Fisher entered the navy at age thirteen, and served in the Crimean War as well as in the China War 1859/1860.
After command of the battleship Inflexible in Egypt in 1882 came almost fourteen years of uninterrupted service ashore as gunnery and torpedo expert. As controller of the navy, Fisher was responsible for executing the Naval Defence Act of 1889; he was promoted to the grade of rear admiral in 1890 and vice admiral six years later. In 1897 Fisher was appointed commander in chief, North America and West Indies station; thereafter he was sent as Britain's delegate to the First Hague Conference, followed by command of the Mediterranean Fleet and promotion to the grade of admiral in 1901. In the Mediterranean, Fisher applied modern scientific advances to the fleet: telegraphy was introduced, longer firing ranges inaugurated, routine dismantled, and reform introduced for the lower deck. Fisher met the earl of Selborne, first lord of the Admiralty, in the summer of 1901 in Malta, and at Selborne's suggestion transferred to Whitehall as second sea lord in charge of personnel.
The team of Fisher and Selborne moved with alacrity. On Christmas Day 1902 a revolutionary scheme of training was announced: executive, engineer, and marine officers were to be trained under one common system for four years before specialization; new naval colleges were established at Dartmouth and Osborne; and selection was preceded by personal interviews. On Trafalgar Day (October 21) 1904, Fisher was appointed first sea lord. In this capacity he pushed through a redistribution of the fleet, concentrating the main fighting strength of the Royal Navy in the North Sea, striking down numerous foreign ports, and retiring 150 old ships. Under the nucleus crew system, ships in the reserve maintained part of their crew on board at all times; during active service, the remainder of the crew was quickly augmented from the available personnel reserves.
Perhaps most revolutionary of all, Fisher in 1905 introduced the world's first "all big gun" battleship, the Dreadnought. Turbine-driven, it possessed greater speed and vastly enhanced firing power over conventional warships. Navies, especially of Japan and the United States, were experimenting with similar vessels; therefore, Fisher had no choice but to proceed with this radical design change. Of course, such feverish activity did not sit well with everyone. The first sea lord's one-sidedness produced rancor and vindictiveness, especially from those not in the "Fishpond" (Fisher's circle of admirers); a bitter dispute with the popular commander of the Channel Fleet, Lord Charles Beresford, after 1907 exacerbated personality rifts in the service. Fisher managed to persevere partly because of his close friendship with King Edward VII between 1904 and 1910, serving as the monarch's first and principal naval aide-decamp.
Fisher was greatly annoyed with the Liberal government after 1906, especially with its reduction in the ship-building program and its cancellation of a dockyard at Rosyth. By 1909/1910, however, the German "danger" was sufficient to hasten construction of the facility at Rosyth and to pass the famous program laying down eight battleships in a single year. In 1909 Fisher was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Fisher, of Kilverstone, an estate in Norfolk. Jacky Fisher retired as first sea lord in January 1910, but two years later, as chairman of the royal commission on oil fuel, he recommended its adoption for the fleet; hence the Oil Maniac, as he was nicknamed in the fleet, not only encouraged the government's purchase of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but also pioneered the building of the Queen Elizabeth class of oil-fired dreadnoughts.
In October 1914, the first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, invited Fisher to return as firt sea lord. He accepted at once. The combination of Churchill and Fisher worked well at first; indeed, Fisher had also strongly recommended that Admiral Sir John Jellicoe be entrusted with command of the newly formed Grand Fleet. Fisher's first act in office was to dispatch Sir Doveton Sturdee with two fast, powerful battle cruisers from the Grand Fleet to the South Atlantic, in order to redress the loss of Sir Christopher Cradock at Coronel. Sturdee's complete triumph seemed to vindicate Fisher's firm faith in that type of warship. The first sea lord next turned his fertile mind to a pet scheme: to force the entry of the Baltic Sea and to land a military force in Pomerania by use of special troop barges. Before this scheme could progress further, however, Fisher's attention was diverted to the Dardanelles.
