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McKell, Sir William John (1891–1985)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir William John McKell (1891-1985), boilermaker, premier and governor-general, was born on 26 September 1891 at Pambula, New South Wales, eldest of four children of New South Wales-born parents Robert Pollock McKell, butcher, and his wife Martha, née Shepherd. In 1892 the McKells moved to Candelo, where Billy attended the local primary school, helped his father as a delivery boy and had his own pony. Robert sold his business in December 1898 and took the family to Sydney; they lived at Surry Hills, a slum neighbourhood near where bubonic plague broke out in 1900. In 1901 Robert deserted his wife and family and left for Broken Hill, and then Western Australia, with a young woman from Bega and their one-year-old son. McKell would later claim that his father died about this time whereas, in fact, Robert died in 1934, at Kalgoorlie. Close to poverty, Martha worked as a laundress and took in shirts for sewing; she soon moved with her children to nearby Redfern, which was to be McKell’s refuge and stronghold for the next half-century.

At Surry Hills South Public School, Billy was a bright student. He received a good education—including Latin lessons—that was to stand him in good stead when he studied law. His mother was a devout member of the Church of England and he attended St Saviour’s Church and Sunday school, Redfern. In later life, however, he was not a regular churchgoer. In boyhood he revelled in community activities, finding comradeship particularly in sport—cricket, boxing and football—but he was a responsible youth, not a carefree one. Leaving school at 13, he first worked as a druggist’s messenger boy. His lifelong frugality, independence, caution and social conscience stemmed from his mother’s strength of character, his father’s betrayal and the ensuing hardship and tragedy; the elder of his two sisters died of tubercular meningitis in 1905. He retained a special bond with his mother, who was the major influence on him; she was to live with him and his family until she died in 1951.

In 1906, at her urging, McKell began an apprenticeship at Mort’s Dock & Engineering Co. as a boilermaker, which he later described as ‘the hardest, the dirtiest and the most dangerous trade’. Angered when he was treated poorly by his employer, in 1911 he organised a group of apprentices in protest and moved to Poole & Steel’s Engineering and Dredging Works, Balmain, where he completed his articles. Next year he began working as a journeyman boilermaker and formally joined the Federated Society of Boilermakers and Iron and Steel Ship-Builders of New South Wales, although he had been actively associated with that trade union for at least twelve months. In 1913-14 he was employed in the Eveleigh railway workshops, Redfern. A member of the Australian Labor Party from about 1908, he became full-time assistant-secretary of the Boilermakers’ Society in 1914 and resigned from the railways. He never worked at his trade again.

McKell was a union official at a time of uproar in the ALP, when militants known as the Industrial Section, comprising trade unionists and others influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World, were attempting to pressure the State government, led by William A. Holman, to effect political reforms. The ‘industrialists’, including McKell, dominated the 1916 Labor conference, at which opposition to conscription became party policy. Following the failed referendum of October 1916, individuals who had supported conscription were expelled from the ALP; Holman and James McGowen were among them. McKell secured party endorsement to challenge the latter in the electorate of Redfern and won the seat in March 1917; at 26 he was the youngest member of the Legislative Assembly.

The ‘baby of the House’ joined the Opposition, led by John Storey. Holman (representing the National Party) remained premier. Although Holman was now a political opponent, McKell retained an admiration for the former ALP leader’s style, intellect and eloquence. Holman advised him, the political theorist V. G. Childe coached him and Storey mentored him, as he studied law. On 7 January 1920 at St Aidan’s Church of England, Annandale, he married Minnie May Pye, a tailoress, and bought a house in Dowling Street, Redfern, that became his constituency office as well as his home.

After a move to proportional representation, and electoral changes that abolished the seat of Redfern, McKell was one of five members returned to parliament for the seat of Botany in the March 1920 election, won narrowly by Labor; next month Storey’s patronage ensured his election to cabinet. He became minister of justice in 1920 and retained the position in the James Dooley ministry (1921-22). In arranging the appointment of N. K. Ewing as royal commissioner to inquire into the trial and conviction and the sentences imposed on Charles Reeve and others (1920), McKell had helped to secure the early release of imprisoned members of the IWW.

