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Thomas Fisher and the Fisher Bequest

Neil A. Radford
from In Establishing and Maintaining a Library: Two Essays on the University of Sydney Library


Behind almost every great library stands at least one great benefactor. Sir Thomas Bodley and John Rylands in the United Kingdom, Henry Folger and J. Pierpont Morgan in the United States, David Scott Mitchell and Thomas Fisher in Australia, are but six of the many thousands of bibliothecal benefactors whose names and memories have been preserved in the institutions they established.

In most cases the lives of these founders and the motivations for their philanthropy are well documented. An outstanding exception is Thomas Fisher (1820-1884), the principal benefactor of the library of the University of Sydney. Contemporary references to his bequest make no mention of his background and say little more about the man himself other than that he was a boot and shoe maker and lived near the University. Later accounts often surrounded him with fanciful legends. Attempts to trace his life are made difficult by the scarcity of records left behind—even his death certificate does not disclose the names of his parents.

The centenary year of his death seems an appropriate occasion on which to document the life of Thomas Fisher and to commemorate his legacy.*

* The principal sources for this essay were painstakingly collected and analysed twenty years ago by Mrs. Nancy Gray, F.S.A.G. Her willingness to make available her notes and other material is most gratefully acknowledged. Without her assistance this essay would hardly have been possible. I am also grateful to descendants of the Fisher family who provided information. The sketch of Thomas Fisher's house in Darlington is reproduced by the kind permission of the artist, Mr. Allan Gamble.

Image Link Image facing page 9: A Partial Genealogical Chart of the Descendants of Steven and Mary Fisher



On April 20th, 1755, Steven and Mary Fisher of the village of Kemble, Wiltshire, some 150 km west of London, brought their infant son to the village church for baptism. It seems reasonable to assume that baby John had been born the same year, though there appears to be no record of his actual birth date. Over the next eighteen years four more Fisher children were similarly baptised — Steven in 1758, Dinah in 1766, Elizabeth in 1769, and Sarah in 1773.1

Kemble was a farming village and John Fisher became a farm labourer and shepherd. Nothing is known of his life until 1801, but it is not unlikely that in those forty-six years he married in the district and may have raised a family. Whatever life he had collapsed suddenly in March, 1801, when he was arrested, with another man, for sheep stealing.

On March 11th, 1801, John Fisher was brought before the Wiltshire Assizes at New Sarum. The jury found that, on March 4th, he and his accomplice had stolen “one sheep to the value of fifty shillings, the property of Robert Radway.” Sheep stealing was a capital crime and he was sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was later commuted to “transportation to the Eastern Coast of New South Wales or some one other of the islands adjacent for and during the Term of his natural life.”2

If John Fisher had a wife and family he was never to see them again. On February 12th, 1802, he and 136 other male convicts sailed in the transport Perseus for Sydney, then a small struggling settlement founded only fourteen years earlier. The Perseus and its human cargo, most of whom had never before seen the ocean, arrived in August, 1802, after a voyage of six months.

John Fisher, aged 47 and an experienced shepherd and farmhand, was soon assigned to a sheep farm near Castle Hill owned by Rev. Rowland Hassall. Fourteen months later, on January 1st, 1804, the convicted sheep stealer was placed in charge of all Hassall's sheep, a nice irony.3 In time Hassall broadened his activities to embrace horse breeding, selling

[P.10] to many prominent settlers including D'Arcy Wentworth and Robert Campbell. John Fisher became an expert horse-breaker and doubtless met many of Hassall's important customers.

In 1810, the Sydney Racing Club was established and held its first meeting in October. Although the Sydney Gazette reported the event in detail, only one jockey was named, and then only because he met with an accident. The Gazette recorded that a dog running across the course frightened a horse which threw its rider, by the name of Fisher, who was fortunately not seriously hurt.4 As John Fisher later became a well-known jockey in Sydney, it seems reasonable to assume that it was he who was thrown from his horse at the inaugural race meeting and that he therefore deserves the distinction of being the first recorded professional jockey in Australia.

While John Fisher was building a new life for himself as a trusted convict in Sydney, another court case took place in England which was soon to affect his life. On May 27th, 1809, a 33-year-old household servant, Jemima Bolton of the village of Southoe, Huntingdonshire, some 90 km north of London, was arrested on a charge of grand larceny. Tried before the Huntingdon Assizes on July 22nd, 1809, she was found guilty of stealing “two pieces of satin of the value of twelve shillings, one pair of thread stockings of the value of twelve pence, and one hempen cloth of the value of six pence”, the property of the Rev. Robert Pointer, vicar of St. Leonards. She was sentenced to transportation for seven years and arrived in Sydney on the Canada in September, 1810, with 120 other female convicts.5

Nine days after her arrival, Jemima Bolton was assigned as Government housekeeper at Parramatta, probably because of her previous training as a servant. Within a few months of her arrival at Parramatta in September, 1810, Jemima Bolton, aged 34, met John Fisher, aged 55. The details are not known, but it can be deduced from the date of birth of their first child that they were certainly on intimate terms by early 1811. They were married by the Rev.

