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Sir James Reading Fairfax (1834–1919)

by Caroline Simpson

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with James Oswald Fairfax

Sir James Reading Fairfax (1834-1919) and Sir James Oswald Fairfax (1863-1928), newspaper proprietors, were father and son. James Reading was born on 17 October 1834 at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England, second son of John Fairfax, newspaper proprietor, and his wife Sarah, née Reading. On 26 September 1838 the family reached Sydney in the Lady Fitzherbert. Fairfax attended St Philip's Church infants' school and W. T. Cape's Sydney College. At 16 he was apprenticed as a printer at the Sydney Morning Herald, then owned by his father and Charles Kemp. He entered the Herald office in George Street aged 18 and worked in various departments. In December 1856 he became a partner in John Fairfax & Sons, with his father and elder brother Charles (d.1863). On 12 March that year at the Pitt Street Congregational Church he married Lucy, daughter of John Armstrong, surveyor, and granddaughter of Francis Oakes. They lived at Trahlee, Bellevue Hill, until moving to his father's nearby house, Ginahgulla, in 1877. In the 1880s he built Woodside at Moss Vale.

With important business interests Fairfax was a founder and director of the Perpetual Trustee Co. and a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, the Bank of New South Wales, the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd. He was active in the Congregational Union of New South Wales and, among many charitable interests, president of the Young Men's Christian Association, a founder and director of the Boys' Brigade, the Sydney Ragged Schools, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was first president of the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association. He was also closely connected with the establishment of the Mission to Seamen, Goodenough Royal Naval House and the Volunteer Rifles; in 1860-64 he was captain of No.3 Company, Sydney Battalion. He was knighted in 1898.

In 1871 Fairfax helped to set up the short-lived New South Wales Academy of Art and in 1874 was one of five trustees appointed to administer a vote of £500 to establish an art gallery: he was a trustee, vice-president and fourth president of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales—to promote it he offered valuable prizes for pencil drawings. Confident in his staff at the Herald he travelled widely with his family, enjoying the art galleries of Europe. At Ginahgulla his furnishing included a fine painted ceiling in the aesthetic style of the 1890s. A music-lover, he helped to found the (Royal) Philharmonic Society of Sydney in 1884 and, later, the Sydney Amateur Orchestral Society; he was a guarantor of Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

His keen perception and extensive reading gave Fairfax a wide grasp of world affairs, which enlarged the Herald's outlook. He retained a firm grip on the paper's policy and supervised the introduction of 'first-rate technical equipment'. Believing in irrigation, he sent A. B. Paterson on tour to report on feasible schemes; their enthusiasm contributed to the construction of Burrinjuck Dam. In 1918 he wrote 'Recollections of old Sydney' for the journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society. He was a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1868-1919. A keen yachtsman, he was commodore of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in 1884-89, 1893-95 and 1904-13; in 1912 he presented the squadron with the Fairfax Cup, engraved with his famous yacht Magic, in which he won many races. He was also a member of the Union Club and president of Royal Sydney Golf Club.

Sir James died at Ginahgulla on 28 March 1919 and was buried in South Head cemetery after a service at Woollahra Congregational Church, where a memorial window was installed in 1924. He was survived by his wife, daughter and by five of his six sons, of whom the three eldest joined John Fairfax & Sons Ltd.

His third son James Oswald was born on 26 April 1863 at 189 Macquarie Street. Educated at Sydney Grammar School and Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1885), he was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple on 26 January 1886 and admitted to the colonial Bar on his return to Sydney on 14 February 1887. In 1889 he entered John Fairfax & Sons. On 22 November 1892 at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral he married Mabel Alice Emmeline (1871-1965), second daughter of Francis Hixson.

In June 1909 Fairfax represented the Herald at the first Imperial Press Conference held in London, which led to the formation of the Empire Press Union; he was chairman of its Australian section until 1920 and in 1925-28. He led the Australian delegation at the third Imperial Press Conference in Melbourne in 1925. He was a director of John Fairfax & Sons Ltd from 1916, when it was registered as a public company, and of the Perpetual Trustee Co., the United Insurance Co. and the A.M.P. Society. In 1927 he participated in the first Empire wireless and telegraph and telephone concert from Sydney to London, organized by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd, radio station 2FC and the Herald.

From 1914 Fairfax was foundation chairman of the New South Wales division of the Australian branch of the British Red Cross Society, and during World War I devoted himself to its affairs and fund-raising activities. In May 1918 he and T. W. Heney represented the Herald on a delegation of Australian journalists invited to visit the Western Front by the British government. Charles Bean found him 'one of the most human of the party' and 'a bit of a sport'. He described with feeling his experiences in the Herald from December. That year he was appointed C.B.E. and in 1926 was knighted.

An ardent motorist from about 1903, Fairfax acquired a 6 h.p. Dion; he competed in several reliability trials organized by the (Royal) Automobile Club of Australia. He also enjoyed sailing and golf. Interested in education, he was chairman of the Boys' Brigade and president of the Sydney Grammar School old Boys' Union. His wife was well known in Sydney as 'Lady Jim'; she was a person of forthright character and wit. An excellent golfer, she won the Royal Sydney Golf Club's associates championship in 1899, 1903, 1906 and 1916. She created lovely gardens at her homes, Fairwater on Seven Shillings Beach, Double Bay, and Sospel at Leura in the Blue Mountains.

Sir James died suddenly from heart disease on the links at Royal Sydney on 18 July 1928 and was buried with Anglican rites in South Head cemetery. He was survived by his wife and son, Warwick Oswald Fairfax. Remembered for many useful and kindly acts associated with charitable and philanthropic organizations, carried out in his quiet but authoritative way, he bequeathed £10,000 each to Sydney Grammar School and to the University of Sydney and presented to the university the Red Cross bell for its carillon.

A portrait of J. R. Fairfax by Tom Roberts and one of J. O. Fairfax by W. A. Bowring are held by John Fairfax & Sons; one of J. O. Fairfax by John Longstaff is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • C. B. Fletcher (ed), Sir James Reading Fairfax (Syd, 1920)
  • J. Fairfax & Sons Ltd, Century of Journalism (Syd, 1931)
  • J. F. Fairfax, The Story of John Fairfax (Syd, 1941)
  • G. N. Griffiths, Point Piper, Past and Present (Syd, 1947), and Some Houses and People of New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • P. R. Stephensen (ed), Sydney Sails (Syd, 1962)
  • C. W. Semmler, The Banjo of the Bush (Melb, 1975)
  • C. Simpson, John Fairfax 1804-1877 (Syd, 1977)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • Art and Australia, 10 (1972), no 1
  • C. E. W. Bean, diaries (Australian War Memorial)
  • Fairfax family papers, 1846-47, 1873-1945 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Caroline Simpson, 'Fairfax, Sir James Reading (1834–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 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]


17 October, 1834
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England


28 March, 1919 (aged 84)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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