State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 20 December 1977


Reynell Eveleigh Johns: A Rediscovered Victorian

‘Papers which may seem of trivial import at present will be of great interest to future generations. A cursory examination of the contents of these portfolios ought to be convincing on this point.’
The above concludes a letter entitled To the Inheritor of the Contents of this Chest’, written in 1914 by Harold Johns, after he had ‘sorted and classified’ the large quantity of family documents left to him by his father Reynell Eveleigh Johns (1834–1910).1
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to a most relevant segment (for the Australian historian) of the total Johns Family Historical Collection. This consists of the set of ten diaries, with other related historical material2, which span R. E. Johns's residence in Victoria from 1855 to 1910. These were received by the La Trobe Library as a gift from one of his granddaughters, Miss Helen Johns, in April of this year.
The ‘rediscovery’ of R. E. Johns and his important historical legacy arose directly from current anthropological research into the culture of the ‘Victorian’ Aborigines. This has revealed a hitherto forgotten man as a major collector of Aboriginal material culture in nineteenth century Victoria3.
Together with his talent for collection, Johns had the capacity for keen observation and subsequently, with the location of his written material, the two sources combine to make him a figure of considerable importance in the history of the development of Australian Anthropology.
More generally, R. E. Johns can be seen as a ‘type’, in his contribution to the growth of science and education in Victoria. His membership of the ‘invisible college’4 which collected and disseminated information about the exciting discoveries continually taking place in the new colony is of definite significance, as is the role he played in the formation and development of private museums5.
Miss Johns's donation will also prove valuable to the social historian. If there is ever a study made of Central Victoria to equal Margaret Kiddle's of the Western District6, then the Johns Diaries will certainly be a primary source.
On his arrival in Adelaide in 1849, Johns was only fourteen years old. The diary which he began the following year reflects his youth, for in this first serious attempt at a daily delineation of life's events, the entries soon become spasmodic, and eventually the diary lapses to a notebook in which poetry is copied and created. It is not till 3 September 1855, his 21st birthday (celebrated with some ‘mates’ in a tent at the Sandhurst gold-diggings, Victoria), that Johns begins on page 1 of his second diary the style and format of daily entry which he follows almost without omission for the next 55 years. Diary number ten closes on 17 May 1910, three days before his death.
How much of the life and times of the author do the diaries reveal?
As Johns's ‘rediscovery’ is of recent origin and his diaries are only now available for research in the La Trobe Library, no thorough study of the available material has yet been undertaken.
I think it might be relevant here, to explain briefly my own part in Johns's detection, and by doing so establish my competence to first introduce to a wider audience the scope and nature of the R. E. Johns Collection. This will also further the theme of R. E. Johns as a ‘forgotten’ and hence ‘rediscovered’ figure. Why for instance has it taken so long for scholarship to become aware of Johns and search out documentation for him? Is it possible that other collections sit patiently in their old oak chests waiting disclosure? If so, how do we locate them?
My attention was first drawn to the name R. E. Johns, after long delvings in the old records of the Burke Memorial Museum, Beechworth. Here I discovered that he was the major donor of a large collection of south-east Australian Aboriginal artefacts that this institution holds, and that I was attempting to study.
Establishing the actual collector of Aboriginal artefacts is immensely important, as it makes possible knowledge about how they
were obtained, from whom, and from where. The next step in my research was thus to try and identify R. E. Johns.
A search of contemporary nineteenth century anthropological literature dealing with Victorian Aborigines at first drew a blank, and this was very puzzling. How could a man who had made such a collection, and who lived continuously in Victoria from 1855 to 1910, have been overlooked by recorder par excellence, R. Brough Smyth, and by pioneer of the questionnaire and use of informants, A. W. Howitt?7
The situation was clearer, indeed a breakthrough was made, when Professor John Mulvaney discovered an ‘R. E. Johns, Police Magistrate’, liberally cited as an expert on all things Aboriginal, in T. Worsnop's book, The Prehistoric Arts and Manufacture … of the Aborigines of Australia8. Obviously Johns was a known and active figure who for various reasons had been deliberately unacknowledged by his peers9.
Simultaneously with this finding I began to reap benefit from the numerous letters of inquiry I had despatched concerning the identity of R. E. Johns. Three replies were of consequence: from the La Trobe Library, giving his obituaries; from the Public Record Office, outlining his career in the civil service; and from the Anthropology Department, National Museum of Victoria, detailing further Johns material held there.
Combined, this information clearly established the full identity of Reynell Eveleigh Johns, and I completed my project on the Burke Museum Collection.10
However my curiosity about Johns had been greatly roused and in April 1976, with the philosophy that trying never hurts, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Hamilton Spectator (which 62 years earlier had published Johns's obituary). This stated my desire to correspond with any person who might have information about Johns, or know the whereabouts of his descendants.
I was rather surprised when one month later I received a letter, post-marked Tasmania, from a grand-daughter of R. E. Johns. By chance my letter had been seen by her husband's cousin, and duly forwarded to her. Mrs. Pat Dolman had little knowledge of her grandfather apart from family lore and respect, but she had immense enthusiasm to find out more, and has greatly helped with my research.
On her initiative, information that I had sent her describing what I knew about her grandfather was copied and sent to all her known relatives in Australia. Its purpose was to stimulate memories and locate any historical material. Another month passed before I received a tremendously exciting reply from a second Johns grand-daughter, Miss Helen Johns, informing me of ‘the family records in the old oak chest’.
