“Mr Justice Richmond: You have been convicted of the offence of bigamy…Your present effrontery shows that you richly merit the punishment which I shall inflict upon you. I hope that the punishment will have the effect of awakening you more fully than you now appear to be, to a sense of your actual guilt in the sight of God…The sentence upon you is that you be imprisoned for two years…”
Otago Daily Times, Issue 769, 4 June 1864
On the 8th December, 1864, Alexander John Johnston was found guilty of bigamy in Dunedin’s Supreme Court, after marrying Maria Bridget Flanagan while still married to Jane Ellen Johnston (formerly Jones). The judgement quoted above wasn’t metered out to Alexander John Johnston. However, it could well have been. However, because the marriage certificate provided had no official seal of authenticity and there was also a question of Jane Ellen being under age, Johnston was fined and spared the worst.
In hindsight, someone should’ve thrown the book at Alexander John Johnston, and I’m not talking about a lightweight paperback either. More something like one of those huge, leather-bound, Victorian Bibles. Indeed, that would’ve whacked him on the head like a flying brick, and might’ve knocked some sense into him. Not that I’m inclined to violence, but to quote the words of Monty Python: “He’s not the Messiah—he’s a very naughty boy!”
Of course, this is all water under the bridge these days. Well, it would be if John Johnston (as we know him), wasn’t my Great Grandmother’s Grandfather, and we’re descended from the Maria Bridget Flanagan side of the equation. That made it relevant.
This was all very recent news to me. As far as we knew, John Johnston had only ever married Maria Bridget Flanagan on the 14th April, 1864 in Invercargill, New Zealand. His only children were THEIR children. Originally, family stories said that he’d built the North Sydney Suspension Bridge, although that turned out to be his youngest brother, Alexander Campbell Johnston, who also had the contract to build the Bungendore to Queanbeyan Railway in NSW, while John was the licensee of Queanbeyan’s Union Club Hotel before going insolvent. Yet, John’s death certificate stated that he was a “Contractor” suggesting that he did indeed work alongside his brother. So, while John Johnston might not have been a high achiever, our John Johnston was respectable and seemingly a “family man”. As far as I can tell, there were no court appearances, changes of drunkenness. Nothing.
On the other hand, THAT “Alexander John” Johnston was a scoundrel. A cad. He’d even threatened his wife with a knife.
Clearly, the situation demanded further investigation. I am still struggling to see them as anything but two different people…a John Hyde and an Alexander John Jekyll.
Marriage 1 – Jane Ellen Jones, Liverpool, November 1855.
Details about Alexander John’s first family are still coming to light. However, there’s now no doubt that Alexander John Johnston married Ellen Jane Jones in November 1855 at St James Church, Toxteth Park, Liverpool, England. On the marriage certificate, her father was given as Thomas Jones, Master Mariner, and the witness was Margaret Jones, Jane Ellen’s sister. During the bigamy trial, it was mentioned that a James Munro and John Grey also attended the wedding. A Charles Macquarie, seaman, also testified that he was in Liverpool around January or February, 1856 and used to go and see them.
It appears that Alexander John and Jane Ellen had two children while living in Liverpool. While I am yet to find the names of all their children, it would appear that their eldest child, Thomas James Johnston was born around 1856-57. They also seemed to have two children born in New Zealand. Jane Ann was born in 1862 and their youngest daughter, Ellen Overton Johnston, was born around 1864 and died in tragic circumstances on the 8th February, 1866 aged 15mths/2 years.
Finding out these details of his first marriage, also revealed that John had been living in Liverpool for at least five years before immigrating to New Zealand, which also placed him alongside the thousands of Irish fleeing the Irish Famine. A Famine which had also hit Scotland hard, including the island of Islay where John Johnston was born on the 12th February, 1826 to Angus and Mary (Campbell) . At this point, his father had been a Whisky Distiller, most likely at the Tallent Distillery on Islay. It seems they could well have been evicted to make way for sheep, which were more profitable.
Alexander John came out to New Zealand probably not long before gold was discovered in Gabriel’s Gully in 1861. Three months later, Jane Ellen and the children came out.
