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Adam Cairns McCay (1874–1947)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Delamore William McCay

Adam Cairns McCay (1874-1947) and Delamore William McCay (1877-1958), journalists, were born on 27 December 1874 and 8 January 1877 at Castlemaine, Victoria, fifth and sixth sons of Rev. Andrew Ross Boyd McCay, Presbyterian minister, and his wife Lily Ann Esther Waring, née Brown. They were educated at Castlemaine Grammar School where Adam, after graduating from the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1894; M.A., 1896), succeeded his eldest brother (Sir) James Whiteside McCay as principal. He married Edina May Malcolm at Castlemaine on 12 May 1899. On completing school Delamore worked for twelve years as an accountant and married Frances Eva Macpherson at Port Fairy on 18 June 1911.

Both brothers, who like others in their family had a love of literature and a talent for writing verse, frequently contributed to weekly papers. In 1903 Adam joined the Melbourne Argus, as a crime reporter, to be followed by Delamore in 1906. In the column 'The Passing Show' Adam, as 'Oriel', wrote satirical paragraphs and topical verse and in 1907-12 leading articles. Delamore reported the inauguration ceremonies of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

In 1912 Monty Grover recruited Adam and Delamore McCay to work on (Sir) Hugh Denison's Sydney daily Sun. As the first 'Peter Persnerkus', an identity later assumed by Delamore, Adam wrote its satirical column 'The Moving Picture Show' and leading articles distinguished by their polish, clarity, brevity and 'punch'. As 'Hugh Kalyptus' he wrote on various subjects with the 'brilliant literary grace that distinguishes the natural-born journalist from the tailor-made reporter'. Adam was appointed editor of the Sun in 1916, while Delamore, news editor from 1915, was associate editor in 1917-19.

After touring eastern Asia and the United States of America in 1919, Adam McCay became literary editor of the new Smith's Weekly while Delamore succeeded him as editor of the Sun. Adam spearheaded Smith's attack in 1920 on the by then ineffectual premier, William Holman, who subsequently lost office and his seat.

Adam McCay continued, as he said, 'bucketing about', serving as editor of the Sunday Times in 1920-23 and of the Daily Guardian, 1924-27. After a brief spell with Truth, he rejoined the Guardian until Sir Joynton Smith sold it in 1930, when he returned to Smith's. Rejoining the Sun in 1933, he was transferred to the Daily Telegraph as associate editor and leader-writer until it was taken over by Consolidated Press Ltd in 1936. He returned to the Sun, retiring in August 1940.

It was a turbulent career. Adam's satirical pen provoked politicians and fellow writers alike. Goaded by leading articles in the Sun, Jack Lang asked in the Legislative Assembly on 14 March 1916 whether it was true that Adam had been dismissed from the Argus for 'an attempt to blackmail members of Federal Parliament'. When a denial from the Argus was ignored by the premier, Holman, the Australian Journalists' Association, of which McCay was a member, expressed 'disgust and indignation' at the 'slanderous attack'. Next year Adam retaliated by revealing Holman as author of a damaging memorandum advocating unfair methods of recruitment. In 1927 Adam's scathing comments about newspaper personalities, made during a private conversation and exaggerated in the Sunday Times, led to his dismissal and a public apology to Joynton Smith. Scepticism may have hardened into cynicism. Norman Lindsay, bitter about Adam's tendency to 'make a joke of all serious values', described him as 'one of the five worst men in Australia'.

Delamore's career was more conventional. He served as London manager and editor of the Sun-Herald Cable Service in 1921-24, returning as editor of the Sun in March 1924. Appointed editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers Ltd in 1934, next year he led the Australian delegation to the Imperial Press Conference in South Africa. From 1937 he was London representative of the Sydney Morning Herald, returning to Australia in 1939 to become secretary of the Australian Newspaper Proprietors' Association (1939-48), and of the Australian Newspapers' Council until he retired in 1950.

