Robert Johnston – World Traveller

Updated: 14 September 2013

Everyone should have a lying toe-rag of a Scottish gg-grandfather.  My husband has one (his is much better).  Mine, Robert Johnston, only told a small lie.  About his age.  Probably to get married.

But before Robert Johnston got married, he had travelled further than nearly all of my other gg-grandparents (and many of them immigrated half way around the world!) and further than any of his ancestors.  So let’s go back to the beginning.

Robert Johnston (“no middle name” as Grandad noted) was born in Falkirk, Scotland.  Officially, in New Zealand, he was born on Christmas Day, 1851.  Grandad explains in his notes:

In later life he looked much older than a man born in 1851.  He is suspected of knocking about 10 years off his true age to avoid her parents opposing marriage to a woman born in 1860.  His Christmas Day birthday was probably also a myth, to match his wife’s birthday, which was New Years Day.

Intrigued by this, I went looking in the Scottish census.  Knowing that Robert had been a tailor, I looked for a Robert Johnston, born in Falkirk, as much as ten years before 1851 and with a tailoring family.  I found one.  Robert was born around 1844 to John Johnston and Helen Young.  John was from East Kilbride (just south of Glasgow) and Helen was from Falkirk (north east of Glasgow).

John was a tailor and “master employing 2 men” in 1851.  They lived in Bo’ness (full name Borrowstounness!), West Lothian.  By 1861, the family had returned to John’s home town of East Kilbride where they lived in a house with 4 rooms with one or more windows (got to love the census!).  At this point, Robert was 17 and a tailor’s apprentice.

At this point, this family was all supposition.  Recently, I received a copy of Robert’s death certificate from my Johnston cousins.  That, combined with his marriage certificate, confirm that I have the right family.  However, I have yet to find his birth record.

So what happened next?


Yip, China.  You only have to look at the 19th century buildings in Shanghai to see the Western influence.  Apparently, having your clothes tailored was another home comfort that the British imported to China.  And quite often apprentices would travel out with their masters.  (See the history on Dave’s Custom Tailoring website and the Streets of Shanghai).

So what was Robert doing there?  When did he get there?

I’ve been busy working on the when.  The University of Bristol is studying Chinese Maritime Customs and has started publishing/linking genealogical information on the net.  In the 1877 Chronicle and Directory for China there is a R Johnston working as an assistant at Sayle & Co – the Shanghai branch of Robert Sayle (now John Lewis Cambridge).  The directory describes Sayle & Co as “linen drapers, silk mercers, tailors etc, corner of Nanking and Szechuan Roads”.  This is probably our Robert.

He’s also listed in the 1872 Directory with Sayle & Co, but there is no listing for him in the 1867 China Directory, so he wasn’t in the far east at that time (nor was Sayle & Co.).  My search of the 1871 census in the UK has failed to find him.  It is possible he was on his way to China.

So he was obviously still continuing in aspects of the tailoring trade.  Shooting was his other occupation.  (And how the family knew he was in China!)

There is still (hopefully) within the family a rather large, not particularly attractive silver cup he won for shooting for the Shanghai Volunteer Corps (SVC) in 1878 or 9.  Rather frustratingly, my Grandad did not note down the inscription and I haven’t seen the cup for over a decade.  Grandad noted that Robert had powder burn scars on his face from “a blank shot being fired at him from too close a range during practice manoeuvers”, although this may have been from later…

The SVC was a militia formed to protect the foreign settlements in 1853.  It continued until the Japanese occupation in 1942.  From what I’ve found on the history of Shanghai, not much happened in 1870s, so Robert had plenty of time to practise his shooting!

The North China Herald newspaper for that period is available to subscribers, but has a search facility to those who aren’t.  A kindly source has given me scans of a couple of issues which mention Robert.

Under ‘Amusements’ on January 17, 1878, there is the report of the No 2 S.V.C Monthly Challenge Cup.  Despite the cold weather – “so cold that several of the men found it difficult … to hold their rifles steady”, and not managing to hit the local iceskaters or duck shooters, the winner was Private Johnston with 41 points.

In November 1879, Corporate Johnston again top scores, but is handicapped into second as he was a previous winner.  This time the report goes:

Corporal R. Johnston made the highest total, namely 60 out of a possible 70, including five successive bulls at the 500 yards’ range and four bulls out of his seven shots at the shorter range…

So he was obviously a good shot!

Robert Johnston's Cup 1879

Robert Johnston's Cup 1879 - stem   Robert Johnston's Cup 1879

This is the cup in possession of my cousin Mike.  It’s from a Spring 1879 competition.  Photographing shiny silver cups is quite difficult but it says “Consolation Cup, won by Private Johnston, No 2 Company, Spring 1879 Meeting”.

