John Fairfax

John Fairfax, English-born journalist and publisher, lived and worked for more than half his 72 years in colonial Sydney. John Fairfax’s best-known and arguably greatest legacy was, and remains, the Sydney Morning Herald. 

Plaque location

Close to "Ginahgulla" (John Fairfax family home, situated within Scots College), Ginahgulla Road, Bellevue Hill

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John Fairfax 1804 - 1877

John Fairfax, English-born journalist and publisher, lived and worked for more than half his 72 years in colonial Sydney, which formed the setting for the major personal and commercial achievements of his life. John Fairfax’s best-known and arguably greatest legacy was, and remains, the Sydney Morning Herald – long a national institution as much as it is an enduring source of local and international news. John Fairfax was also the founder of the Sydney-based firm John Fairfax and Sons - today’s Fairfax Media.

Beyond business, John Fairfax also played an active role in the politics and public life of nineteenth-century New South Wales, as well as contributing through his publications to the social and cultural life of the colony and, through the success of his business, to its economy. A devout member of the Congregational church, John took a leading role in Sydney’s Pitt Street congregation, and co-founded the Sydney YMCA. He was a generous supporter of the young, to many of whom he personally extended opportunities or encouragement, and was a role model for contemporaries of all ages in his ethical approach to business and the generosity and fairness he showed in all his dealings and relationships. He saw no conflict between material success in this world and the pursuit of the eternal, provided in life he remained true to Christian doctrine, saying often ‘It is well to be busy for both worlds’.

When John Fairfax moved his family to Bellevue Hill – his home for nineteen years - he established a connection with the locality which was continued by successive generations. His house Ginahgulla still stands today as one of a number of surviving landmark properties in the Municipality of Woollahra which have links with the name of Fairfax.

Family background – Barford, Warwickshire

John Fairfax was the second son of William Fairfax of the Warwickshire township of Warwick, and of his wife Elizabeth, née Jesson, originally of Birmingham. John’s father William was a descendant of a long-established family of Barford, Warwickshire – in the words of John’s great-grandson, Warwick Oswald Fairfax, “an old family of Warwickshire country gentry”. Writing the genealogical preface to his cousin John Fitzgerald Fairfax’s biography of their great-grandfather, Warwick Oswald (later Sir Warwick) was in turn reliant on family documents collected by his father, Sir James Oswald Fairfax (Story of John Fairfax p. iii). This research traced the family’s line with certainty to the mid-sixteenth century and Robert Fairfax of Barford Manor (d. 1545). Family research also revealed probable antecedents in Wootton Wawen, Warwickshire, settled in that area by the early 14th century, as well as a possible connection with another Fairfax line of landed nobility established in Yorkshire by the late 12th century. (SoJF pp. ix-xvi).

The same account tells of the comfortable prosperity of the Barford branch of the Fairfax family, and its steady accumulation of land and interests over centuries, all abruptly overturned in 1781 when the estate was sold in its entirety to the Earl of Warwick. The sale, for considerably below value, was essential to secure the release of its then owner, John Fairfax - great-uncle of the John Fairfax of Herald fame - from the local debtor’s prison. (SoJF p.xvii) Reckless mismanagement by one man had brought to an incongruous close a period of family history characterised by stability and the prudent management of its affairs. The Barford family had also enjoyed the respect and trust of the district – demonstrated by at least one Fairfax holding the office of Mayor of Warwick (A Century of Journalism p.55).

The reversal of Fairfax fortune had less effect on the subject John Fairfax than might have been expected, since John’s grandfather William had been estranged from the Barford estates well before their sale. William’s older sibling (the debtor) had arranged for his brother’s indenture at the age of 14 to a flax dresser (SoJF p.xvi) - presumably an act of self-interest rather than altruism, but one which allowed William to learn a trade and become self-reliant. In turn, his son William – John Fairfax’s father - went on to make an aedequate living as a building contractor and furniture-maker (Company of Heralds p. 6). John Fairfax was the third generation to follow this course of apprenticeship and trade, through it achieving a level of material success and public regard that both reflected and exceeded the Barford gentry of his origins. Also contributing to his success were qualities which his descendants recognised as inherited from the other side of his parentage - “inspiration, forcefulness of outlook and perseverance” derived from his mother, Elizabeth - (SoJF p. 2).