[P.11] Samuel Marsden at St. John's Church, Parramatta, on October 28th, 1811,6 and their first child, Jemima, was born two months later, on Christmas Eve, 1811.7 A second daughter, Mary Ann, was born on October 31st, 1813.

John Fisher's horse racing skills had brought him into contact with many of the leaders of Sydney society as owners and spectators, including Colonel Maurice O'Connell of the 73rd Highlanders Regiment and Lieutenant Governor of the colony. O'Connell was a leading figure in the Sydney Racing Club and Fisher often rode his horses to victory. In 1814, the 73rd Regiment was recalled to England, and it seems likely that, as a parting gesture, O'Connell recommended that Fisher be granted a free pardon. Governor Macquarie complied, and on January 17th, 1814, almost thirteen years after being sentenced to death, John Fisher found himself a free man. As an added bonus he was granted fifty acres of land at Appin, near Campbelltown.

Jemima's sentence still had more than two years to run, but John, as a free man and landholder, could be responsible for her. By mid-1814, the family was settled on their farm and a third daughter, Sarah, was born there on June 25th, 1816. Life was hard; an unprecedented drought had virtually wiped out the pastoral industry, aborigines made frequent attacks on settlers in this isolated district, and severe floods in 1817 devastated those who had bravely stayed on. In 1818, the Fishers admitted defeat and moved to Sydney, where they occupied a house on Brickfield Hill at the southern approach to the city. By this time John was 62, and although he could still earn money as a jockey, he needed respite from the arduous work of farming in a hostile and unforgiving environment.

Brickfield Hill was a busy thoroughfare thronged with travellers to and from the interior of the colony, and John Fisher applied unsuccessfully to operate a tavern from his premises.8 He continued to ride at the Hyde Park racecourse9 and appears to have retired from being a jockey about 1820, when he would have been 65. In this year Jemima bore him a last child and first son, whom they named Thomas.


Thomas Fisher

Thomas Fisher was born at Brickfield Hill, Sydney, on January 23rd, 1820, and was baptised at St. Phillip's Church of England on May 7th.10 Shortly thereafter the family moved to a cottage at the south-east corner of Clarence and Market Streets, Sydney. The census of 1828 shows the occupants of the Clarence Street house as John and Jemima Fisher, their two youngest children, Sarah and Thomas, and two lodgers, John White, 29, described as a “Government servant”, and Susannah White, 19. Fisher's two eldest daughters lived at their places of employment nearby, Jemima being a servant in the “King's Arms” hotel at the corner of Castlereagh and Hunter Streets, which was owned by her father's friend William Henry Roberts, and Mary Ann a housemaid in the Castlereagh Street home of Henry and Elizabeth Marr.11

John Fisher died on May 7th, 1832, aged 7712 and was buried in the Devonshire Street cemetery. His Will, made the year before, stipulated that whatever rents and profits might accrue from the Clarence Street property, were to go to his widow “for the support of herself and the maintenance and education of my son Thomas Fisher until he shall attain the age of twenty-one years or day of marriage”, after which the estate was to be divided between Thomas and his three sisters.13 Six months later, on November 25th, 1832, his wife Jemima died at the age of 56 and was buried beside him.14

The effects of unexpectedly becoming orphans must have been severe on the four children. Jemima, the eldest, was almost 21, Mary Ann was 19, Sarah 16 and Thomas only twelve. No records appear to have survived which illuminate their lives at this time but it is likely that their father's executors or other friends would have cared for them. In fact, one of the executors was Jemima's employer at the “King's Arms” hotel so there was obviously a close bond with the Fisher children. Despite John Fisher's desire to ensure his son's education, funds were not plentiful after the mother's death, and young Thomas was apprenticed to a bootmaker, perhaps to James White, his father's second executor.


In 1841, when Thomas turned 21, the Clarence Street property was sold and the proceeds divided among the four children as specified in their father's Will. The following year Thomas opened an account at the Bank of New South Wales15 and in either 1842 or 1843, he opened a boot and shoe shop in Pitt Street, on the east side, one door north of King Street.16 It was a three-storey building with a shop at street level, rooms on the first floor which were rented out, and a residence on the second floor.17 Because of its proximity to the law courts, Fisher's first floor rooms were occupied by solicitors, many of whom, it may be assumed, became his friends during the thirty years of his ownership of the building. They included John Williams, who became Mayor of Sydney and later Crown Solicitor, and Richard Driver, member of the Legislative Assembly and also a future Crown solicitor. One of Williams's articled clerks was James Martin, who went on to become Chief Justice and Premier of New South Wales.

