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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Caroline Simpson (1930–2003)

by Valerie Lawson

from Sydney Morning Herald

At the age of 9, Caroline Simpson excelled at essay writing.

'Take up writing," instructed Miss Dobson, her teacher at Ascham School. Instead, Caroline took up causes—none more passionately than the past. In the words of her husband, Philip Simpson, "Caroline was a historian, really."

The elder child of an elegant society hostess and a wealthy, powerful father, Caroline could have led a public life as a writer and publisher, like her father, Sir Warwick Fairfax.

But she was born at a time, and into a family, that preordained her for a private, though influential life. She never worked for money, except for the time she discovered that Fortnum & Mason did not sell oven mitts. Her homemade mitts were then sold through the London retail Emporium.

She was always at work behind the scenes, terrier-like, adept at lassoing networks into action, a crusader for colonial art and architecture, “a natural conservative" and a woman "of very firm purpose", in the words of her brother, James Fairfax.

Caroline's "command central" was the telephone in her home in Sydney's grand dress circle suburb of Bellevue Hill. Appropriately, the house is in Fairfax Road, near the old Knox family home, and built on the former tennis court of the home of Sir Warwick's lawyer, the late Sir Alistair Stephen.

The names Fairfax, Knox and Stephen are representative of Caroline's era of Sydney society, a time of parlour games and finishing schools, languid holidays at Palm Beach, of Romano's and Prince's restaurants, the Black and White Ball, of a time when the Fairfax family controlled John Fairfax Publications and the Fairfax family friends were the Stephens, the Knoxes, the Allens, and the Lloyd Joneses.

Yet, despite her great interest in Australia's history, Caroline did not live in the past, taking much interest in the present. Like the journalist she never was, she always wanted to know what was really happening.

As her friend Prue Wyndham said, Caroline was "an up and about sort of person", out of the house at a brisk pace after her early morning round of phone calls.

"Caroline Simpson here," she would tell her caller, or simply "It's Caroline!" The wake-up call switched the recipient onto Caroline time, and into the workings of the city. Her call list included Herald journalists, including the late Annette Dupree, myself, and Daphne Guinness. Did we know? What should be done about? Something in Sydney life was amusing, appalling, dreadful or ridiculous, and definitely calling for action.

If we thought her views were too outrageous, she would accept a knockback with grace. If teased in print, she would never take umbrage, and seemed to enjoy publicity, such as that which followed the recent sale of Fairfax's corporate art collection.

Her calls might concern the environment, the state of historic houses, politics, a spot of bother at the Royal Botanic Gardens, or her love of the television show At Home with the Braithwaites, about a family which wins money in the lottery and whose members make a mess of their lives. Throughout her adult life, her main focus was the first 50 or so years of white settlement in Australia. As Fairfax historian Gavin Souter said, "She cared about the past, and was one of its most responsible and serious custodians."

She cared nothing, however, of politically correct views, and spoke her mind freely and without fear of contradiction. At dinner parties, if she did not agree with the views of other guests, she was known to leave the table, said Prue Wyndham. "I don't think an open mind was one of her attributes," she said, "but I don't think she made up her mind without knowledge.”

A voracious reader of newspapers, Caroline took much interest in John Fairfax Publications, and clipped many press and magazine articles to send to her friends. Her house was filled with books and an excellent collection of colonial paintings.

Her main stage was the city of Sydney but she was as much at home at the Sutton Forest country property and in their London flat.

Despite her wealth, Caroline did not waste money on herself. Until a windfall gain of the late 1980s, triggered by the unsuccessful takeover of John Fairfax Publications by her half-brother, Warwick Fairfax, Caroline travelled economy class to England, telling friends it was a complete waste of money to pay more.

After the takeover, that view changed, as did many things in her life. Then she was able to take up serious collecting, and indulge her dream of owning Clyde Bank, the oldest Georgian house in Sydney. She bought the three-storey house in Lower Fort Street in 1992, and spent three years restoring it, adding three kitchens designed by her favourite architect, Espie Dods. Clyde Bank was opened to the public as an art gallery of colonial art and furniture.

Caroline did not like the term "art museum", preferring the more vibrant, living word "gallery." She was particular in her use of words, and had a knack of picking the emotive phrase, the well thought out comment, or the sharp response, delivered with the timing of an actor.

She said of Espie Dods, "He is charming. No, charming is not the right word. A head waiter can be charming."

When her half-brother Warwick moved into his father's old office, she remarked: "Warwick has been an absentee landlord. What do they say? There's no fertiliser as good as the master's footprint."

When a man was introduced to her as the "partner" of a woman, Caroline asked "bed or business?"

When Prue Wyndham suggested she pick up a hitchhiker on the way to Palm Beach, Caroline responded, "Certainly not, there's a perfectly good bus service.”

