FAIRFAX, John (1804-1877)


FAIRFAX, John (1804-1877)
journalist
the son of William Fairfax and his wife, Elizabeth Jesson, was born at Warwick, England, on 24 October 1804. The family of Fairfax was an old one, for many years its members were landed proprietors, but its estates had been lost and William Fairfax at the time of John's birth was in the building and furnishing trade. At the age of 12 John was apprenticed to a bookseller and printer at Warwick, and when he was 20 went to London where he worked as a compositor in a general printing office and on the Morning Chronicle. A year or two later he established himself at Leamington, then a growing town, as a printer, bookseller and stationer. There, on 31 July 1827, he married Sarah Reading, daughter of James and Sarah Reading. He became the printer of the Leamington Spa Courier, and in 1835 he purchased an interest in another paper The Leamington Chronicle and Warwickshire Reporter. In 1836 he published a letter criticizing the conduct of a local solicitor who brought an action against him. Though judgment was given for the defendant the solicitor appealed. Judgment was again given for Fairfax but the costs of the actions were so heavy that he was compelled to go insolvent. There was much sympathy for him and his friends offered assistance, but he decided to make a fresh start in a new land, and in May 1838 sailed for Australia in the Lady Fitzherbert with his wife and three children, his mother and a brother-in-law. After a trying voyage of about 130 days Sydney was reached towards the end of September 1838.
Fairfax worked as a compositor for some months, but early in 1839 was appointed librarian of the Australian subscription library and began his duties on 1 April. The salary was only £100 a year but he had free quarters for his family in pleasant surroundings. He found he was able to get some typesetting, and he also contributed articles to the various Sydney newspapers. What was possibly more important was his getting in touch through the library with the best educated men of Sydney with some of whom he became friendly. One of these was a member of the staff of the Sydney Herald, Charles Kemp, an able and lovable man, with whom he joined forces to purchase the Herald for the sum of £10,000. The paper was bought on terms, friends helped the two men to find the deposit, and on 8 February 1841 they took control as proprietors. It was an ideal combination for each had qualities that supplemented the other's, they worked in perfect harmony for 12 years and firmly established the paper as the leading Australian newspaper of the day. It was given the fuller title of the Sydney Morning Herald in 1842, and in spite of a period of depression both partners by 1853 were in prosperous positions. Kemp then decided to retire. The partnership was dissolved in September 1853 and Charles the eldest son of Fairfax became a partner. In the previous year his father had visited England and seeking out his old creditors repaid every man in full with interest added. Under Fairfax and his sons the paper continually increased in public favour, and the great increase of population in the 1850s added much to its prosperity. It was always conservative; G. B. Barton in his Literature in New South Wales said in 1866 that its Toryism had "increased in a direct ratio to the Radicalism of the constitution, and its prosperity in a direct ratio to its Toryism". But this is an overstatement. The Herald was moved to its present site in 1856, and at that date claimed to have the largest circulation in the "colonial empire". A weekly journal, the Sydney Mail, was established, its first number was published on 7 July 1860, and it continued to appear until 1938. On 26 December 1863 Charles Fairfax, the eldest son and the right hand man of Fairfax on the paper, was thrown from his horse and killed. John Fairfax never fully recovered from his son's death, but the work of the newspaper went on. In 1865 Fairfax and his wife again visited England where the latest newspaper methods were studied. Fairfax became a member of the legislative council in 1874 but never took an active part in politics. His wife died on 12 August 1875 and soon afterwards his own health began to fail. He died at Sydney on 16 June 1877.
Fairfax was a sincerely religious man, much interested in the Congregational church. But his paper was kept free from religious bias, and was in no way responsible for the strong sectarian feelings which then existed in Sydney: His household was typically Victorian in its outlook, but in the newspaper due importance was given to music and the theatre, literature and art. To Fairfax the conduct of the press was a sacred trust and he never betrayed his trust. Of his children his second son, Sir James Reading Fairfax (1834-1919), entered his father's office in 1852 and was admitted as a partner in 1856. When his father died he was in control of the paper, and in his hands it went from strength to strength. He was intimately associated with it for 67 years, for a long period he was the Herald. Like his father he was a religious man, for a long period was president of the Y.M.C.A., and he did much for other social services of the community. He died on 28 March 1919. Two of his sons carried on the traditions of the paper, Geoffrey Evan Fairfax (1861-1930) and Sir James Oswald Fairfax (1863-1928). They entered the office on the same day in 1889 and each had a large share in the conduct of the paper. A third son, Charles Burton Fairfax, retired in 1904 and went to live in England. His son Captain J. Griffyth Fairfax, born in 1886, was a member of the house of commons for some years, and has published several volumes of verse of which a list will be found in E. Morris Miller's Australian Literature. Warwick Oswald Fairfax son of Sir James Oswald Fairfax born in 1901 became managing director in 1930.
J. F. Fairfax, The Story of John Fairfax; A Century of Journalism; C. Brunsdon Fletcher, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. XVII, p. 91.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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