By this time Fisher's elder sisters Jemima and Mary Ann were both married. In 1833, Jemima had married Mountfort Clarkson, a cabinet-maker and later a publican, and Mary Ann had married Joseph Holt, a carpenter, in 1838. The youngest sister, Sarah, was unmarried and apparently lived with her brother as his housekeeper. In 1850, Jemima Clarkson died, leaving five small children. The only girl, Sarah, and perhaps one or more of the boys, were taken in by Thomas and Sarah Fisher, their aunt and uncle, and came to live above the shoe shop in Pitt Street. One of the boys, Thomas Clarkson, was later apprenticed to his uncle as a bootmaker.

Fisher's business prospered, despite the depression of the 1840s, and his boot and shoe shop became a boot and shoe warehouse from which he retailed both custom-made footwear and imported stock from London. By 1856 he was able to consider investing some of his surplus capital, and it can be assumed that he sought advice on this matter from his solicitor tenants. The first investment of which there is record was made in 1856, when he lent money (in his sister's

[P.14] name) on the security of a mortgage over land in Woolloomooloo. Gradually he expanded his lending on the security of mortgages and also began gradually to acquire small parcels of property which he leased to tenants. During the next quarter century Fisher's lending and property dealing activity assumed sizable proportions — at the date of his death, for example, he held more than fifty mortgages and also received rents from more than twenty tenants in various properties.

In tandem, as it were, with this activity Fisher continued the business of importing and manufacturing boots and shoes. He continued to live above the shop in Pitt Street with his sister, Sarah, as his housekeeper. In June of 1871 he suffered a severe blow when Sarah, who had been with him for most of his 51 years, died. The death notice he inserted in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 10th, stated simply: “On the 9th instant, at her brother's residence, 176 Pitt Street, Miss Sarah Fisher, of apoplexy.” Sarah was buried in Camperdown Cemetery, beside her sister Jemima, in the family vault Thomas had erected more than 20 years earlier, and in which he himself expected eventually to lie.

It is likely that, at about this time, his own health began to cause some concern. He suffered from Bright's Disease18 and the early symptoms could well have begun to manifest themselves — increasing tiredness, lethargy and irritability; fluid swelling of the face or ankles; and recurrent severe headaches. There would probably be remissions, followed by severe attacks, gradual deterioration of eyesight, anaemia, and difficulty in breathing. Eventually, perhaps after many years, death was inevitable from kidney failure or congestive heart failure.

These infirmities gradually made it more difficult for Fisher to carry on his retail business, particularly when, with Sarah gone, he had also to care for himself in the flat upstairs. Although only in his early fifties, he decided to retire and concentrate on his property investments. In 1873, after 30 years of successful and profitable trading, he closed the business of “T. Fisher, Ladies' and Gentlemen's Boot and

[P.15] Shoe Manufacturer”19 and retired to a substantial two-storey brick house in the suburb of Darlington.

The house occupied a corner block, the south-east corner of Alma and Codrington Streets,20 and from the first-floor balcony with its delicate cast-iron railings he enjoyed extensive views across Victoria Park and the attractive grounds of the University of Sydney and the Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind. The Institution was his neighbour across Codrington Street and the University and park one block distant across busy Newtown (later City) Road. He named the house “Clarence House”, perhaps as a link with his first home in Clarence Street. Attached on the Alma Street side was a single storey cottage which Fisher rented to a sea captain, James Beattie, whose daughter Ellen became his housekeeper for the remaining decade of his life.

In retirement, though frequently suffering from the enervating effects of his chronic illness, Thomas Fisher continued to invest in property and to lend out money on the security of mortgages. The amounts lent were modest, generally a few hundred pounds, repayable over several years at an interest rate of around seven per cent per annum.21 The income, plus income from rents on properties he owned, would have been more than sufficient for his ordinary needs, and thus the surplus was again lent out or invested. His capital multiplied slowly but surely.

