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Fisher, Frederick

The following is reproduced from ‘Campbelltown - a bicentennial history’ with kind permission of the author, Dr. Carol Liston.

Frederick Fisher and his Ghost

In the history of Campbelltown one incident has captured the imagination of generations – the murder of Frederick Fisher and the appearance of his ghost. Five men were arrested. One was hanged. All including Fisher himself had arrived as convicts.

Frederick George James Fisher was born in London on 28 August 1792 a son of James (d1830) and Ann Fisher, London bookbinders and booksellers of Cripplegate and Greenwich. Of average height with a fair complexion and brown hair, by his early twenties Frederick Fisher was a shopkeeper, unmarried though possibly the father of two children. Fisher obtained possession of forged banknotes, either innocently through his work or deliberately to pass through his shop. He was arrested, tried at the Surrey Gaol Delivery on 26 July 1815 and sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation to Australia.

Fisher arrived in Sydney a year later, one of 187 convicts aboard the Atlas a schooner of 501 tons (511 tonnes) and was sent to Liverpool. He was probably assigned to John Wylde or his brother in law, J J Moore both of whom had land at Cabramatta and were senior legal officials. Frederick Fisher could read and write and Wylde’s father, the crown solicitor, recommended Fisher to the colonial administrator, T J Campbell, who attached Fisher to his staff. Literate men were rare and it was not unusual to have convict clerks. Campbell’s office was an ideal situation to learn about the colony. Within two years Fisher was assigned as superintendent to the Waterloo Flour Company. This company under William Hutchinson, Samuel Terry and Daniel Cooper, was owned and managed by ex-convicts. Through its manufacturing activities, its commercial ventures and its mortgaging power, the Waterloo Company was the most influential and dynamic enterprise in colonial New South Wales. It provided Frederick Fisher with valuable contacts. 83

In 1818, within two years of his arrival, Fisher and two partners, George Duncan and John Walker, launched a public company to manufacture paper. Duncan had the technical knowledge, Walker would provide the raw materials and Fisher would be manager and salesman. To raise capital for machinery they sold shares to fifteen merchants, including Campbelltown residents Robert Jenkins, Richard Brooks and Thomas Rose. By June 1818 they were established with a waterwheel operating the millstones on John Hutchinson’s land. Hutchinson, the colony’s ‘mad scientist’, was always ready with a scheme for scientific experiment and fantastic machines. With Simeon Lord, he had already tried unsuccessfully to make glass and cloth and was experimenting with paint, paper and dyes. Macquarie considered the genius of Hutchinson to be ‘unsteady’.

Hutchinson was a troublesome landlord and Fisher appealed to Macquarie to stop Hutchinson from diverting water from his mill. In July 1818 four Sydney magistrates, all shareholders in Fisher’s company, ordered Hutchinson to give Fisher use of the premises for six months rent free as recompense for his interference. The paper making venture did not prosper and Thomas Clarkson of Eagle Vale, Campbelltown and Sydney probably bought the mill in 1820. 84

Fisher returned to work for J T Campbell this time as managing clerk in the Provost-Marshal’s office to which Campbell had been appointed in 1819. The Provost-Marshal was the chief sheriff of the court, responsible for prisoners before trial, executions, sale of goods for debts and bail applications. It was probably here that Fisher acquired the forged pardon later found among his possessions. Fisher’s next position on the recommendation of solicitor James Norton was as quit rent clerk in the surveyor-general’s department. Meehan had been put in charge of quit rent collections in 1814, but had been too busy with his exploration and survey work to collect them. His application to retire was delayed until the backlog of paperwork was cleared. Meehan needed an extra clerk – Frederick Fisher. 85

In 1822 Fisher had served half his sentence and applied for a ticket of leave and permission to rent or purchase a small farm at Newcastle as he had 300 pounds to invest. He received a ticket of leave but turned south to Campbelltown. By 1825 when he applied unsuccessfully for a conditional pardon, Fisher owned four farms – 50 acres (20 ha) at Cabramatta; 30 acres (12 ha) at Appin; 53 acres (21 ha) on the Nepean River at Upper Minto, all under cultivation and 32 acres (13 ha) adjoining Campbelltown with stone and brick buildings worth 800 pound. The land at Campbelltown lay between the main road and Bow Bowing Creek and was part of Joseph Phelps 140 acre (56 ha) grant issued in 1816 but occupied by Phelps as early as 1813. Phelps sold 30 acres (12 ha) to Thomas Clarkson of Eagle Vale who mortgaged it to Daniel Cooper. Cooper foreclosed and sold the farm to his former employee, Frederick Fisher, retaining an 80 pound mortgage over the farm. Fisher prospered at Campbelltown. In December 1824 he tendered to supply wheat to the government at Liverpool, the only person from the Campbelltown area to do so. 86

