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Fisher, Sir James Hurtle (1790–1875)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

James Hurtle Fisher (1790-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

James Hurtle Fisher (1790-1875), by unknown photographer, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3346

Sir James Hurtle Fisher (1790-1875), lawyer and commissioner, was born at Sunbury, Middlesex, England, the eldest son of James Fisher, of Green Street, London, architect, and Henrietta Harriet, second daughter of Henry Knapp, rector of Stoke Albury, Northamptonshire. He was articled to the London solicitors, Brown & Gotobed, and admitted to practice in July 1811. On 5 October 1813 he married Elizabeth Johnson. In 1816 he commenced practice as a solicitor in London.

Drawn into the colonizing movement in 1835, Fisher became a member of the South Australian Building Committee in September, and in November was selected as resident commissioner, one of the most important offices under the South Australian Act (4 & 5 Wm IV, c. 95). On 13 July 1836 he was formally appointed registrar, and next day resident commissioner. The Colonization Commission delegated to him powers to dispose of the public lands in the province, the proceeds from the sale of which were to finance emigration. Fisher was thus second only to the governor, but his instructions stressed the 'entire separation which is made by the Act between the functions of the Government officers and those charged with the disposal of land and the arrangement of emigrants'. Fisher was also asked by Colonel Robert Torrens to 'prepare drafts of Colonial Acts for establishing a Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages, and for facilitating the transfer of real property'. In 1836 the commissioners published his Sketch of Three Colonial Acts, Suggested for Adoption in the New Province of South Australia, With a View to Ensure the Most Perfect Security of Title to Property, to Simplify and Facilitate the Mode and Moderate the Expense of its Transfer. These Acts were not passed, however, for it was claimed that the chief justice of South Australia, Sir John Jeffcott, opposed their adoption.

Accompanied by his family, Fisher left England in July 1836 with the governor's party in the Buffalo, arriving on 28 December 1836 at Holdfast Bay, where the official oaths were administered, a proclamation was read and a ceremony marked the beginning of settlement. In January 1837 Fisher erected his reed hut and Land Office near the survey camp of Colonel William Light at the north-western corner of the new capital site; the destruction of these temporary buildings by fire on 23 January 1839 caused both men serious loss. Fisher had been allowed to draft his own instructions, which were not shown to Governor (Sir) John Hindmarsh. Disputes between the two men over their respective powers had begun on the voyage and were soon revived in the new Council of Government, and more violently outside, and led in February 1837 to the Resident Magistrate's Court binding the participants over to keep the peace towards each other. Further dissension arose over the site for the capital city, and over the slow progress of the survey. By March advance of the survey enabled Fisher to summon the holders of land orders to a general meeting to select their town acres by lot; two weeks later the remaining town lands were auctioned. In April further controversy arose from the encroachment by the governor's garden on public land. Next month Hindmarsh was openly critical of Fisher in his dispatches to the Colonial Office, and Fisher contemplated resignation from the council. On 29 July 1837 an anonymous letter criticizing Fisher appeared in the South Australian Gazette and Colonial Register; with his supporters he signed an address, printed as a broadside, claiming that the editor had scarcely alluded to the 'great and leading principles of the Colony', and proposing that a second newspaper be established. At a later meeting Fisher replied to the criticism. In August Hindmarsh suspended Robert Gouger from his office of colonial secretary, contrary to the opinion of the majority of council. John Brown, who was the commission's servant and not subject to Hindmarsh's control, was suspended on 11 September. Next day Fisher issued a handbill stating that Brown still held office; a month later Hindmarsh issued a printed proclamation denying authority to Fisher's handbill, and warning loyal subjects against disobedience. Accusations and counter-charges continued, with both sides appealing to London. By March 1838 little co-operation was possible between the two principal officers of the colonial government. Hindmarsh was recalled and left Adelaide in July. Meanwhile in London Torrens had suggested to Glenelg that what he called the 'evils of divided and undefined authority' be ended. The new governor, George Gawler, was appointed both governor and resident commissioner, a radical departure from the principles on which the colony had been founded and landowners had purchased their holdings. On Governor Gawler's arrival in October 1838 Fisher ceased to act as resident commissioner, although he claimed to have counsel's opinion that his tenure was for life. He returned to his profession, and became a leader of the South Australian Bar. His most popular triumph was in 1848 when as counsel for the defendant he won the mineral royalty case before the Supreme Court. He also published two scholarly works: in 1843, an annotated edition of the Acts of Council, and in 1858, The Real Property Act … with Analytical and Critical Notes.

Fisher's political activity was long and distinguished. In October 1840 he was elected first mayor of Adelaide, and held the office again in 1852-54. He was elected a member of the Legislative Council in 1853, became speaker in 1855-56 and president from 1857 to 1865 when he retired from politics. He was also much in demand for public functions. In February 1843 he laid the foundation stone of the first monument to Colonel Light in Light Square. In March 1851 he chaired the Old Colonists' Festival Dinner to commemorate the first sale of Adelaide town land, and at another well-attended dinner in his honour at the Freemasons' Tavern, he was given a presentation. In 1857 he presided at the banquet after a plaque was affixed to the 'Old Gum Tree' at Glenelg, where he had landed with the first governor in 1836. In 1860 he was made K.B., the first resident South Australian to be knighted. He died at Adelaide on 28 January 1875, predeceased by his wife but survived by four sons and four daughters.

Fisher was one of the most important pioneers of South Australia. He was also associated with many public movements, being one of the first trustees of Trinity Church, where there is a memorial plaque, chairman of the bench of Magistrates, a founder of the Collegiate School of St Peter, chairman of the meeting to found the Savings Bank, and a president of the South Australian Jockey Club. His portraits are in the possession of Parliament House, and family members.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Morphett, Sir James Hurtle Fisher (Adel, 1955)
  • City of Adelaide, Report on the Purchase of the Adelaide Park Lands, 1885 (Adel, 1885).

Citation details

'Fisher, Sir James Hurtle (1790–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fisher-sir-james-hurtle-2045/text2531, published in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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