Not unexpectedly Fisher took advantage of his proximity to the University and frequently walked in its pleasant grounds. At that time, the University had fewer than a hundred students and only a handful of staff, so it is likely that his presence was noticed and that he formed friendships, or at least acquaintanceships, with University people. It is probable that he knew Henry Ebenezer Barff, Master of Studies from 1876 and Registrar from 1882, and it seems highly likely that he would have been known to other staff and students. Certainly he was regarded as a welcome visitor to the grounds and buildings,22 and he was a regular attender at the annual ceremony of commemoration of benefactors held in the Great Hall.23


Here he would have noted the applause accorded to former benefactors when their names were read out, and the cheers which customarily greeted the announcement of a new or particularly generous endowment. Here he would have heard, in 1879, that Sydney businessman Thomas Walker had purchased and presented to the University Library the important private collection of Nicol D. Stenhouse, solicitor, literary patron, and Fellow of the University Senate from 1869 until his death in 1873. This would have had a particular significance for Fisher, who almost certainly had been counted among Stenhouse's friends.24 He would also have heard the announcement in 1880 of the Challis Bequest, valued at the astronomical sum of £250,000.

By the late 1870s Fisher had doubtless been told by his doctors that his illness was incurable and that, although he might have years of life ahead of him, gradual decline and death from the disease were inevitable. Being a man of property he would no doubt want to ensure that his affairs were in order, but it appears that it was not until 1880 that he came to a firm conclusion as to the disposition of his estate.25

In the light of subsequent events it seems most likely that the Commemoration Ceremony of 1879 particularly influenced his thinking. In his address at that ceremony the Chancellor, Sir William Manning, after announcing the gift of Stenhouse's “valuable library” referred directly to “the deficiency and . . . the practical inconvenience of our library accommodation.” The 3,600 Stenhouse volumes had increased the bookstock by fifty percent and had precipitated a crisis in accommodation. The library had long outgrown its original home in a single room at the northern end of the main University building, and thousands of books were stored in the clock tower and in numerous other rooms nearby. Suitable accommodation for the library was probably the University's most pressing need.

“I will be so bold,” said the Chancellor, “as to give expression to the hope that the day will come when one of our men of great wealth and equal public spirit will . . . earn

[P.17] the gratitude of their country by erecting for the University a library worthy of comparison with like edifices at Home. With such a building to receive them, we may confidently anticipate that contributions of books would freely follow.”26

As Bryan has pointed out, “perhaps too much should not be built on this link between Manning's words and Fisher's action”27 but it is nevertheless a fact that in the following year Fisher made the University of Sydney the residual beneficiary of his estate, specifying that the bequest should be used “in establishing and maintaining a library.”28

He left no record of the reasons for his decision to endow the University's library, but it seems not unreasonable to assume that they included Manning's appeal for a donor, his own observations of the library's poor state, and perhaps also his conversations with students and staff. If, as seems certain, Fisher knew Nicol Stenhouse, he would have known of the importance of books to scholarship, and would have been impressed that his friend's own collection eventually came to swell the University Library. As a Fellow of the University Senate, Stenhouse would have been aware of the institution's library problems and might well have mentioned them in conversation with others. Another influence may well have been Canon Robert Allwood, Fellow of the Senate 1855–1886 and Vice-Chancellor 1869–1883. Allwood was minister at St. James's Church in King Street, Sydney, 1840–1884, a period which almost exactly coincided with Fisher's membership of the congregation there. They would certainly have known each other well and again it is quite probable that Allwood mentioned University matters in conversation from time to time.

A century later the reasons for Thomas Fisher's decision to endow the University's library can only be, at best, the subject of speculation. However, we do know that he kept this decision a secret from the University authorities. In October, 1884, four years after Fisher's Will was made and nearly three months before his death, the University Senate debated the problem of accommodation for the library. It is clear that Fisher's intentions were entirely unknown to the

[P.18] University, for it was proposed that the Challis Bequest be used to erect a library building, to be called the Challis Building, and that the library be supported by annual appropriations from the Challis fund “and be similarly designated.”29 However, the proposal lapsed when the cost of the building was calculated and the Senate resolved “that it would be inexpedient to draw upon the Challis Funds to so great an extent . . . ”30

Having made his decision on the disposition of his estate, Fisher continued to lend money and invest in property. He also had interests in shipping and, for example, in 1884 he had built by shipwrights in Balmain a 74-ton two-masted schooner which he named the Tom Fisher. Its owner, under mortgage for £1,200, was Captain James Beattie, master mariner and Fisher's next-door neighbour and tenant in Alma Street, Darlington.31 It is likely that Beattie commanded the Tom Fisher on trading voyages along the eastern coast of Australia and to nearby islands.

