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A Hidden Life

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who faithfully lived a hidden life.”

– Middlemarch, George Eliot.

Many of us could name women from, or associated with, our area who have played a significant role in the development of NSW and Australia.

Women such as Caroline Chisholm (Tempe), Maybanke Anderson (Petersham), Louisa Lawson (Marrickville), Mary Gilmore (Stanmore), and Shirley Colleen (Mum Shirl) Smith (St. Peters) who fought for the rights and welfare of women and children, as well as men.

There are politicians Lillian Fowler, NSW’s first female ‘alderman’ and Australia’s first female mayor (Newtown), and Linda Burney, first indigenous person to be elected to NSW parliament (Canterbury) and first indigenous woman in the Australian House of Representatives (electorate of Barton). 

Another trail blazer was Isola Florence Thompson of Marrickville. Isola was one of the first two female graduates at the University of Sydney and went on to be the first woman to graduate M.A. from the University of Sydney.

Sportswomen have also been prominent, particularly swimmers. Annette Kellerman (Marrickville), Sarah (Fanny) Durack (Stanmore) along with Olympians Sandra Morgan and Ilsa Konrads, who both attended Marrickville Intermediate Girls High School.  

But to paraphrase George Eliot, many women live “a hidden life”, and through a series of “unhistoric acts” have an effect on the world; Charlotte Lindsay Meek was such a woman.

Charlotte was born in 1830 to James and Ann Meek. James was a gardener and Ann had been a servant before her marriage. They came from the lowlands of Scotland around Edinburgh. 

Life was very hard in Britain in the 1830s, especially for rural workers. The government devised a scheme (unsurprisingly called the ‘Government Scheme’) to help alleviate poverty by shipping people out to the colonies. This ran concurrently with the NSW colonial government’s scheme (called the ‘Bounty Scheme’) which sought to bring in settlers. James Meek was a good gardener and took advantage of the ‘Government Scheme’, which included an assistance payment of 71 pounds. Armed with letters of reference from previous employers, the family departed Scotland in 1838 for Port Jackson. 

Unfortunately for them, they sailed on the barque ‘William Rodger’, now infamous as a ‘fever ship’. Fever broke out killing 16 immigrants before reaching Sydney Cove on 27 September 1838. Once here, the ship was placed in quarantine and was not cleared until around 3 January 1839, by which time a further 42 had died, including the captain. During the quarantine, Ann was ill but survived. There is no record of how Charlotte and the other children fared during this time although the youngest, John, succumbed to scarlet fever in late January 1839.

After such a traumatic start, eight-year-old Charlotte and her family set out for an as yet unnamed Marrickville by bullock team. They rented a piece of land with a slab hut, and created a garden on the northern boundary of the Gumbramorra swamp in the vicinity of Edinburgh Road and the Marrickville Metro.

Within a few years the family had acquired land which is now on the southern side of the railway line down the western side of Carrington Road. Until the turn of the 20th century Carrington Road was called Meeks Road. Today the area bears the names of family members from the following generation – Harriet, Ruby and Charlotte.

The family prospered as market gardeners and, as one of the first European families to settle here, were pillars of the community. But initially it would have been a lonely existence. In later years Charlotte’s older sister, Elizabeth, was to say that there were only three huts in Newtown when they first arrived and none could be seen from their slab hut. We don’t know if Charlotte was schooled but she must have received some form of education, as can be seen by her later life.

As with nearly all women of her time, the next phase of Charlotte’s life was defined by marriage and childbirth. In 1854 Charlotte married a fellow Scot, James Fairbairn. 

James and family had come from Paddington to Marrickville the year before to open the area’s first bakery on Addison Road. He was almost immediately widowed, with three children, and within the year had married Charlotte. 

Their first child, James Henry, arrived soon after and Charlotte was to have a further eight children over the next 14 years.

Besides the burden of child bearing, Charlotte also had to maintain a household. The bakery would not have brought in a significant income and, as was the custom, her brothers had the access to the Meek family funds. But they did help out when they could, as when her brother Billy went into partnership with James in his family’s Paddington bakery. Charlotte’s family may also have had an influence on Marrickville Council’s decision to put forward her name as the new postmistress for the area.

