LAST MODIFIED Wednesday 10 April 2019 7:44

Johnson brothers of Sydney

Dr GRAEME SKINNER (University of Sydney)


To cite this:

Graeme Skinner (University of Sydney), "Johnson brothers of Sydney", Australharmony (an online resource toward the history of music and musicians in colonial and early Federation Australia):; accessed 24 May 2019


JOHNSON, Richard (senior)

Born London, England, 31 July 1770; baptised St. Matthew, Bethnal Green, England, 13 December 1772
Married Elizabeth PHILLIPS, St. Saviour, Southwark, England, 25 December 1800
Died West Maitland, NSW, 28 February 1844


Born England, c. 1780
Died Sydney, NSW, 1861


Organist, conductor, teacher of music, vocal class instructor lecturer on music, composer

Born London, baptised St. Mary Woolnoth, London, 4 May 1803
Married (1) Ellenor BYRNE, London, England, 1830
Arrived Sydney, NSW, 1 January 1836 (unassisted emigrant per Salacia, from London, 6 August 1835)
Married (2) Elizabeth KIRBY, Sydney, NSW, 1851
Died Sydney, NSW, 13 April 1860, aged 57 (TROVE tagged by Australharmony)

JOHNSON, William Jonathan

Organist, conductor, teacher of music, organ builder, music retailer and publisher, composer

Born London, ? 9 May 1811, baptised St. Mary Islington, 7 June 1811
Arrived Sydney, 1 January 1836 (unassisted emigrant per Salacia, from London, 6 August 1835)
Died Erskineville, NSW, 3 October 1866, aged 55 (TROVE tagged by Australharmony) (NLA persistent identifier)

JOHNSON, Robert Ebenezer (The honorable Robert JOHNSON, MLC)

Musical amateur

Born London, England, 17 December 1812
Married Elizabeth BYRNE (1810-1891), St. James, Sydney, 1834
Died Double Bay, NSW, 6 November 1866 (NLA persistent identifier)

JOHNSON, Richard (junior)

Musical amateur (member of the Cecilian Society)

Born London, c. 1817/19
Active Sydney, NSW, 1841
Died 1878


According to Rushworth (based on a personal communication from R. Fielding, October 1980), the Johnson brothers of Sydney were grand-nephews of the first colonial chaplain Richard Johnson (1753-1827); however, I have been unable to verify this.

James Johnson and his musician brother William Jonathan Johnson arrived in Sydney on New Year's Day 1836 to join their father Richard Johnson, "Clock and Watch Maker", and another brother Richard, who had been in the colony since 1833. Also described in one arrival report as a "jeweller", James appears to have worked mainly as a musician, as organist of St. James, member of the Cecilian Society, founder of the Sydney Choral Society, and later involved with the Sydney Vocal Harmonic Society. Barnett Levey mentioned a Johnson as being among his theatre musicians in March 1837.

1836: We are given to understand that Mr. Johnson, son of Mr. Johnson, Watch and Clock Maker, George-street, has undertaken to preside at the Pianoforte, on the evening of the joint Concert of Mrs. Chester and Mrs. Taylor.

1838: MESSRS J. AND W. J. JOHNSON. Organists of St. James's Church, BEG to remind the Inhabitants of Sydney that they give Lessons on the Practice and Theory of Music, the Organ, Piano forte, Flute, Singing, &c; and as from circumstances to which it is needless to do more than allude, many Families must be in want of a Master in their profession ...

March 1841: Yesterday Mr. W. Ward appeared at the Police office before Mr. Windeyer, for having in his possession books belonging to the Cecilian Society, alleged to have been stolen from the Society's press. Mr. Denne appeared for the prosecution and identified about ten volumes of music as being his property which he had lent to the Cecilian Society, and which had been to his knowledge kept with the property of the society in a press in the old Court House, and had been abstracted from that place of safety about the 17th instant. In consequence of information a search warrant was issued for the house of Mr. Curtis, but the property was ultimately found in the house of Mr. Ward, who immediately gave up the property, and also gave every information ns to bow the property claimed came into his possession. Mr. Rogers the secretary of the society also identified some of the properly as belonging to the society and said that about twenty pounds worth of the same had been purchased from Mr. Curtis. Mr. James Johnson proved that on Tuesday evening the 16th instant the books in question were lodged in the society's press in the old Court House, Mr. Allen proved that he had locked the press in which the society's music was contained, and also that when he locked the press on last Tuesday night there was a wide space vacant from the lock having been forced. Mr. Josephson proved that on Friday morning Mr. Cosgrove called him in for the purpose of seeing the press in which the society's hooks were contained, as it had fallen down, and be was afraid some of the books were missing ... The case occupied the Court for nearly three hours, and from the great number of musical gentlemen that were present it evidently excited great interest among the profession.

