Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Katherine Ada Mackay (1901–1975)

by Gary Presland

This article was published:

Katherine Ada Mackay (1901-1975), policewoman, was born on 10 December 1901 in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), daughter of Robert Mackay, merchant, and his wife Emma, née Foord. The family lived in New Zealand and New South Wales before settling in Melbourne. On 27 April 1922 Kath joined the motor registration branch of the Victorian Public Service as a typiste and stenographer; later that year she moved to the Victoria Police and worked in the chief commissioner's office. On 15 April 1930 she became one of eight serving policewomen. Initially assigned to the plain clothes branch, by 1935 she was attached to the Criminal Investigation Branch at Russell Street headquarters.

In June 1943 Mackay was promoted senior constable and given charge of the policewomen's section which operated from Russell Street. There were only fifteen policewomen, but their role was enhanced because of the number of men absent from the force on active service. Although Mackay's role and function were largely restricted to welfare and domestic issues, and to cases involving women, she received official commendations in April 1942 for her part in the conviction of a man for incest and in April 1945 for helping to solve a murder case. She was regarded by her superiors as 'well conducted, efficient and reliable'.

Having passed the required examinations, Mackay was eligible for promotion to sergeant in 1953. Unlike its New South Wales counterpart, the Victorian police hierarchy was unwilling to give a female authority over male colleagues. When two men were promoted ahead of her, Mackay appealed to the Police Classification Board. In March 1954 the case was dismissed on the ground that a sergeant in charge of a station might be expected to fulfil duties for which the board felt that Mackay was unfitted. The ramifications of the decision were extensively canvassed in the newspapers.

The Police Association suggested that, since the number of policewomen had increased to thirty-four, a reorganization of the women's section of the Victoria Police was overdue. This proposal was implemented in 1956, providing the opportunity to make Mackay a sergeant. On 22 August that year she became the first woman in Victoria to achieve such rank when she was appointed officer-in-charge of the new Women Police Branch. Her effect on the force was long-standing. In June 1959 she and her younger brother Sergeant Alexander Mackay were each presented with the Police Long Service and Good Conduct medal. She was superannuated from the Victoria Police on 10 December 1961, on reaching the age of 60.

Katherine Mackay was 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, with hazel eyes and a deep-throated chuckle. She was a practising Presbyterian who enjoyed gardening at her Elwood home and reading biographies. In her retirement she served as secretary of the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and maintained working links with the Young Women's Christian Association, the Melbourne City Mission and the Melbourne Ladies' Benevolent Society. She died on 15 June 1975 at Brighton and was buried in St Kilda cemetery; her estate was sworn for probate at $75,855.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Haldane, The People's Force (Melb, 1986)
  • C. Woolley, Arresting Women (Melb, 1997)
  • Police Life, Dec 1961, Apr 1963
  • Truth (Melbourne), 13 Mar 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1954
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1954, 18 June 1975
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 June 1955
  • Victoria Police, record of conduct and service, K. A. Mackay (held at Victoria Police Headquarters, Melbourne).

Citation details

Gary Presland, 'Mackay, Katherine Ada (1901–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1901
Colombo, Sri Lanka


15 June, 1975 (aged 73)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.