Fisher turned his attention to speculative building in Campbelltown. His first venture was the Horse and Jockey Inn, built in mid 1825 for Fisher by local carpenter William Brooker. Brooker disputed payment and took his claim to the magistrates who found in his favour. When Brooker, not quite sober called at the inn in late 1825 to demand his money, Fisher pulled a knife. Brooker was not badly hurt but all assumed that Fisher would face a lengthy gaol term. Fisher was concerned less about himself than his property – his land, houses, horses, pigs and wheat and gave a power of attorney to his neighbour to manage his affairs during his imprisonment.

Fisher’s neighbour was William George Worall who had arrived on the Marquis of Wellington with a life sentence in 1815. He was a shoemaker by trade and like Fisher, a Londoner by birth. Obtaining his ticket of leave in February 1823, Worrall rented a small farm at Campbelltown from William Bradbury. Worrall was considered an honest and industrious man and the most appropriate person to act as Fisher’s agent.

Fisher stood trial for assault but Brooker’s evidence was so abusive that the court considered the assault had been provoked and Fisher received a light sentence and a 50 pound fine. Fisher soon returned to his speculative building in Campbelltown. By April 1826 he had a large, three storey brick building which he offered to sell to the government as a barracks for troops. Nearby he had started another building which he offered to the government as a gaol and courthouse. Both buildings lay “mouldering to decay” a decade after the murder of their owner. Later the site was acquired for a hotel and still later became a branch of the Bank of New South Wales. 87

Fisher’s farm had no residence so he, his employees and convict servants lodged with his neighbour, George Worrall. Worrall’s house was about 16.5 metres long with three large rooms and skillion verandahs and was located on the western side of Queen Street, south from Allman Street. In the winter of 1826 Worrall had a full house. Aside from himself and Fisher there were two bricklayers and two drainers employed by Fisher and two convict servants employed by Worrall.

On the evening of 17 June 1826 Frederick Fisher disappeared. Worrall announced that his neighbour had sailed for England because he was concerned about a charge of forgery made against him by Nathaniel Boon. Three weeks after Fisher’s disappearance Worrall sold Fisher’s horses and personal belongings, claiming that Fisher had sold them to him before sailing. Worrall offered Fisher’s horses to James Coddington. Coddington knew Fisher’s handwriting and was sure that the papers were forgeries, probably written by John Vaughan, a ticket of leave man who lived in Worrall’s house and kept his accounts.

Coddington was agent for Daniel Cooper who held the mortgage on Fisher’s farm. He alerted Cooper and when Worrall approached Cooper for title to Fisher’s farm, Cooper reported Fisher’s disappearance to his solicitor, James Norton. Norton knew Fisher – he had recommended Fisher for the job with Meehan and instituted the first official enquiries in a letter to the attorney general on 11 September 1826. In this letter Norton claimed that either Worrall knew of Fisher’s accidental death and had concealed it or that Worrall was involved in his murder. 88

Fisher’s sentence did not expire until 1829 so it was unlikely that he would return to England and risk imprisonment as a convict at large. Fisher was prospering in the colony and despite recent conflicts had much property and few debts. The residents of Campbelltown knew him as “an artful and covetous” man who would not have left without trying to make some profit from his possessions. His brother, Henry, also a convict had not known of his brother’s intention to leave for England.

Worrall was arrested on suspicion of Fisher’s murder on 17 September 1826 and Campbelltown magistrate, the Reverend Thomas Reddall, began an investigation into the movements of Worrall and the other inhabitants of his house. After repeated questioning, Worrall alleged that Fisher had indeed been murdered, not by himself but by four of the men in his house who had beaten Fisher to death on a dunghill in the backyard. Worrall had kept silent because of threats to his safety. The four men were arrested. All were confined in Liverpool gaol but no action could be taken because there was no body. The Sydney Gazette on 23 September 1826 announced a 20 pound reward (equal to a year’s wages) for information leading to the recovery of Fisher’s body or proof of his departure from the colony.

A month later on 20 October 1826 the Campbelltown Police were instructed to intensify the search for Fisher’s body. On 25 October 1826 two boys, Rixon and Burrows were returning home across Fisher’s farm and noticed bloodstains on a fence. Closer investigation found a lock of hair the same colour as Fisher’s hair and a tooth. Constable Luland searched the wheat paddock prodding the ground with an iron bar, but found nothing. Old John Warby suggested Aboriginal trackers be called in. The ground was marshy and Gilbert the tracker from Liverpool, tasted the water in the puddles and announced “white fellow’s fat there”. They followed the puddles prodding the ground and found Fisher’s remains in a shallow grave on Worrall’s land.

