Story: Johnston, Thomas Henry

Page 1 - Biography

Johnston, Thomas Henry

1880–?

Tram conductor, labourer, miner, strike-breaker

This biography was written by Paul Husbands and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Thomas Henry Johnston was born in Richmond, Victoria, Australia, on 26 August 1880, the sixth of nine children of Waldron John Johnston, a chemist, and his wife, Elizabeth Nelson. His father died when he was eight years old, and he later fell out with his family and left home. Johnston eventually moved to New Zealand where he worked at any general labouring job he could get. He returned to Australia and on 5 September 1901 in Albany, Western Australia, married Elizabeth Noble Buchanan, from Gore, New Zealand. They were to have seven children.

The Johnstons had moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, by 1905. Here Thomas struggled to support his growing family, working first as a tram conductor and then as a labourer. In an effort to improve his fortunes, around 1907 Johnston moved his family to Auckland and tried to set himself up as a market gardener near Kumeu. The results were disastrous. The tomato crop failed twice in a row and the Johnston family was plunged into destitution.

In late September 1912, his family having been reduced to living on turnips, Thomas Johnston sought employment in the strike-stricken goldmining town of Waihi. On 2 October he became one of the first (he claimed he was the first) to sign on for strike-breaking work at the Waihi mine. Soon after starting, he was injured in an underground accident caused by the mishandling of explosives by inexperienced 'new chums'. The explosion was hushed up and Johnston continued to work at the mine despite injuries to his face, right arm and side. In addition to facing dangers underground Johnston and his fellow 'scabs' had to weather the hostility of the picket lines on the surface. Travelling to and from work under police escort, the 'free labourers' were showered with stones and taunts hurled by the striking miners and their families.

Johnston considered himself to have suffered as much abuse at the hands of the strikers as anyone, and when the opportunity came for revenge he was in the vanguard of the strike-breakers' attack. On 12 November he was at the front of a crowd which stormed the strikers' hall. In the resulting mêlée – in which one striker, Frederick George Evans, was fatally injured – Johnston received a bullet wound to the leg. Taken to hospital and placed under chloroform, Johnston apparently confessed to having attempted to murder his wife. Driven to desperation by the failure of his tomato farm, he had supposedly taken it upon himself to 'wipe out' Elizabeth and his family in order to save them from a life of poverty, but had succeeded only in shooting his wife in the arm.

After discharging himself from the hospital Johnston appeared as a witness in a number of cases arising out of the strike and also gave evidence at the inquest into the death of Evans. On 14 December 1912 he was taken into custody and the next day was committed to the Auckland Mental Hospital in Avondale. While the alleged attempt on his wife's life was probably the primary reason for his committal, he was also described as emotional and excitable, melancholic, and epileptic. The opinion of the Waihi authorities was, however, contradicted by R. M. Beattie, the superintendent of the mental hospital, who came to the conclusion that Johnston was 'perfectly sound'.

Despite the fact that his discharge was almost certainly imminent, Johnston escaped on 4 January 1913. After evading the police and hospital attendants by hiding out in a paddock of thick gorse, Johnston set out for Waihi. Dressed in a hat and moleskin trousers, with no jacket and still limping slightly from his gunshot wound, he covered the 100 or more miles to Waihi in 72 hours. Once there, Johnston remained hidden in the roof of his house for seven weeks before giving himself up on the promise that he would be placed on probation. While he was concealed Elizabeth wrote a passionate letter to the New Zealand Herald denouncing the Waihi Gold-Mining Company for having abandoned her husband.

Freed from the asylum, Johnston petitioned the House of Representatives for £5,000 in compensation for being unjustly and unlawfully committed. Elizabeth Johnston also filed a petition on behalf of herself and her children, accusing government officials of 'taking our breadwinner away and leaving us without support'. In her petition Elizabeth stated that her husband had 'never been the least bit insane' and that he was in fact 'one of the kindest of husbands and fathers, and also one of the cleanest-principled men living'. Despite a prolonged hearing, the Johnston petitions were rejected.

After testifying before a public petitions committee in 1913, Johnston disappears from the historical record. (Elizabeth Johnston died in Auckland in 1965.) He was apparently never charged with attempting to murder his wife. Described by the Herald as a fairly well-built man with blue eyes, dark brown hair and teeth that were 'of bad colour and broken', Thomas Henry Johnston was an unremarkable man who, through his involvement in the Waihi strike, became caught up in remarkable events. His story provides a rare insight into the poverty-stricken and itinerant life of an unskilled labourer of the period.