The Forgotten Life of John Fisher
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Written by Portsmouth Athenaeum


The story of how a London squire's library ended up in Portsmouth has all the ingredients of an international thriller. Portsmouth Athenaeum Keeper Tom Hardiman tells this tale in the new exhibit, "Money, Revolution and Books.” The exhibit centers on the Athenaeum's Library of John Fisher of London. Tom says he’s “dumbfounded” that the story hasn’t been told before, (Continued below)


According to Tom Hardiman’s essay in the accompanying catalog: "Fisher's valuable library was a material testament to his family's amazing tale of intercontinental avarice, political subterfuge, harrowing delivery from imminent danger, and their remarkable series of legal triumphs which make them arguably the only victors of both sides of the American Revolution."

The free exhibit runs Oct. 7 to Nov. 26 in the Athenaeum's RandallGallery. It was inspired in 2010 when Fisher’s collection of books originally donated to the Athenaeum in 1829 was reassembled.


"For 180 years, the books were disbursed into the general catalog, each banished to its subject," Hardiman said. Bringing the books back together, revealed a forgotten story.

John Fisher of London was born in Portsmouth on May 4, 1764, the eldest of 15 children. His parents, John Sr. and Anna Wentworth Fisher, were well-connected. Anna's uncle, Benning Wentworth, was provincial governor, and John Fisher Sr. came from an educated family of wealth in Bristol, England, where he was born in 1735. The senior Fisher came to America in 1762 after securing a position in the colonial customs system, recording every ship entering or leaving a port.

Fisher's appointment as naval officer was part of "an attempt to address perceived widespread smuggling, fraud and abuse in the colonial customs collections," Hardiman said.

As the American colonies rose to throw off the yolk of George III and British rule, John Fisher Sr. used every bit of the knowledge and influence he had gained from his post to increase his fortune.

"Because of his chameleon nature, even his contemporaries and close friends never knew which side he was on," Hardiman said. "This secretive strategy helped him get through the chaos of the Revolution in good standing with all parties, but it has also been the primary reason he has been ignored by history."


By 1765, Fisher had secured a position as Collector of Customs in Salem, Mass.. The Stamp Act -- a direct tax imposed by Parliament -- inflamed the colonists who declared it taxation without representation. Even though the act was repealed, the political climate became increasingly unstable. By 1768, Hardiman said, Fisher was removed from office by Salem's board of customs commissioners. He immediately went to London to plead his case.

"Fisher's journey to England was not wasted," Hardiman said. He was restored to his position. Fisher's strategy of lobbying on both sides of the Atlantic would become a pattern as the family's fortunes were caught between duty to the Crown and rising revolutionary sentiment in the colonies.

The Boston Tea Party in 1773 led to the Boston Port Act. General Thomas Gage, commander of all the British forces in North America, was transferred to Boston, "effectively imposing martial law," Hardiman said. With the danger increasing in Massachusetts, Fisher moved his family from Salem to Portsmouth. But even here, trouble was brewing.

On Dec. 13, 1774, "Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to warn the Committee of Correspondence that troops from Boston were on their way to secure the gunpowder at FortWilliam & Mary in New Castle," Hardiman said.

The next day, several hundred citizens of Portsmouth, led by John Langdon, overwhelmed the garrison and took about 100 barrels of gunpowder. The fate of all the officers of the king in New England -- including Fisher -- was sealed. Again he returned to England seeking restitution, leaving his family in Portsmouth. They would not join him until 1778. Two daughters remained in Portsmouth in the care of grandparents, three year-old Frances and four year-old Sarah.

Years later, Sarah would marry wealthy merchant James Sheafe and become a significant benefactor to the Athenaeum, donating a number of family portraits as well as convincing her brother, the younger John Fisher, to donate 234 volumes "of very valuable works in various branches of science and general literature," the Athenaeum's board directors noted in their 1829 annual report.

About 30 of those books will be on display for the exhibit, including Erasmus Darwin's "Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life" (1796), Mungo Murray's "A Treatise on Ship-Building and Navigation" (1754) and Charles Stedman's "The History of the Origin, Progress and Termination of the American War" (1794).

Exhibit-goers can also see portraits of Fisher, Wentworth and Sheafe family members, as well as the debut of the Athenaeum's newest painting, a portrait of Woodbury Langdon, circa 1775, by Joseph Blackburn.

The exhibit opening is 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7. Tom Hardiman will give a gallery talk on Friday, Nov. 4, at 5 p.m. Both events coincide with Portsmouth's ArtRoundTown. There will be a tour of Portsmouth's Mark Wentworth Home (formerly John Fisher's house) on Saturday, Oct. 29.

John Fisher, Sr. done in 1762, the year he first came to Portsmouth – Courtesy of the New Hampshire Historical Society.