As time went by, the marriage clearly wasn’t a happy one. In court, Jane Ellen said: “I have not been on very good terms with the prisoner.” This is clearly an understatement because on the 13th June, 1863, she charged him with threatening to stab her with a knife:
“Threatening to Stab—Jane Ellen Johnston I charged her husband, Alexander John Johnston with threatening to stab her with a knife on the 13th inst. The defendant was required to give bond to keep the peace towards her for six months, fined in the amount of £1O, and to find two sureties tor £2O each.”
However, there were a few references to the couple going out to lunch or socialising together. So, perhaps it wasn’t all bad…
At the time of the court case, Jane Ellen Johnston and their children were living out in the Leith Valley in Dunedin, beyond the Waters of Leith. I suspect this might have been the family home before Alexander John went off to “Hokitika”.
Alexander John Johnston Caught Out.
Being something of a Sherlock Holmes myself, there’s nothing better than tracking the scent of a good story back to the source and its very beginnings.
It surprises me that Jane Ellen Johnston wasn’t the one who dobbed Alexander John into police. Rather, it was Charles Bond, Baker of Rees Street Queenstown & Arthur’s Point Shotover, and a Mrs Jenkins, who could well have been a hotel owner in Queenstown. Mr John Foster, formerly a publican at The Arrow Goldfields, near Queenstown was also involved, and it almost seems like a citizens’ arrest.
On the 3rd September, 1864 Detective Constable Robert Lambert, who was stationed in Queenstown, arrested Alexander John Johnston in King Street, Dunedin on a charge of bigamy. He was accompanied by a Mr John Foster, formerly a publican at The Arrow Goldfields, near Queenstown. Johnston then asked him to accompany him to a woman’s house in the Leith Valley, Dunedin. There were two children playing outside and Lambert asked Johnston whether they were his. He said they were. When they arrived at the house, he said: “Jane, I am taken in charge. I am going to gaol.” She asked what for. Detective-Constable Lambert replied: “It was for bigamy, and I further explained the charge to her.” Lambert pointed to Alexander John Johnston (the prisoner), and asked if he was her husband. She said he was. Lambert asked if she had a marriage certificate, and Jane Ellen handed him the document she’d been given when she married Johnston. Alexander John, seemingly being quite the smooth talker, tried to sweet talk Jane into letting him off. Indeed, he repeatedly asked: “Jane, my girl, you won’t prosecute me.” Detective Constable Lambert replied that if she is his wife, she can’t give evidence against him. Lambert then went outside with Alexander John where he denied that the woman was his wife. So, he took him inside again and asked Jane Ellen again if she was his wife. Again, she repeated that she really was married to the prisoner. On the way to the station, the prisoner again denied that the woman was his wife. Detective Constable Robert Lambert took Johnston to the watchhouse where he gave the name of Alexander John Johnston.
Supreme Court on the 8th December, 1864
The case ended up in the Supreme Court on the 8th December, 1864 before His Honour Justice Richmond. Alexander John Johnston was indicted for bigamy, by intermarrying with Maria Flanagan, while his wife Jane Ellen Jones was alive. Mr Howorth conducted the prosecution; and Mr Wilson appeared for the prisoner.
Here are the various witness statements:
Ann Rugg (formerly Jones) – Jane Ellen Johnston’s Sister & wife of James Rugg, carpenter, Dunedin:
“My maiden name was Ann Jones. In 1855, I was living in Liverpool with my father and mother. There were three brothers and two sisters besides. One sister was named Jane Ellen and the other Margaret. Jane Ellen is now sitting here in Court. I knew the prisoner in England. About nine years ago, in a November, he and Jane Ellen left father’s house to get married. My sister Margaret, James Munro, and John Grey went with them. They went about ten and returned about twelve o’clock. I asked my sister if she was married, and she said “Yes,” and kissed me. The prisoner lived in father and mother’s house for four months and always acknowledged Jane Ellen as his wife. My sister Margaret is not here. St James’s Church, Toxteth Park, is in Liverpool. The prisoner was here before Gabriel’s digging broke out; and three months after that, he sent for my sister. They have four children.—By Mr Wilson : I am now 22 years old.”
