Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kingsley Ogilvie Fairbridge (1885–1924)

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Kingsley Ogilvie Fairbridge (1885-1924), Imperialist and idealist, was born on 2 May 1885 at Grahamstown, South Africa, son of Rhys Seymour Fairbridge, mining engineer and land surveyor, and his wife Rosalie Helen, née Ogilvie. His great-grandfather Dr James William Fairbridge, in 1824 in Capetown, had helped set up a Children's Friend Society. Kingsley briefly attended St Andrew's College before, at 11, he moved with the family to Mashonaland, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). He suffered severe malaria and at 12 had the vision that he would like to bring farmers to this fertile but empty land—it was reinforced by his exposure to the slums of England in 1902. He educated himself and went as a Rhodes scholar to Oxford in 1908.

He was awarded a diploma in forestry at Exeter College (1911) and a boxing blue as a middleweight. Next year with friends he formed the Child Emigration Society (later Fairbridge Society). He planned to initiate a series of farm schools for orphaned and underprivileged children, which would relieve overcrowded English slums and, within an agricultural setting, provide training in the underpopulated areas of the world. He chose Western Australia for his first experiment and on 14 December 1911 married Ruby Ethel Whitmore, who had some nursing training, at Felbridge, Surrey.

They arrived in Perth next year with idealism but little financial expertise or practical agricultural knowledge. They acquired a small mixed farm near Pinjarra where they built accommodation, initially in tents, for the first thirty-five orphans who arrived in 1913. World War I stopped further migration and dried up most of the society's funds. The State government helped with a subsidy and in 1919 the Fairbridges went to England where he raised the money for a 3000-acre (1214 ha) uncleared property north-east of Pinjarra. Next year this farm was laid out and separate cottages built for the boys and girls, each family-sized group with its own garden, designed to avoid an institutionalized approach. The government belatedly provided a formal school, and by 1924 there were 200 children being educated, gradually raised to 400.

The struggle had been justified and the farm school was a success. But the founder, weakened by malaria, died of lymphatic tumour in Perth on 19 July 1924 and was buried at his school. He was survived by his wife (d.1966), two daughters and two sons who all returned to England. The farm school continued under a principal. While Fairbridge's orphans were undeniably given a happy, kindly start in life, for various reasons their training was inadequate and led to their being fitted for only a range of semi-skilled occupations. Lack of finance always limited the founder's dream of 'Great Colleges of Agriculture' and the final result hardly reduced either Britain's over-population or increased Australia's sparse inland settlement.

He wrote Veldt Verse (1909) and an autobiography which was published in 1927. The story of the farm school, Pinjarra, was published by his widow in 1937. A painting of Fairbridge hangs in Rhodes House, Oxford, and there is a statue of him as a boy at Christmas Pass, Umtali, Zimbabwe. The society expanded the farm schools, with branches in other Australian States and Canada. But by the 1970s only the original school survived. An important part of the society activity became the provision of Fairbridge scholarships for British students to Commonwealth universities.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Quarterly, 1929, no 4, p 74
  • Australian Rhodes Review, Mar 1934, p 97
  • RWAHSJ, 1948, p 21
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Sept 1921, 24 Mar 1923, 26 Nov 1930, 21 Mar 1936
  • Western Mail (Perth), 9, 16 Mar 1922, 24 July 1924.

Citation details

'Fairbridge, Kingsley Ogilvie (1885–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 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

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1885
Grahamstown, Cape Province, South Africa


19 July, 1924 (aged 39)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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