John Francis Johnstone was born on November 25, 1838 in Kirkburton, near Huddersfield, in West Yorkshire. His father William was a tea merchant; his mother was Anne Whitehead.
In official birth registration documents for his children, J.F. is described as a teacher, but it is not known whether he taught just music. According to family lore, his future wife, Mary Curtis was at boarding school where she was sent by her parents who lived in Jamaica (Timothy Curtis was a Methodist minister/missionary who spent his career in Jamaica, moving from parish to parish). However, Mary Curtis was 18 at the time of her marriage, and in spite of family tradition was probably not a schoolgirl when she wed Frank. The family appears to have moved around a bit but always within the small circle of Bradford and its environs. Mother to five children, Mary Curtis died in 1877, three years after the last child was born, and soon afterwards J.F. married Catherine McGregor who was born in Scotland, and according to the census of 1881 was ten years older than her husband. In 1880 the family emigrated to Toronto where J.F. is described in the 1881 census as a music teacher. According to family lore Catherine returned to Britain.
J.F.’s obituary in the February 25, 1913 issue of The Toronto Daily Star gives further details of his life. “Mr. Johnstone was a well-known figure in musical circles in Toronto during the past 35 years. He had for many years his studio at the corner of Spadina Avenue and College Street. He was organist of Broadway Tabernacle and Christ Church, Lippincott and College, for a number of years. He was organist of Surrey Lodge, S.O.E. [Sons of England], of which he was a member for thirty years and was secretary of the Hospital Committee for the Sons of England for a number of years. In this work, which took him into the hospitals, his kindness and cheery face made him beloved by all who came in contact with him.”
J.F. Johnstone is given an entry in The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, and although some of the facts about his early life are incorrect, the text does mention that “he was associated with the CNE” and “taught privately.”
What is not mentioned in reminiscences or in documents is the many compositions and songs that J.F. wrote (just the music – not the words). These were published for voice, or piano or both, and usually in collaboration with the poet/publisher John Imrie.