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Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax (1901–1987)

from Canberra Times

Sir Warwick Fairfax, a director of the Sydney-based media group John Fairfax and Sons Ltd and one of the major figures in Australian publishing for more than 50 years, died yesterday.

Sir Warwick, aged 85, died at his home, Fairwater, in the Sydney suburb of Double Bay, yesterday afternoon.

Sir Warwick, a great-grandson of the founder of The Sydney Morning Herald, was born on December 19, 1901, and was associated with the Fairfax group's growth as one of the country's big three media conglomerates.

Fairfax, or subsidiary companies, also publish The Sun, The Sun-Herald, The Canberra Times, The Australian Financial Review and a range of magazines in Sydney, and has newspaper interests interstate, the most important being The Age, Melbourne.

It also has extensive television and radio interests, including Sydney's Channel 7.

Sir Warwick became a director of John Fairfax in 1927, after the death of his father, Sir James Fairfax; he became managing director in 1930 and then chairman in 1956, a position he held until 1977. He was succeeded as chairman by his son, Mr James Fairfax. He remained a director until his death.

Sir Warwick, who was educated at Sydney and Oxford Universities and had an MA, also took a close interest in the arts. He wrote three plays staged in Sydney in the 1950s and several books. His plays were A Victorian Marriage, Vintage for Heroes and The Bishop's Wife.

His books included Men, Parties and Policies, published in 1943, and The Triple Abyss — Towards a Modern Synthesis, published in 1965.

Sir Warwick also edited A Century of Journalism — The Sydney Morning Herald and its record of Australian Life, published in 1931.

A member of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, he was knighted for services to the community in 1967.

Sir Warwick married his third wife, Mary, on July 4, 1959. He is survived by her and by six children — James and Caroline (Mrs Phillip Simpson), from his first marriage; Annalise (Mrs David Thomas), from his second marriage in 1948; Warwick, from his third marriage, and two adopted children, Anne and Charles.

In Company of Heralds, Gavin Souter's history of The Sydney Morning Herald, Sir Warwick's rise to leadership of the company in the last three years of its first century is described.

"As if to dispose of the old establishment before a new century began, death came in consecutive years to Sir James Fairfax, W. G. Conley and Geoffrey Fairfax. There was never any doubt about who would then become the dominant shareholder...... No one had foreseen, however, that Warwick Fairfax would have to take prime responsibility so soon, or that he would do it bereft of all his predecessors on the board.

"In Warwick Fairfax, the fourth generation, resided the traditions of father, grandfather and great grandfather, and the hopes of his contemporaries.

"In appearance he represented a distinct departure from the family mould. The last three generations of Fairfax men had tended towards middle stature and heavy features; Fairfax the fourth was slender and tall (six feet two inches), with the face of a scholar or perhaps a young priest. As a child and young man he was shy, a slow worker, but a careful and industrious one. His parents were strict with him. They had high expectations and he tried hard to please them.

"His early education took place at Llanillo, the home of the Stephen family ... on Bellevue Hill. At the age of 11 he was taken to England by his parents and enrolled for a year at Warden House, a preparatory school in Deal, Kent."

In 1915 he began at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, where he spent the next five years. He distinguished himself at classical studies but not at sport. He passed the Leaving Certificate in 1917, gaining second-class honours in Latin and Greek in his final year. He edited the school journal from 1917 to 1919.

"[He] was awarded the Cuthbertson Essay Prize for upper school," Souter wrote, "but was beaten to the English Poem Prize by Alistair Stephen. When J. O. Fairfax heard of his disappointment, he asked his son to send him a copy of Stephen's poem, a translation of one of Horace's odes, O Eons Bandusiae. After reading it he wrote back and explained the probable reasons why the judges had preferred it to Warwick's stanzas on The West Wind.

"Warwick Fairfax's inevitable destination was Balliol, his father's college at Oxford. He spent two terms in 1920 at St Paul's College, University of Sydney, and then, in 1921, embarked with his parents for a tour of the French battlefields and enrolment at Balliol."

In the summer of 1923 he stayed with a family in Heidelberg for some weeks to learn German. From his experiences he wrote two articles for the Herald on the German crisis.

"These were his first essays in journalism, and he took to it from the start with a confidence and ease which many journalists never achieve in a lifetime of writing."

While at Oxford he kept in touch with the Herald through its London office.

"He graduated in 1925 with a Second in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He joined the Herald in September of that year; became a director... in 1927 and on March 24, 1928, married Marcie Elizabeth Wilson, the attractive only child of Sydney barrister David Wilson of Rose Bay."

During his first two years at the office, Warwick Fairfax contributed frequently to the pages of the Herald; 21 articles in 1926, including a series of five entitled "The World Today — Statesmen's Views", two on the Middle Ages and two on the Renaissance; 15 in 1927, including four on the doctrines of Dr Sun Yat-Sen. His byline appeared less frequently after he joined the board, and only rarely after his full assumption of authority.

On June 30, 1930, a meeting of sharcholders resolved that Warwick Fairfax be appointed managing director. In 1931 he built his own house on Bellevue Hill — Barford — named after a village in Warwickshire.

While retaining and fulfilling his responsibilities, Warwick Fairfax became less closely concerned with the running of the company after World War II. A major interest during the fifties and early sixties was the formulation and writing of his book on metaphysics, The Triple Abyss.

In January, 1961, he resigned from the chairmanship of John Fairfax Limited and Mr Rupert Henderson was elected in his place. His resignation was attributed to private and personal reasons. He was re-elected chairman four weeks later.

After considerable manoeuvring at board level, Sir Warwick resigned the chairmanship of the company, which took effect from March 1, 1977. He continued to serve as a director until his death.

In the words of Gavin Souter, "Sir Warwick was not by nature a business magnate, but he had the good judgment to recognise that quality in Rupert Henderson and give it free rein. By that — combined with his own positive contributions, and in spite of certain qualities which others regarded as shortcomings — he had done more for the company than any of his forebears."

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Sir Warwick Oswald Fairfax

Citation details

'Fairfax, Sir Warwick Oswald (1901–1987)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

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