The body was partially decomposed, “a soddened death-like sickly white”, and the flesh fell from the hands and feet when touched. The face and head had been shockingly disfigured but the clothes, a plum coloured jacket, a full bloused shirt and buckles on the braces were easily recognisable as Fisher’s. The coroner, Mr Horsley, was sent for; the body was removed from the ground and a coronial enquiry held the following day. Formal identification was impossible due to decomposition and insecure storage of the remains: “since he had been out of the hole those who had the care of the body had let the dogs eat the putrid flesh of the legs. 89

Following the coronial investigation, the remains of Frederick George James Fisher were buried in St Peters graveyard on 27 October 1826. Despite his wealth, no one provided him with a headstone. His brother Henry commented “I myself buried him as decent as I could. I was seven weekes looking for the boddy witch gave me a grate cutting up.” 90

Three days after the discovery of Fisher’s body Worrall was committee for trial in Sydney for the murder of Fisher and the theft of his property. The Criminal Court sat before Chief Justice Francis Forbes in Sydney on 2 February 1827. The evidence against Worrall was largely circumstantial but Worrall was the only one who benefited in any material way from Fisher’s death. The jury took fifteen minutes to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death and executed three days later on Monday 5 February 1827. On the scaffold he confessed that he had killed Fisher by accident, thinking him a horse in the wheat crop and was then too frightened to confess. Worrall’s confession was never accepted in Campbelltown by those who had seen the injuries to Fisher’s head. Worrall had assumed when he was appointed Fisher’s agent that all Fisher’s property would belong to him. Disappointed by Fisher’s release from prison, he had murdered Fisher to obtain the property. 91

After Fisher’s Death

Fisher died without leaving a will. His considerable property, cash, animals, two or three farms and some buildings was entrusted to the Curator of Intestate Estates. On 17 March 1827 a mare, foal and clothing were auctioned by the Registrar of the Supreme Court as was the lease of the farm at Campbelltown. In December 1827 Cooper and Levey, who held the mortgage on Fisher’s inn, took action against Jackson, Fisher’s partner and the licensee. 92

Fisher’s brother, Henry, lodged a claim as heir. Robert Henry William Fisher had been transported aged 21, for seven years in 1818 and had arrived in Sydney on the Baring in June 1819. His claim was not accepted by the Registrar of the Supreme Court, G G Mills. Mills wrote to Fisher’s mother in August 1827, more than a year after Frederick Fisher’s disappearance, informing her that her “very unfortunate son Frederick” had been murdered. Papers among Fisher’s possessions suggested that he had a wife and daughter in England. Proof of his daughter’s legitimacy was required to settle the estate in her favour. Whether Fisher had a child in England is uncertain. No claim was made on her behalf. 93

Ann Fisher of Shoreditch made a statutory declaration in January 1832 that her son Samuel Fisher, bookseller of the parish of Bethnal Green, Middlesex, was the brother and next of kin to Frederick Fisher. Henry Fisher had believed that his elder brother, Samuel was dead, but Samuel was alive and wanted Frederick’s estate. The family in England entrusted settlement of the estate to an agent rather than to Henry who was already in the colony. Their agent did nothing. By July 1831 Mrs Fisher and Samuel were willing to sell the estate to Henry Fisher of Windsor but Henry could not afford to buy it.

In April 1835 Henry Fisher married Elizabeth Owen at Parramatta, the ceremony performed by the Reverend Robert Forrest. Frederick Fisher had been a well lettered man but his brother Henry was barely literate. In September 1835 Henry wrote home deploring the mismanagement of his brother’s affairs. Nine years had passed since Frederick’s murder and his property had dwindled to nothing because Henry had no authority to act. Property worth 300 pounds and 107 pounds in cash had been held by the court trustee in 1831, but by 1835 claims against the estate had exhausted the funds. Aside from the farm at “Cambleton”, Henry knew of other property but he required power of attorney to act. 94

No further action was taken by the Fisher family until the 1840s. By this time the ghost story was in circulation. About 1842 Frederick Fisher’s nephew, Samuel, son of this brother Samuel, migrated to Australia to find out about the estate. The family was concerned by reports of the fraudulent activities of J E Manning, guardian of intestate estates. Manning was declared bankrupt in the depression of 1841 and most of the funds of which he was trustee were lost. Samuel Fisher junior met his uncle Henry at Parramatta and wrote home, urging that a power of attorney be sent as there was still a farm worth many hundreds of pounds and Henry knew of other property. Henry died in July 1844. Young Samuel remained in Sydney, married in 1849 and still without any letter of authority from his father, tried intermittently over the next fifteen years to get Frederick Fisher’s estate settled, though he never went out to the farm at Campbelltown.

