Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fairbairn, Irene Florence (1899–1974)

by David Maunders

This article was published:

Irene Florence Fairbairn (1899-1974), Girl Guide commissioner, was born on 30 March 1899 at Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, daughter of Bishop Latimer Ridley, tailor's cutter, and his wife Florence Ada, née Edwards. Educated at Queenswood School, Eastbourne, Sussex, Rene captained the cricket team, played tennis and acquired her lifelong love of sport. In 1917-18 she worked as a volunteer aide at the Hospital for Wounded Officers, Park Lane, London. She was awarded the British Red Cross Society's service medal. In 1920 she helped to establish a Girl Guide company in Surrey. At the hospital she had met and nursed Captain Charles Osborne Fairbairn (d.1959), an Australian pastoralist serving with the Royal Air Force. He was a brother of James Valentine Fairbairn. Irene married Charles on 9 February 1922 at the parish church, Sutton, Surrey, and accompanied him to his sheep-stud property, Banongill, near Skipton in western Victoria. They were to have three daughters and a son who was killed on active service with the Royal Australian Air Force on 1 February 1945. An orphaned niece was also taken into the family.

Guiding was in its infancy in Australia when Mrs Fairbairn joined the Beaufort-Skipton association in 1922. She became first secretary there in 1924 and was divisional commissioner (1925-38) for the Ballarat and Beaufort districts. In the 1930s she was asked in addition to be commissioner for Rokewood, some forty miles (64 km) distant. She telegraphed headquarters: 'Delighted to accept Rokewood. Is Antarctica free also?' She sat on the Victorian executive-committee from the 1930s and served as State commissioner in 1958-63. Honorary secretary (1938-47) of the federal council of the Girl Guides' Association of Australia, Fairbairn was federal commissioner (1947-52) and chief commissioner for Australia (1952-55). In 1969 she was appointed life vice-president. To many of the women and girls of the guide movement, she was affectionately known as 'Gran'.

Fairbairn represented the Australian guide movement at six world conferences between 1926 and 1969, and was a member of the world association's sub-committee for the international centre, Sangam, in India. In appreciation of her work, the Girl Guides' Association of Australia established the Irene Fairbairn fund (1955) to assist guides with travel interstate and overseas. She was awarded the Silver Fish (guiding's highest honour) in 1948, and was appointed O.B.E. in 1953 and C.B.E. in 1969. The Indian Guide Association awarded her the Silver Elephant posthumously.

With her husband, Rene had extended the gardens of Banongill to fourteen acres (5.7 ha) and the three-mile (4.8 km) drive to their home was bordered by daffodils. From the 1920s the Fairbairns aimed to perfect pink, red and yellow varieties of these flowers by careful crossing; both were respected show judges in Australia and overseas. Rene maintained her interest in daffodils after Charles's death and opened the garden to raise money for charity.

A tall, blond, glamorous woman who retained traces of her English accent, Mrs Fairbairn had a sense of humour which was typified when she prefaced an award of the Silver Fish to an elderly guider by remarking, 'As one old trout to another . . .'. She was an active member of the Country Women's Association, the Australian Red Cross Society, the Citizens' Welfare Service and the Victoria League. A loyal worker for the Church of England, she was president (1959-70) of the rural deanery guilds of Ballarat. She played the organ on Sundays at Christ Church, Skipton, where a stained-glass window was to be installed in her memory in 1992. Survived by two of her daughters, she died on 14 March 1974 in East Melbourne and was cremated. A portrait by Graham Thorley is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Coleman and H. Darling, From a Flicker to a Flame (Syd, 1989)
  • Girl Guides Association of Victoria, Matilda, Apr 1974
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1948, 5 Mar 1954, 2 June 1955, 12 Nov 1957, 4 Sept 1958, 2 Sept 1963, 19 Apr 1969
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1948, 1 Jan 1953, 5 Mar 1954, 2 June 1955
  • private information.

Citation details

David Maunders, 'Fairbairn, Irene Florence (1899–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 December 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Ridley, Irene

30 March 1899
London, Middlesex, England


14 March 1974
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage
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