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Mary Ellen Fairbairn (nee McNamara) 1881-1955 by Ann Rackstraw

James and Bridget McNamara’s children:
   C. Mary Ellen McNamara married Henry Hunter Fairbairn

Mary Ellen McNamara
9 Aug 1881 - 25 Jul 1955

Married 5 Dec 1906

Henry Hunter Fairbairn
22 Feb 1875 - 13 Nov 1924

Photograph of Mary Ellen, Henry and baby Lachlan
Photograph of Mary Ellen, Henry and baby Lachlan provided by Thelma Ellis

C. Mary Ellen McNamara. She was also known as Fairy, her married name was Fairbairn. She was born on 9 Aug 1881 at Paris Creek, South Australia (CD, SA Births, 1842-1906, Book 265, page 489).

Around Mar 1888, James, Bridget and their children travelled to Round Hill, near Broken Hill NSW, where James worked at the Round Hill mine. Between 15 Sept and 8 Oct 1888, Kate and Lawrence died and Bridget, their last child was born. After this traumatic period Bridget suffered a decline in her mental health. The family later returned to Adelaide where James was admitted to Adelaide Hospital on 22 Jun 1890 with Plumbism (lead poisoning), he was discharged on 28 June. It appears that James later returned to Broken Hill to work, leaving Bridget and the children in Adelaide.

After their mother was admitted to the asylum on 10 Oct 1890, Thomas McNamara, brother of James, travelled from Goolwa to Adelaide and bought the children back to live with his family believing it would be a temporary arrangement. At the end of Feb 1891, Thomas appealed to the SA Children's Department for assistance as he could no longer support the children. He advised the authorities that James was in hospital in Broken Hill and Bridget was in Parkside Asylum (Correspondence contained in SA Children's Department Series GRG27/1, copies supplied by Judy Smith, email dated 25 Nov 2008).

On 13 Mar 1891 all four children were admitted to Magill Industrial School, they had been sentenced to one year as destitute children by T.W. Goode JP and J.T. Underwood JP (This sentence was to be later extended). On 4 Apr 1891 all four children were placed with Mrs Bridget Davoren/Daverns, Roman Catholic, wife, of Kapunda. Bridget's husband John died on 27 Dec 1891 and on 30 Jan 1892, after nearly nine months with Mrs Daverns, the children were removed from her home by Inspector Honigrave because of reported ill treatment and were returned to Magill. On 22 Feb 1892 Mary Ellen, aged nine, was then placed with Ann Tully, Roman Catholic, widow of Gawler.

There is a gap in the records but it is recorded that on 2 Aug 1899 Mary Ellen, aged 18, had been readmitted to Magill from the service of Mrs C.H. Houlgrave of Kensington who returned her as unsuitable. Mary Ellen's sentence had been extended until 19 years of age, on 5 Sep 1900 she was then placed ‘in service’ (household servant) to J.J. McCabe, Malalla (Information extracted from SA State Archives Series GRG29/9, provided by Judy Smith, email dated 29 July 2008).

Mary Ellen briefly worked in South Australia as a Domestic Servant but then travelled to Western Australia in the early 1900's where a maternal Uncle, Patrick Keane and both a maternal and a paternal Aunt were living, Mary Ann (nee Keane) Lydon and Catherine McNamara. Also two cousins were living in Western Australia, Mary Agnes Casey (later Mrs Yuille) and Margaret Ann Casey (later Mrs Hay). It is believed that prior to her marriage Mary Ellen was employed as a ship's cook travelling regularly to Western Australia from South Australia and back. Mary Ellen met her future husband, Henry Hunter Fairbairn at a dance, a waltzing competition was being held, Henry had eggshells pinned to his shoes and he won the competition because none of the eggshells were broken (Information provided to Judy Smith by Mary Ellen's daughter, Thelma McKinna, provided by Judy Smith, email dated 28 Aug 2008)

All of Mary Ellen and Henry Hunter's surviving children inherited Henry's skill and love of dancing and won many prizes in their youth.

She married Henry Hunter Fairbairn, son of Thomas Fairbairn and Margaret Grant, on 5 Dec 1906 at Scots Church, Fremantle, Western Australia. Their marriage was conducted by Presbyterian Minister, the Rev Robert Hanlin; the witnesses were Frederick Charles Foster and Isabella Fairbairn, the groom's sister.