Like her father (Arthur H. Johns) before her, Helen Johns had planned on her retirement to make a thorough study of the contents of the chest (of which she had a superficial knowledge), and write something about her family history. When I showed interest in her grandfather, she very selflessly welcomed me to make use of any of the material, as at this stage of her own career she could devote little time to it.
Miss Helen Johns and her late sister Alison gave me hospitality and every help during my visits to Melbourne to examine the contents of the chest. They agreed, in fact had decided previously, that it would be a good idea to approach Patricia Reynolds, the La Trobe librarian, whom they knew, to see if the library would be interested in any of the collection. In fact it seems only to have been a natural reticence in viewing the material as significant outside the family, that had prevented the Johns sisters from already doing this. This reticence of manner would seem an inherited ‘Johns’ characteristic, and in some ways explains why R. E. Johns failed to leave the firm imprint of some of his more publicly articulate contemporaries.
Before proceeding to discussion about the types of information that can be gained from the Johns material, and an appraisal of their value for Australian historical research, it will be instructive to give a brief outline of Johns's life. My sources for the following are the diaries, together with the information of his employment in the Victorian Civil Service culled from the Government Gazette and other official sources.11
Born in Crediton, Devon, England, on 3
September 1834, Johns was the first child of Presbyterian pastor, the Reverend John Johns and his wife Caroline (née Reynell). Little is known of the formative influences upon our subject's childhood, but of undoubted importance was his father's early death.
This caused Caroline to remove her young family of six children12 to Australia, where she joined members of the Reynell family who had arrived some ten years previously.‘13 They disembarked at Adelaide in early June 1849. Here Caroline and her daughters remained till November 1860 when her continued poor health and the subsequent need for a cooler climate forced their remove to Hobart Town, where she died in early March 1861, ‘after a fearfully painful illness’.
Long before this sad event (‘we are truly orphans now’), as the eldest son, Johns no doubt felt responsibility for his predominantly female family. Thus like many others he was first lured to Victoria by the promise of gold, arriving at the Forest Creek diggings on 21 February 1852. Apparently he was not long deluded by the hope of quick fortune, for on 1 July 1852 he joined the Gold Office at Castlemaine as a clerk. This experience was similarly short-lived for he returned to Adelaide in September of the same year.
He is not heard of, and gives no account of his actions again, until March 1854 when, having gone back to Victoria, he was appointed as a Gold Fields clerk at Sandhurst. He remained in government employ in this general area till 1 February 1855, when once more he resigned his appointment.
He does not explain the reasons, but with a party of friends he again turns his hand to gold mining at various quartz reefs near Sandhurst. They have little success, and eke out a mere existence by what Johns himself described as the two qualities mandatory for survival at the diggings ‘ingenuity and industry’.
Such qualitities are vividly reflected by the day-to-day existence portrayed in the second diary which spans the six years between Johns's 21st and 27lh birthdays. After leaving the Sandhurst area in February 1856, his time is spent around Maryborough and Carisbrook still searching for gold, but somewhat under the protective wing of his uncle, Alfred Reynell.
Monetarily these were precarious times for Johns, and he worried much about his family. On 9 June 1856 he records with relief the news from home that ‘all the Greek and Latin Books have been sold to the Melbourne University and that the proceeds (£200) have sufficed to relieve the financial difficulties’. The same letter also contained the news that his brother Louis planned to join him and Johns despondently records: ‘if I can't earn enough to support one, how on earth can he make a living here?’
The foreboding proved only too true, and Louis was forced to return to Adelaide in December 1857, while Johns himself finally gave up all hope of ever ‘striking it rich’, and concentrated his efforts on regaining employment in the Civil Service. His persistence was ultimately rewarded in February 1860 when he was offered the billet of assistant clerk of Petty Sessions at Lamplough. While this appointment was originally only for one month it was made permanent in October of the same year. Thus from early 1860 till his retirement in 1904, Johns remained in the service of the Victorian Government.
I believe this early period in Central Victoria before he gained permanent employment was a very formative one. Economic stringency necessitated his learning many skills for survival (‘we shall be regular Jacks of all works soon’— 16/4/56). It also meant that Johns walked everywhere, and this gave strong impetus to his observations on and interest in the natural history of the colony.
Johns was a remarkably self-motivated individual and his position allowed him the free time to continue his studies on a variety of subjects including French, Latin, Italian, Philosophy, Geography and Mathematics. Importantly, too, he had time to meet and talk with the enormous range of people drawn to the new gold-fields areas, and it was during this period that he established contacts with learned scientific men who had important influences upon his life.14
He continued as the Assistant Clerk of Petty Sessions at Lamplough till July 1862 when he was promoted to Clerk of Petty Sessions at Barkly and Mountain Creek.
Moonabel (Mt. Creek) was to be his home for the next six years, till his appointment in December of 1868 as Clerk of Courts at Avoca. He held this position for the following eight years and it was during this period (April 1873) that he married a young Englishwoman, Alice Sarah Humphreys.
In 1877 we find him as Clerk of Courts Class 4 and Warden's Clerk at Stawell, where he and the family lived till 1884. In March of this year he became the Chief Clerk of the Court of Insolvency for the Southern District, and hence moved residence to Geelong. Two years later in August they again shifted their home, this time to Fitzroy, where Johns was stationed as Clerk of the Court of Petty Sessions and deputy Coroner. Finally in March 1888 he received promotion to Police Magistrate, Coroner and Warden of the Gold-fields.