July 1848: Sydney Choral Society. On Wednesday evening last, visitors were again admitted to the practice of this Society, being the second time within the last two months. The programme consisted chiefly of the compositions of the great masters, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart. There was also a judicious selection from the cathedral services of Smith, of Dublin, which, consisting of alternate verse, and chorus, formed a pleasing contrast with the more ponderous choruses of the Messiah. The whole was executed in a manner that would have done credit to musicians much more experienced than the members of the Sydney Choral Society. The organ accompaniments were by Mr. James Johnson, the indefatigable conductor. It may be new to some of our readers that this Society was formed with the twofold object of furnishing volunteer choirs for the parish churches of Sydney, and of cultivating a taste for really good music, and in both these objects we believe the Society has been eminently successful.

Sydney in 1848 (28-29) St. James's Church is a building of considerable dimensions, the foundation of which was laid on the 7th October, 1819 ... There is a well toned and powerful organ, and an excellent choir under the direction of Mr. James Johnson, to whom the Colony is indebted for the first introduction of this branch of music. The Choral Society, mentioned above, owes its origin to the meetings originally held for practice for the service of this Church.

Obituary: We are sure that our readers will learn with deep regret, that this universally esteemed gentleman died yesterday afternoon, at his residence in Pitt-street. On Wednesday, the 4th instant, he was riding a vicious buck jumping horse, which was let out for hire at Manly Beach, when he was thrown violently over the head of the animal, and fell upon his elbow. Being a stout, heavy man, he suffered a compound fracture of the arm, which, from the first, assumed a serious aspect. Inflammation rapidly set in, rendering it impossible to set the fractured limb; ultimately the wounds suppurated, and the virus becoming absorbed into his system, caused his deeply lamented death. It is superfluous to say that Mr. Johnson had the best medical aid that the colony could afford [Charles Nathan], and that the sympathy and condolence of an unusually large circle of attached friends alleviated his last illness. He had filled the situation of organist at St. James's Church for twenty-four years, and conducted the important part of public worship which fell to his charge, with most becoming reverence, great musical ability, and undeviating punctuality. By the congregation at St. James' he will, we are sure, be much regretted. He also held the office of assistant secretary at the Benevolent Asylum for many years, a position where his business habits, his long experience, and unflinching rectitude, were of great public service. The musical circles of Sydney have lost a warm supporter in Mr. Johnson, who was the founder of the Sydney Choral Society, and lost no opportunity of promoting the art of which he was an enthusiastic admirer, and a sound and skilful professor. Indeed, it may be said that he had the high honour of being the father of choral singing in Australia.

1862: The late Mr. James Johnson, for many years organist of St. James's church, composed a hymn for Christmas Day, "High let us swell our tuneful notes", which, however, he never published; and the approach of this "joyous time" has been taken advantage of by Messrs. W. J. Johnson and Co. to give it publicity. The hymn is arranged for four voices, with an organ or pianoforte accompaniment. The subject is set in A sharp with a symphony in C natural. The composition is in the style of the old church music, full, extremely harmonious, and well adapted for all places of worship where the congregations join in the singing. Mr. Johnson was devoted to that part of his profession pertaining to choral music, and the respect in which his memory is held will, no doubt, induce many to possess themselves of this unpretending but meritorious "Hymn for Christmas Day".


[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (2 May 1835), 3 

Theatre Royal, Sydney ... The Lessees are highly gratified in informing the public, that they have succeeded in engaging all the first Musical Talent in Sydney to form their Orchestra, which consists of the following gentlemen, viz. Leader of the Band - Mr. CLARKE; Violins - Messrs. SPYER, JOHNSON, DYER, and SCOTT; Principal Flute - Mr. STUBBS; Violincello and Grand Piano Forte - Mr. CAVENDISH; Clarionetts - Messrs TURNER & SHARP; Bassoons - Messrs. HOARE & BALL; Bugle - Mr. PAPPIN; Drums - Mr. VAUGHAN ...

This violinist, Johnson, was perhaps Richard senior, or Richard junior, who had been in Sydney already for a couple of years.