Gradually Fisher's illness took its inevitable toll. He became weaker, less mobile, and less able to read and concentrate. He was not inactive, however, and continued almost to the end to maintain his account books of loans and repayments. On Christmas Day, 1884, he suffered a severe relapse, probably while on his way to or from church, and he was admitted to Sydney Hospital.32 He died there of kidney failure on December 27th, just one month short of his 65th birthday.33

Fisher's Will directed that his remains be interred in the family tomb at Camperdown Cemetery, where his sisters Jemima and Sarah already lay. For reasons unknown, this direction was not complied with. It could well be that his nephews, who apparently arranged the funeral, and who inserted his death notices in the Sydney Morning Herald,34 were as unaware of this provision of his Will as they were of the fact that he had excluded all but one of them from its list of beneficiaries. In any case, the funeral procession moved from Clarence House, Alma Street, Darlington, at 3 p.m. on Monday December 29th, 188435 bound for the new Waverley

[P.19] Cemetery where he was buried according to the rites of the Church of England. In due course the grave was surmounted by a monument, erected by his executors and paid for from part of the fund set aside in his Will for the upkeep of the Camperdown Cemetery tomb.36 On it was engraved the following memorial inscription:
Sacred to the memory of Thomas Fisher Esq. late of Alma Street, Darlington, South Sydney, who died 27 December 1884, aged 64 years. His munificent bequests are recorded in the annals of the Sydney University, School of Arts, and other charitable institutions.37

The Bequest

Probate of the Will was granted in April, 1885. The total value of the estate was in excess of £50,000.38 The executors were J. H. Clayton, Fisher's solicitor and a tenant above the Pitt Street shop, and Mark Spence, a Pitt Street draper and long-time friend.

Ellen Beattie, Fisher's housekeeper for the last decade of his life, was left Clarence House, the cottage next door (of which her father was the tenant), all the household furniture, and £100. She soon after married and the house passed through a number of hands until it was acquired by the University in the late 1960s. Regrettably, it was demolished about 1970 to make way for a science laboratory. The demolition failed to substantiate the theory held by one branch of the family that “thousands of pounds in gold and silver coins” were hidden in the house.39

Seven charitable institutions were named to share £1,000 — Randwick Destitute Children's Asylum, N.S.W. Institution for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind, the Hospital for Sick Children, Sydney Infirmary, the Benevolent Asylum, Prince Alfred Hospital, and the Mechanics' School of Arts. The executors were instructed to invest £200 and to use the income to maintain his tomb in good condition, and “to erect to my memory at such expense as shall be usual or necessary a

[P.20] Tablet of Marble in Saint James Church King Street Sydney with a suitable inscription thereon.” It has already been noted that the fund to maintain the family tomb in Camperdown Cemetery was diverted to erect a memorial in Waverley Cemetery. The hoped-for memorial in St. James's Church was never erected. The Minister and churchwardens refused permission for unstated reasons40 though it may be inferred that, in an era when a convict connection was not spoken of in polite society, they may have been reluctant to memorialise a man, both of whose parents were convicts.

Fisher's Will must have dealt a severe blow to his relatives. Those who were not excluded entirely received very small sums, much less than they might have been expecting from the estate of their rich brother and uncle who lacked such obvious heirs as a wife and children. Mary Ann, his surviving sister, was excluded, as were her two daughters. This may have been because all three had husbands to support them, but there is family speculation that Fisher disliked Mary Ann's second husband, John Chevasse. Fisher's eldest sister, Jemima, was dead, but she had four children living. One of them, Thomas Clarkson, a shoemaker and formerly apprenticed to his uncle, received £300, but the others were ignored.

There is a persistent family story that Jemima's youngest child Sarah, brought up by Thomas Fisher and his sister after her mother's death, was intended to be his principal beneficiary. However, she had displeased him, it is said, by marrying James Spratt, a man of whom her uncle strongly disapproved. The reason for this disapproval is not clear, but Sarah and James Spratt's descendants are in no doubt that an antipathy existed between the two men and that this was the reason for Sarah's exclusion from the Will. Instead Fisher established a trust fund of £2,000 for her children, payable when they turned 21 or married. Between 1886 and 1904, seven sons and three daughters successively applied to the executors for the money due to them, each receiving between £250 and £400.41 It is interesting that one was named Thomas Fisher Spratt and another Sarah Fisher Spratt after

[P.21] the aunt and uncle who had stood in loco parentis to their mother for so long.

In the final section of his Will, Thomas Fisher directed his executors:

To pay all the balance or final residue of my said Trust Estate unto the Treasurer or other officer for the time being entitled to receive the same of the University of Sydney to be applied and expended by the Senate for the time being of the said University in establishing and maintaining a Library for the use of the said University for which purpose they may erect a building and may purchase books and do anything which may be thought desirable for effectuating the objects aforesaid.42

The University was informed of this bequest in the early months of 1885, probably in April when probate was granted by the Supreme Court. It was apparently first mentioned at the Senate meeting on April 20th,43 and when the announcement was made at the annual Commemoration of Benefactors in May, it was greeted with cheers from the assembly.44

In June the University Senate received a petition from two of Fisher's nephews, William and Henry Clarkson,

“setting forth that they believed their names to have been accidentally omitted from Mr. Thos. Fisher's will, and that they were in poor circumstances having large families depending on each of them, and praying the Senate to take their case into favourable consideration.”