In Opposition from 1922, McKell grew close to John (Jack) Lang. When the ALP won the 1925 election, he became minister of justice and assistant to the treasurer (Lang). The New South Wales branch of the ALP, however, was riven by competing rivalries. While McKell was overseas negotiating government loans in 1927, party ructions led to Lang’s resignation and subsequent reappointment as premier. Unclear about the situation, McKell declined the offer of a portfolio in the premier’s reconstructed ministry and hurried home. Seen by Lang as an enemy, he was forced to seek absolution from the ‘Big Fella’, who issued a public statement excusing his former colleague’s errant behaviour. Retaining preselection for the reconstituted seat of Redfern, McKell won it at the October election that year, and went into Opposition. In Lang’s second ministry, he was minister for local government (1930-31) and minister of justice from 1931 until the dismissal of the Lang government by Governor Sir Philip Game in May 1932.

Having been admitted to the Bar on 20 November 1925, McKell worked as a barrister while in Opposition. In 1933 he purchased a grazing property near Goulburn, where the family enjoyed a retreat from the public gaze. Labor continued in the political wilderness. In August 1939 a party conference ended Lang’s disastrous domination; next month the parliamentary caucus elected McKell leader. Before the May 1941 election McKell proposed a ‘master plan’ of moderate government intervention. Paying careful attention to selecting candidates, sometimes personally, especially for rural seats, he employed W. S. (Stewart) Howard as his publicity officer. Labor had a famous victory: from a pre-poll strength of 34, Labor won 54 seats in a Legislative Assembly total of 90, with 50.79 per cent of the vote. The return of a Labor government after nine years of Opposition was a notable achievement, and led to the party’s retention of power for twenty-four years.

 One of the State’s most effective premiers, McKell was also treasurer (1941-47). He presented balanced budgets and worked closely with prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley in World War II. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had introduced a new level of danger, culminating in a midget submarine raid in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942. Although an uninspiring speaker, he was a solid and efficient wartime administrator.

McKell enacted major legislative reforms. He set up the Housing Commission of New South Wales (1942), the Cumberland County Council (1945) and the Joint Coal Board (1947); he re-established the State dockyard at Newcastle and rehabilitated the Government Insurance Office. Social and industrial reforms were achieved through the implementation of workers’ compensation, miners’ pensions, improved health and safety provisions and increased annual leave for workers. Reforming the horse-racing industry, he established in 1943 the Sydney Turf Club, which was to run the first annual W. J. McKell Cup in 1962. He was close to hotel and brewery interests, as were his Labor predecessors and successors, and he introduced the Liquor (Amendment) Act (1946) that led to licensed clubs becoming a feature of the State’s popular culture.

Interested in water and soil conservation, McKell strongly supported the New South Wales Soil Conservation Act (1938) and, as premier, expanded the Soil Conservation Service. In 1943 he set up an expert committee to look into a plan to divert the waters of the Snowy River—an important step in the development of the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme. After taking advice from conservationists, in 1944 he introduced legislation to create the Kosciusko State (later Kosciuszko National) Park—his lasting legacy. He also declared 44,000 acres (17,807 ha) of the Macquarie Marshes, in western New South Wales, a national fauna reserve.

Unlike earlier Labor administrations, McKell’s government succeeded in getting much of its legislation passed in the Legislative Council. This was in spite of the council’s reorganisation by the Stevens government in 1935 to ensure a conservative majority. Legislative attempts in 1943 and 1946 to reverse that distortion failed. Nevertheless, the efficient and loyal R. R. (Reg) Downing shrewdly handled business in the Upper House. In April 1946, despite opposition from the British government, McKell succeeded in obtaining the appointment of (Sir) John Northcott as governor of New South Wales—the first Australian to become a State governor.

