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James Cowley Morgan Fisher (1832–1913)

by James Griffin

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James Cowley Morgan Fisher (1832-1913), farmer and missioner, was born in Bristol, England, son of Robert Fisher, magistrate, and his wife Sarah, née Cowley. At 14 he ran away to sea; later he was described as utterly illiterate but not unintelligent. He deserted the Esperanza for the goldfields in 1852, soon became a carter and labourer and then settled in Nunawading, near Melbourne, as a charcoal burner. In 1853 at Prahran he married Caroline Chamberlain; they had two sons before she died in August 1855. At Christ Church, Hawthorn, on 8 June 1858 Fisher married Emma Pickis Kefford, aged 18; they had four sons and four daughters.

His mother-in-law, Rhoda Harriet Kefford, had earlier founded the 'New Church of the First-Born' on Swedenborg's principle. By 1863 Fisher had become its leader after ousting a peculating leader; reputedly he also tried to succeed John Wroe, evangelist of the Christian Israelites. Fisher taught the imminence of the millennium, the restoration of Israel and the ingathering of the dispersed ten tribes by the spirit of God. His rival testified to his 'strong electrobiological power' in faith-healing but credited his successes more to luck than ability. On moonlight nights he led his followers through the country-side banging tins to exorcise the devil. He had about one hundred disciples who came from Nunawading, Prahran, Richmond and Ballarat. Lamenting the spread of superstition to Australia, the Age declared that they were not 'ignorant clodhoppers' but 'sober, decent, highly respectable' albeit 'of a certain grim countenance'.

The 'Nunawading Messiah' would have remained obscure if one of his closest followers, Andrew Wilson, had not prosecuted him in 1871 for obtaining money by falsely representing himself as the messiah. The law suit failed but was a harvest for the press and the Melbourne waxworks, because Fisher was alleged to practice polygamy. He denied that he had been 'anything more than a preacher of the Gospel according to the law and testimony'. He hired the Haymarket Theatre in Melbourne on 30 July to justify himself but the meeting ended in hubbub. Yet the débâcle did not affect Fisher's standing at Nunawading where he served on school and roads boards.

By 1900 the Fisherites had drifted back to obscurity. Many of them went to the Western Australian goldfields and then settled at Wickepin where they selected over 20,000 acres (8094 ha). Fisher joined them in 1904, built a church and preached regularly. In 1910 he married Ruth Mahala Rentil. After a head injury he became 'a bit queer'. He died aged 81 on 20 January 1913. The Wickepin settlement was an agricultural success and although the sect had died out by the 1930s many Fisherite descendants were still on their holdings.

Recent research has cast doubt on Fisher’s true identity, suggesting that he was born on 27 November 1831 at Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, fifth son of James Cowley and his wife Sarah, née Morgan. After migrating with his family to Adelaide in 1840, he married Louisa Phillips on 20 July 1850. Later that year, he was convicted of uttering forged checks and transported to Van Diemen’s Land, absconding on 6 October 1852 and escaping to Melbourne on the Esperanza. There he assumed the surname Fisher (that of his paternal grandmother), later adding the forename Morgan. Although still married to Louisa, he wed Caroline Chamberlain on 7 July 1853.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, The Mormons and the Silver Mines (Lond, 1872)
  • I. Southall, A Tale of Box Hill (Box Hill, 1957)
  • D. Duke, ‘The Nunawading Messiah’, Papers Read Before the Box Hill City Historical Society, vol 1, 1964-68, pp 64-69
  • Age (Melbourne), 19, 20, 26, 28 June, 6, 10, 12, 26, 28, 31 July, 3 Aug, 27, 28 Sept 1871, 10, 17, 24 June, 1 July 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10, 29, 30 July 1871
  • Illustrated Australian News, 12 Aug 1871
  • Metcalf, William J. and Guy Featherstone. ‘A Messiah for the West: J.C.M. Fisher and the Church of the Firstborn in Western Australia.’ Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 8, 2007, 117-136

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Fisher, James Cowley Morgan (1832–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cowley, James

Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


20 January, 1913 (aged ~ 81)
Winkepin, Western Australia, Australia

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