Fremantle Stuff > People > Robert Fairbairn
What follows is the biographical entry for Fairbairn from Kimberly's 1897 History.
IN Western Australia years ago the position of a Civil Servant who hoped to rise in his profession was in some respects like that of a soldier who has to be ready to go anywhere without cavil and put his life in danger for the sake of Queen and country. As a rule the "Government stroke" is looked upon with envy by the civilian in private employment, who is prone to think that he has to work harder and longer and for less money than the servants of the State, whose comfortable offices and short hours in large cities bring a horde o[ claimants to the doors of Ministers in eager search for a vacant post. The Civil Service officer, it is true, is sometimes a spineless individual who loves routine and who clings to some subordinate office with the tenacity of a barnacle to a rock, and who would be mortally afraid at being detached from his humble and familiar sphere, but this is the kind of man who does not make any progress towards promotion. The conditions of the work required from men of calibre in this colony, the men who have shown their fitness for the charge of departments or to act as the emissaries of the Crown in affairs of delicate poise requiring a strong and well-trained judgment, have been of a far more exacting, weighty, and honourable character, and the successes which they have won by their fidelity, integrity, and intellectual powers during a long career have been and are to them what the war medal is to the soldier. In Western Australia especially promotion has been so hardly earned that it carries with it far more than the ordinary stamp of ability and zeal in what used to be a very unattractive, arduous, and ill-paid service. The colony, when the veteran of to-day who occupies a high place enlisted to devote his time and talents to the interests of the public, was impoverished and primitive in its resources. It had wild and desolate tracts of country in torrid zones, to which it sent Police Magistrates to live in tents on the hardest fare and very little pay. "Theirs not to reason why," when they were ordered to the Murchison and Kimberley as pioneer white settlers; theirs but to do and if needs be die of fever, poor nourishment, and exposure. There were no visions of a golden future to encourage them; they were sustained only by a stern sense of duty in the discouragements of their desolate lives, and now that the silver lining of the cloud has been revealed and they are placed at the head of their profession, they are by the general approval of the people acclaimed to have worthily won their way to the forefront and are fully entitled to all that they enjoy in the improved condition of the affairs o[ the colony.
Robert Fairbain, the son of John Fairbairn, of Berwickshire and Roxburghshlre, Scotland, was born in Bunbury in 1841, his family having been among the earliest settlers in that district. The lack of schools was more than compensated for by the high class private tuition which it was the lad's good fortune to receive, and which qualified him, in 1860, to accept an appointment as assistant teacher in a large school at Perth. Two years later he became Clerk of Courts in the Sussex district, of which Busselton is the centre. He discharged the duties of the position with so much assiduity and ability that in 1875 he was promoted to the bench as Acting Resident Magistrate of the Greenough district, Victoria division, Champion Bay. A notable incident in connection with his experiences in this part of the colony arose out of the alleged lead poisoning of a number of miners employed on the Geraldine mines. A report was made to the Government on the ground that the mine-owners failed to supply pure water to the men, and that they were suffering from dangerous impregnations in their domestic supply. The charge was of too serious a nature to be lightly passed over, and Mr. Fairbairn, Mr. Elliott, Government resident, and Dr. Elliott, medical officer, were invested with special powers to enable them to make a thorough investigation in the interests of the mining community.
About that time a report was made to the Government of abuses in connection with the coloured labour engaged in the pearling industry at Sharks Bay. The Cabinet resolved that a full investigation should be made for the information of the Crown, and Mr. Fairbairn was appointed to undertake the responsible task, which he carried out to the entire satisfaction of those who reposed so much confidence in his acumen and judicial impartiality. He showed upon the clearest evidence that in some cases Malays who had been employed as divers had, at the conclusion of the pearling season, been left without the means of support, with the result that some of them had been reduced to a state of semi-starvation. In his report, however, he was able to point out that the employers in disbanding their foreign crews in a strange land had acted rather with a want of thought as to their helpless position and want of means than with a callous insensibility to the claims of humanity and justice. The report, which was drawn up with a lucid grasp of all the bearings of the case, no less than with the utmost fairness to both masters and servants, still further raised Mr. Fairbairn in the estimation of the Cabinet, and formed the basis for the introduction of reforms in the terms of the labour contracts in vogue in the pearling industry. In 1875 Mr. Fairbairn's valuable services were recognised by his being appointed Resident Magistrate of the Toodyay district, chief centre of which is Newcastle.
