ROBERT FAIRBAIRN, I.S.O., J.P., retired magistrate, is a son of the late Mr. John Fairbairn, of Berwickshire, Scotland, who came to Western Australia in the year 1839, settling at Bunbury, where he was one of the pioneer settlers of the district. The subject of our review was born at Picton, Bunbury, on June 20, 1841, and educated by his father, there being no schools of any kind in those days outside of Perth. Young Fairbairn acquired his scholastic training under adverse conditions, but nevertheless his studies embraced all the subjects likely to prove of value to him in later life. It was after the manual labours of the day that he usually received instructions from the paternal source, and even to the present day he vividly remembers having received his first lesson in Euclid while seated on the stump of a fallen forest giant.
Having reached the seventeenth year of his age Mr. Fairbairn accepted an appointment as second master in the Perth Boys' School, the first institution of its kind in the State. After occupying this post for nearly four years in 1862 he accepted the appointment of clerk to the bench of magistrates at Busselton, which had been offered him by the Government. For eleven years he fulfilled the duties appertaining to this office, as well as a multitude of others which meanwhile had been added. In 1873 Governor Weld selected him to become acting resident magistrate at Greenough, where he remained for two years, on two occasions during that time acting as Government Resident at Geraldton.
The following year he was appointed with Mr. Eliot, Government Resident of Geraldton, and Dr. Elliott to inquire into the causes leading to the cases of lead-poisoning which had occurred at the Northampton Mines. Having successfully disposed of this work he was next authorized to proceed to Shark Bay to make inquiries into the allegations of cruelty and ill-treatment of the Malays engaged in the pearl shell fishery who, it was asserted, were being treated like slaves, many of these unfortunates being reduced to a state of semi-starvation. Mr. Fairbairn dealt with the situation in a most decisive manner and not only awarded the sufferers considerable compensation, but went so far as to sell up huts, boats, etc., so that they should receive the benefits awarded them from the `-fonts of justice."
On his return to Perth, Governor Weld having been succeeded by Governor Robinson, Mr. Fairbairn received the thanks of the new Governor on the successful issue of his mission. Mr. Fairbairn's next appointment was at Newcastle, in the district of Toodyay. Before accepting this post, however, he was offered, but declined, the office of sheriff at Perth.
In 1876 he became Acting Government Resident at Albany, performing in addition a host of other duties not connected with that position, and in 1880 he was appointed resident magistrate and Collector of Revenue and Customs at Busselton.
These were strenuous days, full of incident, and it was impossible to hazard a guess at the work of to-morrow by that performed to-day. On one occasion Mr. Fairbairn had to ride 200 miles in two and a half days through heavy bush country in order to receive instructions from the Governor relating to a murder on the Gascoyne which caused considerable sensation at the time.
In 1882 he was given a commission to proceed to the Upper Murchison and Gascoyne districts to inquire into the condition of the natives who were causing great trouble to the settlers. This work occupied a considerable time, but was finally brought to a successful conclusion, the Governor publicly thanking him and adopting all his suggestions, notwithstanding the strong opposition shown by the settlers of those districts.
In the following year he was appointed Government Resident at Kimberley, being the first official in that part of the State. He took with him a large party and a quantity of stores and building material in the barque `Amur," and on arrival at their destination, after a trip lasting twenty-eight days, dropped anchor between Mary Island and the mainland. The party consisted of Mr. D. B. Ord as clerk, Sergeant Troy, now resident magistrate and warden of the gold fields at Cue, several police constables, a carpenter, and three native assistants. The party was also accompanied by Mr. Turner (surveyor) with men and horses and two other survey parties under Mr. Brooking and Mr. Harry Johnston (now Surveyor-General), which had sailed by the steamer "Rob Roy" a few days previous to the departure of the "Amur."