While Barford and Warwickshire were geographically far removed from the scene of John Fairfax’s most notable years, John’s family background remained a conscious and enduring influence. Similarly, while he became a stanch advocate for his adopted land, he nurtured a sense of connection to the places of his own youth and his family’s past. There is evidence that John initially named his Bellevue Hill property Guyscliff – which, it has been noted, is the name of a famous historic ruin in Warwickshire (Sheedy, David “John and Alfred Fairfax’s Bellevue Hill properties” LHRF series The Scots College). The same regard for family heritage can be seen in the adoption of the given name ‘Warwick’ for the child of Sir James Oswald Fairfax, a great-grandson of John who went on to name his 1928 Bellevue Hill house Barford.

The interest and connection was two-way. When the Herald marked its first century in 1931, congratulatory messages published in the Herald showed that fifty-four years after his death, Warwickshire still followed the fortunes and affairs of the family and business founded by its eminent son. The Editor of the Royal Leamington Spa Courier, co-founded by John Fairfax in the 1820s, wrote of having “watched with special pride and pleasure the growth and development of the great Australian newspaper with which [John Fairfax’s] name is so intimately associated”, adding:

The high ideals which Mr. Fairfax entertained in his native Warwickshire, he carried to the country of his adoption, and those ideals form the truest and most enduring link between the Australian Commonwealth and the Mother Country.

while from Warwick Castle, the Countess and Mayor of Warwick, noted:

Warwick (England) remembers with pride her distinguished son, Mr. John Fair- fax. His memory is one of the links binding Warwick (Warwickshire) to Australia.
(Sydney Morning Herald – 18.4.1931 p. 18.)

Introduction to working life – Warwick and London

In 1817 at the age of 12, John Fairfax left school to take up an apprenticeship with William Perry, a local bookseller, librarian and printer. Family history records that this arrangement was instigated by Mr Perry, who appears to have taken a kindly interest in John, introducing him to his well-stocked library and encouraging John’s love of literature. (SoJF p.5) When, in 1825, John wished to expand his horizons and seek opportunities and experience in London, Perry encouraged him, releasing him from the terms of his indenture before his apprenticeship had run its course. John Fitzgerald Fairfax wrote that this interlude in his great-grandfather’s story gave him:

that first taste of printers’ ink which was to get into his blood and has remained there for four generations.
(Story of John Fairfax p.3)

In London, John took on two jobs as a compositor simultaneously, working in a general printing office by day, and for the Morning Chronicleovernight. His goal was to save the necessary funds and gain the relevant experience to set up his own business. John made an astute choice of place to realise his ambitions: Leamington Priors, in central Warwickshire, at that time a burgeoning township, still in the upwards stages of an extraordinary boom as a ‘spa’ destination.

Journalist, newspaper proprietor and businessman - life in Leamington

In Leamington, John set up a printing business in Clemens Street, and in 1828, seeing a vacuum to be filled, founded the Leamington Spa Sketchbook, the editor declaring in the first issue:

While Bath, Brighton and Cheltenham [other ‘spa’ towns] have had their interests supported by the fashionable journals of the day, Leamington has fought its way unaided by the congenial influence of the press…
(Leamington Spa Sketchbook 4.4.1828)

The Sketchbook’s editor - possibly Fairfax himself, and if not, a writer with views which Fairfax would express over time - went on to clarify that while his publication would promote the town, it would not do so at the expense of editorial independence, and that while he hoped to enjoy the general good will of all Leamington, he would not “sacrifice the public good by overlooking public nuisances or official negligence”. It was a balance which later defined Fairfax as a journalist and publisher.

The Sketchbook was rapidly overtaken by a new initiative, the Leamington Spa Courier, co-published with James Sharp Senior, former editor of the Leamington Advertiser, and edited by Sharp’s son. The partnership foundered on political differences – Sharp’s conservative inclinations and propensity to publish them at odds with Fairfax’s concern for a more neutral stance (CoJ p. 54). Fairfax had apparently withdrawn his interest in the Courier by the close of 1828 (CoH pp.8-9). He continued in independent business as a printer, bookseller and stationer in Bath Street Leamington, writing occasional guidebooks for the district.

On 31 July 1827 John had married Sarah Reading in the parish church at Leamington. John Fitzgerald’s Fairfax’s biography tells that husband and wife worked ‘side-by-side’ in this first business venture during the early days of their marriage (SoJF p 17). Born in 1808 to James and Sarah Reading of Warwick, Sarah had been a childhood friend of John’s, and their families were neighbours and fellow worshippers at the Independent Chapel. The first three of John and Sarah’s children - Charles John Fairfax (1829-1864), Emily Fairfax (1832-1871) and James Reading Fairfax (1834-1919) - were born in Leamington.

