John Fairbairn

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John Fairbairn (1794-1864) was a newspaper proprietor, educator, financier and politician. According to the Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa[1], "(T)he 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".


Born in Carolside Mill in the Parish of Legerwood, Berwickshire, Scotland on 9 April 1794, the son of James Fairbairn and Agnes Black. He attended the University of Edinburgh where he studied Medicine, and a knowledge of classical languages and mathematics. 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.

Arrival in South Africa

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. Here he founded a school with Thomas Pringle and founded (again with Pringle) the South African Journal (1824) and the New Organ (1826) and became co-editor and later sole editor of the South African Commercial Advertiser (1824 till 1859). By gaining the right to publish unhampered, they established the principle of freedom of the press in South Africa. He later founded the vast and influential Old Mutual Insurance Company. Married Elizabeth (Eliza) Philip, daughter of John Philip on 24 May 1831. Five children were born to Fairbairn and Eliza. He died in Cape Town.

Role in theatre and the arts

The newspaper and magazine he and Thomas Pringle founded published regular theatre reviews and advertisements for theatre productions, invaluable sources for theatre historians.

As a committed Methodist, Fairbairn was also an outspoken supporter and a member of the first provincial executive committee of the of the newly formed Cape of Good Hope Temperance Society[2], founded on 28 January, 1832, and the used his newspaper to support the society. While its main focus was naturally on alcohol abuse and licentiousness in Cape Town, the society also at one time sought to ban theatrical presentations. Because of this role, Fairbairn was one of the local dignitaries satirized by Charles Etienne Boniface in De Nieuwe Ridderorde of De Temperantisten (lit. "The New Knighthood or the People of the Temperance Movement"), being named "Sir John Brute" in the play, typified as "Eerste Vaandrager en Consitutiemaker" ("first standard bearer and maker of the constitution").


F.C.L. Bosman, 1928. Drama en Toneel in Suid-Afrika, Deel I: 1652-1855. Pretoria: J.H. de Bussy. [3]: pp. 260, 302-304, 310, 318-320 and 354.

Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa

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