"ARRIVALS", The Sydney Monitor (2 January 1836), 2

[News], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (15 March 1836), 3

[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (23 June 1836), 3

[News], The Sydney Monitor (12 October 1836), 2


"To the Editor", The Sydney Monitor (31 March 1837), 3

[Advertisement], The Australian (23 February 1838), 3

[Advertisement], The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (19 May 1838). 3

[Advertisement], The Colonist (5 January 1839), 3

"THE CECILIAN SOCIETY", The Sydney Herald (25 March 1841), 2

"HANDEL'S MESSIAH", Australasian Chronicle (20 August 1842), 3

"SCHOOL OF ARTS", The Australian (16 September 1845), 3

"THE ORATORIO", The Sydney Morning Herald (25 December 1845), 2

"CONCERT", The Sydney Morning Herald (16 October 1846), 3

"SYDNEY CHORAL SOCIETY", The Sydney Morning Herald (21 July 1848), 2

"MECHANICS' SCHOOL OF ARTS, SYDNEY", The Courier (28 February 1849), 2

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (26 May 1849), 3

"SYDNEY CHORAL SOCIETY", The Sydney Morning Herald (9 June 1857), 4

SYDNEY VOCAL HARMONIC SOCIETY", The Sydney Morning Herald (15 January 1859), 4

"DEATH OF MR. JAMES JOHNSON", The Sydney Morning Herald (14 April 1860), 13

"DEATHS", The Sydney Morning Herald (21 April 1860), 4

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (26 April 1860), 1


"CHRISTMAS HYMN", The Sydney Morning Herald (18 December 1862), 7

[probably another setting, see "COUNTRY NEWS", The Sydney Morning Herald (2 January 1860), 3]

Musical works:

The first hymn for Christmas-day: High let us swell our tuneful notes (Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1862])

Bibliography and resources:

Rushworth 1988, 365-67



"Just Arrived from London", on first advertising his services in Sydney in February 1836, Johnson stated that he had "been for a considerable length of time employed in the Manufacture and Tuning of Piano-fortes". By February 1838 (or perhaps considerably earlier), with his elder brother James, Johnson was joint organist of St. James's Church, Sydney, and in his own right organist of Christ Church from April 1843 or earlier (when he was " instructing the Parochial School Children in Sacred music"), until his death. In July 1843 he was advertising as a "pianoforte-maker" in Hunter Street, and by November 1844 he had completed building an organ for St. Andrew's Temporary Church. Johnson continued to work as a piano and organ builder and tuner for the rest of the decade. He was trading from his "Pianoforte Manufactory, 314 Pitt-Street", by December 1849, continuing at this address until August 1854, and from September 1854 at 57 Pitt-Street. In addition to his other services, by February 1853 he was also advertising as "Johnson and Co., Music Publishers", after he published his own The Chusan polka on 27 August 1852. Numerous copies of his prints of works by local and European composers survive. However, no copies are known to survive of the 11 advertised issues of his music periodical, The Sydney Harmonicon, which ran from December 1855 to March 1856, including new works by many local composers. His own Te Deum and Jubilate (the latter issued just two months before his death) were among his last publications. His widow and children carried on the business under the same style and at the same address until July 1867, when the whole stock was auctioned. A sixth edition of Johnson's piano arrangement of Nearer, my God, to Thee was advertised in November 1868.

Sydney, April 1862: Church music has always been my primary object in musical matters, and if I have been in the smallest degree the means of enlivening the devotion of any, I am heartily thankful to Him, from whom alone come all good gifts.

Obituary: Our readers, and especially those who take an interest in the cultivation of music will read with much regret of the death of Mr. William J. Johnson. This talented gentleman for thirty years pursued the duties of his profession in our midst, and in his department of life has rendered valuable service to the community. On Wednesday evening last after a lingering and painful illness, he died at his residence, Erskineville Road, Newtown. Mr. Johnson came to this colony in company with an elder brother (also an accomplished musician) in the early part of 1836. He brought I with him the result of careful training and diligent study, and above all, the devotion of a true artist. Those who remember his exertions in relation to choral music at St. James's will be not be slow to admit that his efforts have had a large influence in promoting that efficiency which now commonly characterises the "Service of Song". When Christ Church was consecrated he accepted the position of organist and choir master, and retained it to the day of his death. Mr. Johnson was also wall known as a composer. His "Te Deum" and "Jubilate" are familiar to most lovers of church music. An anthem composed by him for one of the collects, and published in England was very highly spoken of by Novello. Among the latest of his compositions was a phasing arrangement of the hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee". In these and other pieces, Mr. Johnson proved the thoroughness of his musical knowledge. In private life he was justly esteemed by all who had the privilege of his friendship and his memory will be long revered for his public services, his domestic virtues, the strict integrity of his life, and the quiet and unobtrusive charities of home. Mr. Johnson was in the fifty sixth year of his age and has left a widow and eight children.


