Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Johnston, William

1529543Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, Volume 2 — Johnston, William1912Alexander Gordon

JOHNSTON, WILLIAM (1829–1902), of Ballykilbeg, Orangeman, born at Downpatrick, co. Down, on 22 Feb. 1829, was the eldest child in a family of four sons and three daughters of John Brett Johnston (d. 8 March 1853) of Ballykilbeg, near Downpatrick (a descendant of Archbishop Francis Marsh [q. v.]), by his wife Thomasina Anne Brunette (d. 1852), daughter of Thomas Scott, a local surgeon. From the diocesan school at Downpatrick he went in 1848 to Trinity College, Dublin, graduating B.A. in 1852, proceeding M.A. in 1856. Originally intended for the medical profession, on his father's death in 1853 he turned to the law, and was eventually called to the Irish bar in Hilary term, 1872. On 8 May 1848 he entered the Orange order, in which he ultimately rose to be deputy grand master of Ireland, and sovereign grand master of the Black institution; the triennial council of Orangemen, instituted 1866, was due to his proposal (Dec. 1865). Conceiving that the Party Processions Act (12 March 1850; since repealed) was being enforced in the north of Ireland and not in the south, Johnston organised a demonstration against it at Ballykilbeg (12 July 1866) and led an Orange procession to Bangor, co. Down (12 July 1867). Brought before the magistrates in September, he was committed for trial, which took place at Downpatrick in March 1868 before Justice Morris [see Morris, Sir Michael, Lord Morris and Killanin, Suppl. II], who sentenced him to two months' imprisonment, reducible to one month if Johnston would give securities for good behaviour (himself 500l., and two sureties of 250l.); this Johnston indignantly declined. His cell at Downpatrick was afterwards visited as the shrine of a protestant confessor. He was released four days before the expiry of the two months by medical order, the object being to frustrate an apprehended demonstration; but his friends were on the alert, and he made a triumphal progress to Ballykilbeg, his carriage being drawn by his Orange followers.

On 15 Nov. 1868 he was elected for Belfast as an independent conservative, defeating in conjunction with Sir Thomas McClure (liberal) the official conservatives. Sir Charles Lanyon and John Mulholland (afterwards Lord Dunleath). A petition against the return of Johnston and McClure failed, after a month's trial before Baron Fitzgerald. Re-elected in 1874, Johnston resigned his seat in March 1878, on his appointment by Lord Beaconsfield as inspector of Irish fisheries. After several warnings, called forth by his political speeches against the Land League and home rule, he was dismissed from office by Earl Spencer, the lord-lieutenant, on account of a vehement oration in the General Synod of the Church of Ireland at Dublin in 1885. He had impoverished his estate in order to serve his cause, having lost considerably by financing an Orange newspaper, the 'Downshire Protestant' (7 July 1855-12 Sept. 1862); his necessities were relieved by a public subscription. In 1885 he was returned for South Belfast, and held the seat till his death, speaking frequently against the project of a Roman catholic university, the policy of home rule, and the toleration of 'ritualism.' As representative of the Orange order he thrice crossed the Atlantic, the only year in which he missed attendance at a 12 July celebration in Belfast being 1891, when he was on his way to Canada. In Irish economics he was a firm advocate of 'the three F's' (fair rent, free sale, fixity of tenure); he supported Gladstone's land bill of 1890, and the leasehold tenant right bill. As a member of the Irish Temperance League he supported the Sunday Closing Act. His personal adhesion to the temperance cause was extreme: urged to take stimulant in his last illness, his answer was 'I would die first.' On 9 July 1902 he left London to open an Orange bazaar at Lurgan on the 10th, and to speak at a demonstration on the 12th at Ballynahinch ; this was his last effort; he was seized with faintness and a chill, and died at Ballykilbeg on 17 July 1902. He was buried in Rathmullan churchyard on 21 July; a monument over his grave was erected by public subscription. He was thrice married: (1) on 22 Feb. 1853 to Harriet, daughter of Robert Allen of Kilkenny, by whom he had issue two sons and two daughters; (2) on 10 Oct. 1861 to Arminella Frances, daughter of Thomas Drew, D.D.; (3) in 1863 to Georgiana Barbara (d. 1900), youngest daughter of Sir John Hay of Park, seventh baronet, by whom he had issue three sons and four daughters. His portrait adorns many Orange banners.

Although a man with a mission, Johnston was a gentleman in grain, 'transparently upright and honest,' and simply and devoutly rehgious. He never lost the esteem of his opponents. The Belfast nationalist organ, in recording his death, spoke of his 'courage and consistency,' adding that he was 'loved by his catholic tenants and neighbours.' One of his daughters joined the Roman catholic church, and it was characteristic of his sense of duty and his goodness of heart that he drove her to mass on the way to his own parish church. He contributed from time to time to various journals but he was not distinguished as a writer; his separate literary efforts were early, and of no great moment. He published:

  1. 'Nightshade: a Novel,' 1857; 2nd edit. 1858.
  2. 'Ribbonism and its Remedy: a Letter,' Dublin, 1858.
  3. 'Freshfield,' 1859 (a novel).
  4. 'Under which King?' 1872 (a story).

[Belfast News-Letter, 18 and 22 July 1902; Northern Whig, 18 and 22 July 1902; Irish News and Belfast Morning News, 18 July 1902; Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland, 1904; information from Mr. John McBride, Holywood, co. Down; personal recollections.]

A. G.