Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

McMaster, Sir Fergus (1879–1950)

by Lorna L. McDonald

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

Sir Fergus McMaster (1879-1950), grazier, businessman and airline founder, was born on 3 May 1879 at Morinish near Rockhampton, Queensland, sixth and youngest son of Scottish parents William McMaster, mine manager, and his wife Jessie, née Scott. Fergus attended Morinish Provisional School in his early years, but was largely self educated. His father was killed in a mine accident in 1885 and his brother William was drowned in 1888.

The McMaster brothers took up Kelso grazing lease in 1891, a 10,000 acre (4050 ha) resumption from Wellshot station, Longreach. When Fergus was 12 he assisted his brothers in droving 4000 sheep from Logan Downs (Clermont) over the Drummond Range and western plains to Kelso. Other western grazing leases selected by McMaster Bros were: Leswalt (1894), Siberia (1895), Moscow (1902), Edkinson (1908), Devoncourt (1910), Oban (1910), and El'Rita. Some, including Kelso, were waterless, so Fergus and his brothers built dams with horses and scoops and sank wells. In early manhood Fergus managed both Moscow (Winton) and Devoncourt (Cloncurry). He married Edith May Scougall (d.1913) with Presbyterian forms on 29 August 1911, at Townsville. Having previously been rejected on medical grounds, McMaster enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 13 January 1917 and served in France in 1918 as a gunner and dispatch rider.

After a chance meeting at Cloncurry with P. J. McGinness, McMaster was invited to assist him and another Australian Flying Corps pilot (Sir) Hudson Fysh to secure aircraft for operation in the bush areas of Queensland. His enthusiasm following a meeting in Brisbane in August 1920 prompted the formation of Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd (QANTAS). Registered in Brisbane on 16 November, with McMaster as chairman of directors (1920-23, 1927-34), the company took delivery of an Avro Dyak aircraft on 21 January 1921. The Dyak, piloted by McGinness, and a borrowed plane flown by Fysh landed at Barcaldine a few days later for a pre-arranged meeting with McMaster who, aided by 'a good smoke', guided the planes over gidyea stumps to a claypan. McGinness then flew McMaster on a promotion flight to Longreach and Winton. Occasionally, during that first year of business, no wages could be paid until McMaster 'had taken the hat around' among his friends.

In November McMaster led a deputation to Prime Minister W. M. Hughes seeking government support for the Charleville to Cloncurry air service; Hughes told him to come back in ten years. As company chairman McMaster then issued a prospectus, offering 15,000 ordinary shares at £1 to shires, western towns, businessmen and graziers. According to Fysh, he was a 'strong man of unshakable integrity'. On 21 June 1922 he married Edna Faulkner in Brisbane with Presbyterian forms.

That year, after much negotiation, McMaster announced that QANTAS had secured the Federal government contract for the Charleville to Cloncurry service; the inaugural flight left Charleville on 2 November with McGinness as pilot. This was the first regular airmail service in Queensland and the second in Australia. McMaster was at Longreach to welcome it. Next day Fysh piloted the plane to Winton, while McMaster drove his car 128 miles (206 km) over bush tracks to greet the first passenger.

McMaster's drive and determination between 1929 and 1933 led to a successful outcome for QANTAS, following a legal challenge from three other airlines, in the bid to provide an airmail service from Australia to Singapore, to be linked with the Imperial Airways service from London. Qantas Empire Airways was registered in Brisbane on 18 January 1934 with McMaster as chairman of directors, which he remained until the Commonwealth government acquired the airline in 1947. In May-June 1935 he was the first return passenger on the regular airmail service between Australia and England. By 1931 he was also managing director of McMaster Bros, graziers and woolscourers.

In 1941 McMaster was knighted. A director of Tasman Empire Airways Ltd, he was also the founding director of North Australian Worsted & Woollen Mills Ltd, and the Electric Supply Co., Charters Towers. He was a foundation member in 1936 and later treasurer of the Queensland Country Party, but in 1941-43 was president of the Country-National Party; he had stood for a State seat as a Nationalist in 1923.

Sir Fergus McMaster died in Brisbane on 8 August 1950 and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £32,398. The daughter of his first marriage and two sons of his second survived him; another son had died in 1944 while serving as a Royal Australian Air Force pilot. McMaster's portrait by William Dargie hangs in the QANTAS board room in Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. Fox, The History of Queensland, vol 3 (Brisb, 1923)
  • Remember — by Air Q.A.N.T.A.S. Ltd (np, nd, c1925)
  • The ‘Qantas’ Airway (np, nd, c1928)
  • H. Fysh, Qantas Rising (Syd, 1965?)
  • Men of Queensland (Brisb, 1937)
  • QANTAS Ltd, Australia and Australians in Civil Aviation, vol 1 (Syd, 1971)
  • J. S. Fysh (ed), Rambling Memories of Sir Fergus McMaster (Warwick, Qld, c1978)
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 28, 29 Sept, 3 Oct 1885
  • Galloway Advertiser (Stranraer, Wigtown, Scotland), 10 Feb 1944
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 9 Aug 1950
  • private information.

Citation details

Lorna L. McDonald, 'McMaster, Sir Fergus (1879–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcmaster-sir-fergus-7422/text12913, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 April 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014