The index for the December 31, 1879 issue, gave the following tantalising snippet:

… during the Hunt Mr. R. Johnston and Mr. W. Cole man both of Messrs. Sayle and Co. had met with accidents and sustained …

Fortunately, my source has given me that article.  Both Robert and Mr Cole were participating in the “Christmas Day’s Paper Hunt” when they fell off their horses taking a jump, each breaking a collar bone.  Another hunter was less fortunate – he was beset by the locals!

There is no evidence to suggest Robert was married during his time in Shanghai.  He was in his 30s at this point so he could have, but if so, his wife was either dead or abandoned by 1880.

Robert left Shanghai sometime in 1880.  In February, 1882 he was married and in Auckland, New Zealand.

Via Ireland.

He got a job in Ireland as “chief cutter” at £150 per year (quite a lot for those days).  Where is unknown, but it can’t have been too far from Enniskillen.  There he married Elizabeth Foster on 4 October 1881 – by licence.

It needed to be a quick marriage.  On October 7, the Duncraig left the East India Docks for New Zealand with Mr and Mrs Robert Johnston onboard (Auckland Star).   (I think it’s actually the 27th since it couldn’t take 3 weeks to get a few miles down river to Gravesend, could it? But why let the facts get in the way of an entertaining story!).

From Auckland Robert and Elizabeth went to Gisborne where they set up home and lived until their retirement back to Auckland in early 20th century.  Grandad viewed Gisborne as a strange choice describing it as a “backwater”, but Robert had a very successful life there. The National Library has a photo of Gladstone Road in 1875 which gives you some idea of how big the town was.

And it didn’t get him away from the in-laws – the Foster family all moved to NZ too!

But he never mentioned his own Scottish family and claimed to have no brothers and sisters.  He had 5 (see below).

Robert appears in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand of 1902 with picture:

Mr. Robert Johnston, J.P., who entered the Gisborne Borough Council in 1891, and also became a member of the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board and the High School Board of Governors, was born at Falkirk, Scotland, in 1851, and was brought up to the trade of a tailor. Mr. Johnston came to Auckland by the ship “Duneraig” in 1880 [sic], and shortly afterwards settled in Poverty Bay, where he established the business which has since borne his name. Mr. Johnston served for about six years as a corporal in the East Coast Hussars. In Freemasonry he is a Past Master of Lodges Montrose, S.C., and Turanganui, E.C. He was one of the founders of the local lodge of Druids, and has held office as Senior District President. Mr. Johnston was married, in February, 1880[sic], to a daughter of the late Mr. J. Foster, of Inniskillen, Ireland, and has three daughters and one son.

Photo of Robert Johnston - Cyclopedia of NZ

So still shooting!  But still no action!

Except for this little snippet from the Poverty Bay Herald on April 3, 1888:



On Saturday night a crowd of civilians, mostly composed of young men, made an attempt to take possession of the camp. A good number of them were in possession of rifles with blank cartridge, some, it was discovered, also firing shot.

Three or four men were wounded, the most serious case being that of Trooper Johnston. He received a charge of powder from a rifle right in the face. Dr Pollen was sent for, and the injured Trooper was taken home.

This might account for Robert’s powder burns that Grandad thought came from Shanghai.  Although our family is noted for not letting the truth get in the way of a good story!  It does appear to be Robert as he’s the only Johnston on the Capitation Roll for 1888.

I’ve done a separate post on the brief history of the East Coast Hussars.

Robert died in Auckland in 1925.  His Gisborne Times obituary (21 Jan 1925) gives you an inkling of the man he was and the esteem in which he was held:

With much regret the friends of Mr Robert Johnston will learn of his death, which took place at Mt Eden, Auckland, yesterday morning.

For over forty years, the late Mr Johnston was closely identified with the progress of Gisborne.  He was born at Falkirk in Scotland in 1851 and came out to Auckland in 1880 [sic] by the ship Duncraig, settling in Gisborne shortly afterwards.

Mr Johnston was brought up to the trade of tailoring and in 1880 [sic], he established the business of Messrs R Johnston and Co in Gladstone Road in conjunction with Mr Thos. Sweet.  In later years Mr Johnston was in partnership with Mr Harry Miller under the title of “Johnston & Miller”.  On account of ill health he retired from business last year and went on a health recruiting trip to Honolulu, afterwards taking up his residence in Auckland.

The late Mr Johnston took a keen interest in public affairs, being at times, a member of the Borough Council, Hospital Board and High school Board.  He was an enthusiastic Freemason and was a past Master of Lodges Montrose and Turanganui.  Mr Johnston was also a prominent Druid, reaching the rank of Senior District President.  In his younger days he took a keen interest in military training and served in the East Coast Hussars.