John didn’t revive his journalistic ambitions until 1835, when he took over and re-titled the Leamington Press as the Leamington Chronicle, at first as the co-proprietor of a Richard Weaver, whose involvement, however, had ended by June 1836.This stage of Fairfax’s career is notable in that the Chronicle, under his sole proprietorship, began to express liberal political views. This period also produced what was probably the single most important turning point in his life – a dramatic misfortune which would lead to unimagined opportunities.

On 19 August 1935 the Chronicle published a letter written by a Mr Weston Hatfield which disclosed the treatment meted out to a third party (a local hotel-keeper, Mr Gomm) by a prominent Leamington solicitor, W C Empson. In Empson’s opinion, the letter’s content was libellous, and he brought separate legal actions - both unsuccessful - against firstly the letter-writer, and secondly, the partnership of John Fairfax and Richard Weaver. Empson then sought to have the verdict in the second court action set aside on a technicality, to clear the way for further consideration of the matter - an application which was eventually refused by the courts. It is generally accepted that it was the expense of defending the Chronicle in the courts which brought John Fairfax to the point of declaring bankruptcy (SoJF p. 24, CoJ p. 54) despite the efforts of an organised group of supporters to raise funds to pay the costs. Gavin Souter in his Company of heralds queries some aspects of the story, and attempts to make explanations (p. 12). Fairfax was declared bankrupt in February 1838 and received a certificate of discharge on 20 April.

The second part of the decision arising from Empson’s legal attacks – to emigrate, and to Australia - is differently explained by the various historical and biographical writings on John Fairfax. His great-grandson John Fitzgerald Fairfax saw John’s decision to leave Leamington as a matter of personal pride, in a plan designed to escape the well-meant charity of friends. He explained John’s choice of destination as a combination of optimism for the future and reaction to his recent experiences: his expectation of the material opportunity that a young, growing colony might offer, and the hope of finding a more liberal social model within a new order.

He would build another – a great newspaper, his own newspaper, the one he had dreamed and thought of … It would be a free, hard-fighting, vigorous newspaper, unchoked and untrammelled by the limiting things of a country town … It would be without fear to express opinion , without the reproach of self-interest, sworn to no master and free from the narrow channels of sectarianism.
(Story of John Fairfax p.27)

Gavin Souter cites John’s active Non-conformism as another possible factor in his gravitating to Australia. South Australia, in particular, was well-known to members of the English Dissenter’s movement, the colony’s appeal based on its lack of an established church, its commitment to religious tolerance and its freedom from penal associations (Carey, M p. 197). Souter also observes that John Fairfax’s nephew Alfred had travelled to Australia in 1837, and was based in Sydney when John was making his momentous decision to uproot his family and leave his homeland (CoH p. 12). This would have provided some reassurance to John, who left Leamington with just £5 in his pocket.

The move to Sydney, and work as a compositor and librarian

John Fairfax and family sailed for New South Wales on 17 May 1838 on the Lady Fitzherbert, travelling steerage class to Sydney on a journey of just over four months. The voyage ended on 25 September, and John disembarked with double the money he had set out with, having won £5 in a ship’s sweepstake, betting successfully on the date of their vessel’s arrival.

The family also left the ship with a new family member, Richard Pope Fairfax, born on 20 June 1838, ‘somewhere between Tenerife and the Cape’ (CoH p. 13). The child’s second given name almost certainly honoured the Reverend Alfred Pope, pastor at the Clemens Street chapel where John and Sarah had worshipped in Leamington, and a great support to them during the troubles of their final months in the spa town, even travelling with the family as far as London, to farewell them at the docks (SoJF p. 35). Richard Fairfax died as an infant, on 14 January 1839 in his parent’s Gloucester Street home, a few months after the family’s arrival in Sydney, one of three of John’s children to pre-decease him.