The Legend of Fisher’s Ghost

The legend of Fisher’s Ghost is the earliest and best known Australian ghost story. “The Spirit of the Creek” an anonymous poem of 29 verses, was published in Hill’s Life in New South Wales, a Sydney literary paper, September 1832, six years after the discovery of Fisher’s body. The poem was prefaced with a note that it was based on the murder of poor F----- at Campbelltown and the details in the poem correspond with contemporary accounts. However, a new factor is the ghost who arouses suspicion of murder, leading to the discovery of the body. “Fredro” a wealthy exconvict, is murdered by his friend, “Wurlow”. A pale, blood covered spectre appears to “Falvonis” on his way home from the inn and a search in daylight near the bridge where the ghost appeared leads Gilbert, a black tracker, to the mangled corpse in its unhallowed and lonely grave. The ghost is appeased by the execution of “Wurlow” and never seen again.

Four years later “Fisher’s Ghost: A Legend of Campbelltown was published anonymously in the first issue of Tegg’s Monthly Magazine in March 1836. It claimed that most of those involved were still alive and could verify the truth about the appearance of Fisher’s ghost. In this account a drunken and dissolute Fisher is imprisoned for debt and at Worrall’s suggestion, Maes over his property to Worrall to defraud his creditors. A week after his release from prison, Fisher disappears. Six weeks later at 10pm on a cloudy moonlit night, Hurley sees Fisher’s ghost sitting on a fence. Hurley faints, strikes his head and during a week of delirium raves about the ghost. The magistrates suspect foul play, Gilbert is called in and the body uncovered. The author of this version may have been journalist William Kerr. The magazine was published by the Tegg Brothers, sons of a London bookseller and publisher who had arrived in New South Wales in 1834. The Teggs may have known the Fisher Family who were also London booksellers. 95

The earliest known reference to the ghost by someone who was involved in the search for Fisher was written by Thomas Leathwick Robinson about 1838. Robinson had arrived as a convict in 1823 with a fourteen year sentence. As he was a literate man he was sent to Campbelltown to teach in the Church of England school. Robinson identified Fisher’s clothing at the coronial hearing and at the Supreme Court and drew a plan of the scene of the crime. Robinson’s account was written more than ten years after the event when he was free. He gave it to the Reverend Richard Taylor, assistant chaplain at Liverpool and relieving minister at Campbelltown between the death of Reddall in November 1838 and the arrival of Forrest in July 1839.

Robinson described “a strange circumstance” which occurred after the discovery of the bloodstains on the fence but before the Aboriginal trackers were called in. Farley, a wealthy and respectable farmer, had been drinking heavily at Patrick’s Inn. He and a companion were returning home past “Worrall’s house, argued and separated. At this point Farley claimed he saw Fisher’s ghost – “it sat upon the rail at the bridge (over the creek in Queen Street) looked like dried leather, it beconed [sic] to him and pointed backwards”. Robinson was sceptical, writing that it was, ‘Strange that an injured spirit should appear only to a half tipsy man, and that at a time his temper was in a state of great excitement and perhaps the leather like figure might be some sunburnt labouring man who sat there enjoying the folly of two sincere friends calling each other ugly names.’

Though John Hurley saw the ghost in the Tegg version, in most accounts John Farley of Denfield (1787? – 1841) was named as the man who saw Fisher’s ghost in October 1826. A native of Surrey, England Farley was transported for life and arrived on the Guildford in 1812. He obtained a conditional pardon and by 1828 was a prosperous farmer living with his wife Margaret on their 325 acre (130 ha) farm on the Appin Road, south from Campbelltown. In 1826 John Hurley was still under sentence and did not become a prosperous man until the mid 1830s. 97

The ghost story quickly gained credence in the late 1830s as the reason for Norton reporting Fisher’s disappearance or for indicating the spot where the body was buried. Farley maintained until his death in 1841 that he had seen a ghost. Later his wife claimed that he had invented the ghost because he had been drinking with Fisher and Worrall the night Fisher disappeared. He had seen them walk home together and suspected that Worrall had something to do with Fisher’s disappearance. The ghost story was put about to ease his conscience yet provoke some action. If so, Farley waited almost four months before taking any action. Norton was solicitor for both Fisher and Farley so it is possible that Farley told Norton of his fears, prompting Norton to make official enquiries. 98

In 1840, while Farley was still alive, two young men attended classes at Campbelltown with the Reverend Robert Forrest. One was the son of the solicitor Norton, who told his school friends that his father had instituted enquiries into Fisher’s disappearance because Farley saw the ghost. Young Norton, later senior partner in the Sydney law firm Messrs Norton and Smith, published his memories of his father’s involvement in the case in 1892. The other schoolboy, the Reverend James Hassall, remembered the ghost story in his memoirs of Old Australia in 1902.