In cabinet McKell was an active, interventionist chairman; his ministers were in general loyal and only Clive Evatt was a ‘thorn in his side’. A cautious innovator, McKell usually set up an inquiry before introducing new legislation. During his long political apprenticeship he had formed close contacts with the professional public service, and in parliament he used them to good effect. He worked with the chairman of the Public Service Board, Wallace Wurth, who, with McKell and his education minister, R. J. Heffron, set up the New South Wales University of Technology (from 1958, the University of New South Wales), to meet the postwar need for professional engineers and technologists. Treating Opposition members with civility, Premier McKell never used the ‘gag’ or guillotine to stifle debate. When his government comfortably won the May 1944 State election, despite a breakaway group of dissidents led by Lang, he became the first Labor premier in New South Wales to win two elections in succession. As the conservative Sunday Telegraph noted, the result reflected ‘a personal vote of confidence’ in him.

McKell was not inclined to hang on to power; in 1946 he announced that he would retire to his Goulburn farm. Chifley had other plans for his old friend, however, and persuaded him to accept appointment as governor-general. Widespread press and political condemnation of the choice of an Australian—and an active politician—greeted the January 1947 announcement. The Opposition leader (Sir) Robert Menzies attacked the selection as ‘shocking and humiliating’. Resigning from State parliament on 6 February that year, McKell took up office on 11 March. He was only the second Australian to be appointed governor-general: Sir Isaac Isaacs had been the first.

In the face of press criticism of his political connections and lack of military service, McKell began quietly and his relaxed and friendly style, and obvious Australian roots, soon turned around public opinion. His appearance in civilian clothes helped the office of governor-general, whose previous incumbents had often presided in ceremonial uniform, to blend into the postwar community, and he became a popular vice-regal figure. The defeat of Chifley’s government in the December 1949 election might have precipitated tension but, despite a prior hint that Menzies might sack McKell, the new prime minister treated him with careful deference. In a notable instance of vice-regal impartiality, in March 1951 McKell granted Menzies a double dissolution of Federal parliament, amid Labor politicians’ objections. Labor lost the subsequent election, and some in the party harboured a grudge against McKell. This feeling heightened when, despite his previous opposition to British honours, he was appointed GCMG in 1951, and during a visit to England was invested personally by King George VI. In 1952 the University of Sydney conferred on him an honorary LL.D. After an extension of his term, he retired from office on 8 May 1953. Menzies paid tribute to his ‘dignity, knowledge of affairs, and impartiality’.

In retirement Sir William worked on his farm. In 1956 Menzies nominated him to be a member of the Malayan Constitutional Commission. Interested in sport throughout his life, he had always enjoyed horse racing and was a moderate punter; now he bred trotters and had time to attend boxing bouts. An active member (1931-47, chairman 1938-47) of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust, he was a patron of the New South Wales Rugby League. Transferring the farm to their son Bill in the 1970s, Sir William and Lady McKell moved to Double Bay.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw the astonishing resurrection of Lang as a latter-day Labor hero. To many, this was a distortion of history, and State Labor leaders, such as Neville Wran and Bob Carr, began to rehabilitate McKell’s remarkable record of achievement. William McKell Place, Redfern, a high-rise tower built by the New South Wales Housing Commission, opened in 1964. The first William McKell lecture was held in 1982. In recognition of his work for the environment, the McKell medal for outstanding contribution to soil conservation was inaugurated in 1984.

Short and lightly built, Sir William had a cheery grin and a broad Australian accent. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and son, he died on 11 January 1985 at Waverley, Sydney, and was cremated. A memorial service was held at St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral. A portrait by Joshua Smith (1974) is in the historic memorials collection, Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Cunneen, William John McKell (2000)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, NSW), 19 Feb 1985, p 3434
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, NSW), 26 Feb 1985, p 3717
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 28 May 1944, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1947, p 1, 20 Feb 1953, p 1
  • M. Pratt, interview with W. McKell (typescript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • C. Lloyd, interview with W. McKell (typescript, 1981, National Library of Australia)
  • W. McKell papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'McKell, Sir William John (1891–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mckell-sir-william-john-15293/text26501, published in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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