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Sir James Reading Fairfax (1834–1919)

from Register

James Fairfax, by Tom Roberts, 1898

James Fairfax, by Tom Roberts, 1898

National Portrait Gallery, 2002.74

Sir James Fairfax, who has been in ill health for a long time, died this afternoon.

James Reading Fairfax was born at Leamington, Warwickshire, England, on October 17, 1834. His father, the late Hon. John Fairfax, M.L.C., was a newspaper proprietor, and, ruined by a libel action, came to Australia with his young family in 1838. The Fairfax family was a notable one in Warwickshire for centuries, and one of them was a supporter of Cromwell and of the cause of religious independence. James Reading Fairfax owed much to the qualities of his ancestors, who were sturdy folk, clean living, and of a spirit that brooked no tyranny.

Soon after the arrival of the family in Sydney, there began that connection with the Sydney Morning Herald which has continued ever since—and which has so interwoven the history of the paper with the biography of James Reading Fairfax that they cannot be separated. The Herald was established in 1831 by Stephens and Stokes—a four-page weekly, at 7d. In 1833 it became a bi-weekly, at 6d.; in 1837, a tri-weekly: and in 1840 a daily. The late John Fairfax, with Mr. Edward Kemp, bought the paper in 1851. The latter soon retired, and James Reading Fairfax, then aged 17 years, started work in the office. In 1857 John Fairfax took into partnership his two sons, Charles and James Reading, and a few years later Charles died, and Edward Ross Fairfax became junior partner. On the death of the Hon. John Fairfax in 1877, James Reading became senior proprietor; Edward Ross Fairfax subsequently retired and died in England a few years ago. On his retirement, the proprietors, were Sir James and three sons Charles Burton, Geoffrey Evan, and James Oswald. Charles Burton retired a few years ago, and recently the partnership was merged into a proprietary company, with Sir James Fairfax and his sons—the third generation—as directors. Notwithstanding the wide range of his social and business activities, Sir James Fairfax was first and foremost a newspaper man, and to the last he maintained a keen and zealous interest in all that concerned the papers (the Herald and the Sydney Mail) and their duty to the public. No interest, no influence, was allowed to interfere with what he conceived to be this duty. Whatever attitude the Herald took up (Sir James was too human to claim that the attitude was necessarily or always right), it was honestly assumed, and the policy fairly, and justly pursued. When the honour of knighthood was bestowed upon James Reading Fairfax on July 29, 1898, it was widely regarded as a recognition of the manner in which the recipient had upheld the best traditions of British journalism in this country, although his other public services richly merited the honour.

Perhaps not so combative as his father, James Reading Fairfax inherited his fine qualities of independence, shrewdness, business capacity, and zeal for the public welfare. He was solid and sure rather than imaginative. In his long career he had known many politicians, but politics had little attraction for him. He preferred the ideals of social service, of religion, and philanthropy. To these he brought business-like methods, sound commonsense, and a generous purse—the whole making, in the course of a long life, a tremendous contribution to the public good. It would take a great deal of space to do justice to Sir James Fairfax's business and social activities. As a newspaper proprietor, and like his father before him, he was naturally associated with most public movements, which took shape in the community. Their joint lives covered a period of about 80 years of continuous public service. John Fairfax was among the founders of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, and for years a director. His son took out one of the first policies of insurance, and was also a director; and so was a grandson. John Fairfax was one of the promoters of the company that erected the Pyrmont bridge; the son helped the work till the bridge was taken over by the government. It seems a small matter in these days, but the bridge was an immense public service at the time. Father and son were for many years directors of the Bank of New South Wales. Sir James was one of the founders of the Perpetual Trustee Company, and was a director till shortly before his death, and many other enterprises necessary to the progress and prosperity of the State benefited by his advice and assistance.

But he found his greatest field of endeavour outside the newspaper office, in religious and philanthropic work. His first care, of course, was for the Congregational Church, of which he was one of the chief supporters—in this again he followed in the footsteps of his father. He was one of the founders of Camden College. He was a prominent worker in and office bearer of the Y.M.C.A., the London Missionary Society, the Boys' Brigade, and the Ragged School. His association with Prince Alfred Hospital is worthy of special mention. He had been a generous giver to that institution, and for many years occupied a seat on the board.

Sir James took a lively interest in military matters, and did a great deal for the encouragement of rifle shooting in pre-federation days. Yachting was his special hobby. As a member of the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron, of which he was many times commodore, he did much for the sport that is the peculiar grace of Sydney Harbour. For a life time he was a supporter of the famous anniversary regatta. In late years he had been known as the owner of the beautiful steam yacht Isis, which was recently broken up and sold. During the last 20 years his pleasant afternoons on the Isis, entertaining friends or notable visitors, have given great pleasure to all who were privileged to enjoy them, and he will be remembered as the commodore of the yacht squadron, receiving its guests on such notable occasions as the opening of the sailing season. There are still alive a few enthusiasts who can tell us of the days when James R. Fairfax's Magic (during recent years so well known in South Australia) fairly swept the seas of all competitors, and under handicap conditions won 23 races out of 73 starts. Sir Edmund Barton, Hon. R. J. Black, M.L.C., and Mr. A. G. Milson still remain off the goodly company of those days. As is natural in one so fond of the salt water, Sir James took an interest in sailors, and was one of the chief supporters of the Sailors' Home, the Mission to Seamen, and the Royal Humane Society.

"Length of days" was granted Sir James Fairfax, with a happy and well-ordered domestic life. He was married on March 21, 1857, to Lucy, daughter of the late John Armstrong, of Sydney, who survives him. There were six sons and one daughter—Messrs. Charles Burton, Geoffrey Evan, James Oswald, Harold (who died a few years ago), Wilfred (a major in the A.M.C., who served in France), and Miss Mary Fairfax. Sir James's elder brother, Charles, died many years ago and his younger brother, Edward Ross, about four years ago. His sister-in-law, Miss Armstrong, died in Sydney last year, aged 88. Sir James was much the same in his private and domestic relations as in his business life. Methodical, painstaking, and conscientious, he managed to do his duty as well as to see it, notwithstanding that the work involved would have been impossible to less orderly minds. A love of art found expression in the collection of pictures and rare coins, the loan of which has at times enriched the National Art Gallery in Sydney, which he helped to establish and to govern for many years. Sir James’s mind was peculiarly well stored in personal anecdotes of the many famous people he had met. He loved to collect old pictures and other historical evidences, and talked in a fascinating way when he hit upon a vein of reminiscence. He was induced a little while ago to gather up some of this interesting material, and it was read before the Australian Historical Society. Extracts, with illustrations, were printed in the Sydney Mail, and were eagerly read not only by students of early Australian history, but by the ordinary reader. A great music lover, he gave generously to such institutions as the Liedertafel, the Amateur Orchestral Society, and the Philharmonic Society, and many famous works were made available to concert goers through his liberality.

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Citation details

'Fairfax, Sir James Reading (1834–1919)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

James Fairfax, by Tom Roberts, 1898

James Fairfax, by Tom Roberts, 1898

National Portrait Gallery, 2002.74

Life Summary [details]


17 October, 1834
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England


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

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