Charles Macquarie, Seaman:
“I know the prisoner and Mrs Johnston. I was in Liverpool about January or February, 1856, and I was accustomed to go and see them. They were living as man and wife. The prisoner often admitted to me, at that time, that he was married. They had then been recently married.”
Rev Benjamin Drake : Congregational Independents, Invercargill
“I am a minister of the body called Congregational Independents, at Invercargill. I am the Benjamin Drake mentioned in this Gazette notice, as authorised to solemnise marriages. On the 14th April last, at Invercargill, I married the prisoner and Bridget Maria Flannagan, who is the woman now called before me. What is handed to me, is a copy of the register which I myself made. Mr Wilson objected that the indictment charged marriage with Maria Flanagan ; while the evidence and the certificate showed the name to be Bridget Maria. The Judge: That is amendable, and I should allow amendment.
Mr John Foster, formerly a publican at The Arrow Goldfields, near Queenstown.
Foster generally corroborated the evidence of Lambert. He had known the prisoner for about two years; and had known him living with Jane Ellen, the woman in Court, as man and wife. By Mr Wilson: Out of the woman’s presence, the prisoner had denied that she was his wife.
Dunedin Gaol -Alexander John Johnston’s home away from home.
On the 8th December, 1864, the jury found Alexander John Johnston guilty of bigamy. However, sentencing was postponed until the 12th December, 1864. The Judge said he should not pass sentence because the “document produced, and admitted by the Court, was not admissible in proof of the first marriage, inasmuch as it did not purport to be a copy of an original register, signed by the person authorised to make it; and that cohabitation being only presumptive evidence of marriage, was not admissible in a case of bigamy. He (the Judge) should therefore reserve a case for the opinion of the Court of Appeal as to the sufficiency of the evidence on which the prisoner was convicted. He should take bail Johnston in the sum of £1OO, and two sureties in £5O each. The condition would be, as prescribed by the Court of Appeal Act, that Johnston should surrender in the judgment of the Court when called upon. Johnston would be remanded to custody until he had completed the recognisances.”
The Second Wife…Maria Bridget Flanagan.
At this point, I haven’t read the actual court transcripts to see whether Maria Bridget Flanagan appeared in court. However, she gave birth to their first child, Angus Johnston, on the 6th January, 1865 in Dunedin. So, while this court case was in progress, she was heavily pregnant, which must’ve made a rather strong statement to the court. Moreover, while she was concerned about “her husband” who could well have been sent to gaol for up to seven years, she would also have been very concerned for the future of her and her child. As it turned out, the judge didn’t throw the book at Alexander John Johnston. However, while he was only fined, he was kept in jail because they couldn’t pay the fine and I currently don’t know how long he was there.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Maria Johnston heavied William Christian, whom they’d been living with in Invercargill, to pay the fine. He refused. So, on the 10th December, 1864 Maria took him to court accusing him of stealing a wooden box containing a silk parasol, a piece of silk and a petticoat which she had left in his care. However, the truth of the matter came out in court and the case was dismissed:
“Charge of Theft.— William Christian, a colored man, was charged, on the information of Maria Flanigan, with stealing one parasol, one petticoat, and one piece of silk her property, on or about the month of September last — Maria Flanigan, or Johnston, stated that she was married in Invercargill about eight months ago to Mr Johnston ; they were living with the prisoner. She and her husband left for Queenstown, leaving in the prisoner’s care a box, in which were a quantity of articles, including one silk parasol, one petticoat, and one piece of silk. A few days ago she met the prisoner in Dunedin, and when she asked about her box, he said it was left in Invercargill. _ she had reason to believe that the goods were in Dunedin, and, a search warrant having been served, the petticoat and piece of silk were found in prisoner’s house, but in a box which had formerly belonged to Johnston. Detective Farrell stated that he put the warrant into execution, and found the goods produced in an unlocked box in prisoner’s home. There was no attempt at concealment. Prisoner’s wife stated that she kept the goods as she had a loan on them; Johnston having been due her money. Mr Ward, for the prisoner, stated that the facts of the case were that Johnston left his boxes in Invercargill in prisoner’s charge as he owed him £l5. When Johnston was apprehended on a charge of bigamy, Maria Flanigan asked prisoner to became bail for him, and when he refused she threatened to do something to him and when Johnston was convicted she trumped up the present charge against the prisoner. The Magistrate said the charge was a trumpery affair. There was clearly no felonious intent on the prisoner’s part. He was discharged.” Otago Witness, 17 December 1864.
