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Fairfax, Lady Nancy (1916–2007)

by Michael D. De B. Collins Persse

Lady Nancy Fairfax, the widow of Sir Vincent Fairfax, was so styled by permission of the Queen, to avoid confusion with her neighbour in Double Bay, also Lady Fairfax, the wife of Vincent's cousin, Sir Warwick. A leader, with great organising ability in several fields, particularly early childhood development, she was also generous with her time and donations to worthy causes.

Born at Weybridge, Surrey, she became after her marriage a good Australian, but remained unmistakably English. The family was expected to stand when God Save the Queen was played with the Queen's Christmas message.

Having married into the Fairfax family, who for nearly 150 years were proprietors of the Herald, she and Vincent quietly imbued their children with their sense of public duty and obligation, as people to whom much had been given, to give much back in return.

Not that she suffered fools gladly. Her father, Dr Charles Brehmer Heald, to whom she was close, would call her Bossy Boots and Sergeant-Major as a child.

She was the eldest of three sisters; her mother, Edith Hildegard Mason, also came from a medical family. Nancy was delivered by her maternal grandfather, who travelled in a horse-drawn trap driven by a coachman. In 1922 her family moved to a four-storeyed house in Hampstead with several servants.

She boarded from 1929 at Benenden, now a famous girls school chosen by the Queen for Princess Anne. A good scholar, she loved English and developed a habit of quick and omnivorous reading. Lacrosse was her game. Her later school days were blighted by two grave illnesses, glandular fever and a double mastoid, which brought her close to death in those pre-antibiotic days.

After school she worked voluntarily for charities in London, spent six months of 1935 at Freiburg in Germany, mastered the language, watched Hitler's chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, drive by and was presented at court in the last year of King George V.

In 1936 she worked voluntarily for the Fairbridge Farm School, whose aim was to strengthen the British Empire by resettling needy British children in overseas dominions, and sailed with two colleagues and 28 Fairbridge children in the Oronsay for Western Australia.

Nancy travelled in Australia and, in 1937, to New Zealand in the Awatea, when she met a big-nosed chap, Vincent Fairfax (his nickname at Geelong Grammar School was Beaky). She soon returned to Sydney to meet Vincent's parents, Hubert, a grazier in Queensland, and Ruth, a founder of the Country Women's Association whom Nancy came to love.

Vincent and Nancy were married in 1939 in London, where he managed the Fairfax office, before arriving back in Australia on the day war was declared, September 3, 1939.

Vincent joined the army as a gunner in the 18th Field Regiment, serving in the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade, at army headquarters and on Morotai in the Borneo campaign. Nancy made camouflage nets, fed departing soldiers and helped entertain men of the navy in port.

Their children, Sally, John, Timothy, and Ruth, were born in the 1940s and the family moved in 1950 from The Boulders to the family house of Elaine, both in Double Bay. Weekends were often spent at Wanawong, at Castle Hill. Vincent's prominence on the Commonwealth Press Union, the Royal Agricultural Society, the Scout Association and companies including Stanbroke Pastoral and the Bank of NSW gave his wife more of a public face.

If she could seem a little frightening to those who did not know her, they were quickly thawed by her charm and honesty. A touch of steel in her at times complemented his essential gentleness.

The tennis court at Elaine was much used as the children grew, and Seven Shilling Beach saw much swimming. Visitors included the actress and author Joyce Grenfell, who wrote of this friendship in her autobiography, and Lady Susan Hussey, lady-in-waiting to the Queen. The family had a loyal staff, although, given the presence of the butler and others, the Fairfax children were sometimes reluctant to bring their schoolfriends home. Nancy also fished, especially at the family farm near Cooma.

She gradually took on a busy public life — as honorary editor of Countrywomen Journal and energetic advocate for the needs and rights of young children and the value of early childhood education. She served as a volunteer with the Red Cross, on the board of Rachel Forster Hospital, as patron of both the Foundation for Aged Care and the Malcolm Sargent Cancer Fund, and established the Alzheimer's Australia (NSW) Vincent Fairfax Family Resource Centre at Ryde.

She worked with the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, a large philanthropic organisation, and the Vincent Fairfax Ethics in Leadership Program, managed by the St James Ethics Centre.

A lover of the arts, she supported the Art Gallery of NSW, the Australian Ballet and the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and contributed to restoration work at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, where her funeral service will be held on Monday.

Her son John mused that his mother's organisational powers might have had something to do even with the unforgettable date of her death —the seventh day of the seventh month, 2007.

In 1974 she was made an Officer of the British Empire for her services to early childhood education. In 2004 the University of NSW made her an honorary doctor of letters for her long and distinguished service to the community.

Nancy Fairfax is survived by her four children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 2007

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michael D. De B. Collins Persse, 'Fairfax, Lady Nancy (1916–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fairfax-lady-nancy-13823/text24678, accessed 24 November 2017.

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