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Mary Elizabeth Fairfax (1858–1945)

Miss Mary Elizabeth Fairfax died yesterday morning at her home, Ginahgulla, Bellevue Hill.

Miss Fairfax, who was in her 87th year, was the eldest child of the late Sir James Reading Fairfax and granddaughter of the first John Fairfax, whom she clearly remembered, thus providing a link with the first two generations of the Herald proprietary.

Through her great-grandmother Mrs Oakes she was descended from Sergeant and Miss Small who arrived on the First Fleet with Governor Phillip. Mrs Oakes who was the first white woman born in Australia lived to the age 93 and was also well remembered by Miss Fairfax and their two lives thus span the entire period of Australian history.

Miss Fairfax was a great lady. Few Australians, men or women have left a record of service so crowded and so wide in its ramifications. Few have so unselfishly yet so actively dedicated their lives to the well-being of others. Few have possessed so great a sense of civic responsibility.

Until the very last days of her life her small alert figure was to be seen on Sydney moving from one committee to another. Her energy was boundless. Her intellect remained at its full height to the end. She was a woman of great personal charm, of kindness of heart, of broad sympathy, understanding and generosity. She carried into an era which has often been stigmatised as mercenary and materialist the ideals of public service and civic duty which she acquired in another century, yet the march of the years in no way marred the progressiveness of her outlook.

She was at home with people of all classes and all ages and indeed she was never so happy as when she was with young people whose viewpoint she understood so well. She was broadminded in every sense, tolerant and understanding but at all times positive in her views of right and wrong.

Her generosity knew no limits and it is impossible for anyone to enumerate all the good causes which she helped in the course of her long life. Her public activities are known to those who were associated with her but her thousand and one anonymous acts of kindness and charity will never be known. She would prefer that it should be so.

To a marked degree she possessed the priceless gift of hospitality. Her home at Ginahgulla was almost an open house. Before the war she entertained there countless numbers of people from all strata of society and since the war she had made sections of the stately old mansion available for the billeting of women in the Services and for a time the fine old dining room was turned over completely to their use. With the arrival of Allied Servicemen in Sydney and especially with the arrival of large numbers of British sailors, she threw all her energies into helping to arrange hospitality and entertainment for them. She insisted on meeting them personally and having them at her home. She entertained not only officers of all ranks but privates and ratings.

She was intensely interested in intellectual pursuits and was always anxious to discuss current problems with leading figures in literature, music and art. Her broad sympathy and her gracious manner drew people towards her. She was a woman who enjoyed things intensely—with the zest and enthusiasm one usually expects from the very young she threw herself into whatever interested her. If she was arranging a party, she did it with the joy of a young girl. If she was reading a good new book she would recommend it to her friends with the zeal of a young student who had made a new discovery in literature. If she heard some new piece of good music for the first time she discussed it with enthusiasm and knowledge.

These activities alone would have absorbed all the waking hours of the average person. But Miss Fairfax was above the average. She found time to express in a practical form her great love of trees and flowers and the world of nature She personally was responsible for the appearance of her beautiful gardens at Ginahgulla, and at her country residence at Woodside, Moss Vale. She was not only a skilful gardener, she was almost a practical farmer.

Her energy, her industry, and her application were prodigious. She was a great letter-writer, and every day from her pen there flowed a stream of correspondence to people in all walks of life. She could never be persuaded to employ a secretary, preferring to write her letters in her own hand, and they were not scrappy letters—they were long and interesting ones.

She supervised, and actively participated in the housekeeping at her home, and these duties alone absorbed much of her time in the war years, when domestic help became so difficult to obtain.

It is easy to speak in generalities about the good qualities of people, but in the case of Miss Fairfax, the record of her great public service speaks for itself. Here then, are some of her activities

Like her mother, she was always very prominently associated with the work of the Young Women's Christian Association, and she was identified with the Women's College within the University from its inception, having been the honorary secretary of the ladies' committee which organised its establishment in 1892, and she had been a member of the council of the college ever since. She took an active interest in the affairs of the Kindergarten Union, the District Nursing Association, the Queen Victoria Homes and the Queen’s Jubilee Fund. She gave much of her time to the work of the Boy’s Brigade founded by her father. She was one of the original members of the women’s committee of the ABC Symphony concerts. She was actively associated with the Australian Comforts Fund and she was a member of the council of the Girl Guides Association.

Her association with these organisations was never of a purely nominal character. Whatever she undertook to do she did thoroughly. For instance, in her association with the Bush Book Club not only did she give donations in cash she personally took to the club books which she herself had bought.

One of her greatest interests was the Victoria League, which was very dear to her heart because to her it symbolised a link between Australia and the Old Country to which she had the deepest affection. She had been a member of the New South Wales branch since its formation in 1917 but before that she had joined the League in England. She had been a member of its executive since 1925 and since last year when Miss Onslow died she had been deputy president. Throughout the whole period of her connection with the League she had been extremely active particularly in its work for providing hospitality. In recent months this aspect of the League’s work was almost entirely directed to the needs of visiting British Servicemen.

Another organisation, to which she devoted great attention was the Red Cross Society both in this war and the last. She was a member of the New South Wales central committee. Incredible as it may seem she actually did such work for the Red Cross as sewing. She was an original member of the executive of the Queen’s Jubilee Fund. She has been an active member of the women’s section of the Congregational Church but such was her breadth of mind that she was always ready to help any Church cause and she was associated with many Church of England activities. From early girlhood she had been identified with the work of the London Missionary Society.

So passes a great figure, one of the last of the great Victorians, and the city of Sydney will be infinitely poorer for her going.

Her surviving brothers are Mr Hubert Fairfax, a director of John Fairfax and Sons Pty Limited and Dr E. W. Fairfax (a former director). Her nephew Mr Warwick Fairfax is Managing Director of the firm.

The funeral will take place this afternoon at South Head Cemetery after a service at the Woollahra Congregational Church, Jersey Road, Woollahra. The service will begin at 2.30 p.m.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Fairfax, Mary Elizabeth (1858–1945)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

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