New Zealand’s Divorce Laws in 1864.
When you think about this case of bigamy these days, you naturally ask why he didn’t get a divorce. While we might be aware that divorces weren’t so easy to obtain in years gone by, prior to 1867, anyone wishing to divorce in New Zealand had to apply to the English courts. Of course, you don’t need to be Einstein to realize that you’re looking at mission impossible.
In 1867 New Zealand passed its first divorce law: the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act. The act allowed either husband or wife to seek a divorce, but the grounds on which they could apply were very different. To gain a divorce, a man only needed to prove adultery on the part of his wife. But for a wife to get a divorce, her husband had to commit adultery plus sodomy, incest, bestiality, bigamy, rape or extreme cruelty.
While we’re on the subject of divorce in 1864, I thought just throw in this snippet about the duties of marriage in New Zealand in 1850:
“In 1850, the duties associated with marriage appeared to exist largely to protect the institution of marriage itself and the morals of society, rather than the individuals involved in the union. A husband had a duty to maintain his wife, they had a duty to live together, and sexual intercourse was a duty. Each party also had a duty not to have sexual relations outside the marriage. After marriage, a woman lost her identity in that she could not own property, enter into contracts, or sue or be sued; this indicates that marriage was about more than simply regulation of sexual relations. There were also more consequences for a woman who committed adultery, on the rationale that if she had children that were not her husband’s, they may inherit his property wrongfully. The stark contrasts to the twenty-first century notions of individual choice are captured in Matthew Bacon’s Abridgement, which states that: …marriage is a compact between a man and a woman for the procreation and education of children; and it seems to have been instituted as necessary to the very being of society; for, without the distinction of families, there can be no encouragement to industry, or any foundation for the care of acquiring riches.”http://www.nzlii.org/nz/journals/NZLawStuJl/2014/9.html
What Became of Jane Ellen Johnston?
Alexander John’s departure left Jane Ellen Johnston as a single mother with four young children under ten living on the outskirts of Dunedin.
On the 8th February, 1866 while Jane Ellen was weeding the garden with her two other children, their eldest son, Thomas James Johnston aged nine, climbed up high and reached for her gun, which she kept loaded for her own protection. Indeed, she’d only had it a week, a gift from a concerned friend. Jane Ellen hears the explosion, and sees Thomas running towards her. In a scene she no doubt replayed for the rest of her life, she finds Thomas has accidentally shot his baby sister, Ellen Overton Johnston and she is dying. Desperately, Jane Ellen somehow gets the baby to the hospital, but is told the situation is hopeless. So, she bundles her up and takes her to die at the home of a friend. At the inquest, Jane Ellen referred to herself as “Jane Ellen Johnston” and said that her husband had “gone to Hokitika”. That, in other words, he’d gone off to the diggings. No one challenged her with the truth.
In 1873, Jane Ellen Johnston married Edward Williams. He appears to have been an Insurance worker at York Place, Dunedin, 1883-91. They went on to have at least two children. I would like to think they lived happily ever after.
Jane Ellen Williams passed away at Christchurch Hospital on October 8th, 1921. While her notice in the paper says she was aged 72, online she was said to be 85 which seems to be more likely:
WILLIAMS—On October 8th, at the Christchurch Hospital, Jane Williams, late of Oxford street, Lyttelton; aged 72 years. Press, Volume LVII, Issue 17290, 31 October 192
John Johnston & Maria Bridget Flanagan
In 1865, Alexander John Johnston became the Licensee of the Argyle Hotel in the Arcade, Dunedin, and it seems that they lived on the premises. The Argyle Hotel was more like a bar, and unlike most hotels at the time, didn’t have accommodation for travellers. However, it did have “concert rooms”.
