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Mrs Elizabeth Fisher was Mayoress of the City of Adelaide from 1840-1842, and again from 1852-1854.

Early Life

Elizabeth Ann Johnson was born to parents Elizabeth and James, of London, on 16 August 1793. When Elizabeth married solicitor, James Hurtle Fisher, on 5 October 1813, in the parish of St. Marylebone in Westminster, Middlesex, she could not have dreamed that 23 years later she would leave her home, bound for the other side of the world — never to return. Elizabeth would one day become the City of Adelaide’s first mayoress, and her husband would be recognised as one of the most significant figures in the European settlement of South Australia.

In 1804 James was articled to a firm of London solicitors, Brown and Gotobed. Later he commenced his own practice at York Buildings in New Road, London. On 14 July 1836, James was appointed Resident Commissioner of the new colony in the proclaimed province of South Australia. It is not known how Elizabeth felt about this, but it is clear her husband was thrilled. According to great-grandson, George Cummins Morphett, James’ sister-in-law Susannah Fisher noted in her diary,

James Fisher ... elated at the prospect of settling in a promising part of Australia where a new settlement is about to be formed

and,

The prospects of all whose prospects are not very bright here are turned towards this new world.

Journey to South Australia

On 22 July 1836 Elizabeth and James, their five sons and three daughters: Elizabeth, known to all as Bessey; James; Charles Brown; Frances Lucy, otherwise known as Fanny; George William Taylor; Marianne; William Dundas; and Hurtle Eyles, said goodbye to England. Their transport, HMS Buffalo, was under the command of Captain John Hindmarsh, soon to be the new province’s inaugural governor.

It was to be a very trying voyage. On 13 September, George Stevenson – private secretary to Hindmarsh – wrote:

The ship continues to be made a carpenter’s shop, – hot-houses, dog-houses, and other sorts of houses for the Captain are in progress, and there is from morning till night such a complication of noises, hammering, sawing, planing, that the Ladies & passengers and Emigrants generally suffer dreadfully from these various annoyances. Little regard indeed is paid to their comfort at any time: poor Mrs Fisher has the carpenter’s shop precisely over her bed.

By now Elizabeth was approaching 44 years of age — and pregnant again. It does not bear imagining how she coped.

After a five-month journey, on Saturday 24 December 1836 the Buffalo – the ninth ship to arrive in South Australia that year – finally drew anchor at Port Lincoln, Hindmarsh’s favoured location for the colony. There they found the Cygnet waiting for them, and together the ships sailed on to Holdfast Bay, anchoring on the morning of 28 December.

In a letter to her aunt back in England, eldest daughter Bessey described the day:

We left the Buffalo at one o’clock, and upon arrival on shore, we were met by some of the ladies and gentlemen already there. All the officers of the ship also attended in full uniform. We first proceeded to the Colonial Secretary’s hut, and as soon as all the gentlemen were assembled, the ladies adjourned to another hut belonging to Mr Brown, the Emigration Agent, and remained there until the Governor had taken the oath of allegiance. When that ceremony was over we again joined the gentlemen, and Mr. Stevenson, His Excellency’s Secretary, read the Proclamation aloud, after which a party of marines from the ‘Buffalo’ fired a feu-de-joie, and we proceeded to where a cold collation had been prepared under a large gum tree. Numerous speeches were made and healths drunk.

But with the temperature soon hovering around 40 degrees Celsius, and now well advanced in her pregnancy, Elizabeth chose to remain on board with her younger children.

Life in South Australia

The first work for the Fisher sons was to build a reed hut for their mother. The hut was situated near the corner of North and West terraces. On 1 February it was finally ready, and Elizabeth – now eight months pregnant – at last disembarked from the ship which had been her home for six and a half months. Daughter Fanny wrote that her mother was transported to Adelaide on a mattress on the back of ‘some kind of truck’, which was drawn by a white pony belonging to future son-in-law John Morphett — it was the only horse available.

On 2 March 1837 baby Emily Ann was born. Emily’s christening, on 21 July 1838, was one of the first baptisms held in the newly built Trinity Church on North Terrace.

In June 1837, Charles Fisher wrote to family in England that they 'had managed to procure a small tent, which Pater and I occupy, and employed our time in erecting a hut of reeds for Mamma and the rest of them to inhabit while our wooden house is finished, which we are building.’ This wooden structure was to be used as Fisher’s office. The family was ‘now comfortably lodged in our reed hut for this winter’, but, ‘to call it winter it is ridiculous, for it is impossible for anyone to distinguish it from summer, for it rains very hard one day and the sun comes out the next’.