Mr. Fairbairn's next forward step was Acting Resident Magistrate at Albany and to be gazetted Acting Chairman of the Quarter Sessions. Having spent six months in this capacity, he returned to the magisterial charge at Newcastle, and remained there until, in 1880, he was appointed Resident Magistrate of the Vasse district, in which he had first commenced his official career as Clerk of Courts. On two other occasions Mr. Fairbairn's services were called into requisition as a special commissioner in the northern parts of the colony. A Malay having murdered a native in the Gascoyne district, which had just been settled, Mr. Fairbairn had to undertake a toilsome and arduous journey to place the circumstances of the tragedy before the Crown Law Department. He was also twice sent to Geraldton to take temporary charge of the bench there, and he was instructed to enquire into the alleged harsh treatment of natives by the white population in the Murchison and Gascoyne districts. After travelling through the whole of the district, in the conscientious discharge of this duty and taking evidence from both whites and blacks, Mr Fairbairn found that many of the charges had been substantiated. The report, in which he unflinchingly threw deserved blame upon his own countrymen, of course created a great deal of animosity against him, but those who sought to asperse him from motives of malignity failed to shake the strong testimony which he had adduced of the cruel oppression of the inferior race. Mr. Fairbairn saw the Kimberley before gold was discovered there, and he was the first Government officer to report the finds at Hall's Creek, which occasioned the famous rush of diggers from all parts of Australia. At the time that he was appointed Government Resident at Kimberley there was no township or even a house for the accommodation of its first officer of the law. When he arrived to take up the position there were only two white settlers, and the natives were at first so wild that they fled upon the arrival of the vessel in which he travelled to the scene of his labours. But from the first Mr. Fairbairn made his camp a place where the blacks could rely upon obtaining kindness and protection, and they quickly made friends with him and flocked to his tent in large numbers, glad to get meat and flour from his stores to eke out their sometimes precarious supply of kangaroo and baobab nuts. It is to the credit of the tribes that they never abused the kindness of their benefactor, for although his camp was often left unguarded he never lost the smallest trifle by theft. The tribes who had never come into contact with the whites were, however, not to be trusted, as the murder of Captain Ricketson, Mr. C. Shenton (a well-known pearler), and one of his crew was perpetrated about 100 miles from Kimberley, at Cygnet Bay. Mr. Fairbairn's stay at Kimberley was made memorable by the opening up of Hall's Creek as a goldfield. The original prospectors, Messrs. Hall and Slattery, brought to the Government Resident Police Magistrate, in 1885, nine ounces of gold. Mr. Fairbairn communicated the important news to the Government, and thereupon Kimberley became the cynosure of all eyes and the goal of hundreds of miners. On leaving Kimberley he vas succeeded by Dr. Lovegrove, the present principal Medical Officer, and Mr. Fairbairn then became Government Resident and Chairman of Quarter Sessions at Roebourne, vice Mr. Hayes Lawrence; but after a few months the subject of our notice had the pleasure of being transferred to the temperate regions of the south as Resident Magistrate of Bunbury and Chairman of Quarter Sessions, in succession to Mr. Pearse Clifton. As a native of Bunbury he had the gratification of having steadily risen in the Civil Service until he held one of the highest and most responsible posts in the town in which he was born. But this was only the prelude to still greater preferment, for on the death of Mr. Slade Mr. Fairbairn was then given the larger jurisdiction of Police Magistrate at Fremantle, the office which he now holds. He has also acted as Police Magistrate at Perth during the absence on leave of Mr. Leake Cowan. During his long experience on the bench Mr. Fairbairn has presided at the hearing of some sensational cases, notably that of Thomas Hughes, who shot two policemen who endeavoured to arrest him for alleged theft.
Mr. Fairbairn is the Visiting Justice of the Fremantle Gaol, in which capacity he has had the oversight of some remarkable and well-connected criminals who, in spite of education and intelligence, have developed strange moral obliquity. and besmirched honourable and ancient family escutcheons. Mr. Fairbairn is able to relax from the severe dignity of his office when he leaves the bench, and is a strong supporter of physical culture. He is president of the Caledonian Society and of the Fremantle Rowing Club, also patron of the local football club. He is the father of two children, his wife being the daughter of Mr. Patrick Taylor, formerly of Kitton Hill, Montrose, Forfarshire, who arrived in the colony with the colonising expedition which was led by Governor Stirling.
It will be seen that Mr. Fairbairn has had an almost unique career as a magistrate, and that officially he has worn the white rose of a blameless life. He has performed the judicial function in all latitudes of this vast colony, and has faced danger, hardship, and the stirring up of hornets nests by plain speech in the interests of the public. He has shown in many different spheres that he possesses the wisdom, the firmness, and the unassailable probity to be just to all men, without fear, favour, or affection. His name occupies an honoured place among those who have administered the laws and protected the welfare of society in Western Australia.
Kimberly, WB 1897, History of West Australia: A Narrative Of Her Past Together With Biographies Of Her Leading Men, Niven, Melbourne: 72-73. Available online from Wikisource. Photo above by Nixon & Merilees from the book.
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