Fisher’s ghost proved endlessly fascinating for publishers. R M Martin referred to Gilbert, the tracker, in his History of the British Colonies (1836). Charles Dickens’ Household Words (1855) included a version of the ghost story by John Lang, as did the French magazine L’Ami de la Maison the following year. Marcus Clarke, author or For the Term of His Natural Life, referred to it in 1875. The Australian Town and Country Journal sent a correspondent to Campbelltown in 1880 to interview old residents about the ghost. W H Rusden included it in his History of Australia in 1883 as did W H Suttor in Australasian Stories Retold (1887). James Norton told his reminiscences to the Daily Telegraph in 1892 and Hassall’s account appeared in 1902. In that year B R Wise KC, attorney general and minister of justice for New South Wales, defended the ghost story before a sceptical English audience at Oxford. Andrew Lang the following year read Justice Forbes’ original case notes to write his Truth about Fisher’s Ghost (1903). Generations later in 1960 Douglas Stewart, poet and play wright, wrote an historical comedy, Fisher’s Ghost. 99

Perhaps the strangest testimony to the impact of the story of Fisher’s ghost is the completeness of the legal records surrounding Fisher’s disappearance and Worrall’s trial. The case remains the best documented colonial legal drama. Aside from the newspaper accounts, other surviving records include verbatim notes of the trial by the chief clerk of the Supreme Court. John Gurner; documents written by Fisher to prove Worrall’s forgery; the proceedings of the preliminary investigation at Campbelltown Police Court; the original statement by the police on the discovery of Fisher’s body; a hand coloured plan of the scene of the crime and Robinson’s eyewitness account. Even the original list of convicts on the Atlas in 1815 carried a marginal note against Fisher’s name “murdered”! Only Robinson mentioned the ghost. 100

Notes:

83 C Bateson The Convict Ships 1787 – 1868 Sydney: A H and A W Reed 1974, pp 340 – 1, 382; AONSW 4/3495, p 63; AONSW 4/1865, p 50.

84 D R Hainsworth The Sydney Traders Melbourne: Melbourne University Press 1981, p 183; Ellis Macquarie pp 258, 266-7; AONSW 4/1740, p 232; 7/2691; Sydney Gazette 1 July 1820; Harvey “Eschol Park”.

85 ADB; ML Af 68; A McMartin Public Servants and Patronage Sydney: Sydney University Press 1983, p 82.

86 AONSW 4/1865; AONSW 4/1865, p 50; CLHC: Sydney Gazette 23 December 1824.

87 AONSW 5/2296; O G Thomas “Frederick George James Fisher” CAHS Journal 1, 2, 1949.

88 C H Currey Sir Francis Forbes Sydney: Angus and Robertson 1968, p 461; AONSW 5/2296.

89 Sydney Gazette 5 February 1827; ML Af 68.

90 Fisher Family Papers, CLHC.

91 T L Robinson, Account of Fisher’s death, ML Af 68; Sydney Gazette 5 February 1827; Rex vs Worrell and others AONSW 5/2296; Gurner’s trial transcript, ML A1493; V Fowler The Legend of Fisher’s Ghost Campbelltown: Ruse Publishing 1981; Fisher Family Papers, CLHC; Currey Forbes pp 460 – 2; Thomas “Fisher”.

92 Sydney Gazette 8, 17 March 1827.

93 CLHC.

94 CLHC; NSW Government Gazette 4 February, 5 August 1835; Hill’s Life in New South Wales7 September 1832.

95 Hill’s Life in New South Wales 14, 21 September 1832; Tegg’s Month Magazine vol 1 March 1836; ADB.

96 ML Af 68.

97 Census of NSW 1828; ML A5421/1.

98 Grist Mills 3, 4; Sydney Mail 7 April 1937.

99 Ibid.; R M Martin History of British Colonies vol. 4, London: Cochrane and McCrone, pp 303-4; L’Ami de la Maison 20, 27 March 1856; G Dutton The Literature of Australia Ringwood: Penguin 1972. 100 ML A1493; ML Af 68; AONSW 5/2296.

From Campbelltown - A bicentennial history with kind permission of the author by Carol Liston. p59-67

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