Friday 1 January 1838, was not only the first day of the new year, but ‘a great sensation’, when the first racing carnival was held in Adelaide. No doubt, Elizabeth was amongst the 800 enthusiasts who watched her husband’s horse ‘Black Jack’ win the first race, on a course ‘on the plain westward of Mr. Fisher’s residence’. Adelaide’s press boasted that ‘Booths for refreshments and dancing were erected, and every attention was paid to render the affair worthy of those fond of the sport …’

But one year later tragedy struck when, on 22 January 1839, the private residence of Surveyor-General Colonel William Light went up in flames, together with the Land Office, the Survey Office — and the Fisher family home. The fire started in the Fisher’s hut and the servants quickly raised the alarm, but within ten minutes the hut was a smouldering ruin. The family moved temporarily to Prospect Lodge on the western side of North Adelaide, but eventually they moved permanently to a brick house with a large garden and a stable on town acres seven and eight, facing North Terrace, west of Morphett Street and opposite Trinity Church — where they paid annual council rates of six pounds!

But all was not lost in the fire. A portrait of the Fisher children, painted in 1829, had been stored in a metal cylinder, and was rescued from the rubble unscathed. A copy can now be seen on the drawing room wall at Cummins House, Novar Gardens: home to five generations of the Morphett family.

Contributions/Achievements

In October 1840 James was elected first Mayor of Adelaide. He held the office again from 1852 to 1854. He was elected a member of the Legislative Council in 1853, became speaker in 1855, and president from 1857 until retiring from politics in 1865.

Although little was written of Elizabeth, no doubt she adapted to colonial life, providing a support to her husband, and attending the functions required of a woman of her position.

But we remember Elizabeth as one of the founding mothers of South Australia.

Personal Note

Aged 65, Elizabeth died suddenly on the morning of 2 July 1857. She had gone for a walk into ‘town’ the day before, and later that night said she was feeling ill. Her doctors concluded her death was due to ‘congestion of the lungs’ from having ventured out into the cold. According to the South Australian Register, Elizabeth ‘was not only respected and beloved by the numerous members of her own family, but by all who were honoured with her intimate acquaintance’. The governor and ‘numerous friends of the deceased’ attended Elizabeth’s funeral at Trinity Church, after which ‘The procession … went into the direction of the [West Terrace] Cemetery, for the conclusion of the mournful ceremony’. A memorial tablet to Elizabeth can be seen on the walls of Trinity Church.

According to daughter Fanny’s diary,

The day we first landed, John Morphett soon made himself known to Bessey and escorted her about. We had seen him at meetings at Adelphi Terrace before leaving England. 

On 15 August 1838, Bessey ‘walked from our bush hut in the parkland’ to Trinity Church, where she and John – later Sir John –  were married, combining two families whose political and civic contributions to South Australia cannot be underestimated. Bessey died at the age of 90 on 6 May 1905.

In 1851, Fanny wed John Vidal James, a pioneer settler of the Inman Valley and Willunga. The couple returned to England in 1855. But Fanny had been dressed as a bride once before, having been engaged six years earlier to widower and father of one, George Shipster Esquire, solicitor. Unfortunately, George died the weekend of the wedding. According to the Adelaide Observer, he ‘died, almost suddenly, at his country residence in Kensington’.

In 1851, son William married Sarah Melville, and moved to Melbourne. Eldest son James initially went into business with his brother, C.B., but eventually returned to England where he managed the family’s business affairs. Charles – or CB as he was known – was a prominent pastoralist. Brother George managed some of his properties. But in 1859, two years after the death of their mother, George and younger brother Hurtle were transporting racehorses to Melbourne on the steamer SS Admella when the ship was wrecked in a wild storm off the southern coast. Hurtle survived the tragedy, but sadly, George drowned. 

At the age of eighteen, the baby of the family, Emily Ann, married banker Joseph Palmer, before moving to Christchurch, New Zealand.

But their sister Marianne never married, and died at the age of 100, outliving all other immigrants who had arrived on the Buffalo. Marianne also has a memorial at Trinity Church. According to The Register her death, on 18 June 1927, marked ‘the State’s final severance from everything of flesh and blood that could connect it with the first chapter in its history’. Marianne always held a clear memory of the day, as a nearly 10-year-old, when she first stepped ashore at Holdfast Bay — indeed having to be carried ashore by the sailors.  ‘It was all such an event for an English child that I could never forget it.’ 

By Cheryl Williss, HerStory Project

The HerStory project came about to recognise and celebrate the lives and the achievements of Women’s work in South Australia and was initiated in 2015 on the 175th anniversary of the City of Adelaide, by Genevieve Theseira-Haese, Lady Mayoress of Adelaide. The stories collected offer a unique perspective of Adelaide and South Australia that form a different history to what is often heard. This community built initiative is supported by the City of Adelaide and the History Trust of South Australia.

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