Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Fisher (1820–1884)

by Nancy Gray

This article was published:

Thomas Fisher (1820-1884), businessman and benefactor, was born on 23 January 1820 at Brickfield Hill, Sydney, the only son and youngest child of John Fisher and his wife Jemima, née Bolton. His father arrived in New South Wales in the Perseus in 1802 as a convict and became the first professional jockey recorded in the colony; his mother, a convict, arrived in the Canada on 8 September 1810 and was promptly appointed government housekeeper at Parramatta; she retired when her husband was granted a free pardon in 1814.

In 1832 when his parents died almost penniless, Thomas was at Sydney Public School and two of his three sisters were in service. He was soon apprenticed to a bootmaker and apparently set himself the goal of financial security. He opened an account with the Bank of New South Wales in 1842 and next year was the owner of a three-storied building near the corner of King and Pitt Streets, Sydney; his bootshop occupied the ground floor, he and his sister Sarah lived in the attic rooms, and the first floor was let as legal chambers. For the next forty years his tenants were the solicitors George Robert Nichols, John Williams and Richard Driver, whose influence extending beyond their active work in local government and parliament, was significant in the establishment of a strong and vociferous 'Native Party'.

Probably advised by his well-informed tenants, Fisher began the second phase of his business career in 1857 by buying small cottages and allotments and lending money on the security of property. Fifteen years later the bootmaker's shop had become a warehouse, and his financial interests ranged from trading ships to suburban hotels. He took no recorded part in public affairs and his only known acts of benevolence were the provision of hot meals for the slum-dwellers in near-by Brougham Place and the maintenance and education of the orphaned children of one of his sisters. When his sister and housekeeper died in 1870 and his own health began to fail, he retired to Darlington. There he walked regularly in the grounds of the University of Sydney and attended Commemoration Day functions, which were open to the public, but remained an unobtrusive, almost anonymous figure.

In the Commemoration Day address in 1879 the chancellor, Sir William Manning, stressed the need for a university library and envisioned the day 'when one of our men of great wealth and equal public spirit will … earn the gratitude of their country by erecting for the University a library worthy of comparison with like edifices at home'. Next year Fisher made his will in which, after minor bequests, he directed that £1000 be shared among Sydney's major hospitals and asylums and the Sydney School of Arts, and that the residue of his estate, some £33,000, be paid to the University of Sydney 'to found a library'. Fisher died in Sydney Hospital on 27 December 1884 and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His benefaction, the largest till then received by the university, was used entirely for the acquisition of books. The library building, erected from funds provided by the colonial government, was opened in 1909 and in his honour named the Fisher Library.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Barff, A Short Historical Account of the University of Sydney: In Connection with the Jubilee Celebrations, 1852-1902 (Syd, 1902)
  • H. Bryan, ‘An Australian Library in the A.M.: Earlier Years of the University of Sydney Library’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 55, part 3, Sept 1969, pp 205-27
  • Sydney Gazette, 13, 21 Oct 1810
  • Thomas Fisher papers (University of Sydney Library).

Citation details

Nancy Gray, 'Fisher, Thomas (1820–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 April 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]


23 January, 1820
Brickfield Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


27 December, 1884 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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