John and Sarah lived very briefly in Sussex Street, before finding the small house to rent in Gloucester Street, in the north-westerly section of the township, and conveniently located close to a number of printing and publishing businesses. John found work as a compositor for William Jones, who published the Commercial journal and advertiser from a premises in Bridge Street, and in February 1839 successfully applied for the position of Librarian advertised by the Australian Subscription Library. This consortium was the initiative of a group of erudite Sydney men, the first subscriptions for which had been raised in 1826, and the library in operation for a dozen years before Fairfax’s appointment.. The librarian’s salary of £100 p.a. was generous when compared to the wages received for typesetting, and Fairfax received handsome bonuses for his initiatives in re-cataloguing and reorganising the collection (SoJF p.70). Especially beneficial in a town where rents were acknowledged to be high, living quarters were supplied with the position.
Fairfax now moved his family into a far more comfortable household arrangement in part of the former house of the Chief Justice, which the library shared with the embryonic collections of the later Australian Museum (CoH p. 26). Most fortunately for him, the premises, located in Bridge Street, was also in close proximity to the printing businesses were he was beginning to become known, several of which sent him regular instalments of typesetting work to be completed in the hours outside his library obligations.

John found himself in Sydney in 1839 in much the same circumstances he had known in London in 1825: working a number of jobs to save for the establishment of his own business – only he was now fourteen years older, and had dependents including a widowed mother to support.

Ginnahgulla, Victoria Road Bellevue Hill
Ginahgulla, Victoria Road Bellevue Hill

Acquiring, nurturing and expanding The Sydney Herald

Fairfax’s position with the Australian Subscription Library brought him into contact with its circle of founders and their associates. In these early days he also forged connections within the local publishing world and the Pitt Street congregation of the Congregational Church. These circles would underpin his life and influence in the colony.

Through his publishing activities and interests, John Fairfax met Charles Kemp, the Herald’s legal and political journalist, an association which shaped his business future. John’s compositing work included jobs for the publisher of the Sydney Herald - then Sydney’s only daily newspaper - and in October 1840, he strengthened his links with that firm when he founded the Temperance Advocate which, by arrangement, he published out of the Herald office.
The Herald, founded by Alfred Ward Stephens, Frederick Michael Stokes and William McGarvie, had first appeared as a weekly paper on 18.4.1831 – named, at McGarvie’s suggestion, after the Glasgow Herald (CoH p.26). The paper had enjoyed steady success as the enterprise passed through various permutations and combinations of ownership and editorial voice. By 1840 the remaining owner, Frederick Stokes, decided he was ready to sell, and two buyers were ready to purchase: Charles Kemp and John Fairfax. The price was high - £10,000 - and the timing inauspicious, with the 1840s depression looming. However, the terms were also liberal, with Stokes extending his buyers a generously long repayment period. On 8.2.1841 the transfer was formalised, and the imprint of the Herald changed to Kemp and Fairfax.

Through stringent financial management and personal denial, the new partners not only made their repayments to schedule, but ‘came through the depression unscathed and ready to expand’ (CoH p.30). The partners had enlarged the paper in 1842 – the same year that the title was changed to The Sydney Morning Herald on 4 August– and in 1844, Kemp and Fairfax launched the weekly Shipping Gazette and began the publication of an annualHerald Almanac. The first of several moves to more suitable premises also occurred in this year, in defiance of the still sluggish world economy. As the 1840s drew to an end, the failure of The Australian - Sydney’s oldest independent newspaper – underlined Kemp and Fairfax’s achievement in surviving the depression, and also removed a rival. The Australian ceased publication on 23 September 1848.

Despite its commercial success, the Herald was by no means without its critics, which would only have proved to Fairfax that the paper was performing its rightful role. Out of disparaging comment came the name by which the paper would be informally known for generations, “Granny”, used in 1848 to identify the Herald in a mocking rhyme published in the satirical journal Heads of the People. The name evolved into a term of endearment with time, and the much-loved ‘Granny Column’ perpetuated the affectionate use.
The highly successful partnership of Kemp and Fairfax was based on a mutual respect and tolerance, and a ready appreciation of each other’s strengths - Kemp taking charge of the journalistic, literary and editorial aspects of the operation, and Fairfax the printing and administration, with each in control of their own area of expertise. The Reverend Ralph Mansfield, a Methodist minister and former editor of the Sydney Gazette, who had joined the Herald in Stokes’s time, wrote many of the leaders. ‘They were a formidable trio’ was the assessment of Gavin Souter (CoH. p. 30).