The deceased gentleman was especially interested in the conduct of Cook Hospital and for some years held the position of Deputy Chairman.  He was a very regular visitor to the institution and did much to cheer its afflicted inmates.  In this connection many there are who will not soon forget the sympathetic interest which he displayed in their welfare.

The late Mr Johnston leaves a widow and a family of three – Mr Bert Johnston (Auckland), Mrs HW Black (Gisborne) and Miss Olive Johnston (Auckland) to mourn their loss and to them will be extended the sincere sympathy of a wide circle of friends.


I’ve found the “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at the Port of Arrival” for Robert’s trip to Hawaii.  He arrived in Honalulu on 21 July 1923 on the SS Niagara having left Auckland on 10 July.

Robert is accompanied by his wife Elizabeth and her sister Margaret Foster Mrs Johnston (no relation), who was a widow at this point.  Margaret went for a month and Robert and Elizabeth for 8 weeks.

Questions on the manifest include “Whether a polygamist” and “Whether an anarchist”.  Our Johnstons answered no to both!  It also gives a physical description of them:

Robert       5’9″  Fair complexion     Brown hair   Blue eyes

Elizabeth   5’7″  Fair complexion     Grey hair      Grey eyes

Margaret   5’8″  Dark complexion   Grey hair      Brown eyes

In lieu of colour photographs (and photographs in general!), this is the best we’re going to do on what they looked like.

And despite being born on the other side of the world, they were all New Zealand citizens.

Robert and Elizabeth returned to New Zealand on the SS Niagara on 18 October.

Robert and Elizabeth’s children

Robert’s wife Elizabeth outlived him by 15 years dying in Auckland in 1940.  They had the following children:

  1. Robert Foster Johnston (1883 – 1954)
  2. May Elizabeth Johnston (1885 – 1940) (She died three weeks after her mother and a month after her husband – not a good time for Grandad)
  3. Ena Nellie Johnston (1891 – 1920)
  4. Olive Margaret Johnston (1899 – 1967)

Here’s the only photo of Elizabeth I have, taken outside her house in Auckland in the 1930’s:

Robert’s Siblings

From a combination of census and parish records, I believe John Johnston and Helen Young had the following children:

  1. Janet Liddle Johnston (b.1842, Falkirk) – she may have married a John Dalrymple and had a daughter called Janet Liddel Dalrymple (b.1873, Shotts, Lanarkshire)
  2. Robert Johnston
  3. James Young Johnston (b.c.1846, Bo’ness, Stirlingshire) evidently immigrated to Canada some time before 1872 as he married Jessie Fraser (b.c.1848) in Nova Scotia in 1872.  From the Canadian census, I can’t see any children.  James may have died before 1891 as there is a widowed Jessie Johnston living in New Brunswick.  In 1895, she married Asa Crowningshield (as his third wife) in West Springfield, Mass, USA.
  4. Margaret Johnston (b.c.1848, Bo’ness, Stirlingshire)
  5. John Johnston (b.1849, Cambuslang, Lanarkshire) – possibly died young as not listed in subsequent censuses
  6. Helen Johnston (b.c.1852, Bo’ness, Stirlingshire)
  7. Jane Johnstone (b.1855, Bo’ness, Stirlingshire)

5 thoughts on “Robert Johnston – World Traveller

  1. Mike Johnston

    Yes, a good write up.
    I have a cup inscribed: “SCV, Consolation Cup, Won by Private Johnston No2 Comp, Spring 1879 Meeting”. It was given to me at Edna’s funeral.
    Regards – Mike

    1. Hi Mike,
      Would love to see a picture of your cup! I only have vague memories of the one Grandad had, but remember it being rather large! Will email you.

      Best wishes,

  2. Stephen Johnston

    Hi Sarah.
    Enjoyed reading this. R F Johnston was my grandfather (I am Don’s and Mike’s younger brother). Amongst other old family stuff which I have located, there is a wooden sea chest which our father, Robert Ewen Johnston, said came out from Ireland with Robert Johnston. Inside, the lid is lined with newspaper cuttings from The Irish Times, Wednesday 18 July 1860; and there are 3 (magazine?) pictures glued inside, taken from a ‘Chinese Gallery’, including ‘The Tallyman’ and simple images from Chinese life. My guess is that this sea chest came from Ireland via Shanghai to Auckland with Mr and Mrs R Johnston! There are lots of other small bits and pieces that have come from the Johnston family…many combined with family knick knacks from our mother’s side so it will take some deciphering to figure out what came from where!
    Steve J

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