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MacKay, William John (1885–1948)

by Frank Cain

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William John MacKay (1885-1948), police commissioner, was born on 28 November 1885 in Glasgow, Scotland, son of Murdoch MacKay, police inspector, and his wife Isabella, née MacKay. He joined the Glasgow police in 1904 and was promoted detective constable two years later. On 2 December 1909 he married Jennie Ross Drummond in Glasgow, before migrating to Sydney; he joined the New South Wales Police Force in April 1910. His knowledge of shorthand led to his appointment in the administration section where he worked as chief clerk.

Early in World War I with Detective Nicholas Moore MacKay attended meetings in the Domain of the Industrial Workers of the World to make shorthand reports to assist the prosecution of speakers. MacKay was made sergeant in 1922 and thereafter gained rapid promotion, partly as a result of the publicity he obtained in being credited with suppressing the Darlinghurst 'razor gangs'. By 1928 he was detective inspector in charge of the Criminal Investigation Branch and was sent to Britain for eight months to study police methods.

With the onset of the Depression the police became increasingly involved in political surveillance as unemployment and dissent became more widespread. MacKay was often in the forefront of such events as at Rothbury in December 1929 when police, guarding the mine, fought against locked-out miners and a young miner was shot dead. By the time the Old Guard, the New Guard and the All for Australia League had become organized to fight against Jack Lang, he had inserted policemen into these groups, as well as the Communist Party of Australia. MacKay repudiated New Guard claims that its main cause of existence was to come to the aid of the police when the trade unionists and communists tried to seize power, and dealt firmly with a New Guard demonstration outside the Liverpool Street Court on 1 April 1932. The New Guard leader Eric Campbell condemned MacKay for not welcoming the proffered assistance and publicly impugned him for not having enlisted during the war.

With the dismissal of Lang and the election of the new premier, (Sir) Bertram Stevens, MacKay was instructed on 7 June 1932 to increase surveillance of the Communist Party; his officers that year produced much of the material for the Lyons government and its attorney-general (Sir) John Latham to launch proceedings to have the Communist Party declared an unlawful association under the Crimes Act. MacKay was awarded the King's Police Medal in 1932 and appointed police commissioner in 1935.

In April 1936 he again left for an eight-month tour of Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States of America. MacKay was impressed by J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Even more impressed by the efficiency of the German police and the discipline of Nazi society, he praised their labour youth battalions because, he said, they 'subordinate the individual to the welfare of the nation'. On his return he established in April 1937 the first of the Police Boys' clubs and next year a federation, now known as the Federation of Police-Citizens Boys' Clubs.

By 1938 MacKay was becoming unwell under the strain of inquiries and royal commissions into matters involving illegal off-course betting and police officers, and was nearly retired because of ill health. The Police Association of New South Wales outspokenly criticized his arbitrary methods of promoting officers in the force and he turned on the association in January 1942 by posting all seventeen members of its executive to country stations. The premier, (Sir) William McKell, took over the administration of the Police Department and had the seventeen returned to their original positions. Another clash between MacKay and his force occurred over an incident on 9 January 1943 when two constables arrested a man, late at night in a public urinal, who turned out to be the editor of the Daily Telegraph for whom the proprietor, (Sir) Frank Packer, interceded. The two constables were dismissed from the force because of their alleged extensive arrest pattern for this type of offence although one was later reinstated after active Police Association lobbying and disgruntlement in the force.

In April 1942 MacKay had been appointed by the Curtin Federal government director of the revamped Security Service, established to work with the army to maintain surveillance of enemy aliens and communists and to issue security clearances. He had already established in 1938 a combined police and military intelligence unit in his own force. He sought to expand the Security Service, envisaging it as an F.B.I.-style organization, but offended Military Intelligence, which dominated security work, and returned to the Police Force in September. However, he continued to expand the force's work in maintaining surveillance of local communists and radicals.

During his commissionership MacKay set up the police cadet system, and the vice, drug, motor and pawnbrokers squads which all modern police forces were then establishing. Known in the force as 'Big Bill', he was 6 ft (183 cm) tall and weighed 15 stone (95 kg): he had a reputation when young for smashing down doors. While he continued to push aside opposition to his administrative schemes he developed a more guileful style of using information in his possession to place possible opponents in his debt. He spoke with a strong Scottish accent and was proud of his ancestry. His strong ego led him to convert the police military band into a Scottish pipe band dressed in the MacKay tartan; and he established a police air wing by purchasing an obsolete and uneconomical aeroplane rather than continue to hire aircraft.

By 1946 MacKay was becoming unwell again and on 22 January 1948 he died suddenly at his Edgecliff home while entertaining senior police colleagues; he was buried in the Presbyterian section of Randwick cemetery. He was survived by his wife and son and left an estate valued for probate at £13,892.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 July 1928, 12 Mar 1935, 23 Sept 1936, 22 Jan 1942, 23 Jan 1948
  • New South Wales Police Dept, special bundle, 10/1829 (State Records New South Wales)
  • MP 72916, CRS A373 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Frank Cain, 'MacKay, William John (1885–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackay-william-john-7381/text12829, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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