Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Valentine (Jim) Fairbairn (1897–1940)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

This article was published:

James Fairbairn, n.d.

James Fairbairn, n.d.

Australian Parliamentary Library

James Valentine (Jim) Fairbairn (1897-1940), pastoralist, aviator and politician, was born on 28 July 1897 at Wadhurst, Sussex, England, second son of Charles Fairbairn and his wife Elizabeth, née Osborne. He grew up on his father's station, Banongill, near Skipton, Victoria. Educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School in 1908-15, he was remembered as a boy who overcame natural shyness and won many friends, including Charles Hawker and (Sir) Hudson Fysh.

On leaving school he went to England to enlist for active service; he was accepted by the Royal Flying Corps and commissioned as a flying officer in July 1916. On 14 February 1917 he was shot down and captured by the Germans while helping to escort a squadron taking photographs between Cambrai and St Quentin. An account of the incident and his fourteen-month captivity until he was released on exchange was published in the Corian. His right arm had been badly damaged and was to remain largely disabled despite repeated operations; but he refused to be diverted from an intention to continue flying.

Fairbairn returned to Australia in 1919 and, after further treatment, took over the management of Peak Downs, in Queensland. On 21 March 1923 at St John's Church of England, Toorak, he married Daisy Olive (Peggy) Forrester. In 1924 he acquired Mount Elephant station, near Derrinallum, in Victoria, where he built an airstrip.

After his election in 1930 to the Hampden Shire Council, he played an increasing part in public life. He was a member of the council of the Anglican diocese of Ballarat, though brought up a Presbyterian; in 1932-33 he was president of the Old Geelong Grammarians' Association, and from 1932 a member (and from 1937 chairman) of the school council. He was a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and the Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd. He played polo, golf, lawn tennis and squash, being president of the Australian Squash Racquets Association.

In 1932, as a United Australia Party candidate, Fairbairn was elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of Warrnambool, but he resigned in 1933 to contest successfully the House of Representatives seat of Flinders in a by-election caused by the resignation of Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce. He regularly flew himself between his property and Canberra, where he was recognized as an authority on aviation. In 1935 he flew around Australia, and in 1936, after going to England in an airmail plane, flew himself back to Australia in his own newly acquired machine.

On 26 April 1939, at the outset of the first Menzies government, Fairbairn joined the cabinet as minister for civil aviation and vice-president of the Executive Council; he also assisted the minister for defence. On the outbreak of war in September 1939 he went to Canada to help inaugurate the Empire air scheme whereby airmen from Britain and the dominions were to be trained in Canada. In an historic ceremony in November 1939 he was sworn in at Ottawa as Australian minister for air by Lord Tweedsmuir, governor-general of Canada; this portfolio involved all Royal Australian Air Force matters. Fairbairn was subjected at times to fierce press criticism but he refused to be deflected into useless controversy. Those who worked with him bore witness to his energy, enthusiasm, and tireless, single-minded dedication.

In July 1940 he flew himself around Australia in his D.H. Dragonfly in order to review all R.A.A.F. stations. On 13 August he was killed, together with two other cabinet ministers, Geoffrey Street and Sir Henry Gullett, and the chief of the general staff, General Sir Brudenell White, and others, when the R.A.A.F. bomber in which he was travelling crashed on approaching Canberra airport. 'Jim Fairbairn', (Sir) Robert Menzies said in parliament next day, 'added lustre to his family name. His mind and character were strong, and he displayed an unusual combination of cheerful fellowship with, perhaps, a hint of Scottish dourness. He was slow to speech, but, once engaged, he was gifted in exposition and resolute in advocacy of what he believed to be true'. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and a son Geoffrey Forrester (1924-1980) who became reader in history at the Australian National University and an authority on insurgency movements in Asia. Fairbairn is remembered, not only as an appropriate eponym of Canberra's airport, but for public service given freely and from a sense of duty.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • R. G. Menzies, Afternoon Light (Melb, 1967)
  • H. Fysh, Qantas at War (Syd, 1968)
  • Geelong Grammar School Quarterly, 1909-13, and Corian, 1914-1915, Aug 1916, Dec 1916, Dec 1917, Dec 1918, Aug 1933, Aug 1936, Dec 1938, Aug 1939, Aug 1940, Dec 1940
  • Aircraft (Melbourne), 1 July 1939, 1 June 1940, 2 Sept 1940
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1940
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1940
  • Geelong Advertiser, 14 Aug 1940
  • Geelong Grammar School Archives
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Fairbairn, James Valentine (Jim) (1897–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 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

James Fairbairn, n.d.

James Fairbairn, n.d.

Australian Parliamentary Library

Life Summary [details]


28 July, 1897
Wadhurst, Sussex, England


13 August, 1940 (aged 43)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

air crash

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