The Registrar was instructed “to inform the Messrs Clarkson that it is not in the power of the Senate . . . to entertain their application.”45

Some members of the family, at least, resented the way they had been treated, and the wounds were slow to heal. Forty years later this resentment was still evident. Herbert Spratt, even though he had received £258 in 1891, on his twenty-first birthday, as his share in the trust fund bequeathed to the children of Fisher's niece, Sarah Spratt, wrote in bitter

[P.22] terms to the then Librarian, H. M. Green, who had asked him for information about his celebrated great-uncle:
“It is 39 years since my uncle died, and records of him cannot be given. I remember him very well . . . The money left to the University at the time should have been given to his sisters and relations; for Mr. Fisher was never in a University in his life; and just petty spite on his part leaving it away from his family after his friendly relations with them when he lived.”46

When probate of the Will was granted the executors set about the not inconsiderable task of realising on Fisher's various properties and mortgages. He owned property in Darlinghurst, Darlington, Botany, Balmain, the North Shore, and elsewhere; all of this was sold during 1885. The Darlinghurst properties were the most valuable, comprising twenty buildings centred on the north-west corner of Palmer and Burton Streets, a choice location just a stone's throw from Oxford Street and Taylor Square. The sale of this so-called “Fisher Estate” realised £7,800 at auction.47 Proceeds from these and other sales, and a total of 53 mortgages worth nearly £25,000 were handed over to the University during 1885 and 1886.48

The Senate, in its Annual Report for 1885, announced

“with much satisfaction a munificent benefaction, consisting of property expected to amount to about £30,000, bequeathed to the University by the late Mr. Thomas Fisher of Sydney. . . . Of the amount bequeathed, a considerable portion had been handed over to the University prior to the 31st of December in the form of subsisting securities for money.”49

So far as can be ascertained the amount actually received by the University was £32,212/12/0.50 At present values this may be approximately equated with $2,500,000.51

The mortgages were gradually called in as they fell due, though some borrowers who were unsuccessful in their applications for renewal of their loans appear to have had difficulty in making repayment. One such was Captain Beattie of the Tom Fisher, who defaulted on the £1,200 owing to his former neighbour and landlord and lost his ship. The Tom Fisher was subsequently sold by the University for £600, only half its apparent worth.52


While these details were being attended to by the University's accountant and solicitors the Senate was giving considerable thought to the best way of utilising the Fisher bequest for the benefit of the library. In his Commemoration Day address in 1885, after the bequest had been announced to the public, the Chancellor, Sir William Manning, had offered as his opinion that it

“will probably suffice for a handsome and well-designed Library Building, and for a partial endowment of the librarian's office. As regards books, my conviction is very confident that, with a suitable building and a good librarian, they will so assuredly follow as to dispense with any appropriation for them out of this fund.”53

A contrary view was held by the Vice-Chancellor and the Library Committee, who desired at least part of the bequest to be reserved for the purchase of books. In August, 1887, the Senate resolved, on the motion of the Vice-Chancellor, that “pending the final decision of the Senate as to the mode of employing the Fisher Fund” the annual income be used for purchase and binding of books and periodicals.54

The final decision proved difficult to reach. Manning persisted in his view that £20,000 “be applied in the erection of a Library Building at and for the University; such building to be designated ‘The Fisher Library’ ”, that £10,000 be used “for the endowment of a Librarianship for the University”, and that any excess be spent on books.55 In February of 1888, the Senate resolved to devote £20,000 to a building, but also to ask the State government to provide a corresponding amount “for the erection of buildings annexed to the Library, comprising Reading Rooms and Common Rooms for students, Residences for the Librarian and Registrar, a small Museum for the Nicholson antiquities, and additional Lecture Rooms, together with a Refectory for Students and other conveniences.”56

At the same meeting the Chancellor also moved that £10,000 be used as an endowment for the Librarianship, but Theodore Gurney, the Professor of Mathematics, moved an amendment that this sum be “a perpetual endowment fund

[P.24] for keeping up and adding to the Library”. The amendment was carried 6:5, the Chancellor abstaining.57 At the Commemoration ceremony two months later, Manning referred to this vote as having been taken “under peculiar circumstances” and gave as his reason for favouring an endowment for the Librarianship that it would be
“better adapted to keep Mr. Fisher's name in remembrance, as he certainly had himself hoped, than the purchase of books which would necessarily be mixed indiscriminately with the rest of our collection.”58

The matter came to a head in March of 1889. The Chancellor moved rescission of the resolution that the £10,000 should be a general endowment and that the Senate consider again using it for the endowment of the Librarianship. His motion was lost “after considerable discussion”59 and the decision of 1888 was therefore confirmed — £20,000 for a building, with the government being asked to contribute a similar sum for ancillary buildings, and £10,000 as a perpetual bookfund.

