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McKay, Claude Eric Fergusson (1878–1972)

by V. J. Carroll

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Claude Eric Fergusson McKay (1878-1972), newspaper proprietor, was born on 19 July 1878 at Kilmore, Victoria, fourth of seven children of Scottish-born parents Ronald Donald McKay, stock and station agent, and his wife Emily Knight, née Kennedy. Claude was educated at Kilmore State School, and in Melbourne at Brunswick College and Brighton Grammar School. He started work at the Kilmore Advertiser where he wrote editorial copy, and helped to set the type, print the paper and distribute it on horseback. After gaining experience on several other newspapers and studying mineralogy at the Working Men's College, Melbourne, he joined the Brisbane Courier in 1902 and soon became deputy theatre and music critic. His reporting of a complex legal judgement caught the eye of Sir Samuel Griffith who, remarking that while he did not expect a literary press he would like a literate one, encouraged McKay to read widely from his library.

Moving to Sydney about 1905, McKay contributed to the Evening News and Daily Telegraph while writing advertising copy for theatrical entrepreneurs. At the age of 28 he joined the 'maestro of melodrama', William Anderson, who was developing Wonderland City—'the Coney Island of Australia'—above Tamarama Beach. Despite weekly stunts, such as the 'Elaborate Oriental Marriage' of a Sydney couple on an elephant, Wonderland City was slow to return a profit and some of the mobile assets were transformed into the Wonderland circus with McKay as part-owner and advance agent. The circus toured the Queensland coast and northern New South Wales.

McKay went back to newspapers before becoming J. C. Williamson's secretary, house writer and press agent. On New Year's Eve 1907 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Dorothy Hope Sidney, an actress from an English theatrical family. Williamson gave him 300 shares in 'the Firm'. Visiting North America with Hugh Ward to scout for shows and talent for Williamson, McKay met William Randolph Hearst, and attracted and cultivated an ever-widening network of friends, acquaintances and professional connexions. He remained in the wings of theatrical events until 1919, writing and rewriting lyrics for Williamson's imported musicals.

While seconded to promote the conscription referendum campaign in 1917, McKay formed an enduring friendship with W. M. Hughes. In directing publicity for the 8th war loan he worked directly to (Sir) Joynton Smith, whom he casually told that he would like to start a weekly newspaper. Smith later offered to back him with £20,000. Smith bought 100 tons of newsprint, and McKay asked R. C. Packer to join them.

Smith's Weekly was launched on 1 March 1919 as a twopenny broadsheet. It championed returned soldiers, scourged war profiteers, and quickly developed a brash, irreverent style which made it the spiritual successor of the Bulletin. With Smith's encouragement and money, the paper built up an outstanding team of journalists and artists. As it grew profitable, Smith assigned one-third of the equity to each of himself, McKay and Packer. They decided to launch a new morning daily newspaper. Smith and McKay went to London to buy a cable service and ended up with that of the Manchester Guardian. The new Daily Guardian was launched on 2 July 1923, with McKay editor-in-chief of both papers. To boost flagging sales, he and Packer introduced the London practice of offering free accident insurance to subscribers, and, in 1926, sponsored the first Miss Australia competition. Sales rose strongly.

Relations between the three founders were becoming strained. McKay refused Smith's request to stop disclosing rigged contests in the wrestling boom then sweeping Australia. More important was the growing tension between McKay and Packer. In 1927 McKay sold his shares to Smith for £70,000, payable over five years, and agreed not to engage in journalism in Australia for this period. He went to Britain to play golf (mainly at the Wentworth Club, Surrey), to travel and to enjoy club life in London.

Following Packer's departure in 1931, McKay returned to Sydney to be managing director and editor of Smith's. The newspaper continued its crusading journalism, but was in financial difficulties when McKay retired again in 1938. Next year the paper was leased to a syndicate led by Sir Victor Wilson; McKay returned as managing director. Smith's Weekly resumed its role as the diggers' paper, 'vital, tenacious, independent and impudent'. Taking the side of the private soldier, it offended military authorities, censors and the Commonwealth government. McKay's uninhibited flair for showmanship was belied by his appearance. George Blaikie described him as 'the perfect picture of a cultured English gentleman. He was tall and slim and handsome, if you like rather narrowed eyes. His clothes were always in perfect taste and he even smoked cigarettes—which he bought wholesale and puffed endlessly without inhaling—with a highly polished elegance'.

Smith's Weekly returned to prosperity during World War II, but profits fell in peacetime, there were boardroom clashes and McKay again retired. The paper was published for the last time on 28 October 1950. McKay bought a property, Collingwood, near Exeter, bred dairy-cattle, and continued writing occasional articles for, and letters to, Sydney newspapers. An enthusiastic golfer, he belonged to the Killara and Elanora Country clubs in Sydney. He died on 21 February 1972 at Bowral and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife and two sons survived him. In his autobiography, This is the Life (Sydney, 1961), McKay fondly recalled how Griffith had allowed him to use his library; he also remembered the words of the American humorist Artemus Ward: 'Literature being at a low ebb I went into show business'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Julius, Theatrical Caricatures (Syd, 1912)
  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly? (Adel, 1966)
  • R. S. Whitington, Sir Frank (Melb, 1971)
  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • British Australasian, 19 Mar 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb 1907, 24 Feb 1972
  • Punch (Melbourne), 14 Mar 1918
  • papers on Wonderland City (Waverley Municipal Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

V. J. Carroll, 'McKay, Claude Eric Fergusson (1878–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckay-claude-eric-fergusson-10975/text19509, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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