Charles Kemp and John Fairfax also enjoyed an easy relationship beyond the printing presses. The values, beliefs and ethical standing of both men were closely matched, Kemp described as ‘a man of great business, acumen, Christian faith and moral rectitude’ (CoH p.30), all three of which qualities applied equally to Fairfax. Where they differed, the differences were accommodated by each; Kemp was more politically conservative than Fairfax, and a high church Anglican, as opposed to Fairfax’s liberalism and earnest non-conformism.

The Kemp and Fairfax households occupied neighbouring houses for many years, firstly in Grimes Terrace in Lower Fort Street, and from 1851 in a terrace of houses which the partners constructed on the western side of Macquarie Street. When Kemp died on 25 August 1864 – eleven years after relinquishing his interest in the Herald – John Fairfax himself wrote the Herald’s obituary, and left his readers in no doubt of his friendship with his former partner, writing of the shared anxieties and pleasures of business and the close ties formed through their joint commitment to the Herald’s success. This they had certainly achieved in financial terms before Kemp’s departure to pursue other business and political activities, having in his own words “amassed a comfortable fortune” (‘Kemp’ ADB) through the newspaper’s success.

John Fairfax and Sons and Ginahgulla

In 1852, John and Sarah’s circumstances – business, financial and family – allowed the first of two trips they would make ‘home’ to England. On this first they were accompanied by their only daughter Emily and their youngest son, Edward Ross Fairfax (1842 - 1915), who had been born in the family’s Spring Street house, before the move to Lower Fort Street. Charles and James, who had both earlier served apprenticeships through the firm, remained in Sydney to take charge of the printing side of the business and assist Kemp.
The trip to England had several purposes besides reunion with family. John was arranging the purchase of a new printing press for the Herald, which on arrival in Sydney made the newspaper the first in the colony to be printed by steam power, and allowed greatly increased production. He gave a public lecture on the many advantages and opportunities offered by life in life New South Wales, encouraging young men to immigrate to Australia, and personally sought out two of his former apprentices and offering them work on the Herald (SoJFp. 123). He also addressed the Colonial Missionary Society promoting the ork that might be done in the booming gold town of Bathurst (Monument Australia – John Fairfax).

However, the most important purpose of the visit in John’s mind was the repayment of all who had backed him financially during his troubles of 1838, a labour he carried out in person, even tracing the whereabouts of the son of his late adversary W C Empson, whom he repaid for the legal expenses which Empson had accrued in the case. Given John Fairfax had no legal obligation to settle these sums, his actions demonstrated his own personal commitment to dealing fairly and behaving honourably.

After the return to Sydney, and Kemp’s signalling that he wished to step aside from journalism, the business became a family firm. John purchased Charles Kemp’s interest in the Herald on 30 September 1853, and took his son Charles into the business as a partner. On 31 December 1856, James Reading Fairfax was admitted as a partner, and the firm became John Fairfax & Sons. Charles and James, and later their brother Edward, were the first of several generations of John’s descendants to play a proprietorial role – Edward joining the firm after the untimely death of Charles John Fairfax in a riding accident on 28 December 1864.

Much of the credit for the strength and success of Fairfax as a family firm can arguably be laid at the feet of its founder, whose great-grandson wrote:

John and Sarah gathered their family round them and held them not only by ties of loyalty, but, by their character and personalities, they were the central magnet. The family was very united. Although the father and sons were at the office for long hours, they took every opportunity to be together with their mother and sister.
(Story of John Fairfax p.130)

The reverse observation might be made regarding the struggles of the late 1980s which ended all pretence of cohesion, and for which young Warwick Geoffrey Oswald Fairfax was seen by at least some commentary as catalyst rather than cause:

The real message of Warwick’s ambush, though, was that the family empire was at war with itself. Not enough credence was given this by Fairfax management, including Chairman James, Deputy Chair John B and board member Vincent [Fairfax family members]. They should have acknowledged it earlier. Now they were about to pay the price.
(Fairfax: the rise and fall)

Fairfax family involvement at the highest levels of investment and leadership had continued for a remarkably long time, essentially unchanged by structural adjustments such as incorporation as a public company in 1956, but ultimately could not survive the internal struggles of the late twentieth century.

John Fairfax’s legacy nevertheless stands in the endurance of the Herald, still published in both print and online form - albeit no longer in broadsheet – in an environment increasingly challenging for publishers of print journalism. Fairfax the firm has demonstrated for decades its adaptive ability, responding positively to technological change and willingly embracing broadcasting and internet as John celebrated the possibilities opened up by cable links in 1872, honoured with the duty of on this occasion of offering the response to the toast of “The Press” – as he might well have been, given his stature in the world of Australian newspaper publishing (SoJF p. 153).

