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Johnson, Frederic (Fred) (1858–1941)

Flags flying at half mast yesterday signified the passing of Frederic Johnson, the goldfleld city's outstanding Civic figure over the last half century. He was 83 years old, and died in the district hospital after an illness lasting four days.

Public life has produced here no more colorful personality, no more capable administrator, n0 greater patriot. He was five times mayor of the city, and was associated with the civic administration of the municipality over a practically unbroken period from 1887 to 1919. He was connected with almost every local public and semi-public body in his time as a member or chairman of the committee, and was in the forefront of every public movement.

It is as the wartime mayor of Charters Towers, however, that he is best remembered. The civic head in those days was the honorary enlisting officer and it was to a large degree owing to the patriotic fervour with which he did his job and his inspiring leadership of the citizens that Charters Towers put up so notable a record in contributing manpower and money to the cause of victory.

He was Australian-born. of English parents, but was a Britisher to the finger-tips. and aggressively loyal. An orator of no mean order, his recruiting speeches were gems of their kind, forceful and often embellished with forthright language. A spade, for instance, was never confused with anything else when it was referred to by Fred Johnson. His "Guts Speech." delivered in front of the Town Hall in the early part of the war, was a classic and among the best rhetorical efforts ever heard here, and the rush of enlistments which followed showed the resalts of which his meetings were invariably productive. Every man who went away to the war from the city and district was personally farewelled by Mr. Johnson, and it was he who originated the custom of giving each man who departed on service a silk handkerchief bearing the seal of the Council, a custom later adopted by several other municipalities throughout Australia. An identical handcerchief was presented to the now Duke of Windsor when he visited Australia as Prince of Wales. It was Mr. Johnson also who started the Charters Towers Patriotic Fund, which in conjunction with the Red Cross branch, quickly raised a sum of £30,000 locally. This organisation not only looked after soldiers' dependants during the war but on his return from overseas paid each soldier £20 cash if he were married or £10 if single. It is on record that the managing costs of the Patriotic Rind was below one and a half per cent.

Born in Adelaide. South Australia, the late Mr. Johnson was educated at Prince Alfred College in that city, enrolling the first year it opened. The father of Dr. T. R. Edmeades was a schoolmate. Mr. Johnson, whose brother was later mayor of Adelaide, with his sister as mayoress, was educated with the aim of having him made a clergyman. However, he soon showed that he had no calling for the church, and emphasised that his inclinations lay otherwise by "clearing out" and going to Sydney, where he found employment with a firm of hardware merchants. That was 66 years ago. Two years later he came up to Charters Towers to work for the late Hugh Ross in the premises now known as Holliman's. His first business venture was in partnership with Messrs. Shaw and Villiers as hardware merchants. In Mosman Street premises near the Crown Hotel, the firm also controlling a sawmill at the Hawkesbury. The concern afterwards carried on as Johnson & Shaw, and when this partnership eventually split, Mr. Johnson took over the hardware business on his own and Mr. Shaw the sawmill. Ever since that time, and up to four years ago, Mr. Johnson carried on business as a hardware, furniture and timber merchant. He married Sarah Elizabeth Ross, daughter of his original employer here. His wife, who died in 1933, was, as mayoress, a wonderful help to him in his duties as head of the municipal administration, and also was prominent in patriotic work during the Great War. She formed the Sock and Comforts Fund, a body which did invaluable work during the war years, and was also head of the Red Cross branch, which she is believed also to have organised. Mr. Johnson is survived by three sons. Fred ("Ric") of Townsville, Frank of Brisbane, and Wally of Charters Towers, and two daughters, Mr. S. B. Miles of Cardargo, South West Queensland. and Mrs. D. E. Clarke of Townsville. Mr. Johnson also has one sister, Mrs. B. L. Craven, living in Adelaide.

The late Mr. Johnson's career here was full of color, especially that which touched the civic side. He first went up for election to the Council in 1887, presenting himself along with Thomas (now Sir Thomas) Buckland, W. H. Dean, L McLean. F. C. Brewer, Thaddeus O'Kane and C. A. Reidrich, and won a seat under the mayoralty of the late Robert Russell. Records show that he was identified with the civic administration from that time on wards until 1919. and was mayor for a record period. Be held that office In 1894, 1903, 1913, 1914 and 1915. In 1916 there was a deadlock in Charters Towers over the election of mayor, both Mr Johnson and Mr. Charlie Watts seeking office, and on reference of the matter to the Governor-in-council Mr. Watts was appointed. Mr. Johnson was also a member of the Water Board when that body was an authority separate from the Council. He was one time or another an administrative member of practically every public organisation except the ambulance, and was on the committees of various sporting bodies, was president of the Show Association, the Chamber of Commerce. Australian Natives' Association and the Charters Towers Permanent Building and Investment Society. He was the first representative of Charters Towers on the Townsville Harbor Board. He also had mining interests, and among other concerns with which he was prominently identified was the Papuan, of which he was chairman of directors. The Returned Soldiers' League had him as one of its trustees. He was fire brigade superintendent for some years, and under his direction the brigade became one of the smartest fire-flghting units in the State. On three occasions he was an aspirant for political honors but was never successful. He contested two Federal elections. and on one occasion Charters Towers itself is said to have given him a majority of one vote oyer the late Charles McDonald. In the State sphere he "took on" the late Mr. Winstanley in Queenton Mr. Johnston worked right up to the end of a very full life, for since he discontinued business he acted as agent for the trustee of the Ross Estate.

His civic and patriotic activities were given wide recognition on more than one occasion. He was an official visitor to Canberra at the opening ot the Federal capital. In 1830 he made a trip to England. There are many good anecdotes told of Mr. Johnson while be was mayor. Although inclined to the small side physically, he was remarkably strong and his fiery, pugnacious nature frequently placed him in positions where he had to use his strength. Council meetings were lively affairs in his time, and more than one bout 0f fisticuffs was witnessed in the Council- Chambers, and among the Aldermen Johnson was always to the fore. He was strong-willed to a fault, and once he had taken up an attitude on any question he could not be shifted. He liked his own way, fought for it, and most times got it. Once, proceedings at a meeting in the Town Hall during his mayoralty displeased him. Mr. Johnson turned off the light and invited the assembly to "get out of my town hall". Another time he disapproved of a circus being allowed the use of Lissner Park. Climbing a tree on a vacant allotment at the corner of Mosman and Mary Streets he addressed a meeting of protest from the branches, and then headed a demonstration to the park to prove that entertainment held there was free to the public. His followers entered the tent but made the error of sitting on the seats, thus using the circus property, and they were promptly ejected. At the last chamber of Commerce meeting he attended be found cause to be annoyed, poured oral vitriol on the flabbergasted assembly, and consigned to Hades all connected with the unfinished proceedings as he abruptly left the chamber.

Local history was enriched by Fred Johnson, and Charters Towers is much the poorer for his passing. It might well be said that he devoted his life to serving the city, and much of the progress it made when times were good was due to his initiative and driving force. With justification can he be described as perhaps the best citizen Charters Towers ever had.

Original publication

Citation details

'Johnson, Frederic (Fred) (1858–1941)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/johnson-frederic-fred-22855/text32285, accessed 24 August 2019.

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