Both brothers earned reputations as outstanding journalists. Kenneth Slessor considered Adam 'the greatest of all Australian newspapermen' of his time. He was widely respected for his wit, versatility, editorial skills and command of six languages; his facility with words enabled him to turn out vast amounts of high-quality prose and verse. Delamore was recognized for his political commentaries and editorials as well as for his verse, marked by 'delicacy of perception' and 'incisive wit'.

The bespectacled and conventional appearance of the brothers belied their strong, aggressive and colourful personalities. Only Adam's humorous mouth and the gleam in his eyes behind his glasses suggested his gifts as a prankster, raconteur, bon vivant, composer of bawdy verse and originator of extravagant escapades. While working at Smith's Weekly he 'held court' at the Assembly pub next door where, according to Douglas Stewart, 'anything could happen and, very often, did'. He argued the classics with and gave money to Christopher Brennan; he was celebrated in Slessor's poem 'To a Friend'. The Sun referred to him as 'the last of the Bohemians' and on his death recorded that the 'man who loved life' had died. From childhood he was known as 'Dum', a contraction of Lewis Carroll's aggressive Tweedledum. Delamore ('Del') too was remembered by a colleague as 'an explosive personality' with 'an inexhaustible fund of quite original expletives'.

As flamboyant in his personal as in his professional life, Adam McCay was divorced by his first wife for adultery in 1916. He married the co-respondent Violet Mary, née Watson, with Presbyterian forms at St Stephen's, Phillip Street, on 1 June 1916. Although reputed in 1919 to be the highest-paid journalist in the Southern Hemisphere, he over-committed himself in purchasing a large property at Randwick; forced to sell at a heavy loss in 1923, he lived with his second wife in boarding-houses until he left her in 1924 for Maideau Elizabeth Françoise Stokes, daughter of Frederick Broomfield. In 1930 Adam McCay declared himself penniless and in debt. Divorced again in 1927, he married Maideau, now divorced, on 22 October 1930 at Mosman. Much loved by the McCay family, she sought, before her death in 1935, to temper Adam's alcoholism and bring some financial order into his life. In retirement he contributed articles and reviews to the Bulletin and other periodicals. He died at Camden on 31 August 1947, survived by a son of each of his first two marriages, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Delamore McCay retired to Casterton, Victoria, where he died on 19 May 1958 and was buried with Anglican rites. His wife and four daughters survived him.

Four brothers, as well as James Whiteside, were notable: Campbell Ernest (1867-1943), who published verse, was William Baillieu's private secretary and later worked for the Melbourne City Council; Hugh Douglas (1870-1953), deputy master of the Royal Mint both in Melbourne and London; Andrew Ross (1873-1958), senior officer in Tasmania of the Bank of Australasia; and Walton (1879-1963), chairman of the Rural Bank and director of land settlement in Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun Newspapers Ltd, The Sun, 1910-1929 (Syd, 1929)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • G. Blaikie, Remember Smith's Weekly? (Adel, 1966)
  • K. Slessor, Bread and Wine (Syd, 1970)
  • K. Slessor, Selected Poems (Syd, 1975)
  • D. Stewart, A Man of Sydney (Melb, 1977)
  • Australian Literary Studies, 2, no 3, Oct 1984
  • Journalist, July 1916, Aug, Dec 1919, Nov 1947
  • Associated Newspapers Ltd, Sept 1940
  • Newspaper News, 2 Sept 1940, 1 Sept 1947
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, 31, no 1 (1960)
  • Punch (Melbourne), Nov 1920
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 25 June 1921, 7 May 1927
  • Daily Guardian (Sydney), 24 May 1927
  • Bulletin, 16 Sept 1931, 3 Sept 1947
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Jan, 7, 11 Feb 1935, 17 Feb, 25 May 1937, 20 May 1958
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1947
  • Sun (Sydney), 1 Sept 1947
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 1 Sept 1947
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 May 1958
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • King O'Malley papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'McCay, Adam Cairns (1874–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Oriel
  • Persnerkus, Peter
  • Kalyptus, Hugh

27 December, 1874
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


31 August, 1947 (aged 72)
Camden, New South Wales, 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.