John Fairbairn

John Fairbairn (1794 - 1864)

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John Fairbairn
Born in Legerwood, Berwickshire, Scotlandmap
Son of [father unknown] and [mother unknown]
[sibling(s) unknown]
Husband of — married in Cape Town, South Africamap
Descendants descendants
Died in Cape Town, South Africamap
Profile last modified | Created 18 Apr 2017
This page has been accessed 70 times.


From the wikipedia article: 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”.

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[ Brack, who married at Lauder, Berwickshire 20 March 1783, James living in the Parish of Westruther, Berwickshire at the time.

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". He did not graduate and, in 1818, 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. The Cape at the time was under the authoritarian control of the British Governor Lord Charles Somerset. Both the school and the scientific society which Pringle and Fairbairn tried to establish, were obstructed and shut in 1824-1825 due to the Governor's disapproval of their activities.

With Pringle, he then turned to editing. Together they founded a periodical, the 'South African Journal' in 1824, but the Governor closed it in the same year. They then founded another periodical, the 'New Organ', in 1826, but it immediately suffered the same fate.

He and Pringle had been invited by George Greig in January 1824 to take over the editing of 'The South African Commercial Advertiser', southern Africa's first private and independent newspaper. The Governor censored the paper in May 1824, due to the reporting of a libel case in which the Governor was already involved. The newspaper reopened in 1825 with Fairbairn as the only editor, and he continued until 1859. He became sole owner too in 1835, when he purchased Greig's shares.

The newspaper faced further suppression, and in 1827 Fairbairn travelled to London to seek justice. He was given permission to open the newspaper again, but only if he avoided all controversy regarding politics or public persons. By this time, Fairbairn had acquired a considerable following among the citizens of the Cape Colony.

In 1829, the Press was given freedom from the Governor's control, but still was bound by strong libel rules. Three decades later in 1859, Fairbairn was eventually to help pass the bill in parliament to end these restrictions.

Fairbairn was strongly liberal, and had been a radical abolitionist in his early career. Via his newspaper, he publicly maintained that most conflict on the frontier was entirely the fault of the colonists, not of the Xhosa, and he advocated equal treaties with the Xhosa states based on international law. He therefore supported the frontier policy of Andries Stockenstrom which aspired to establish exactly that.

In the mid-1830s, the Commercial Advertiser, representing the Cape Town liberals, was engaged in a 'newspaper war' with the main newspaper of the conservative eastern frontier, Robert Godlonton's 'Grahamstown Journal'. The country's main Dutch newspaper, 'De Zuid Afrikaan' ended up siding with the 'Grahamstown Journal'. In spite of the pressure, Fairbairn maintained his position of siding with the Xhosa, up until the outbreak of the 7th Frontier War (1846), when the circumstances of its outbreak led him to become disillusioned and pessimistic regarding the entire frontier situation. He even publicly condemned the Xhosa chiefs for their actions.

Fairbairn married Elizabeth (Eliza) Philip, daughter of John Philip on 24 May 1831. Five children were born to Fairbairn and Eliza. Eliza, died on 30 May 1840, four days after the birth of May Emma, at the age of twenty-eight. Fairbairn never remarried, and spent the remainder of his life as a widower.

Their children were: (1) Jane Agnes b. 1832. m. F.S. Watermeyer; the parents of Ben Watermeyer and several other MPs. (2) John Philip b. 1834. Drowned in the Gamtoos River near Hankey in the Eastern Cape on 1 July 1845. (3) James Alexander b. 1836. m. Kate Lamb. Their son John b. 1863. m. Winifred Difford d. 12 November 1925. Buried in St. Saviour's Church Cemetery, Claremont, Cape Town. His son John b.1912. m. Rozanne Robinson. He annexed Marion Island for South Africa in 1947 during Operation Snoektown. (4 )Elizabeth Ann Wills (Eliza) b. 1838. (5) May Emma b. and d. 1840.

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.

When the Cape finally obtained a Parliament in 1854, Fairbairn was immediately elected as a member of the Assembly (lower house) representing Swellendam. He held this seat for ten years, up until his death in 1864. He was initially proposed as Speaker of the first Parliament, but narrowly lost to Christoffel Brand. He was also an early supporter of the move for "responsible government" - the next step in the Cape's gradual independence, which entailed an elected Executive. 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.

In 1859 Fairbairn gave up his journalistic work and editorship of the 'Commercial Advertiser'. His other contributions included the building of hard roads over the sands of the Cape flats, the first life-saving boat to operate around the Cape peninsula and the introducing of the Jury system.

However it is as a tireless fighter for press freedom that he is most remembered. His role as the leader of the free and liberal press of the Cape was taken over by Saul Solomon, and his newspaper the 'Cape Argus'.

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

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.

b2 Elizabeth * c. 1812 = Aberdeen, Scotland 30.5.1812 d. Cape Town 30.5.1840 x Cape Town 10.5.1831 John FAIRBAIRN * Legerwood, Berwickshire, Scotland 9.4.1794 d. Cape Town 5.3.1835


  • "Heese, J.A. & Lombard, R.T.J. “South African Genealogies 1” Human Sciences Research Council, 1992, ISBN 0-620-23962-1 v.7 pp. 535-8"

[McArthur-306 : Ian McArthur - 18 Apr 2017]

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John Fairbairn
John Fairbairn


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