Despite eventually handing over much of the day-to-day running of the Herald to his sons, John Fairfax continued to take an active interest in the firm he had founded and the newspaper he had nurtured until his death in 1877, true to his personal energy and determination and his mantra that ‘it is well to be busy for both worlds’ (CoHp.11.)

Politics, Philanthropy and the church

John Fairfax’s business life and natural interest in his world ensured he followed the political life of New South Wales closely, but he was not by nature a politician. In 1856 he accepted nomination for the South Riding of Cumberland, put forward as a Liberal enthusiastic for the development of rail links throughout the colony, and the progress of steam shipping between Sydney and England. After his loss at this poll, Fairfax admitted to having gone home ‘with a far lighter heart’ than had the electors sent him into the assembly (CoHp. 55). Given this reaction it is unsurprising that he declined, when asked by his friend Henry Parkes, to stand for East Sydney in 1869. He did, however, accept nomination to the Legislative Council in 1874, and served in that role.

In the business world, the Herald was clearly at the centre of John’s focus. His was, however, among the founding directors of the AMP Society, and a director of the Sydey Fire Insurnace Company, the NSW Marine Insurance Company, the Australian Joint Stock Bank and the Australian Gas Light Company.

Fairfax supported the cultural life of the colony – literature, music, art and the theatre - and served on the Council of Education. However much of his philanthropy was channelled through his work for the church. It is well-known that his mother Elizabeth had shaped his religious thinking and affiliations. An ‘earnest dissenter’, she had persuaded her husband William to leave the Church of England, which set the pattern of Fairfax worship for some generations. Sir James Reading Fairfax is quoted by his grandson Warwick Oswald as saying:

She was a women of strong religious convictions, and neither St Mary’s, Warwick or the Low Church seemed to satisfy her. She exercised a strong influence on her son John, and it was her teaching, and inheriting her strong character, that led to his success in life and placing her sons and grandsons where they are.”
(Story of John Fairfax p. xvii)

John followed her lead. It is said that his Sundays were as busy as the seven days of the working week, but devoted to the Pitt Street congregation rather than the Herald office. He – and the family - attended four services over the course of the day. John further taught Sunday School and performed the duties of a deacon (SoJF pp.111, 129, 167).

John was an advocate for religious tolerance in a sectarian age, and actively promoted interdenominational efforts. Efforts on his own part which fall into that sphere were his foundational work to establish a Sydney YMCA, and his support for the Ragged Schools organisation (Monument Australia – John Fairfax).

Connections with the Woollahra Municipality and local legacy

In the 1850s, with his business in Sydney well established, and his debts in England honourably discharged, John Fairfax took up land in Bellevue Hill to establish a family home on a grander scale than the family had enjoyed in the city, handsome as their Macquarie Street house had been. The acreage he acquired for this purpose was part of the Cooper estate, on offer at that time under registered leasehold arrangements of 99 years tenure.

John’s nephew Alfred Fairfax, son of John’s older brother William, had secured, on 1 February 1858, Lot 51of this estate - a parcel of 4 acres, 20 perches. Today this site is better known for a later Fairfax house which replaced the original improvements : the Queen Anne revival Caerleon (present-day address, 15 Ginahgulla Road)built by Charles Burton Fairfax, son of James Reading Fairfax and grandson of John. According to the formal registration documents, some five months after the assignment of the Alfred’s leasehold, on 27.5.1858, John acquired the lease to Lot 50 of the same estate.

John’s allotment adjoined Alfred’s, and was considerably larger, measuring 7 acres, 3 roods and 30 perches. The parcel had frontage to Victoria Road, then known as Upper Bellevue Road, on its eastern boundary, while Alfred’s property formed its western border. The land would eventually be bound to the north by a roadway, present-day Ginahgulla Road, after Council in 1867 voted £200 to form this connection between Upper and Lower Bellevue Roads, ‘past the properties of Messrs Tooth and Fairfax.’ (WMC Minutes 23.4.1867 p. 418).

