Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frederick May (1840–1897)

by J. B. Hirst

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Frederick May (1840-1897), engineer and manufacturer, was born in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall, England, eldest son of Henry May, copper miner, and his wife Mary Ann. His formal education was meagre and he worked in the mines from an early age. He sailed with his parents, four brothers and a sister for South Australia in the Melbourne and arrived on 6 December 1858. The family settled at Burra, a copper-mining centre, but moved to Wallaroo soon after copper was discovered there in 1860. May was employed at both places on the construction and installation of mining machinery. At Wallaroo he was appointed engineer of the smelting works and at 23 superintending engineer at the Moonta mine. This mine became one of the most efficient and technically sophisticated in Australia, a tribute to May's ability as well as the intelligent management of the company and Captain Hancock.

In February 1874 May became a partner in James Martin & Co. at Gawler. The firm's expansion into mining machinery and general engineering owed much to May's skill. In March 1885 the partnership was dissolved and he started his own business with his brother Alfred as manufacturers of agricultural implements, but specialized in mining and smelting machinery, the demand for which rose rapidly with the discovery of Broken Hill and Western Australian mines. In the 1890s the firm employed up to 250 men. May devoted himself to improving machinery for separating the sulphide ores mined at Broken Hill and his concentration machinery with its patent plunger jigs was widely adopted. After extensive trials Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd chose May's machinery for its new concentration plant in 1896. His firm also supplied much of the machinery and equipment for B.H.P.'s smelters at Port Pirie where a branch factory was established.

May had a keen interest in technical education and served on the council of the Gawler School of Mines. He was also a councillor in the Gawler Corporation and a vice-president of the Gawler Agricultural Society. He was twice married: first, at Bingo mines on 14 September 1862 to Mary Ann Mitchell (d.1896) by whom he had five sons and three daughters; and second, at Laura on 14 October 1897 to Margaret Maxwell Dick. May relaxed from oversight of his works but died of a heart attack at Semaphore on 15 December aged 57. He was given an impressive burial in Willaston cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. H. Coombe (ed), History of Gawler 1837 to 1908 (Adel, 1910)
  • M. Williams, ‘Gawler: the changing geography of a South Australian country town’, Australian Geographer, 9 (1964)
  • Bunyip (Gawler), 24 Dec 1897
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 Dec 1897.

Citation details

J. B. Hirst, 'May, Frederick (1840–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 10 December 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2023

Life Summary [details]


Perranzabuloe, Cornwall, England


15 December, 1897 (aged ~ 57)
Semaphore, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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