It would be hard to imagine Alexander Johnston, railway contractor, involving himself in the sort of idealistic scheme which William Lane promoted under the name ‘New Australia.’ If Mr. Johnston had been involved in such a scheme, one could readily imagine him making a success of it. He certainly would not have neglected to organise the money and machinery necessary to make it work.
Alexander Johnston (1839-1916) had emigrated from Scotland in 1856. He had been in Queensland for a time, then came to New South Wales. As partner and contractor he was involved in a number of construction projects, including tramways in Sydney, a section of the railway between Goulburn and Cooma, construction of cattle yards at Homebush, parts of the Nepean water supply, and water works in Melbourne. With his accumulated wealth he was able to invest in and contribute to a number of enterprises which benefited from his experience in the fields of engineering, geology and project management.
In the 1890s, while the ‘New Australia’ colonists were trying to establish an ideal society in Paraguay, Alexander Johnston was helping to open up the North Shore of Sydney to investment and development. He was associated with a private syndicate (the North Sydney Tramway and Investment Company) responsible for construction of the North Shore (or Long Bay) Suspension Bridge (which gave the suburb of Northbridge its name) and the opening up of new land. Progress was not without its problems. There was a protracted period of delay caused by complications over ownership. Finally in 1912 the bridge was handed over as a gift to the New South Wales Government. The elaborate stone superstructure remains. Although the old metal deteriorated and a concrete arch now supports the weight, the structure is still referred to informally as the suspension bridge.
Political developments to the north of Australia offered a new field for enterprise. The British Government had long been wary of French designs in the Pacific. Then in 1884 Germany annexed the north-eastern part of New Guinea. Britain responded by proclaiming a Protectorate over the south-eastern portion, which was extended to neighbouring islands. This gave a new context for imperial and colonial action in suppressing lawlessness and fostering business expansion in the region. The discovery of gold on some of the islands off the east coast of New Guinea in the 1890s prompted a gold rush in a number of places, including Woodlark Island (also called Murua) from 1895 onwards. Despite the difficulties of the climate and the problems of disease, many individual prospectors took up claims. There were reports from time to time that the gold was giving out; whether this was an entirely objective assessment or a way of deterring possible competitors, the methods of extraction being used were fairly primitive and the gains were necessarily limited. Circumstances were ripe for a man like Mr. Alex Johnston, one of the directors of the Woodlark Island Proprietary Gold-mining Company, formed in 1899, to buy up small prospectors and introduce technically advanced methods to locate, identify, mine, process and transport gold and other deposits, and so prove that the riches of Woodlark Island and elsewhere were far from exhausted.
It was an era when able people, energetic and optimistic, were expanding the reach of investment and technology, with profound implications for political and economic control over land, resources and populations, in Australia and elsewhere.
‘Death of Mr. A. Johnston’, Sydney Morning Herald 17/6/1916, p. 11. Gold on Woodlark Island: e.g. Sydney Morning Herald 31/8/1897, p. 6. Sydney gold syndicate: e.g. Advertiser [Adelaide] 18/7/1899, p. 5; Sydney Morning Herald 21/12/1899, p. 9.