Woman Fairfax, Mary Elizabeth


Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Mary Fairfax was born in Sydney in 1858, the eldest of seven children of newspaper proprietor Sir James Fairfax and his wife Lucy. The only daughter in the family, she was educated at home. Never married, she was active in philanthropy from the mid-1880s, taking a particular interest in charities associated with women and children, and patriotic causes during both the first and second world wars. Her interests extended to arts organisations, founding both the Society of Arts and Crafts and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra Ladies Committee.

Described as a woman 'possessed [of] a great sense of civic responsibility', her days were spent 'moving from one committee to another'. She was a doer as well as a giver, sewing for the Red Cross, individually selecting books for the Bush Book Club and visiting many of the organisations which the committees managed (Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1945). Independently wealthy after the death of her mother in 1925, she used her substantial properties both for fund-raising and for entertaining some of the beneficiaries of her philanthropy.

Yet she was not universally admired, poet Lesbia Harford, who worked for a short time as Fairfax's housemaid, suggesting that her preoccupation with the rightness of arrangements disguised a lack of sympathy for those whose work she was judging. In her 1919 poem, Miss Mary Fairfax, she wrote:

Every day Miss Mary goes her rounds,
Through the splendid house and through the grounds,
Looking if the kitchen table's white,
Seeing if the great big fire's alight,
Finding specks on shining pans and pots,
Never praising much, but scolding lots. (Harford, 1919)

When Fairfax died in 1945, the bulk of her estate returned to the family, although she did make substantial bequests to the charities she had supported during her life. The Library at Women's College at the University of Sydney, funded by one such bequest, is named in her honour.

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