Notable People of Collingwood

Collingwood Notables Database

Mary Fairchild

c. 1824 - 1907

Convict, colonist, businesswoman

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Fairchild graves

Mary Fairchild (née Fennelly) is an example of an Irish-born convict transported in her teens to Tasmania (then called Van Diemen’s Land), who went on to make a success of her life in Victoria as the respected partner of businessman Jesse Fairchild. The couple lived in a large Yarra-side house in Abbotsford next to Jesse’s Woolthorpe fellmongering works. The 14-acre property was subdivided in the mid 1880s, but the mansion and its garden survived into the twentieth century.

Prior to arriving in Port Phillip and, it is believed, obtaining employment as housekeeper to Jesse Fairchild, Mary had been sentenced to ten years transportation for stealing a substantial sum from her employer in 1839. Some of the records seem somewhat contradictory, but she applied to marry James Farrar and gave birth to a son called James Farrar in late 1844, then apparently married a Roger Parkinson. Her surname and age are inconsistent in different records. Whether or not Jesse knew the full details of his housekeeper’s background, the diminutive redhead evidently won his heart with her hazel eyes and Irish accent, combined with her native intelligence.  They married in St James Church Melbourne on 21 July 1849. Her name on the marriage record was given as Mary Ann, though Ann was never used in any other documentation, and her status described as widow though she used the surname Farrar, not Parkinson.

While the union produced no offspring, Jesse adopted Mary’s son James and like many ‘Vandemonians’ Mary re-wrote her life history. Compared to servitude and occasional hard labour in the penal system, how different her life was in the 1850s! Residing near parkland in a large well-furnished house where a carriage and coachman were kept, she had servants to assist with the running of the house, and also had a horse ‘suitable for a lady’ which she rode side saddle. Her son was attending Scotch College, where he came first in writing in 1855. Despite, or perhaps because of, her background, Mary’s advertisements specified that only a ‘good English servant’ need apply. 

The culmination of this period was a trip (cabin class no less) to England, where the family planned to spend several years and enroll James in an English school. Thanks to the lease advertisement we have some details about Mary’s residence:

on the Yarra … a most complete Bluestone Country Residence, containing drawing-room, dining room, butler's pantry and store-rooms, four bedrooms, servants' kitchen about 30 feet square, with various other rooms and outbuildings. The House is beautifully situated on the banks of the river facing the Studley Park reserve, is surrounded by ornamental garden and grounds containing the choicest flowers and shrubs, and … may be compared with the most finished residence in the colony. There is a fruit plantation of about one acre, and a portion of the land under crop … one of the best residences near Melbourne. (The Argus 27 September 1856)

Jesse and Mary named this residence Yarra House.  In 1864 they planned another trip to England, then moved to St Kilda by the late 1860s and also named their Dalgety Street residence Yarra House. Son James married the splendidly named Emma Australia Staughton in 1868 and the couple, also living in St Kilda, began producing grandchildren. By 1872 they had relocated to Jesse and Mary’s house in Abbotsford and four more children were born there. In 1885 Jesse’s land was subdivided to be auctioned as the Fairchild Estate, and in 1886 James and Emma moved out of the family house which was sold as part of the estate. The young couple moved into the mansion Tolarno in St Kilda, a stone’s throw from Mary and Jesse.

All seemed to be going well but the worm was in the bud. In January 1887 James died at Dr McCarthy’s Retreat for Inebriates in Northcote, a fact as carefully concealed in any public notices as was Mary’s convict past. As well as his connection with his stepfather’s wool industry, James was a board member or shareholder of a wide range of companies, and he left Emma and the surviving six children well-provided for. His probate listing the house contents includes all the accoutrements of a gentleman’s comfortable life, though it is notable that despite the paucity of bottles in the wine cellar, he owed more money to his wine merchant than his tailor.

According to an article in The Prahran Telegraph ‘during the land boom fever of the eighties … [Jesse] Fairchild lost considerable money, and … frequently remarked that he might possibly have been disastrously reduced in 

circumstances but for the foresight and business tact of his helpmate.’ Quite when these issues arose is not clear, but could have been associated with the subdivision of the Fairchild Estate. Jesse and Mary remained living in Dalgety Street until the early twentieth century, travelling to Europe at regular intervals.  Jesse died in 1901 and in his honour Mary endowed a drinking fountain, which still stands in St Kilda on the upper Esplanade. Mary was the sole executrix of his will, unusual for a woman in those times, and this confirms Jesse’s confidence in her abilities.

Before her death in 1907 Mary let Dalgety Street and moved into The Esplanade Hotel. Her very substantial estate made generous provision for her grandchildren and great grandchildren; other bequests in her will were donations to various charities including the Collingwood Creche, and a total of £1500 for building cottages at the Old Colonists Homes in North Fitzroy, to be named after Jesse, James, and herself. Obituaries in The Prahran Telegraphand The Age spoke highly of her benevolence as well as her business acumen. Her estate was valued at over £35,000, considerably more than the £19,000 worth of property and other assets which Jesse left her, and included land in Mordialloc which she had bought decades earlier as well as an extensive list of shares, debentures and mortgages.

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Life Summary

Birth DateBirth Place
c. 1824Waterford? Ireland
Spouse NameDate of MarriageChildren
Roger Parkinsonc. 1845
Jesse Fairchild, 1815 - 190121 July 1849, St James CathedralJames Robert Farrar (Fairchild), 1845 - 1887
Home Addresses
Home StreetHome CityStatus of Building
Church StreetAbbotsfordDemolished
Death DateDeath PlaceCemetery
6 April 1907St KildaBoroondara
Sources

The ArgusThe AgeIllustrated Australian News for Home ReadersThe Australasian Sketcher; PunchPrahran ChroniclePrahran TelegraphWeekly Times; The Herald; Barrett, The inner suburbs; McCalman, Vandemonians.

 https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for Mary Fennelly ID no 5751, accessed 10 July 2022.

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