It did not prove easy to persuade the government to contribute a matching sum for buildings and negotiations dragged on for more than a decade. It is obvious from the regular mention of this matter in the Commemoration Day addresses that the Senate felt considerable embarrassment at what might appear to be its dilatoriness in carrying out the wishes of one of its most generous benefactors. In 1890, however, it was finally agreed that the government would meet the entire cost (estimated at £67,500) of erecting a library building, including space for a museum and other facilities. The building, named the Fisher Library, was opened in 1909, the Chancellor Sir Normand MacLaurin proclaiming:

“May it continue for ever as the source of light and learning to the inhabitants of Australia. This generation will soon pass away but the torch of learning will be handed down by the influence of this great library to generation after generation of Australian scholars.”60

[P.25] Image Link Photograph on page 25: The Original Fisher Library, opened 1909.

[P.26] Image Link Ink Drawing on page 26 by Allan Gamble 1968: Clarence House, Darlington, Fisher's home for the last decade of his life.

[P.27] Within fifty years, the Fisher Library was no longer adequate for its purpose and in 1963 a new building was opened and the name Fisher Library transferred to it, thus nicely maintaining the link between Thomas Fisher and the University Library.

By agreeing to meet the full cost of the erection of the first Fisher Library, the State government enabled the University to retain the Fisher bequest in its entirety for the purchase of books and periodicals. In fact, pressing financial problems besetting the University forced diversion of at least part of the income of the fund to pay library staff salaries from 1893 until at least 1937.61 Income from the Fisher Fund is now reserved for special purchases of library materials which cannot be afforded from the library's normal allocation within the University's annual budget.

In announcing the completion of the Fisher Library building to the Commemoration Day audience in 1910, the Chancellor, Sir Normand MacLaurin, exclaimed

“All honour be given to Mr. Fisher's memory; may his excellent example be followed by many other patriotic citizens; For what greater merit can there be than that of aiding in the instruction of future generations, and contributing to the highest intellectual welfare of those who shall in their turn represent this great colony in all that leads to the elevation of our race?”62

Thomas Fisher contributed more than he realised to the University of Sydney and to Australian scholarship generally when he decided to devote his fortune to the establishment and maintenance of the University Library. Convicts' son, bootmaker, and investor, his name is known and respected a century after his death. May it always be so.



1 Parish registers, All Saints Church of England, Kemble.
2 Public Record Office, Assizes 25/1 Indictments, Western Circuit 1801-2; Assizes 23/9 Gaol Book, Western Circuit 1799–1812; Assizes 24/27 Transportation Order Book, Western Circuit 1789–1804.
3 Hassall's Day Sales Book, Parramatta, 1803–4, pp. 36-7. (Mitchell Library Mss A861.)
4 Sydney Gazette 20 October 1810.
5 Public Record Office. Assizes 35/249 Indictments, South-Eastern Circuit, 1809.
6 Registers of Births, Deaths and Marriages, St. John's Church, Parramatta. (Mitchell Library A4381.)
7 T. D. Mutch Index (Mitchell Library) for details of births of Jemima, Mary Ann and Sarah Fisher.
8 Petitions for Wine and Spirit Licences 1819–20. (Mitchell Library A764.)
9 Sydney Gazette 5 June 1819.
10 N.S.W. Registrar-General. Records of Baptisms.
11 Census of New South Wales, November 1828. Ed. M. R. Sainty and K. A. Johnson. (Sydney, Library of Australian History, 1980.)
12 John Fisher's age is uncertain. He was baptised in April, 1755 and assuming he was born in late 1754 or early 1755, he would have been 77 when he died in May, 1832. However, his death certificate and tombstone both give his age as 99. Also, in the 1828 Census his age is given as 82, although he was apparently only 73. The death certificate, tombstone and census must be in error, and it is quite possible that, in later life, he had forgotten the year of his birth. If he was 99 at the time of his death, he would have fathered his son at age 86: not impossible, but certainly unlikely.
13 Will of John Fisher, No. 759, Series 1, Probate Office, Supreme Court of N.S.W.
14 Their tombstone is now in Botany Cemetery, having been moved there with others when the Devonshire Street Cemetery was redeveloped.
15 Bank of N.S.W. Signature Book. (Bank's Archives.)
16 City directories for 1843–1873 list him as occupying these premises, variously numbered 310 and 176 Pitt Street, as a bootmaker, boot and shoe maker, and boot and shoe warehouse.
17 Fowles, J. Sydney in 1848 (Sydney, 1848), plate opp. p. 41.
18 Thomas Fisher, Death Certificate.
19 This description appears on his receipts. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
20 Recently renamed, respectively, Maze Crescent and Butlin Avenue.
21 From account books in the Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.
22 T. W. Henley, “The Fisher Library”, Daily Telegraph, 27 June 1925, p. 10. R. A. Thompson, letter to the Editor, Daily Telegraph, 1 July 1925, p. 8.
23 Barff, H. E. A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1902), p. 126.

