The Ol’ man of the Parramatta River

The Drummoyne Sailing Club, like many community groups, was built and has been sustained by many strong and colourful characters. In my research so far I have come across a number of individuals who have left their mark not only on the club, but on the area of Drummoyne itself.

William Frederick Sainsbury Fisher is one such character. Fisher was a boatbuilder, sailor and sculling champion whose connection with the water extended through his life, the generations before and after him – and even the name of the street in which he was born.

Bill Fisher, as he was known, was born in Galatea Cottage, Ocean Street, Woollahra in 1874, the fourth of six children. His father, William Henry Fisher, was a Master Mariner and his grandfather, Henry Fisher, was the founder of a successful ships’ provedoring business. Further back in his ancestry, was a great-grandfather, said to have been a gunner with Lord Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Trafalgar.

West Australian, 16 June 1954

West Australian, 16 June 1954

With such a heritage, it is perhaps no surprise that Bill Fisher left school at an early age to go to sea as cabin boy in one of his grandfather’s ships.

Based out of Drummoyne, Bill Fisher became a fixture on the Sydney sailing scene, building & hiring boats from a boatshed in Five Dock Bay. He supplemented his income with fishing and in 1909 made the extraordinary decision to buy and tow a floating swimming pool from Farm Cove to Drummoyne where he attached it to the end of a long wharf at the end of Moore Street. Fisher’s Public Baths remained open until 1919.

In 1901 he married Ethel Burnicle and the couple had three boys and three girls.

It seems that Bill was successful at any water sport he attempted. He sailed 16s at Drummoyne Sailing Club, winning the club championship in 1925/26 in Ethel, and also sailed in the competitive 18-footers scene. His strongest legacy, however, was as a rower, particularly in his later years when he achieved several remarkable feats of endurance.

Sunday Times 11 April 1926

Sunday Times 11 April 1926

1948 at age 74, Fisher won a silver cup and 100 pounds in side wagers when he beat Albert Hayden of Manly in a race for the world’s veteran professional sculling champs. That same year he rowed 21 miles in five hours from Palm Beach to Manly beating Tom Hall for a side bet of 25 pounds.

Incredibly, when he was two years shy of 80, Fisher rowed 32 miles from Drummoyne to Bondi and back. His concerned sons, Max and Jack decided to follow him in a launch to ensure his safety, however when the launch ran into trouble near Sydney Heads, it was Bill who rowed a mile out of his way to secure assistance for his struggling rescue team. Aside from reporting some blisters and tiredness, the 78 year old Fisher returned from his journey unscathed.

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1914

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1914

In 1914, Fisher had a similarly exciting experience while rowing on the Parramatta River. As he passed Searle’s Monument, something heavy struck his boat and turned it around. When Fisher regained his seat he realized that he was being followed by a large shark:

Quickly drawing his left oar from the rowlock, the sculler dealt the sea monster several blows on the head and body… With anxious promptness Fisher then replaced his oar and rowed swiftly towards the Gladesville Bridge.

The shark followed Fisher for some time before disappearing, much to Fisher’s relief!

Bill’s affinity with the water continued through his children. His daughters were excellent swimmers and had success in the Drummoyne Ladies Club and his three sons, Jack, Max and Bill were all sailors and competitive rowers. Jack continued on at Drummoyne as boatbuilder and long-standing member of the sailing club.

William Sainsbury Fisher died in 1964 aged 90, having earned his nickname of the “Ol’ man of the Parramatta River”, remaining a dedicated and champion sculler until the end of his life.

I’ve always been about the water“, he said in an interview in 1948, “fishing swimming and rowing. I left school at 11 and was put to sea. In those days I was the wild colonial boy of Leichhardt, always slipping away from school down to the river.

           I didn’t learn much at school, but I’ve learned a lot since“.



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