John built Ginahgulla, a landmark house, possibly under construction for some time before the lease to Lot 50 was formalised, according to tender notices traced (Sheedy, David “John and Alfred Fairfax’s Bellevue Hill properties” LHRF series The Scots College). Built of stone and brick in the Victorian Gothic style, Ginahgulla was two-storeyed, generous in scale by Sydney standards, imposing in position and commanding an exceptional view in the days before twentieth-century buildings obscured the sweeping expanse towards Rose Bay which John and Sarah Fairfax had enjoyed.

The house became the centre of Fairfax family life during John and Sarah’s last years. The locality also was the scene of a family tragedy in 1871, when the family’s carriage was involved in an accident, ‘near the junction of New South Head and Bellevue Road’(SMH, 3.22.1871, p 6) and John and Sarah’s only daughter Emily (Mrs Grafton Ross) was killed, aged 39. John had also been in the carriage, along with Anne, the widow of Charles Fairfax.

John died on 16.6.1877 at Ginahgulla in his 73rd year. Sarah, who also died at the family home in Bellevue Hill, had predeceased him on 12.8.1875 - as had three of his children. John was buried in the Congregational section of what is now known as Rookwood after a service at the Pitt Street church, which was fully draped in black, then, and for a week later.

Because his time in Woollahra came towards the end of his life, when John’s social and religious connections were already established in the city, his interaction and impact on the local area was perhaps more muted than it may have been. His children, however, filled this vacuum. James Reading served on Woollahra council from 1867 to 1870, and again from 1876-1877, and was closely involved in the Jersey Road Woollahra Congregational church. His father, however, had laid the foundation stone of the building – later destroyed by fire - in 1873.

John Reading Fairfax lived on at Ginahgulla, which was later home to his only daughter Mary until her death in 1945. Ginahgulla remained the centre of the family until that time. Born in 1933, James Oswald Fairfax, great-great-grandson of John and Sarah, remembers the house and grounds in the period when they were still in Fairfax ownership and the family gatherings which were held there (GMRTM pp. 2-2).

The gardens, in particular, were James’s haunt – his father’s house, Barford (present-day 58 Victoria Road) having been built on land adjoining the original Ginahgulla site, and James and his sister Caroline were free to roam at will between the two gardens. Not only were there formal gardens, but paddocks and cows on the Ginahgulla property. (GMRTM pp. 4-5).

The grounds of Ginahgulla had been laid out by Double Bay-based landscape artist Michael Guilfoyle, who had been responsible in 1851 for the grounds of T S Mort’s Greenoakes. While much of Guilfoyle’s handiwork work disappeared after Ginahgulla was acquired by the Scots College in 1945, James Fairfax remarking that the gardens were ‘sadly flattened’ for an oval in c1946/7 (GMRTM p. 5), however remnant plantings and trees identifiable as part of the original landscape design have been consciously retained and protected by heritage listings.

The house itself, now named Fairfax House and part of Scots College, still stands as a reminder of John’s vision and achievements, and two nearby streets, Fairfax and Ginahgulla Roads, commemorate the link.


While John’s son James Reading Fairfax was knighted, as were several later descendants, John Fairfax did not personally receive this acknowledgement.
A plaque was installed to his memory by his friends at the Pitt Street Uniting church (264 Pitt Street Sydney).


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Carey, M God’s empire: religion and colonialism in the British World 1801-1908,N.Y., Camb. Univ. Pr. N.Y., 2011.
A Century of Journalism: the Sydney Morning Herald and its record of Australian life, 1831-1931. Syd., John Fairfax & Sons, 1931.
Fairfax, John Fitzgerald The Story of John Fairfax : commemorating the centenary of the Fairfax proprietary of the Sydney Morning Herald 1841-1941.
Fairfax, James O Give my regards to Broadway: a memoir Syd., A&R, 1991.
Fairfax, James. O. 'Fairfax, John (1804–1877)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melb., Melb Univ Pr, 1972.
Monument Australia – John Fairfax
Ryan, Colleen Fairfax : the rise and fall Carlton., Melb. Univ.Pr, 2012.
Sheedy, David “John and Alfred Fairfax’s Bellevue Hill properties” LHRF series The Scots College
Souter, Gavin Company of Heralds : a century and a half of Australian publishing by John Fairfax Limited and its predecessors, 1831-1981. Melb., Melb Univ Pr., 1981.

Read John B Fairfax's speech(PDF, 227KB) at the plaque unveiling, 16 February 2017.

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New plaques are added based on nominations from the community, which are then assessed against selection criteria and researched by a Local History Librarian.
Find out more and nominate a person or event for a plaque.