While he could never share fully Churchill's enthusiasm for this operation, Fisher nevertheless backed his chief in the cabinet in calling for a naval attempt to force passage of the Straits. Well might he have remembered his hero Nelson's warning that "any sailor who attacked a fort was a fool." The naval operations in the spring and summer of 1915 failed, and the ensuing retreat from the Dardanelles caused the government to fall. Arthur James Balfour accepted the post of first lord of the Admiralty in the new coalition ministry, but did not ask Fisher to stay on as first sea lord. Fisher, who had behaved rather undiplomatically at the end, was instead pushed off to the post of chairman of the Admiralty inventions board.
Jacky Fisher published two volumes of reminiscences after the armistice. He died on July 10, 1920, and after a public funeral at Westminster Abbey was buried at Kilverstone.
Throughout his life he was a religious man and attended church regularly when ashore. He had a passion for sermons and might attend two or three services in a day to hear them, which he would 'discuss afterwards with great animation'. However, he was discreet in expressing his religious views because he feared public attention might hinder his professional career.
Fisher was five feet seven inches tall and stocky with a round face. In later years, some insinuated that Fisher, born in Ceylon of British parents, had Asian ancestry due to his features and the yellow cast of his skin. His colour resulted from dysentery and malaria in middle life, which nearly caused his death. He had a fixed and compelling gaze when addressing someone, which gave little clue to his feelings. Fisher was energetic, ambitious, enthusiastic and clever. A shipmate described him as "easily the most interesting midshipman I ever met". When addressing someone he could become carried away with the point he was seeking to make, and on one occasion, the King asked him to stop shaking his fist in his face.
Fisher's aim was 'efficiency of the fleet and its instant readiness for war', which won him support amongst a certain kind of navy officer. He believed in advancing the most able, rather than the longest serving. This upset those he passed over. Thus, he divided the navy into those who approved of his innovations and those who did not. As he became older and more senior he also became more autocratic and commented, 'Anyone who opposes me, I crush'. He believed that nations fought wars for material gain, and that maintaining a strong navy deterred other nations from engaging it in battle, thus decreasing the likelihood of war: On the British fleet rests the British Empire. Fisher also believed that the risk of catastrophe in a sea battle was far greater than on land: a war could be lost or won in a day at sea, with no hope of replacing lost ships, but an army could be rebuilt quickly. When an arms race broke out between Germany and Britain to build larger navies, the German Kaiser commented, 'I admire Fisher, I say nothing against him. If I were in his place I should do all that he has done and I should do all that I know he has in mind to do'.
Quotes from others about the person
Arthur Marder has described Fisher as a genius. His was a most remarkable personality: he combined a singular clarity of vision with a quick grasp of the essentials, demonic energy, a burning patriotism, and a firm belief in the superiority of the English race. He rewarded those who helped him. He was vindictive to those he believed opposed him. Above all, he was a devoted reader of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament.
He was not keen on sport, but he was a highly proficient dancer. Fisher employed his dancing skill later in life to charm a number of important ladies. He became interested in dancing in 1877 and insisted that the officers of his ship learn to dance. Fisher cancelled the leave of midshipmen who would not take part. He introduced the practice of junior officers dancing on deck when the band was playing for senior officers' wardroom dinners. This practice spread through the fleet. He broke with the then ball tradition of dancing with a different partner for each dance, instead adopting the scandalous habit of choosing one good dancer as his partner for the evening. His ability to charm all comers of all social classes made up for his sometimes blunt or tactless comments. He suffered from seasickness throughout his life.
Fisher married to Frances Katharine Josepha Broughton, the daughter of the Rev. Thomas Delves Broughton and Frances Corkran, on 4 April 1866 while stationed at Portsmouth. Kitty's two brothers were both naval officers. According to a cousin, she believed that Jack would rise "to the top of the tree." They remained married until her death in July 1918. They had a son, Cecil Vavasseur, 2nd Baron Fisher (1868–1955), and three daughters, Beatrix Alice (1867–1930), Dorothy Sybil (1873–1962), and Pamela Mary (1876–1949), who all married naval officers who all went on to become admirals. Beatrix Alice married Reginald Rundell Neeld in 1896, Pamela Mary married Henry Blackett in 1906, and in 1908 Dorothy Sybil married Eric Fullerton.