John Fairbairn (educator)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
John Fairbairn
John Fairbairn Esq - Cape Educator and Politician.jpg
Born (1794-04-09)9 April 1794
Roxburghshire, Scotland
Died 5 October 1864(1864-10-05) (aged 70)
Cape Town, Cape Colony
Occupation Teacher, newspaper proprietor, politician and financier

John Fairbairn (9 April 1794 – 5 October 1864) was a newspaper proprietor, educator, financier and politician of the Cape Colony.

According to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, “The embryo of the State education system we know today, trial by jury, the principle of the mutual life assurance company – all these were fruits of his endeavours at the Cape”.[1]

Early life[edit]

John Fairbairn was born in Carolside Mill in the Parish of Legerwood, Berwickshire, Scotland on 9 April 1794, the son of James Fairbairn and Agnes[2] Brack, who married at Lauder, Berwickshire 20 March 1783, James living in the Parish of Westruther, Berwickshire at the time.[3]

He attended the University of Edinburgh where he studied Medicine "acquiring at the same time a more than passing knowledge of classical languages and mathematics".[4] In 1818, however, he turned to education, and for more than 5 years taught at Bruce's Academy in Newcastle upon Tyne. Here he also joined the Literary and Philosophical Society.

In 1822, Thomas Pringle persuaded him to emigrate to Cape Town, promising a literary and teaching career in the recently annexed Cape Colony.

Fairbairn arrived in Table Bay on 11 October 1823 aboard the brig Mary. With Pringle, he edited The South African Commercial Advertiser, southern Africa's first independent newspaper.

Family life[edit]


Fairbairn married Elizabeth (Eliza) Philip, daughter of John Philip on 24 May 1831.

Five children were born to Fairbairn and Eliza.

  • Jane Agnes b. 1832. m. F.S. Watermeyer; the parents of Ben Watermeyer and several other MPs.
  • John Philip b. 1834. Drowned in the Gamtoos River near Hankey in the Eastern Cape on 1 July 1845
  • James Alexander b. 1836. m. Kate Lamb
    • John b. 1863. m. Winifred Difford d. 12 November 1925. Buried in St. Saviour's Church Cemetery, Claremont, Cape Town[5]
      • John b.1912. m. Rozanne Robinson. Annexed Marion Island for South Africa in 1947 during Operation Snoektown
  • Elizabeth Ann Wills (Eliza) b. 1838.
  • May Emma b. and d. 1840.

Fairbairn's wife, Eliza, died on 30 May 1840, four days after the birth of May Emma, at the age of twenty-eight.

As a widower, Fairbairn was responsible for the education of his children. Jane and Eliza were sent to a private school in Claremont, Mrs Rose's School for Ladies.

The convict ship[edit]

The British Government made an attempt in 1849 to form a penal settlement at the Cape, but when the ship Neptune arrived at Simon's Bay, with 282 convicts aboard, the citizens declined to supply anything to persons having dealings with her. So strictly was this pledge observed that no food whatever was obtainable, either for the convicts or for the troops. During the riots which ensued, Newspaper Editor, John Fairbairn's house at Sea Point was wrecked by a crowd who had lost their employment through the boycott. In the end the colonists were victorious, and on 21 February 1850, the Neptune set sail for Tasmania.[6][7]


Bust in foyer of Fairbairn College

“Few men could have lived lives as full of worthwhile activity as John Fairbairn did. Few men could have got so little recognition from history”.[4]

A member of the Cape Parliament's Legislative Council, Fairbairn was a prominent supporter of the movement for "responsible government". Later, the first Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, John Molteno, hailed John Fairbairn as father of representative government and freedom of the press in the Cape.[8]

When an English-medium co-educational high school was established in Goodwood, Cape Town in 1977, the School Governing Body decided to name it Fairbairn College.[9]

Fairbairn Capital is an investment company within the Old Mutual group of companies. It was named after the founder of Old Mutual, John Fairbairn. According to the Fairbairn Capital website, in naming it Fairbairn Capital, “we recognise his contributions, draw on his heritage and laud his values”.[10]

Old Mutual International is based in Fairbairn House in St Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.[11]

On 24 August 1994, the John Fairbairn boardroom was opened at the South African Chamber of Business parliamentary information centre in Cape Town by SA Chamber of Business director-general Mr Raymond Parsons. The boardroom together with the Rainbow Room was sponsored by Shell SA and Old Mutual and is used for meetings of businessmen and politicians.[12]


Fairbairn died suddenly in Cape Town on 5 October 1864 at the Wynberg home of his son-in-law, advocate F.S. Watermeyer, and was buried in the Somerset Road cemetery in Cape Town.[13]

Before the levelling of the Somerset Road Cemetery and building started on the site in about 1922, a number of inscribed stones were lifted from their graves and deposited at the Woltemade cemetery at Maitland which had been opened as Cape Town's principal graveyard in 1886. Here can be found the stones of John Fairbairn, his wife Elizabeth and other members of the Fairbairn and Philip families.[14]


In 1947 the British Government decided to give Marion Island and Prince Edward Island to South Africa, to prevent them falling into hostile hands. HMSAS Transvaal was dispatched in great secrecy, and on 4 January 1948, Lieutenant Commander John Fairbairn, great grandson of John Fairbairn, landed on Prince Edward Island and claimed the islands for South Africa.[15] The meteorological station is known as Fairbairn Settlement and is on Transvaal Cove.

In 2007, Fairbairn's great great great granddaughter, Tessa Fairbairn, was awarded the Order of Simon of Cyrene. She was the head of St. Cyprian's School, a progressive girls’ boarding and day school in Cape Town, South Africa for 17 years.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Potgieter D.J., Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa, Nasionale Opvoedkundige Uitgewery Ltd, Cape Town, 1971
  2. ^ Botha H.C. JOHN FAIRBAIRN IN SOUTH AFRICA, 336pp.,hardback, d.w., No. 5, Cape Town, 1984.
  3. ^ Marriage entry, Westruther and Lauder Old Parish Registers
  4. ^ a b “The Argus” Friday 31 July 1959
  5. ^ National Archives
  6. ^ Nelson’s Guides
  7. ^ RFM Immelman: Men of Good Hope, 1804-1954. CTCC: Cape Town, 1955. Chapter 6 The Anti-convict Agitation. p.154.
  8. ^ P. A. Molteno: The life and times of Sir John Charles Molteno, K. C. M. G., First Premier of Cape Colony, Comprising a History of Representative Institutions and Responsible Government at the Cape. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1900
  9. ^ Fairbairn College archives
  10. ^ Fairbairn Capital
  11. ^ Old Mutual
  12. ^ SACOB Newsletter
  13. ^ Trapido Stanley, ‘Fairbairn, John (1794–1864)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006
  14. ^
  15. ^ "Marion Island". Archived from the original on 2012-07-29. [dead link]
  16. ^ King's Academy Jordan

External links[edit]