[P.29] 24 Stenhouse was for many years president of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts of which Fisher was undoubtedly a member. The School of Arts was in Pitt Street, about one block from his residence and it was a beneficiary in his Will. He may also have known Stenhouse, a prominent solicitor, through the other solicitors who occupied the first floor of 176 Pitt Street.
25 A persistent family story has it that his niece Sarah Clarkson Spratt had long been his intended beneficiary, but there is no record of any Will having been made in her favour.
26 W. M. Manning, Chancellor's Address, University of Sydney Commemoration, Saturday 19 July 1879, pp. 4–5.
27 H. Bryan, “An Australian University Library in the A.M.: Earlier Years of the University of Sydney Library”. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 55 (3), September 1969, p. 210.
28 Will of Thomas Fisher, 29 October 1880. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
29 University of Sydney. Minutes of Senate meeting 1 October 1884.
30 Ibid., 10 December 1884.
31 Mortgage document and bill of sale, University of Sydney Archives.
32 A persistent family story has it that he was knocked down and severely injured by a hansom cab (or a tram) while on his way to (or from) church. No news reports of such an accident have been found, and death was from Bright's Disease, not injury. It is possible that he collapsed while walking or being driven and was taken to hospital.
33 Thomas Fisher, Death Certificate.
34 Death notice, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 and 17 January 1885.
35 Funeral notice, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 1884.
36 University of Sydney. Minutes of Senate meeting 19 July 1886. Letter, H. E. Barff to J. H. Clayton, 22 July 1886. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
37 Waverley Cemetery, Sec. 2, Grave 175. The grave and monument were restored by the University in 1984 to mark the centenary of his death.
38 Probate document. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
39 “Gold Hoard May Lie in Old House, Mystery of £100,000.” Sunday Telegraph, 7 September 1952, p. 11.
40 Letter, Sydney Church of England Diocesan Registry to J. H. Clayton, 19 August 1886. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.) Recent enquiries to the church and the Diocesan Archives have failed to elicit any relevant information.
41 Releases. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
42 Will of Thomas Fisher, 29 October 1880. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
43 Sydney Morning Herald, 25 April 1885, p. 8.
44 Town and Country Journal, 9 May 1885, p. 955.
45 University of Sydney, Minutes of Senate meeting 1 June 1885.
46 Letter, Herbert Spratt to H. M. Green, 14 August 1923. (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
47 Letters and other documents in the Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.

[P.30] 48 List of Mortgages of Estate of Thomas Fisher, 16 April 1885, signed by Mark Spence (co-executor). (Fisher Papers, University of Sydney Archives.)
49 “Report of the Senate of the University for the Year Ended 31st December 1885”, University of Sydney Calendar, 1886, pp. 300–01.
50 “Receipts and Expenditure of the University of Sydney for the Year Ended 31st December, 1886”, University of Sydney Calendar, 1887, pp. 314–17.
51 I am grateful to Mr. D. R. V. Wood for making this calculation.
52 University of Sydney, Minutes of Senate meetings 6 December 1886 and 7 February 1887.
53 W. M. Manning. Chancellor's Address, University Commemoration, University of Sydney, 2 May 1885, p. 6.
54 University of Sydney. Minutes of Senate meeting 15 August 1887.
55 Ibid., 2 August 1887.
56 Ibid., 20 February 1888.
57 Ibid.
58 W. M. Manning. Chancellor's Address, University Commemoration, 14 April 1888, p. 18.
59 University of Sydney. Minutes of Senate meeting 4 March 1889.
60 Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1909, p. 7.
61 Bryan, op. cit., p. 211. In his evidence before the N.S.W. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1900, H. E. Barff, Registrar of the University, revealed that the librarian and two assistants had been paid from the Fisher Fund since 1893. (N.S.W. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works. Report Relating to the Proposed Library Within the University Grounds, pp. 556–57. In N.S.W. Legislative Assembly, Votes and Proceedings, 1900, vol. 4.)
62 H. N. MacLaurin. Typescript of Chancellor's Address, 1910, p. 3. (Fisher Library.)