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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fairbairn, George (1816–1895)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

George Fairbairn (1816-1895), pastoralist, was born on 28 April 1816 in Berwickshire, Scotland, son of John Fairbairn, sheep farmer, and his wife Jessie, née Johnston. He applied successfully as a shepherd for a free passage to South Australia, where he arrived in January 1839 but soon moved to the Port Phillip District. He managed the Ballan run for eighteen months and after a year in Melbourne became manager of a station on the Glenelg River in September 1842. There he stayed until 1845 when he bought a share in the near-by Fulham run. By August 1846, when George Armytage bought Fulham, Fairbairn had £1000 and 2000 sheep. He had tried to become a partner of Rev. John Lillie, but the arrangements broke down and he bought a share in Congbool station. In the gold rush Fairbairn tried his luck at Bendigo and then became a successful gold buyer at Ballarat. In February 1854 he married Virginia Charlotte, daughter of George Armytage; soon afterwards he took his bride to England.

They returned to Victoria in 1861 and Fairbairn bought Eli Elwah station in the Riverina; he continued to buy other unimproved runs in eastern Australia. By 1870 he held several million acres. Tough in constitution—in old age he had a damaged hand amputated without anaesthetic—he travelled thousands of miles by buggy to inspect his properties, always taking with him a Bible, Johnson's Dictionary and Boswell's Life of Johnson, reading each in turn. In November 1864 he was elected for Dundas and Follett in the Victorian Legislative Assembly; a silent member, he voted faithfully for the McCulloch government. He found politics not to his taste and withdrew in January 1866 although he served long in the Corio Shire Council. Fairbairn was claimed to be one of the four Australians who owned over a million sheep, but he deserved more repute for his pioneering spirit. He developed his runs by wire fencing and watering each paddock, and was an early user of wire netting which he produced expensively by 'puddled galvanizing'. He was also an advocate for exporting frozen meat. His enthusiasm survived the unsuccessful consignment in 1873 and was vindicated in 1879-80 by the Strathleven shipment. He became a director of the Australian Frozen Meat Export Co. and supported the canning industry. He also helped to promote the Apollo Stearine Candle Co. and used its products lavishly in his home. Among his many other business interests he was a director of the Union Bank of Australia and the Trust and Agency Co., Melbourne.

In his last years Fairbairn lived in retirement at Lara station near Geelong, and his pastoral empire was divided among his children. He died suddenly at Queenscliff on 18 July 1895, survived by five of his six sons and a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men (Melb, 1887)
  • J. T. Critchell and J. Raymond, History of the Frozen Meat Trade (Lond, 1912)
  • S. Fairbairn, Fairbairn of Jesus (Lond, 1931)
  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip (Melb, 1932)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vol 4 (Lond, 1959)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 July 1895
  • Geelong Advertiser, 19 July 1895
  • Pastoral Review, Aug 1895.

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Fairbairn, George (1816–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 27 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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