Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keir, Stephen (1879–1957)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Stephen Keir (1879-1957), hatter and company director, was born on 14 October 1879 at Audenshaw, Lancashire, England, son of Robert Keir, hatter, and his wife Elizabeth, née Baldwin. Stephen was educated locally and apprenticed to his father's trade. In 1902 he emigrated to Sydney and worked for two years for the hatmakers C. Anderson & Co. Ltd. He then joined Benjamin Dunkerley, an English-born hatter with a small business in Crown Street, who had invented a revolutionary machine for trimming rabbit-fur. On 28 December 1905 at the Methodist Church, Paddington, Keir married Ada Harriet, Dunkerley's daughter and a 'former' of felt hats. Soon after, he was made general manager of the firm which had nineteen employees in 1911 when it became Dunkerley Hat Mills Ltd.

At that time the business operated in partnership with a wholesale merchant Arthur Pringle Stewart (d.1925). In promoting their product, Stewart registered the trade-name of Akubra (an Aboriginal word for head-covering) in August 1912. During World War I Dunkerley's captured the profitable contract for military slouch hats. After the death of his father-in-law in 1918, Keir took up the managing directorship at a newly built factory in Bourke Street, Waterloo. Small, compact and personable, he faced his daily responsibilities sporting a boutonnière fashioned every morning by Ada. He was a pillar (and trustee) of Burwood Methodist Church who delighted in extending his strong, sound voice in hymn-singing and ran his business according to his Christian principles. Following World War I, young (Sir) Garfield Barwick grew up in the Keir household when his own family was dispersed.

By the 1920s there were hundreds of employees in the paternally run Dunkerley's. Its Akubra cricket team (established 1926) had an enthusiastic following. In addition to an annual picnic, a dinner for employees was held every year at Sargents Ltd—always a notably informal affair where a band accompanied the singing and dancing. More practically, a provident society made generous allowance for employees' sickness benefits. In the Depression Keir's proposal (democratically endorsed) of a 10 per cent wage cut staved off any staff reductions, although many of his competitors folded. He was awarded King George VI's coronation medal in 1937. Business revival was ensured by the outbreak of World War II: most of Dunkerley's production was again directed to making slouch hats. Staff who enlisted had their military pay augmented by the firm to preserve their normal wage level. Keir retired in 1952 in favour of his eldest son.

Keir died on 11 November 1957 at his Burwood home and was cremated; his wife, daughter and three sons survived him. An enterprising hatter, he had kept abreast of international trends, but over the years developed a type of fur-felt headgear so appropriate to its market that Akubra became a familiar element of national life. It endeared itself for flexibility ('water your dog, fan the fire'), for taking the punishment of rugged use, and for a certain insouciance:

. . . it has an air of Aussie
Of 'come and have a drink?'
The good and easy style that leads
To glory or the clink.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bowen, The Akubra Hat (Syd, 1988)
  • G. Turner, Akubra is Australian for Hat (Syd, 1988)
  • Land (Sydney), 8 Sept 1988.

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Keir, Stephen (1879–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keir-stephen-10668/text18961, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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