Arriving at their destination unloading was immediately commenced, the horses being swum ashore, and the provisions landed in the ship's boats, after which they were carried across the Marsh on packhorses lent by Mr. Johnston. The boats proving too frail to take ashore the building material it all had to be sent back to Cossack, where it remained for twelve months, the party meanwhile living in huts and the provisions being housed in sheds made of bush timber. The first difficulty the party had to overcome was the scarcity of drinking water. Several shafts were put down, but the water obtained was too salty to be of use. A temporary supply, however, was drawn from a native spring (now known as Nobby's Well), distant some 10 miles, and carted to the camp, but ultimately a plentiful supply was struck about 2 miles from the landing place. During his term of office Mr. Fairbairn had wells sunk along the different routes into the country. A town site was surveyed and a tramway laid across the Marsh (at this point of con siderable width) which proved very useful for some years and enabled the settlers to ship their wool and land their supplies. On his arrival in the district there were only two stations, those owned by the Kimberley Pastoral and the Yeeda Companies, but when his term of office had expired the settlement had increased and the town of Derby (which he founded and named) could claim in addition to the Government buildings a couple of general stores, a butcher's shop, and an hotel, as well as several private residences.
During Mr. Fairbairn's tenure of office he explored the country between the coast and the King Leopold Range, a work which met with the hearty approval of Sir F. N. Broome, who in a letter stated that "it was the kind of work he liked the Government Resident to be engaged in." In 1885 Governor Broome paid a visit to the district, and at a public dinner given to him by the settlers he stated that "the present settlers, like all pioneers, would make no money; the fortunes would be made by their successors," but shortly afterwards unexpected developments caused a rise in the price of meat which brought a period of unlooked-for prosperity to the pioneers.
On his arrival in Kimberley Mr. Fairbairn found the natives to be so wild that they fled from the coast at the sight of the ship and for some time would not approach the camp. One day, however, an old native whom they named Jacob came in, and he was so well treated that, accompanied by a young man, he returned next morning and invited Mr. Fairbairn to shoot ducks on a large lagoon about 8 miles from the camp, where they came upon over a hundred natives- men, women, and children-who, on catching sight of the party, fled in all directions, but on their guide explaining that the whites were friendly the men returned, but not the women or children. On asking a native how they were living he ran off, to return shortly afterwards with his two hands full of roasted locusts. After talking with them and distributing a little tobacco and damper Mr. Fairbairn invited them to visit him at Derby, and on the following day some twenty native men and women came in and remained as his guests for two days From that time his relations with the natives were most cordial, and during his stay at Kimberley Mr Fairbairn lost nothing through the natives, nor were any of them ever charged with stealing or killing sheep One of the initial difficulties was the outbreak of scab, infected sheep having been allowed to come to the district, and it was only by the adoption of drastic measures that the disease was eradicated.
In his official capacity as Government Resident Mr Fairbairn received the first gold found in any quantity in Western Australia, weighing 11 oz., which was handed to him at Derby by Hall & Slattery. This was in 1885, the metal being found at Mount Abbot, near the Ord River. The news of the discovery quickly spread and a rush at once set in for the new Eldorado
At the end of two and a half years Mr. Fairbairn was appointed Government Resident at Roebourne, being succeeded by Dr Lovegrove, and before taking his departure he was the recipient of an address from the settlers expressive of their appreciation of his efforts on their behalf during his term of adminis tration He remained but a little while at Roebourne when he was appointed Resident Magistrate and Chairman of Quarter Sessions at Bunbury
In May, 1886, he was appointed Resident Magistrate at Fremantle consequent on the death of Mr. Slade, and in this capacity he travelled many hundred miles in the performance of his official functions Mr. Fairbairn continued here until November, 1908, when he retired into private life after fifty years of faithful service, taking up his residence at Cottesloe.
His valuable services in the interests of his country were suitably recognized in 1906, when the King was pleased to confer upon him the distinction of I.S. O. Mr Fairbairn finds relaxation after the heat and burden of his lengthy official career in the pursuits of reading and gardening at his home at Cottesloe, and in the autumn of his lifetime is able to review with honest pride the important part he has played in the opening up and settling of this the largest State in the Commonwealth. He is a Justice of the Peace for Western Australia, a Freemason, and a member of the Weld Club
He has been twice married, the first time in 1887 to a daughter of the late Mr Patrick Taylor of Candyup, Albany.
His second wife is a daughter of the late Mr T A Bussell, of Blackheath Park, near London Of the former union there is issue a son and a daughter. The son, a B. A. of Oxford, is now studying for the medical profession.1