The following details were recorded on their Marriage Certificate:
Mary Ellen, age 25, Spinster, occupation - Domestic, Present address - Fremantle, Usual address - Adelaide, SA.
Henry, age 31, Bachelor, occupation - Stockman, Usual and present address - South Fremantle
(Copy of WA Marriage Certificate, Reg No 211, supplied by their daughter, Thelma McKinna).

Mary Ellen & Henry were recorded as living at 265 Mandurah Rd Beaconsfield in the WA Directory for 1907, it is known that early in 1907 Mary Ellen and her husband Henry travelled to Victoria where their first two children were born (The Western Australian Directory (Wise's) 1907, State Library of Western Australia, online database).

In 1908 Mary Ellen's sister Helena was visiting from SA and staying with the family at Craig Park, Hurtle St Ascot Vale, Victoria. Helena had been ill with pneumonia and wrote to the SA Children's Department requesting her wages be paid to her as she only had a few shilling after paying 6 pounds for a Doctor. Helena decided to stay with the family for some time as Mary Ellen was not well (Correspondence contained in SA Children's Department, Series GRG27/1, copies supplied by Judy Smith, email dated 26 Nov 2008). When Helena's health permitted, she worked as a domestic servant in large houses in the Prahran area (Information provided by Judy Smith, email dated 3 Aug 2008).

Around 1910 Henry and Mary Ellen, with their children Lachlan and Margaret, moved back to West Australia as they did not approve of the compulsory smallpox vaccination for their children, their third child Thelma was born in Jul 1911 in South Fremantle (Information provided by their daughters, Margaret Rackstraw and Thelma McKinna c1980). The family was recorded as living at 249 Mandurah Rd, Beaconsfield, West Australia, in 1912 (This road has been renamed and appears on current maps as South Terrace) (The Western Australian Directory (Wise's) 1912, State Library of Western Australia, online database).

Thelma, Lockie, Marge, Tom and Unknown Child
Thelma, Lockie and Marge,
Tom at front
unknown child on fence
Jessie is missing from photo
(date unknown but probably mid 1920s)
Photograph provided by Thelma Ellis

The family returned to Victoria around 1913 where their remaining children were born, Henry took employment at the Newmarket Saleyards working as a Drover for his brother, Lachlan A. Fairbairn (Information provided by daughters, Margaret Rackstraw and Thelma McKinna).

Mary Ellen and Henry were listed in the 1914 Electoral Rolls at 8 Norwood St Flemington, on the 1919 Roll they were listed at 94 Shields St, Flemington, on the 1924 Roll they were listed at 11 Percy St Flemington; occupations Mary Ellen - Home duties, Henry - Drover (, Vic Electoral Rolls, website).
After Henry's death Mary Ellen was listed on the 1931 Electoral Roll at 18 Pridham St, Kensington, and on the 1936 Roll at 4 Finsbury St, Newmarket; occupation - Home Duties (, Vic Electoral Rolls, website).

In 1940 Mary Ellen was living at 8 Brighton St Flemington with her daughter, Marge Rackstraw and her family, by 30 Jul 1941 Mary Ellen had moved to 77 Athol St, Moonee Ponds with her oldest son Lockie before he enlisted in WW2. In Feb 1942 Marge and her two sons moved to live with Mary Ellen at Athol St after Marge’s husband also enlisted (WW2 Service files for Lachlan Fairbairn, NAA Series B883, Barcode 6119812 and James Lincoln Rackstraw, NAA Series B883, Barcode 6123255).

During WW2, both Mary Ellen's surviving sons, Lockie and Tom, and all of her sons-in-law, James (Jim) Rackstraw, Arthur McKinna and Patrick Foley enlisted in the Army. Although Lockie Fairbairn and Jim Rackstraw were captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in Feb 1942 and were imprisoned in the Changi POW camp, all five men returned safely to civilian life after the war.