After this date his area shifted to the Shepparton, Rushworth and Seymour districts, and again in 1890 to Hamilton and thirteen other places. It was here, in Hamilton that the Johns family were at last to settle down and where Johns, and his wife Alice spent the remaining years of their lives.15
I referred earlier to the fact that Johns retained with remarkable consistency the same style and format of his diary entries for the full half century they span. Ah are essentially domestic in content.
Particulars are given of the various ways in which Johns employed both his work and leisure hours, of the different people he encountered, those from whom letters were received and to whom others were dispatched. From this wealth of minutiae on every day life, there gradually unfolds not only the course of physical events, in terms of location and occupation, but the personality of R. E. Johns, his many interests, those people who stimulated him, and others whom he found ‘bores of the first water’.
However Johns is a terse spokesman for his ‘inner-self’, and although we have the continuous detailing of incidents, his diary unfortunately was not the place where he gave vent to the workings of his mind. Thus while there are successive and intriguing references to late night polemical discussions concerning religion, philosophy, science or the Chinese question, rarely from the diaries can we discern Johns's actual opinions about such issues.
Over the same period that Johns regularly kept his diary, he utilised two other vehicles of record and communication. These were his correspondence and what he termed his ‘scraps’.
Letter writing was a vital part of, and stimulus to Johns's life. Hardly a day passes throughout his entire journals when one or more letters were not conceived, continued, completed, dispatched or received. When parted from them, he faithfully and enthusiastically communicated with his family and friends, and the diaries give ample evidence that he found letters the most expedient methods of gathering information on a wide variety of subjects to satisfy his ever curious mind.
Very few of the letters which the diaries faithfully record his having written are known to be in existence, while most of those he received have unfortunately, in one way or another, been destroyed.16 Those that have survived17 show Johns's keen mind. They indicate his well developed critical sense and a tenacity for getting to the truth of matters. Such interests and persistence can be noted in the diaries, but his letters give fuller and more immediate testimony to his scholarly talents.
The first reference I have found to Johns's scrap-books is from his 4 March 1858 diary entry, when he records that a friend gave him a large book to put his ‘scraps’ in. From that time he talks frequently of copying into his notebook, which I presume is a synonym for scrap-book, as on 21 August of that year he reports that he has ‘finished copying into my old notebook, but have a long list of articles to be copied from newspapers and magazines.’ Johns was an avid reader of the overseas newspapers of which, through the goodwill of family and friends he appears to have had access to a wide variety.
There are references in the diaries to Johns both copying from other people's scrap-books, and giving his over for inspection. In them he kept a record of fact, or observation related to the ingenuity of nature or mankind, and together they present a vast Anthropological
compendium covering the entire world.
The collection of ‘scientific notes, correspondence and clippings’, was given to the National Museum of Victoria by Harold Johns in 1914. In the above-mentioned letter entitled ‘To the Inheritor …’, he records that it was well received by Professor Baldwin Spencer, who informed him that ‘the collection was the most valuable and unique of its kind that [the Museum] had ever received.18
I think that having briefly considered these two other methods Johns employed to record and communicate information, we are better able to investigate the nature of the diaries and their possible uses as historic source material.
It is an interesting question whether the concept of the diary can include the idea of its having been intended for a reader.19 In the case of our subject, I would rule out this possibility, but the point must be raised as to what did motivate Johns, on the gaining of his ‘years of discretion’, to steadfastly record the following almost 20,000 days of his life.
The diaries have no pretensions as literary works. Obviously their writing for 55 years had to become habit, and there is a strong mechanical element, especially in relation to the repetitious detailing of domestic activities, weather etc., which readily lend themselves to such treatment.
There are other aspects though. Johns would normally write up the day's episode immediately before retiring, and often there is a factor of self-evaluation, or reviewing his life as it passed. As a set, the diaries form a self-sustaining autobiography, extremely personal in that the author is their sole subject, but rarely overtly emotional. They are more the picture of the outward play of Johns's life, with only hints as to his inner thoughts and aspirations.
What then are the possible uses and significance of the R. E. Johns historical material now held by the La Trobe Library? From the literary point of view R. A. Fothergill has stated the ‘the great mass of diary writing is poor stuff, interesting only to the antiquarian or social historian.’20
While it is certain that Johns's diaries will never be read for their ‘turn of phrase’, it is equally true that their importance is greater, and more complex than of mere antiquarian or even social historical value. It lies not only in the recognition of his role in the history of Anthropological study, but in the definition of a ‘type’ in the intellectual and scientific history of Australia.
This is of the educated amateur, who although not directly employed in his field of interest, exerted a significant creative influence through his immense enthusiasm and desire for knowledge about it. Perhaps the greater of these men did turn professional, publishing the results of their studies (e.g. A. W. Howitt, in the field of early Anthropology), but many did not, and it is their contribution which history has hitherto largely neglected.
The diaries give substance to this submerged class, and it is possible that one result of their new accessibility will be the location of further historical documents concerning Johns and/or other members of ‘the invisible college’, with whom he was involved.21
In conclusion I think it reasonable to suggest that the ‘rediscovery’ of R. E. Johns both as an individual and as an exemplar of a certain class of educated colonial immigrant, opens out a neglected area of research for the Australian historian.
Carol Cooper
Back number of La Trobe Journal are available at $2, and complete sets at $40.