It is starting to look like Alexander John Johnston and possibly Maria Bridget, could well have been entertainers and were involved in something like the Minstrel Shows they were later involved in at Queanbeyan. I don’t know if they operated the concert rooms at the Arcade Hotel or whether theirs was separate, but this reference could well describe the nature of their concerts:
Cunningham G Boyd was the licensee of the Arcade Hotel, which had music and dancing. The Arcade Hotel was described: At the Resident Magistrate’s Court on Tuesday morning, Mr Commissioner Branigan applied to the Bench to withdraw the permission previously granted by Mr Strode to Mr C. G. Boyd, of the Arcade Hotel, to allow singing and dancing in his licensed house. The evidence of several witnesses went to prove that the noisy nature of the “negro entertainments” given at this house, combined with the disorderly character of the persons who resorted to them, made it a serious cause of complaint in the neighbourhood. The application was granted.
At this point in time, trouble seemed to follow Alexander John. After already being found guilty of bigamy and doing stint in gaol while raising bail, In August 1865, He sentenced to 14 days’ imprisonment with hard labour without the alternative of a fine for assaulting DT Dyer who was executing his duty as a bailiff of the Resident’s Magistrate’s court. Indeed, he threatened him with a pocket knife.
9th August, Alexander John sold his interest in the Argyle Hotel and like hordes of other hopefuls; they headed to the Hokitika gold fields. By this stage, the son Angus had died aged three months and a daughter, Margaret Ellen was born in 1865.
From this point on, they are living on the West Coast in between Greymouth and Reefton. I am still trying to nut out what they were doing there. However, I did find a letter written to the Editor of the Grey River Argus dated 4th December 1866:
A SERIES. OF GRIEVANCES.
(To the Editor- of the Grey River Angus,) Sir — From your well known reputation as a defender of the injured, I beg to trouble you with a grievance, or rather a combination of them. I am a carpenter and .contractor, and have been well known to many persons connected with this and the Canterbury Governments. On a late occasion I saw tenders called for by tho authorities here, for a canvas tent. I tendered in the usual way, and appeared at the time appointed to see if my tender had been accepted. To my surprise the constable in charge coolly told me that my tender was not accepted, adding that if I had tendered £10 lower than anyone else he would not have given me the work. I then .looked out for a stand in the only street surveyed, and I went to the same constable to see if my business license, which I got in October last at Cobden, would give me a right to take up a site, and was told that it would not; but, at the same time, the constable offered to sell me a section which he held; for L3O. By what, right he held it I do not know, but perhaps you might be able to enlighten the public fat this place on the subject;’ as I- and many other businessmen cannot understand members of the police force being allowed, to take advantage of their position to get information and take up not only one but twenty sites, to the detriment of legitimate business men. That this has been done, is well known to every person in this township. A few days ago a man was drowned, the body being afterwards recovered. I and my partners spoke to the constable in charge respecting the burial, and the reply was that I before the Government would spend 5s in matter, they (the police) would bury it in a sack. On my remonstrating, I was told that if I interfered any further I should be locked up. Unfortunately the local head of the Government (Mr Kynnersley) is away, and I and many of my follows are compelled to submit to injustice; I sign my name, and can bring abundance of witnesses to- prove all (and more) than I have stated. A. J. Johnston, Late Undertaker, Greymouth. : Brighton, December 4.
Was this my Alexander John Johnston? It very well could be. Later on, he is not only the licensee of a hotel but his death certificate said he was a contractor. Being a carpenter and contractor, could well have brought him into contact with James Angus who also moved from New Zealand to New South Wales in 1879 and went into partnership with Alexander Campbell Johnston, John’s younger brother. The connection almost stitches together now, but not quite.
In 1879, John and Maria Johnston and their five surviving children boarded a ship bound for Australia. They don’t surface again until 1885 after his brother, Alexander Johnston, was awarded the contract to build the Bungendore to Michelago Railway section of railway on 27th May 1884. John becomes the licensee of the Union Club Hotel in Queanbeyan. He is 58 years old.
