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Fairbairn, George (1816–1895)

George Fairbain, 1887

George Fairbain, 1887

from Australasian Pastoralists' Review, 15 August 1895

In 1838 a party, consisting of six gentlemen, arranged in Glasgow to enter upon colonial life in Australia. These were—Dr. Wilson, Dr. Wilkie, Mr. Campbell (of Otter), Mr. Gardiner, Mr. Daniel Mackenzie, and Mr. George Fairbairn. The last-named gentleman arrived at Adelaide on 1st January, 1839, where he learned that Messrs. Campbell and Mackenzie, who had preceded him and the others about a month, had gone to Port Phillip to inspect the country, and not being quite satisfied with the aspect of South Australia, Mr. Fairbairn and his three remaining colleagues, having been advised to await the report of Messrs. Campbell and Mackenzie, pitched their camp on the shore of a bay about six or seven miles from Adelaide, probably on the site where Glenelg now stands.

There they stayed for two months, their daily food being salt pork and damper, but the larder was supplemented by parrots and an occasional turkey which they were able to shoot. When the desire for a more sumptuous repast came upon them, they walked into Adelaide and dined at the York. Flies by day and fleas by night so tormented them that they were glad when word came on 1st March that they were to proceed to Melbourne. Scrambling through a thick scrub from Sandridge, and crossing the Yarra in the ferryboat, they put up at the British Hotel, near the river, and a few days afterwards were joined by Mr. Campbell, who arrived with a bullock team and a horse or two, to conduct them to the station he and Mr. Mackenzie had purchased on the Werribee, the homestead being where Ballan is now. Two years afterwards the party was broken up, and the place sold. Messrs. Fairbairn and Gardiner took their sheep to Lal Lal, but, neither of the partners liking the place, they sold out.

Mr. Fairbairn then spent a few months in Melbourne, waiting for something to turn up. In a sketch of his Australian career, written by himself (from which we gather the foregoing particulars), the following passage occurs:— "At this time a most extraordinary revolution was taking place in the value of all kinds of property. Young sheep, which eighteen months before were readily sold for two guineas each, and even more, were now offered, freely for two-and-sixpence; and, indeed, for less than this, with first-class stations given in. Such a rapid and unprecedented change as this, so completely disastrous to all who had invested earlier, was perfectly bewildering; but furious land speculation, without money, was the principal cause."

In September, 1842, Mr. Fairbairn was offered, and accepted, the management of a sheep station on the Glenelg River, then considered to be the farthest occupied country in the west of the colony. The property was in the Court of Chancery, a Mr. Lyon Campbell acting as receiver in Melbourne. There was great trouble with the blacks in the west then, one of the station hands having been murdered by them a few days before Mr. Fairbairn arrived. In August, 1843, Mr. Fairbairn was at an outstation ten miles up the river, where one day, after dark, news was received that an attack was to be made by the aboriginals on the following day. The party, consisting of four white men on foot, three on horseback, and a black boy for tracking, at once set out for the head station, where the remainder of the night was spent in making ball cartridges and in packing provisions for a three days' march. About 2000 maiden ewes, within a month of shearing, had been already driven off by the blacks, and as Mr. Fairbairn was responsible to the Court of Chancery for all the property, he felt his position to be the reverse of enviable. On the third day, they came across Major Mitchell's tracks, and shortly afterwards saw smoke ascending from the camps of the natives.

We now quote again from Mr. Fairbairn's manuscript:-"Three of us on horseback started full gallop straight for the camps, leaving the infantry to follow as quickly as they could. However, the enemy had seen or heard us first, for we found the blacks had fled. There seemed about 100 camp fires full of legs of mutton cooking for a repast they were doomed never to partake of." Seeing some natives across the river, the horsemen put their horses to the water and managed to cross safely. On the other side, 300 of the ewes were lying on the ground with their legs broken. Swimming across another branch of the river, the horsemen came across a few blacks, who discharged their spears ineffectually at them, and received a few balls in return, two of the natives being hit. It being now dusk, the pursuit was given up, and the blackfellows' camps were all burned, the spears and other implements left on the field being used as part of the fuel. The 800 sheep whose legs were broken were then killed and burned. On the way back to the station the balance of the flock was found and taken home. Strict watch was afterwards kept, the shepherds being mounted on horses, Mr. Fairbairn taking sole charge at night, and at one time was three weeks without being able to take off his clothes.

In the summer another raid was made by the blacks, who came in large numbers, yelling and gesticulating in such a fiendish manner that the three mounted shepherds fled precipitately to the homestead. On that occasion 400 sheep were lost, although a search was made for twenty-five miles—as far as Mount Arapiles in the Wimmera district. Mr. Fairbairn mentioned this as the most disagreeable part of his squatting experiences. In a few months he was successful in inducing a few blacks to come to his station, where they were treated kindly; others following, friendly relations were established, and many of the natives were set to work at assisting to dip the sheep for scab, and washing the sheep at shearing time. Wages and all other accounts being paid by orders on the receiver in Melbourne, Mr. Fairbairn was placed in an awkward predicament by the death of Mr. Lyon Campbell, which owing to the defective mail arrangements of those days he did not hear for three months. There was no other course but to take a flock of sheep to Portland for sale without sanction. This Mr. Fairbairn did, and handed the money to Mr. S. G. Henty, who met the orders as they turned up, and thus the credit of the station was preserved.

Near the end of 1845 Mr. Fairbairn joined Mr. Stirling in the purchase of an adjacent station, Kongbool, which they retained for nine years. "For a few years about this time," wrote Mr. Fairbairn, "there was an amount of substantial comfort everywhere amongst the pastoralists of Victoria, which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed, I believe, in any country." About 1861 Mr. Fairbairn purchased the Eli Elwah (Illilawa?) Station, near Hay, New South Wales, then a cattle station, and turned it into a sheep station, erecting the first wire fencing in the Riverina. When the fencing was completed and the sheep turned out, he often related how he took the last shepherd (a most troublesome class to the squatters) to the boundary gate, shook hands with him, and bade him good-bye without a pang of regret. He sold Eli Elwah at a substantial profit, and invested in a Victorian property with his brother-in-law, Mr. Charles Armytage, a speculation which, owing to the Grant Land Act, resulted very differently.

In 1866 he represented the constituency of Dundas in Parliament for; three years, but did not seek re-election. He bought Peak Downs Station in 1870, this being his first venture in Queensland, where things were then at a very low ebb. The turn soon came, however, wool rising, and good seasons prevailing for over ten years, enabling him to extend his operations by buying unimproved, or only partly improved, stations in Riverina and Queensland, which he improved to carry about a million sheep. He acted as local director of the Union Bank of Australia and the Trust and Agency Company, Melbourne, where his advice on pastoral matters was much esteemed. He took a great interest in the frozen meat industry, being largely instrumental in getting the first shipment of frozen meat despatched by the Protos.

Of late years he left the active management of his properties to his sons, living quietly at his country estate at Lara, near Geelong, having transferred his property to his family, and retaining only an income for himself. He died at Queenscliff on the 18th ult., being just eighty years of age, leaving a family of five sons and one daughter, one son having died during the deceased gentleman's lifetime. The portrait accompanying this notice is from a photograph of Mr. Fairbairn, taken in London when he visited England in 1887. Few colonists have done more than Mr. Fairbairn in his long and active life to develop the pastoral resources of the country of his adoption.

Original publication

Citation details

'Fairbairn, George (1816–1895)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fairbairn-george-363/text364, accessed 24 November 2017.

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