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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fairfax, John (1804–1877)

by J. O. Fairfax

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

John Fairfax (1804-1877), newspaper proprietor, was born on 25 October 1804 in Warwick, England, the second son of William Fairfax and his wife Elizabeth, née Jesson, of Birmingham. In 1817 he was apprenticed to William Perry, printer, bookbinder and bookseller of Warwick, and in 1825 joined the London Morning Chronicle. He soon returned to Warwickshire and started a printery at Leamington. On 31 July 1827 he married Sarah, daughter of James Reading of Warwick. In 1828 he founded the Leamington Spa Courier with James Sharp but the partnership broke up in four months. Fairfax carried on as a printer, bookseller and newsagent. In 1835 he became part-owner of the Leamington Chronicle and Warwickshire Reporter. Next year he successfully defended a libel suit but, unable to meet costs, had to apply to the Insolvency Court. With his wife, mother and three children, Fairfax arrived at Sydney on 26 September 1838 in the Lady Fitzherbert with £5 in his pocket.

Fairfax worked as a journalist and on 1 April 1839 became librarian of the Australian Subscription Library. On 8 February 1841 with Charles Kemp he bought on long-term credit the daily Sydney Herald from Frederick Stokes. On 1 August 1842 the title was changed to the Sydney Morning Herald. In the first few years the partners had to do almost everything themselves: reporting, editing, leader writing as well as all the mechanical work of producing the paper. In the 1850s the competition of Henry Parkes's Empire led to reorganization of the Herald. In 1851 Fairfax returned to Leamington and paid his creditors in full, despite an honourable discharge. By request he lectured at the Leamington Music Hall on the Australian colonies and goldfields. In England he also bought the first steam press to be used for printing a newspaper in Australia; it was installed in 1853. On 30 September Fairfax bought Kemp's interest and admitted his eldest son Charles as a partner. Fairfax was in close contact with Parkes, a lifelong friend: information was exchanged and agreement often reached on wages to compositors, the size and price of their papers and no Sunday editions. After Parkes lost the Empire he contributed literary and political articles as well as parliamentary summaries to the Herald. In 1856 the Herald was moved to Hunter Street, the firm became known as John Fairfax & Sons and his second son James became a partner.

While the Herald was developing as the major newspaper in New South Wales, Fairfax widened his activities. By 1851 he was a foundation director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, and in the 1860s a director of the Sydney Insurance Co. (fire only), the New South Wales Marine Insurance Co., the Australian Joint Stock Bank and the Australian Gaslight Co. and a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. For some years president of the Young Men's Christian Association, he was appointed in 1871 to the Council of Education. He helped to establish the Pitt Street Congregational Church where he was senior deacon. Deeply religious and fair-minded, he was well known for his tolerance at a time when sectarian feeling ran high. In August 1856 he was nominated for the South Riding of Cumberland as a Liberal who 'would encourage the formation of Railways' and direct steam communication between Sydney and England. He lost and in 1869 refused Parkes's request to stand for East Sydney but in 1874 accepted nomination to the Legislative Council.

Fairfax built up the Herald from a small journal to one of the most influential and respected newspapers in the empire. In 1858 he had built Ginahgulla on Bellevue Hill. He died on 16 June 1877 and was buried in the Congregational section of Rockwood cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife, eldest son and only daughter, and survived by two sons who carried on the Herald.

A portrait is in the boardroom of John Fairfax Ltd and miniatures of him and Sarah are held by descendants.

Select Bibliography

  • In Memoriam: Obituary Notices and Funeral Services Having Reference to the Late Hon. John Fairfax Esq., M.L.C., Who Died 16th June, 1877 (Syd, 1877)
  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • A Century of Journalism. The Sydney Morning Herald, 1831-1931 (Syd, 1931)
  • J. F. Fairfax, The Story of John Fairfax (Syd, 1941)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Fairfax uncatalogued manuscript 459 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under Fairfax (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. O. Fairfax, 'Fairfax, John (1804–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 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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