Above: Queanbeyan Age (NSW : 1867 – 1904), Tuesday 16 March 1886, page 3
An advertisement for a minstrel show held in Queanbeyan on Boxing Day 1886
Much to my delight, I also found that the Johnston family performed in amateur Minstrel Shows in Queanbeyan. It seemed that John Johnston sang, daughter Lizzie played the piano and also acted in a romantic farce and son, John played the violin…a talented family. Of course, this form of entertainment came straight out of America, and it’s been evident they spent time with African Americans in New Zealand who could well have introduced them to this musical form.
The North Sydney Suspension Bridge.
By 1892, John and Maria Johnston were living in Sydney, when his brother Alexander was the contractor who built the North Sydney Suspension Bridge. While it is believed that John Johnston contributed to the bridge in some way, he did write a publicity piece which was published in the newspaper in 1895.
John Johnston died at Sydney Hospital 28th November, 1897 aged 70 years. Cause of death was malignant disease of the oesophagus. He was buried in the Presbyterian Section, Rookwood Cemetery with his sister, Elizabeth White.
Maria Bridget Johnston died on the 19th November, 1915 at her home in 42 Colin Street, North Sydney. She was 79 years old. Cause of death was Diabetes and exhaustion. She was buried in the Roman Catholic Section, Gore Hill Cemetery, St Leonards.
Knowing what I know now, I can’t help wondering whether it was poetic justice. That John Johnston and Maria Bridget who went to such great lengths to be together in life, have been permanently separated in death. It’s just a thought.
“In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”
Clearly, the case for Alexander John Johnston isn’t good. He was a bastard. A cad. He not only married Maria Bridget Flanagan while still married to Jane Ellen, he flatly denied Jane Ellen was his wife, even in court. Yet, he wasn’t above rolling on the charm, and asking her not to prosecute him and send him to gaol. In hindsight, I think he missed his calling. Alexander John would’ve made the consummate politician…just deny, deny, deny and the mud will fly away.
This isn’t the man our family knew, and despite all of this pulling apart and peering into every nook and cranny, I still don’t want to let go of the illusion. Or, at least the hope, that he might have changed his ways.
Personally, finding out about this second family over in New Zealand, has opened up Pandora’s Box. Maybe, it shouldn’t. After all, this all happened over 150 years ago. The water has flowed under the bridge and it is gone. However, when it comes to these Kiwi cousins, I feel there’s something of a scar, or even a wound, which needs to be acknowledged. Just because he left that family more than a husband and fifty years ago, that’s not to say the consequences didn’t trickle down through the family for many years afterwards, especially given the very tragic death of Baby Ellen. After all, these people aren’t characters in a novel. They were real.
Naturally, I also have to spare a thought for Maria Bridget being heavily pregnant with her husband in court and in gaol. The stress would’ve been phenomenal, and money was clearly very tight. No luxury of decorating the nursery for the baby. I also have to question her role in all of this. Did she know about “the other wife” when they got married? Maria strikes me as a strong character, and I doubt Alexander John could pull the wool over her eyes. Then again…
Strangely, I’ve even spared a thought for Alexander John languishing away in gaol not knowing where the money was going to come from to get him out. Do I feel sorry for him? Not at all, and yet there’s still this little niggle. Perhaps, it’s because despite all evidence to the contrary, I still don’t believe he did it and this entire situation still feels more like a novel than anything from my own family’s past.
Yet, I am also conscious that everyone has made mistakes. That each of us sinks deeply into our imperfection, and has crimes of our own. They might not be so monumental and impact on the lives of so many people in such a big way, but does that give us the right to play judge and jury when those around us stumble or even fall? I think not. However, we need to learn from these collective mistakes, and refine the rough diamond which dwells within each of us to produce a gem. That radiant spark which is incredibly tough, but ever so beautiful.
That is my dream.
 Otago Daily Times, Issue 792, 9 December 1864.
 Otago Daily Times, Issue 464, 16 June 1863
 Otago Witness, Issue 742, 17 February 1866
 Otago Daily Times, Issue 792, 9 December 1864
 Otago Witness, 17 December 1864
 Otago Daily Times, Issue 1121, 25 July 1865
 Otago Witness, Issue 717, 25 August 1865
 Grey River Argus, Volume III, Issue 142, 8 December 1866