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Mary Elizabeth Fairfax (1858–1945)

by Caroline Simpson

This article was published:

Mary Elizabeth Fairfax (1858-1945), philanthropist and women's leader, was born on 15 March 1858 at Macquarie Street, Sydney, eldest of seven children and only daughter of (Sir) James Reading Fairfax, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Lucy, née Armstrong. Upon her arrival her father exclaimed, 'only a girl'. The family moved in 1867 to Trahlee, Bellevue Hill, built by her father; after the death of her grandfather John Fairfax in 1877, they moved again, to his nearby house, Ginahgulla. Mary was educated at home. The Fairfaxes spent 1881-83 abroad: with her parents, who were assiduous visitors of galleries and museums, she toured the Riviera and Italy. Back in Sydney, from 1884 they spent the summer months at Woodside, their country house at Moss Vale.

A foundation member (1887) of the executive of the Queen's Jubilee Fund, Miss Fairfax acted as honorary secretary for the ladies' committee, set up in 1887 to promote and endow a college for women at the University of Sydney; from 1893 until her death she was a councillor of Women's College. She was a State council-member of the Girl Guides' Association and was actively associated with the Boys' Brigade (founded by her father), the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Young Women's Christian Association, the Kindergarten Union, the (Sydney) District Nursing Association and the Bush Book Club. During World War I and II she worked for the Australian Comforts Fund and the British (Australian) Red Cross Society.

The Victoria League was very dear to her heart because it symbolized a link between Australia and the 'Old Country'. She joined the league in England, and was a founder (1917) and executive-member (1925-45) of its New South Wales branch. President (1912-19) and a vice-president (1920-45) of the Society of Arts and Crafts of New South Wales, she enjoyed contemporary exhibitions, though not as a collector. She was a foundation member (1936) of the Sydney Symphony Orchestral Ladies' Committee.

After her mother's death in 1925, Mary had inherited Ginahgulla and Woodside, as well as 2196 of her father's shares in John Fairfax & Sons Ltd, publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald. With an eye to the progress and reputation of the newspaper, she visited its offices periodically. She took on her large houses with her usual energy, delighted in their gardens and liked farming at Woodside; she retained the Victorian furnishings of the homes in which she had grown up. Remembered for her hospitality at Ginahgulla, she entertained all manner of people, from leading figures in literature, art and music to allied servicemen. Despite wartime difficulties and the dining-room being used to billet servicewomen, she continued all her life the custom (dating from 1858) of holding the family Christmas lunch at Ginahgulla. Children looked forward to peanut-hunts at the annual parties she held for them. Mary was a short, compact woman, with fair skin, blue eyes and white hair worn in a neat roll. A prim mien belied her lively sense of humour and her kindness. No matter the fashion, she wore light-coloured, full-length dresses with long sleeves and white gloves.

Mary Fairfax died on 20 May 1945 at Ginahgulla and was buried in the family grave in South Head cemetery, following a service at Woollahra Congregational Church where she had worshipped regularly. Her estate was sworn for probate at £428,278: substantial bequests were made to charities and employees, and the bulk was left to the Fairfax family. Ginahgulla was bought by Scots College. The Women's College council established the Mary Fairfax Memorial Library, assisted by her legacy of £1000. A brass plaque, dedicated to her memory in 1948 at the Woollahra Congregational Church, survived the 1989 fire and is held by the Uniting Church.

The breadth of her interests was astonishing. Her eager mind, alert for new ideas, made her a valuable counsellor to the innumerable charities with which she was connected. She was broad-minded and tolerant, but positive in her views of right and wrong, and she never compromised the standards of conduct of her upbringing. Given her spontaneous generosity, the full measure of her philanthropy will never be calculated. Miss Mary, as she was known from childhood, was the quintessential maiden aunt. Inheriting ideas of public service from an earlier century, she was among the last of the great Victorians.

Select Bibliography

  • G. N. Griffiths, Some Houses and People of New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • J. F. Fairfax, Drift of Leaves (Syd, 1952)
  • W. V. Hole and A. H. Treweeke, The History of the Women's College within the University of Sydney (Syd, 1953)
  • C. Simpson, John Fairfax, 1804-1877 (Syd, 1977)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • G. Souter, Heralds and Angels (Melb, 1991)
  • J. O. Fairfax, My Regards to Broadway (Syd, 1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald , 7 Dec 1932, 21, 22 May, 4, 8 June 1945
  • Sun (Sydney), 27 Aug 1945
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Caroline Simpson, 'Fairfax, Mary Elizabeth (1858–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 13 April 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 14

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