was in the chair, the resignations of the chaplain the Rev Kerr Johnston, and the assistant chaplain, the Rev J Cromack, were considered. Mr Cromack's resignation was accepted as from December 31, and a unanimous vote of thanks was awarded to him for his past services. Deep sympathy was expressed with the Rev Kerr Johnston in being now, owing to physical debility, precluded from carrying on the arduous work in which he had been engaged for nearly 30 years; and the committee regretted that they had no funds available from which they could grant him an annuity, but resolved, although their bank account was overdrawn, to vote 100 to him in testimony of appreciation of his long labours amongst seamen.
Following a few years of retirement, the Rev. Kerr Johnston died on 9 Oct 1887 at his home in Highbury-grove, Kew, Victoria, leaving wonderful pioneer memories. The Argus, where his death notice appeared on 10 Oct 1887, remarked that "he was a gentleman and loved by all." His family, through all the years, was a source of great strength to him in all branches of the work. His grandson, Rev. Noel Johnston Daune, worked in the Church of England in an industrial suburb of Melbourne.

Kerr Johnston was buried on 11 Oct 1887 with Congregational forms in Melbourne General Cemetery. His earthly possessions were assessed for Probate Duty as worth £1344/13/11, of which £1200 was invested in a mortgage by A.B. Johnston & Co., his son's real estate company.

Kerr Johnston Family in 1883

The Kerr Johnston family in 1883.

The children of Kerr and Eliza were as follows:

Born Married Died Notes
Margaret Gowan c. 1843
in Perth, Perthshire
- 13 May 1861 (aged 18) at Mr Andrew Stewart's property "Concongella" at Pleasant Creek nr. Ararat -
Eliza c. 1845
in Perth, Perthshire
Rev. James P. Ludlow (1839-1898)
27 July 1875 in East Oakland, California, USA
3 April 1920 in Oakland, California -
Lydia 1848
in Birdhope Craig, Northumberland
- 21 June 1861 aged 14 years
Northcote Vic.
Arrived with family in Australia Mar 1853. Buried with parents in Melbourne (see headstone below).
Janet 1849 in Shipley, Yorks. Daniel Matthews
in June 1872.
1 son, 3 daughters.
Adelaide, S.A.
25 Sep 1939
Educated at Somerset House (Hobart). In annual exams of 1855, won first-class honours in Latin, Etymology, Geography, Writing and Science. Worked as volunteer in husband's aboriginal mission at Maloga on the Murray River near Echuca; later started a mission at Mannum (1899-1911) in South Australia. See .
Mary 1851 in Shipley, Yorks. Rev. Richard Vallancey Danne(18461904)
11 children, first being Noel Johnston Danne who became a C. of E. minister
- Rev. R. V. Danne, Wesleyan minister in 1871-2 at Adelong, NSW, when married. In May 1883, after 9 months in Philadelphia PA, USA, he returned with qualification of MD, rejected by medical board in Melb. amid scandal.
Arthur Byram Gowan 1851 in Bradford, Yorks, England Rebecca Rosier
5 children.
10 May 1824 in Kew, Vic. Land and Estate Agent.
See link on name.
The author's great-grandparents.
Kerr 1854, presumably in Hobart Harriet Symes Leigh
7 children inc. Alfred Kerr Johnston
15 Jan 1889 in Hawthorn, Vic. Became a Methodist minister in Canada.
Robert William
See photo at age 97.
27 Feb 1855 in Hobart, Tas. Elizabeth Henrietta Sinnatt
2 children?
14 November 1950 at Brighton, Vic. In real estate with brother: co. name was "A.B & R.W. Johnston"
Photo annotated by JKJ.
Isabella Dalgarno ("Bella") 1858 in Williamstown, Vic. Charles Nalder Baeyertz (1866-1943)
21 December 1886 at Baptist church, Kew, Vic.
See entry in Dictionary of NZ Biography
4 children
9 Dec 1929 in Auckland, NZ -

Kerr Johnston headstone

The Johnston grave in Melbourne General Cemetery. Those interred in this grave, according to the cemetery administration, were Kerr Johnston, his daughter Lydia and his wife Elizabeth (though there is no mention of Eliza on the headstone). Margaret is probably not buried here.

[Photo courtesy Ros Fletcher.]