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Fairfax-Ross, Basil Edward (1910–1984)

by D. C. Lewis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Basil Edward Fairfax-Ross (1910-1984), coastwatcher and businessman, was born on 4 April 1910 at Springwood, New South Wales, second child of Sydney-born parents Basil Fairfax-Ross, who described himself as of independent means, and his wife Doris Riverstone, née McCulloch. He was a descendant of both John Fairfax and Rev. Robert Ross. Educated at The Kings School, Parramatta, Basil hoped to study law, but the means were not available. After some time as a jackeroo, realising that, without further education or funds to buy a property, he would have to look abroad for advancement, he turned to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. About 1931 he obtained work with Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd as a plantation assistant. By 1940 he was an assistant plantation inspector at Rabaul.

On 19 January 1940 Fairfax-Ross enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned in July, he served in the Middle East with the 18th Brigade. In March 1942 he returned to Australia and in August joined the Allied Intelligence Bureau (later `M’ Special Unit). Sailing to Papua in the Paluma, he carried out coast-watching duties at Oro Bay. Early in 1943 he led a party attempting to relieve two coast-watchers on New Guinea’s Rai Coast. `Fax’ (as he was known) was wounded but he and other survivors escaped over the mountains to Bena Bena. In 1944-45 he commanded (as a temporary major from January 1945) a force of fifteen coastwatchers and some two hundred local men engaged in guerrilla operations against the Japanese in southern New Britain. On 6 April 1946 he transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He was awarded the American Medal of Freedom (1948) and twice mentioned in despatches for his service.

On 25 April 1946 at St Sebastian’s Catholic Church, Yeronga, Brisbane, Fairfax-Ross married Jessie Agnes Dalton, a secretary. That year he returned to Burns Philp as plantation inspector before becoming assistant general manager of the British New Guinea Development Co. Ltd, the largest of the planting companies in Papua. In 1951 he was appointed general manager of the company in Port Moresby. He served as president (1949-71) of the Planters’ Association of Papua, member (1951-73) and chairman (1971-73) of the Copra Marketing Board of Papua and New Guinea, and chairman (1956-74) of the Copra Industry Stabilisation Board. His directorships included Burns Philp (NG) Ltd, Bougainville Copper Ltd, South Pacific Post Ltd, South Pacific Brewery Ltd and several plantation companies. In 1964 he was appointed CBE.

A nominated member of the Legislative Council of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea from 1951, Fairfax-Ross also sat (1961-63) on the Administrator’s Council. In him the planting community had an articulate representative, one whose interests extended well beyond the concerns of trade and commerce. As a leading planter conveniently resident in Port Moresby and with a long memory of the country before, during and since the war, Fairfax-Ross held considered opinions on most issues and presented them with characteristic self-assurance. In 1959 he led the opposition of the three elected and the nine non-elected members in the Legislative Council to the introduction of an income tax bill. He continued to advocate special representation for the expatriates, who, he argued, contributed disproportionately to the economy, although he conceded that there should be an indigenous majority in a reformed system. His perspective was eclipsed by the creation of the House of Assembly in 1964 and he did not seek to continue his political career. In 1965-71 he was a member of the interim and inaugural councils of the University of Papua and New Guinea.

The determination of the Australian government to move towards a rapid transfer of power to a self-governing indigenous majority caused planters to reassess their position. Fairfax-Ross resigned from BNGD Co. Ltd in 1971 and retired to Mosman, Sydney, where he maintained an active interest in Papua New Guinea affairs as a director of both Bougainville Copper and Burns Philp. In Papua he had indulged a fondness for horse-racing that went back to his jackerooing days; in Sydney he joined the Australian Jockey Club and was frequently seen at Randwick and Rose Hill. He also belonged to the Imperial Service and Union clubs. Trim in build, highly articulate and courteous, Fairfax-Ross possessed a conspicuous ability that readily drew respect and disarmed potential foes. He died on 9 November 1984 at St Leonards, Sydney, and was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Feldt, The Coast Watchers (1946)
  • D. Dexter, The New Guinea Offensives (1961)
  • D. G. Bettison et al (eds), The Papua New Guinea Elections 1964 (1965)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship (1980)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Nov 1984, p 17
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Jan 1985, p 36
  • AWM54, 433/9/31 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

D. C. Lewis, 'Fairfax-Ross, Basil Edward (1910–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fairfax-ross-basil-edward-12476/text22441, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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