On completion of this task Harold further consolidated the ‘Johns Collection’, by having ‘portfolios and a suitable chest made to retain the whole’.
Unfortunately in the process of his sorting Harold Johns destroyed much which would be highly valued by twentieth century Australian historians (see text below). However it was largely due to his initiative in paring down the bulk of the material into a more manageable body and providing sturdy, portable storage, that this very important collection has been preserved into the 1970s.


Apart from the Diaries Miss Johns's gift to the La Trobe Library includes:
A folder of R. E. Johns's appointments and official correspondence c. 1852–1897 (very incomplete);
A paper entitled ‘Concerning Religion’, authored by Johns 6/8/79.
A paper entitled ‘The Bunyip and Mindai’ authored by Johns 9/9/67.
Two papers by S. D. S. Huyghue, written for R. E. Johns: ‘Account of Eureka Stockade of 1854’ and ‘Archaeology of North America.’
Miscellanea, including some letters from Louis Johns to his sisters, also some of R. E. Johns's Miner's Rights; and other material relating to Johns, sketches etc.


These include:
A large collection of 96 artefacts from R. E. Johns's old Moonambel Museum. This collection was sold to the Burke Memorial Museum, Beechworth in 1868, and remains there today as one of the finest collections of South-east Australian Aboriginal artefacts in Australia.
Another collection of 76 artefacts was bought by the N.M.V. from the estate of R. E. Johns in 1910. It includes material from Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia.


This term is used by sociologists of science (see D. Crane, Invisible Colleges (1972), to denote the chain of communication which lay behind the dispersal of information and which constantly stimulated further discovery and thought. In the situation of a new colony it began with the passing on of information and contacts by hearsay, and later developed (as it had done or originally with the Royal Society) to the more formal channels of intercourse offered by the ‘learned societies’.


Johns definitely had a museum at his Moonambel residence as early as 1863, and could have had an earlier one at Lamplough. This consisted of a room devoted to displaying his natural history specimens and Aboriginal artefacts, all of which were carefully labelled. On 20 January 1866 Johns records that his museum ‘has become one of the attractions of Moonambel’, but he decided to sell it when he left that town and moved to Avoca in 1868. Here he began another museum and appears to have continued this practice till his death.


M. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday: A Social History of the. Western District, 1834–1890 (1961).


R. B. Smyth, The Aborigines of Victoria (1878); A. W. Howitt, The Native Tribes of Southeast Australia (1904) and E. M. Curr, The Australian Race (1886), all have no reference to R. E. Johns. These men were the most influential writers about the Aborigines of Victoria and all three books are to an extent based on the observations of others.


Adelaide, 1897. see pages vi, 61, 70, 78, 99, 107, 109, 113 and 168 for references to R. E. Johns.


This supposition was later partially proven when correspondence was found in the Chauncy Papers, La Trobe Library, between R. B. Smyth and Johns. The matter is a detailed one, but suffice to say here that Johns had little regard for the ‘all accomplished’ Secretary for the Aborigines Protection Board (i.e. Smyth), and obviously this feeling was mutual. Thus although Johns provided information for Smyth's compendium, which Smyth asked to use and agreed to acknowledge, this was not done.
I wish to thank Dr. I. McBryde for drawing my attention to the existence of this correspondence.


C. P. Cooper, The Beechworth Collection of Aboriginal Artefacts’ (unpublished Ba Hons. Thesis, Department of Prehistory and Anthropology, Australian National University, Canberra, 1975).


I have only read two of these, spanning the period 1855–1868. I am indebted to Ms. C. Hogarth, Anthropology Department, N.M.V., and Mr. H. W. Nunn, Keeper of Public Records, for all information on Johns retrieved from Government documentary sources.


Reyneil Eveleigh, Alethe, Lydia, Louis Dewerstone, Laura and Ilfra.


Caroline's two brothers, John and Alfred Reyneil, came to Australia in 1839. Alfred took a great interest in Caroline's children and R. E. Johns says of him (27/9/56). ‘He has done more for us than most fathers for their children.’ His Uncle John founded the now famous South Australian ‘Reynella Vineyards’.


These included: S. D. S. Huyghue, Bernard Smith, Dr. A. L. Slater and R. H. Jenkyns.


Alice Johns predeceased R. E. Johns by 6 years. They had issue of five children, two sons and three daughters: Harold H., Arthur H., Eleanor H., Marion H., and Clare H.


In the two diaries which I have read, Johns regularly mentions that he has ‘destroyed old letters’. Whether there was a selection process operating this activity is not known, but by the time of his death Johns had retained a large amount of personal correspondence.
Again from the above quoted letters of Harold Johns, 22/8/1914: ‘A mass of correspondence and papers concerning my father's friends, but who were unknown to his children were destroyed by me with regret; solely because I considered that few would find a place for such an unwieldly pile of matter; and that such a mass would only discourage examination.’


To my knowledge these include:
In the South Australian Archives — several letters from R. E. Johns to his uncle John Reyneil.
In the National Museum of Victoria — six letters by R. E. Johns to Professor F. McCoy (first director of the Museum) at Melbourne University before the Museum became a separate entity. These all concern scientific subjects.
In the La Trobe Library (State Library of Victoria) — three letters of R. E. Johns to P. L. S. Chauncy, and two from R. B. Smyth to R. E. Johns. These latter were sent to Chauncy by Johns with instructions to destroy them after reading. Luckily he omitted to do this. All the above are contained in the P. L. S. Chauncy Papers, ms. 9287.
In the Slate Library of Victoria — A collection of letters purchased by the Library in 1908 from R. E. Johns's sister, Miss L. Johns. They were written by various people to the Johns’ family, and I do not know whether any of these specifically related to R. E. Johns.


On 9 April 1914 the National Museum of Victoria acknowledged the donation by Harold H. Johns of:
‘Five scrap-books of Mss. newspaper cuttings and illustrations relating to historical and scientific subjects made by the late R. E. Johns, P.M. with parcel of additional Mss. correspondence and engravings and etc.’
The Anthropology Department of the National Museum of Victoria now holds three bound volumes of Johns’ scrap-books, covering the periods 1854–67; 1869–82; and 1889–1901. It appears likely that these represent all of the donated Johns scientific material now bound together, but this has not been definitely ascertained.


See chapter 1 of R. A. Fothergill's Private Chronicles: A Study of English Diaries (1974).


Fothergill, op. cit. p. 2.


For instance the diaries of P. L. C. Chauncy, 1840–75, are held by the Dixson Library, Sydney, and as far as I know have yet to be studied by any historian.