Another friend, Martha Rutledge, thinks Caroline had "a kind of puritanical streak of the Congregational Church. Not so much a religious streak, but puritanical principles."

It was once said of Caroline that she was "imperious but shy." James Fairfax believes her conservatism might have flowed from uncertainties in their upbringing, resulting from the divorce of their parents.

Caroline was the elder child of Marcie Elizabeth (known as Betty) Fairfax (nee Wilson) and Sir Warwick Fairfax, who married in 1928. Born in October 1930, she was brought up in her parents' home, Barford, in Bellevue Hill. She and her brother, James, played in the idyllic garden setting, and could also roam in the adjacent garden of the original Fairfax family home, Ginahgulla. They grew up with a strong sense of family history, and were cared for by a flotilla of servants, among them a cook, butler, housemaid, parlourmaid, kitchenmaid, Mother's personal maid, chauffeur, gardener, and Nanny — Bertha Mary Tamblin, who had looked after the children of the Marquess of Linlithgow, later the Viceroy of India.

James has written in his memoir, My Regards to Broadway, that "Nanny was kind, firm, and practical with common sense ... She had a large wooden spoon and used to rap us over the knuckles for disobedience." On two of their summer holidays, he and Caroline stayed with Nurse Craig in a small wooden cottage in Florida Road, Palm Beach, while their parents stayed at another house at the end of beach.

They attended Rosemont Play School, run by Mrs Charles Lloyd Jones in her house, Rosemont, in Woollahra, then a kindergarten, Fairfield. In their early years, they were driven to school in the Rolls by the chauffeur.

Caroline was a 16-year-old student at Ascham when her parents divorced and her mother married the French navy commander, Pierre Gilly. Caroline then lived with her mother and stepfather in Tokyo, and attended a finishing school near Interlaken.

Back home in Sydney, she returned to Barford, living with her father and his new wife, Hanne. At Barford, she had her own apartment of a few rooms, nicknamed "Caroline's ivory tower" by her father.

In the mid-1950s, Caroline met her future husband, Philip Simpson, then a partner in the law firm Minter, Simpson & Co, in which his father and grandfather had also been partners. They married at All Saints, Woollahra, in April 1959, and a year later, asked John Amory to design a family home in Fairfax Road. They moved into the house in 1961.

That year also marked the start of a committee that dominated Caroline's life for the next quarter of a century. It was the women's committee of the National Trust, formed by Dame Helen Blaxland. Caroline was the backbone of the chairwoman in the mid-1980s.

The committee’s own “command centre" was Lindesay, the historic house in Darling Point, and Caroline contributed to a book on its history.

When her children were in their 20s, she became ever more active in writing, publishing and collecting, co-authoring Ascham Remembered 1886-1986. She was convener of an exhibition about her great-uncle, the architect Hardy Wilson, contributed to Australian Antiques - First Fleet to Federation, wrote postscripts to books on New South Wales' houses, by Nesta Griffiths, and contributed many entries to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a project she recently rescued from financial strife with a gift of $100,000.

In the 1990s, she published books, including Railways, Relics and Romance, on the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, with photographs by David Moore, and established the Caroline Simpson Scholarship at the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture in Britain.

Caroline was a silent philanthropist, never drawing attention to her gifts to the Art Gallery of NSW and State Library of NSW.

In all this busyness, her abiding interest was her own family, past and present. Early in 2001, one of Caroline's calls came at the usual time, early in the morning.

"I'm having a family reunion!"

She certainly was. A hundred invitations went out to all branches of the Fairfax family, including Sir Warwick's third wife, Lady (Mary) Fairfax, and "young" Warwick in the United States. He didn't reply; Lady Fairfax accepted. For a photo, Lady Fairfax sat at the centre, on a chair especially carried to its place by James Fairfax. The photo appeared on page two of the Herald. Caroline was thrilled.

Among the guests were her children, Louise, Alice, Emily and Edward, and her four grandchildren. Two of her children seemed to fulfil an unfulfilled role of Caroline's, training as actors. One of the two, Edward, is an actor and pianist, who appeared recently in the show Two Pianos, Four Hands.

Caroline was in her garden overlooking Sydney Harbour when she felt ill last Friday morning. At St Vincent's Hospital, she was diagnosed with a heart tumour and underwent an operation during which she had a heart attack and died late in the day.

Among her group of friends, the sense of unreality about her death is profound. The crusading Caroline never seemed to suffer ill health, and we are all waiting for the phone to ring one more time.

She is survived by her husband, four children and four grandchildren.

A private burial service is to be held today and a memorial service at All Saints, Woollahra, on January 21.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Caroline Simpson

Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Simpson, Caroline (1930–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

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