Charles A. Fairbridge, lawyer and book collector, was the son of Dr James William Fairbridge, district surgeon at the Cape for some years, and his wife Sarah Armstrong. He was sent to London at the age of 13 to complete his schooling and upon his return in 1842 was articled to John Barker of Cape Town and admitted as an attorney in February 1846. By 1854 he was the senior partner in the firm Fairbridge, Hull & Meintjes, attorneys at law, notaries, conveyancers, etc. He built up an extensive practice, later became president of the law society, and led an active public life. In 1853 he served on the first committee of the Cape Town Mechanics' Institute, an organisation for improving adult education. Later he served on the committee of the South African Library for many years, and in 1874 applied his knowledge of heraldry to re-design the arms of the Cape Colony. He was an enthusiastic freemason and from 1879 to 1890 was district grand master of the Western Province. In the latter year he was made a complimentary honorary member of the Lodge De Goede Hoop. He was a member of the South African Philosophical Society from soon after its formation to his death in 1893.
In 1854 Fairbridge entered the first Cape parliament for a single four year term. The next year he proposed to the National Assembly that a committee be appointed to enquire into the establishment of a national museum. As a member of this select committee (chaired by Rawson W. Rawson*) he helped to establish the South African Museum in Cape Town. He was a friend of the first curator, E.L. Layard*, and gave much help in fitting out the museum, working there temporarily during the early years. During 1856 he acted briefly as temporary curator. In 1860 he raised money for the institution, and was appointed by government as one of its trustees - a position he held to the end of 1891. He contributed some items of minor importance to the collections, for example some birds in 1864; a pair of black cobras, a small freshwater fish, and the impression of a diamond in calcareous matter in 1872; and some geological specimens from Colesberg Kopje, Kimberley, in 1874. Later Roland Trimen* acknowledged him in the preface to his book, South African butterflies... (1887-1889) as one of the contributors of butterflies from the Western Districts to the South African Museum. He was mentioned by Justice S.T. Jones* as a successful collector of stone tools in the Cape districts and elsewhere, but it is not clear what became of the artefacts that he found.
Fairbridge was the prime mover in passing Act No. 10 of 1867, "for encouraging the introduction into the waters of this Colony of fishes not native to such waters". However, no steps were taken at the time to introduce fish. In 1875 Campbell Johnston made an unsuccessful attempt to introduce trout and salmon to the Cape; his efforts were financed by a group that included both Fairbridge and Layard.
Fairbridge is probably best remembered for his life-long interest in books. In 1886 he and John Noble* compiled a Catalogue of books relating to South Africa which was published in Cape Town for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition Committee. He started collecting books in 1851 and during the next four decades built up a magnificent collection of over 5000 titles, representing some 8400 volumes. It Included many rare items of Africana and was regarded as the finest private library in southern Africa up to the formation of the Mendelssohn collection. A catalogue of the contents was published in 1904. The library was purchased from Fairbridge's descendants by Sir Abe Bailey in 1926 and presented to the South African Library (now the National Library of South Africa, Cape Town campus).
In 1858 Fairbridge married Sarah Rebecca Anderson, with whom he had five children.