Photograph provided by Thelma Ellis
Back - Lockie, Thelma and Tom
Front - Jessie, Mary Ellen and Marge
Photograph provided by Thelma Ellis

After the fall of Singapore, the fate of those captured was not known for some time. During 1944 and early 1945, Radio Singapore broadcast messages from POW's, at the time it was not known when they had been written or in what circumstances. On 9th Mar 1944 a message from Lockie to his mother was read on the shortwave broadcast advising her that Lockie and Jim were okay. All over Australia people listened to the messages and some transcribed them and sent them to the families who were named. Mary Ellen received 13 letters from listeners in Vic, NSW, SA and WA, giving her details of the message. The card was forwarded by the Army on 16 March 1944. Another card was forwarded by the Army on 17 March 1945 and then a cable transmitted in Sept 1945 after the POW's were released (Copy of Message card provided by Mary Ellen's granddaughter, Thelma Ellis and copies of correspondence provided by Mary Ellen's grandson, Raymond Fairbairn).

Photograph provided by John Rackstraw
Back – Pat Foley, James Rackstraw, Arthur McKinna
Front – Dorothy Fairbairn and Mary Ellen
Photograph provided by John Rackstraw

In the early 1950s Mary Ellen suffered from a heart related illness and was very sick, during her illness she was cared for by her daughter, Thelma McKinna, after her recovery she returned to live with her oldest daughter Marge. Later Mary Ellen went to live with her youngest son, Tom and his sons, after his separation from his wife, Dorothy (Personal memories of her grandson, John Rackstraw).

Mary Ellen died of Hypertension and arteriosclerosis on 25 Jul 1955, aged 73, at the home of her son, Tom, at 19 George St, East Keilor, Victoria. The city coroner, Mr J.R. Burke, ordered burial without inquest or post mortem. It was recorded on the death certificate that Mary Ellen had lived in Victoria for 47 years, for 18 years in South Australia and for 8 years in Western Australia (Vic Death Certificate No 8969). She was buried on 27 Jul 1955 at Coburg, Victoria, with her husband Henry and three of their children, Annie, Henry David and Jean Mary. The grave is located in the Presbyterian Compartment A Grave 684 (Fawkner Crematorium & Memorial Park, website).

Mary Ellen was always willing to provide a home for members of her family who were in need of help and she is remembered with great fondness by her grand children, she loved a bit of a gamble and would travel into the city to a venue above a shop in Swanston Street where she would play euchre, she wore an eyeshade (like tennis players wore in the past) and looked like a professional gambler. Her grandson John Rackstraw remembers travelling with her to Footscray to play Housie (Bingo), he also remembers that when he was naughty she would chase him through the house with a broom, so angry that she would shout Lockie, Tommy, Jimmy until she got to the right name, Johnny (Memories of Mary Ellen's grandchildren including John Rackstraw).

Henry Hunter Fairbairn

Henry Hunter Fairbairn. His siblings called him Henerey and he was also known as Harry. Henry was born on 22 Feb 1875 at Pentland Hills, Victoria; the midwife was Mrs Hanson and the witness was Mrs Smith (Vic Birth Certificate No 11322).

Henry was listed on the roll of electors for the 1899 Referendum at Eltham St, Flemington, Victoria, occupation Drover. Soon after, Henry, like thousands of young men from the eastern states, travelled to Western Australia to take advantage of the prosperity generated by the gold rush. It is recorded in the Victorian Year Book 1903 that between 1891-1901, 17,443 adult males born in Victoria, left Victoria for Western Australia and South Africa following the lure of gold (Fiche, Roll of Electors who voted in the Federal Referendum 1899, Page 345, copy provided by GSV, email dated 17 Apr 2009 and extract from Victoria Blue Book 1903, provided by Ada Ackerly, email dated 30 Sep 2008).

Henry was listed on the Electoral Rolls for 1901 and 1906 living at Wiluna WA, occupation - Labourer (Wiluna is 943 km from Perth and east of Meekatharra) (, WA Electoral Rolls, website).

Henry died of Pulmonary Phthisis (Tuberculosis) on 13 Nov 1924, aged 49, at Heatherton Sanatorium, Moorabbin, Victoria (Vic Death Certificate No 13661). He was buried on 14 Nov 1924 at Coburg, Victoria, in the family grave with his three young children, Annie, Henry David and Jean Mary (Fawkner Crematorium & Memorial Park, website).


James & Bridget McNamara’s
children: Laurence & Catherine


Lachlan Fairbairn