Marrickville had begun to grow and it was thought necessary to provide a place for residents to collect the mail locally rather than to go into Newtown. 

Marrickville’s first Post Office, Addison Road. Charlotte and James Fairbairn.
Photo: Marrickville & District Historical Society, Inner West Library & History Services.

The bakery was on land owned by Charlotte’s father, on the corner of Illawarra Road and Addison Road, and was one of the few shops in the area. They also made deliveries, so it was an obvious choice. 

At this time, women from the middle or educated working class had few job opportunities but postmistress was socially acceptable and it probably helped that Charlotte was a member of a pioneer family.

After the Council’s submission, Charlotte received Government authorisation to be Marrickville’s postmistress from 1 January 1865, with a licence to sell stamps. She was employed to collect the mail from Newtown and carry it back to Marrickville six times a week. The government would only pay her to do this on foot, no funds for a horse, and she would receive 13 pounds per year.

While the amount appears small, there is one very significant fact about it;  Charlotte was receiving equal pay to men in the same position. “Official postmistresses… in NSW were a privileged minority, gaining equal pay a full century [1862] before most working women in Australia. [They] boasted unrivalled supervisory control over male staff.” (1)

This was definitely true for Charlotte, as her staff consisted of her son George who from 1870 would do the run from Newtown to Marrickville six times a week on horseback. By this time Charlotte was being paid 15 pounds a year. We do not know what George was being  paid by his mother. He would go on to become a postman in Newtown for the rest of his working life.

The 1870s saw Marrickville grow. The Fairbairn’s moved their bakery and Post Office down Addison Road, next to the hotel near the Victoria Road corner. It was a two-storey building with a stable at the back and was demolished to extend the hotel in later years.

Fairbairn’s Bakery near Victoria Road corner. Figures unknown but likely, James Fairbairn second on left, sons Fred and Billy in white at back on right (they both worked in the Bakehouse).
Photo: Inner West Library & History Services

Charlotte and George were now delivering an average of 36 letters a day. Charlotte  petitioned the government, via the Council, for an increase in her wage. The negotiations went on for a couple of months, with Charlotte threatening to withdraw her labour unless she received five pounds a month to provide a horse and “a boy”. The Council was spooked and sent a deputation to the Postmaster-General to get him to provide the funds. In the end Charlotte had a victory of sorts, the Postmaster-General agreed to four pounds a month.

But the times were changing. The Post Office now sold bus tickets, and there were plans to introduce money orders and Government Savings Bank services. Charlotte retired as postmistress in 1882, apparently from fading eyesight, and the Post Office moved to Chapel Street with a male postmaster. The Post Office moved to Marrickville Road in 1887 and the heritage listed building we all know today was built in 1891. 

Life for Charlotte in her later years centred around the bakery, her family and community. One man, Albert Wybrow whose birth Charlotte had assisted and who called her “Granny”, remembered that she was “very well-respected by all the neighbourhood for her kind generosity and especially to all those in need of assistance”. He especially remembered that Charlotte would give each child a bun for themselves when they came to collect the family’s hot cross buns at Easter. A significant kindness to a poor working class boy who could remember it 75 years later. (2)

When her husband died in 1898, Charlotte moved into a house on Addison Road near Cook Street. Nearly all her children lived in houses around her. Eldest son Jim ran a horse-drawn bus service from Cook Street. In Addison Road, sons Billy and Fred lived on either side of daughters Christina and Mary Ann, who actually shared a double attached two-storey house. It could have been called the ‘Fairbairn Precinct’.

Charlotte Lindsay (Meek) Fairbairn died in 1913 at the age of 83. 

Notes

  1. A Marriage of Convenience: Women and the Post Office in New South Wales, 1838 to 1938, Ross Warwick McLachlan. A Thesis Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy of The University of New South Wales December 2009.
  2. Letter from Albert Wybrow to Frances Charteris (Chief Librarian) dated 22/01/1962. Inner West History and Library Services collection.

1 thought on “A Hidden Life”

  1. I am the Great Great Grandson of Charlotte and James Henry Fairbairn and loved this article and all fits into my knowledge of the family. She was quite an amazing woman.

    Like

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