"ARRIVALS", The Sydney Monitor (2 January 1836), 2

[Advertisement], The Sydney Herald (1 February 1836), 3

[Advertisement], The Australian (20 February 1838), 4

"NEW INSOLVENTS", The Sydney Morning Herald (12 June 1848), 3

"LAW INTELLIGENCE", The Australian (28 September 1848), 3

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (14 July 1843), 3

"THE ORGAN OF ST. ANDREW'S TEMPORARY CHURCH", The Sydney Morning Herald (30 November 1844), 2

"THE NEW ORGAN AT ST. ANDREWS. To the Editor", The Sydney Morning Herald (2 December 1844), 4

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (12 December 1849), 3

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (23 August 1852), 5

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (5 February 1853), 5

[Advertisement], Empire (8 December 1853), 8

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (31 August 1854), 1

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (12 September 1854), 1

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (16 September 1854), 8

"THE SYDNEY HARMONICON", The Sydney Morning Herald (24 December 1855), 2

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (2 February 1856), 9

With a complete listing of the contents of the Sydney harmonicon issues 1-7

"THE SYDNEY HARMONICON", The Sydney Morning Herald (26 February 1856), 5

[11th issue] [Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (1 March 1856), 12

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (1 April 1862), 2

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (23 August 1866), 16

"DEATHS", The Sydney Morning Herald (5 October 1866), 1

"THE LATE MR. W. J. JOHNSON", The Sydney Morning Herald (5 October 1866), 4

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (7 November 1866), 8

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (10 July 1867), 9

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (14 November 1868), 6

[Advertisement], The Sydney Morning Herald (21 April 1869), 1

"JOHNSON V. PARK", The Sydney Morning Herald (24 December 1869), 2

"OBITUARY. MR. F. H. JOHNSON", The Sydney Morning Herald (21 April 1931), 13

Musical works:

The Chusan polka ("Performed by the band of Her Majesty's XIth Regiment, at the Ball given in honor of the arrival of the first Steam Ship [Chusan] from Great Britain ... and published at the request of his friends") (Sydney: W. J. Johnson. [1852])

Fancy Ball polka ("performed by the band of Her Majesty's XIth Regiment, at the Mayor's Fancy Dress Ball"; "Dedicated to Mrs. Egan") (Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1853])

A collection of psalm tunes (comprising the best compositions in general use, harmonized for four voices, with an arrangement for the organ or piano forte edited by W. J. Johnson) (Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1854])

Ladies' ugly schottische ([Sydney: W. J. Johnson, 1856; in The Sydney Harmonicon] NO COPY IDENTIFIED

Hallelujah, amen (before the gospel) MS: Sydney, Christ Church; edition: Forsyth, 536 (540)

Third hymn for Christmas day (While shepherds watched their flocks) ? or by William Stanley; MS: Sydney, Christ Church; edition: Forsyth, 537 (541)

Anglican chants; MS: Sydney, Christ Church; edition: Forsyth, 545 (549)

Good night (terzetto; composed expressly for the society)

"OPRHEONIST SOCIETY", The Sydney Morning Herald (6 January 1862), 5

"MUSICAL AND DRAMA", The Sydney Morning Herald (21 January 1862), 4

An Easter anthem: Christ being raised from the dead ("Composed for the use of St. Paul's College Chapel") (Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1862])

O lord God (anthem) (Sydney: [W. J. Johnson], [1863]) Copy at British Library. Transcription, Forsyth, 546 (550)

Nearer to thee [F. A. Packer, senior] (transcribed for pianoforte by W. J. Johnson; Dedicated to Signor Cutolo) (Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1864])

Te Deum and Jubilate in D ([Sydney: W. J. Johnson, [1866]) NO COPY IDENTIFIED

Bibliography and resources:

Rushworth 1988

Neidorf 1999

Forsyth 2002

© Graeme Skinner 2014 - 2019