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Charles Fairbairn (1858–1925)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

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Sir George Fairbairn (1855-1943), pastoralist, politician, company director and oarsman, was born on 23 March 1855 at New Town, Geelong, Victoria, eldest son of George Fairbairn and his wife Virginia Charlotte, née Armytage. His brothers were Charles Fairbairn (1858-1925), pastoralist and oarsman, Frederick William Fairbairn (1865-1925), pastoralist, Red Cross director and sportsman, James Fairbairn (1856-1891), medical practitioner, Thomas Fairbairn (1860-1918), pastoralist, and Stephen Fairbairn.

George was educated from 1864 to 1871 at Geelong Church of England Grammar School; Charles attended in 1868-75 and Frederick in 1880-84. All six brothers became captain of cricket, and the four who were there after the institution of a senior prefect in 1875 all held that office. On these four, too, the influence of J. L. Cuthbertson was added to that of the headmaster J. B. Wilson. Generosity to their old school was a conspicuous trait of the brothers' lives.

George represented the school at football, but did not, like most of his brothers, row at school, as the boat club was not founded until 1874. After a period at Edinburgh, where he was taught by his uncle Patrick Fairbairn, a Free Church moderator and biblical scholar, he had two years at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained his university trial cap and rowed for the college in the first two of the eleven successive years (1875-85) in which Jesus went head of the river. In 1878, two years after returning to Australia, George rowed for Victoria in the first intercolonial boat race. In 1903 he founded the Henley-on-Yarra regatta, with A. R. Blackwood and W. C. Rivett, and became the first president of the Melbourne Amateur Athletic and Rowing Club.

For some years George managed Peak Downs and Barcaldine stations in Queensland for his father; at the former, in 1878, he pioneered the use of wire-netting to keep out kangaroos. On 24 November 1880 at St John's Church of England, Toorak, Melbourne, he married Jessie Kate Prell; they had a son and a daughter. In the early 1880s he returned to Victoria and joined William, Sloane & Co., stock and station agents, and in 1886 became manager of the Union Mortgage & Agency Co. of Australia Ltd. In 1890 he took over the family property of Lara, where he at once established a merino stud and in 1900 a Shropshire stud. Later he acquired Benarca, near Deniliquin, New South Wales, and Greenlaw, Mount Martha, Victoria. His business interests increased, and he was a director of the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd for more than forty years, chairman for more than thirty of the British & Foreign Marine Insurance Co, Ltd., chairman until 1925 of the Victorian board of advice of Dalgety & Co., a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and head of the family firm of G. & C. Fairbairn. He was president for six years of the Employers' Federation of Australia, a trustee of the estate of Edward Wilson and in 1936-37 a director of the Argus and Australasian Ltd. In 1931 he was president of the National Union, a political fund-raising body. He was a member of the committee of management of the Alfred Hospital, active in the Big Brother movement from its inception, and a churchwarden of St John's, Toorak. President of a short-lived association of Old Geelong Grammarians in 1883, in 1904 he became third president of the continuing body, founded in 1900. He was president of the Melbourne Club in 1902.

In 1903 Fairbairn was elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of Toorak which he held until 1906 when he resigned to contest the newly created seat of Fawkner in the Federal House of Representatives. He lost that seat in the redistribution of 1913, but in 1917 was elected to the Senate. As one of Forrest's corner group he had worked for the fusion of non-Labor in 1909 and was active in arranging for the financing of the Liberal Party. His parliamentary speeches were numerous, wide-ranging, and marked by native eloquence, robust common sense, and a 'tolerant and even sympathetic attitude to liberal and progressive movements'. Perhaps his best epitaph as a public figure is contained in a speech which he made in parliament on 23 October 1912: 'I do not often speak strongly, but, when there is tyranny in the air, my old Scotch blood arises, and I must say what I think'. He did not seek re-election in 1923, and in 1924 was appointed agent-general for Victoria in London, holding the office with distinction until 1927. In 1926 he was knighted.

Fairbairn's first wife died in 1921 and on 20 February 1924 at the Presbyterian Church, Mornington, he married Lorna Bessie, daughter of G. P. Robertson of Coragulac, Colac. Sir George died in Melbourne on 23 October 1943, survived by his second wife and his son, Clive Prell, grazier and Cambridge rowing blue. His estate was valued for probate at £164,170 in Victoria and £49,394 in New South Wales.

The third brother, Charles, was born on 12 August 1858 at Kelso, Scotland. He matriculated at Cambridge in October 1877 and rowed in the university crew which defeated Oxford in 1879. Later he was joint manager with George of the family interests in Queensland, where with his brothers he played a leading part in breaking the shearers' strike of 1891. In 1897 he acquired Banongill, near Skipton, Victoria, and in 1918 Wooloomanata, near Lara, where he spent his final years. In 1911 he presented the Fairbairn Challenge Cup for the headship of the river among the associated public schools of Victoria. Charles had married Elizabeth Osborne on 15 July 1891 at St Stephen's Church of England, Elsternwick. He died in Melbourne on 27 October 1925 of cerebro-vascular disease, predeceased by his wife and survived by two daughters and three sons, one of whom was James Valentine.

Frederick Fairbairn was born on 21 July 1865 at Richmond, Melbourne. After studying at Cambridge he acquired Logan Downs station, near Clermont, Queensland, and subsequently Woolbrook, near Teesdale in Victoria. During World War I he worked in London for the Australian Red Cross Society as an honorary colonel and director for Victoria, and visited France and Switzerland in the interests of Australian prisoners of war. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1918. He remained a keen sportsman, being captain of the Geelong golf club, playing cricket, and serving on the committee of the Victoria Racing Club. On 30 September 1891 at Clermont he had married Rhoda Jane McLeod, who survived him, with two daughters and a son, on his death of cancer in Melbourne on 22 February 1925.

The six Fairbairn brothers—'my thirty-seven feet of sons', as their father called them—were natural leaders and legendary athletes, clannish yet individual, shrewd yet generous, spacious yet straightforward in their mode of living. They had an eye for quality and a great capacity for enjoyment. Always somewhat larger than life, they bestrode the worlds they conquered, epitomizing the vigour, independence, and carefree spirit of many of the first generation of Australian native-born.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Brittain and H. B. Playford, The Jesus College Boat Club, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1928)
  • S. Fairbairn, Fairbairn of Jesus (Lond, 1931)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • Geelong Grammar School, (1) Annual, 1875-76, and (2) Quarterly, 1877-84, Dec 1891, and (3) Corian, May 1925, Dec 1925, Dec 1943, Mar 1977
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Nov 1943
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Jan 1911
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1943
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1943
  • Geelong Grammar School Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Fairbairn, Charles (1858–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 August, 1858
Kelso, Scottish Borders, Scotland


27 October, 1925 (aged 67)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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