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Cecil Newton McKay (1899–1968)

by John Lack and Dorothy McNeill

This article was published:

Cecil Newton McKay (1899-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

Cecil Newton McKay (1899-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

Museum Victoria

Cecil Newton McKay (1899-1968), businessman, was born on 9 October 1899 at Ballarat, Victoria, fourth child of Victorian-born parents Hugh Victor McKay, machinery manufacturer, and his wife Sarah, née Graves. Cecil, the only one of five sons to enter the business (three died young and one became a farmer), was educated locally at a small private school and (from 1911) at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was school captain in 1918. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 July that year, he trained with the Australian Flying Corps before being discharged on 24 December. He returned to Scotch (resuming as school captain) and stroked the first VIII to victory in the 1919 'Head of the River'.

In 1920 Cecil began work at his father's Sunshine factory. He gained his shop-floor experience as a 'clockie', checking the workers' piece-work rates, before being transferred to the office. Five years later he became a director of H. V. McKay Pty Ltd. Following his father's death in 1926, he inherited a substantial fortune and ultimate responsibility for the business. At the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, on 10 March 1927 he married Marjory Valentine Shaw; they lived at Sunshine until 1938 when they moved to Toorak.

McKay remained prominent in rowing circles. A member of Mercantile Rowing Club and president (1944-47) of the Victorian Rowing Association, he had stroked the V.R.A.'s VIII to victory in the King's Cup (1930). His other enthusiasm was flying. Chairman of the Victorian branch of the Australian Aero Club (1928) and of the Associated Australian Aero Clubs (1929-39), he competed in the Sydney to Perth air race in 1929. That year he was a member of the Commonwealth committee which investigated the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the Southern Cross and the deaths of two searchers.

At Sunshine the old generation was passing: Cecil's uncle Nathaniel McKay died in 1924, George in 1927, and Samuel in 1932. His cousin, the factory superintendent Ralph McKay, left the firm in 1931 to found his own engineering business. Cecil became managing director of the company (H. V. McKay Massey Harris Pty Ltd from 1930) in 1937 and chairman in 1947. These years of recovery from Depression and drought, and of transfer to wartime production, proved demanding yet buoyant ones. Business and patriotism dovetailed readily. In 1940 McKay flew to London to negotiate the supply of agricultural machinery to an embattled Britain. Regretting that, at 40, he was too old to fly in Britain's defence, he presented a cheque for £6000 for the purchase of a Spitfire, subsequently named after him.

In 1942 McKay joined with prominent Melbourne businessmen alarmed by resurgent socialism to form the Institute of Public Affairs, which was launched in the following year. A councillor (from 1943) of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures and chairman (1943-47) of its engineering and allied trades' division, he led the engineering industry during the metal-trades dispute of 1946-47. Employers admired his steely determination and skilled chairmanship; the Labor leader John Cain accused him of protracting the dispute. Attempting to blunt worker militancy, McKay formed at Sunshine a council of employees, and supported the Sunshine Housing Co-operative Society. As president of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures (1947-49), of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia (1949-50) and of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (1947-51), he campaigned against Federal Labor's cradle-to-grave welfare socialism, paid for by oppressive taxation of business. His presidential address to the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures on Empire Day 1949 called on trade unions to respect the arbitration system, and accept incentive payments in industry: 'the man who regulates his own output and receives commensurate return for his effort, living in conditions which permit him to own his own home, educate his children, and inculcate in them an industrious and moral outlook, is going to be poor material for Socialist and Communist designs'.

When the twenty-five-year merger of H. V. McKay Pty Ltd with the Australian interests of Massey Harris was due to end, the McKay family interests were sold to the Canadians in 1954. Their name was dropped in the following year when the subsidiary company became Massey Ferguson (Australia) Ltd. McKay thereafter kept a city office, from which he administered the H. V. McKay Charitable Trust, created under his father's will, and the Sunshine Foundation. His company directorships included the Bankers and Traders Insurance Co. Ltd, National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd, Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd, Consolidated Industries Ltd, Lakes Oil Ltd, Frome-Lakes Pty Ltd and Pilkington Bros (Australia) Ltd.

An intensely private man, McKay was handsome in a patrician way, formal and gentlemanly in manner, plain and direct in speech, and possessed of a dry wit. Fellow captains of industry admired him for his steadfastness and reliability. Some employees—staff and workers—found him stiff, even aloof, courteous but wanting the common touch. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died of cancer on 25 January 1968 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $3,945,439.

Cecil's only sister Hilda Mabel (1893-1987) was educated at Clarendon College, Ballarat, and Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne. She married in 1916 Cleveland James Kidd (d.1923) and in 1936 Colonel George Ingram Stevenson (d.1958). Always close to her father, Hilda acted as his hostess when H. V. McKay entertained politicians and businessmen at The Gables, Sunshine, and Rupertswood, Sunbury. She was a founder and trustee of the Sunshine Foundation, which she chaired after Cecil's death. A generous benefactor, notably of Presbyterian Ladies' College, the Royal Children's Hospital (where in 1958 she endowed the chair of child health, named after her), the University of Melbourne (Hon. LL.D., 1973) and the Victorian Arts Centre, she was appointed O.B.E. (1958), and elevated to C.B.E. (1963) and D.B.E. (1968). Dame Hilda's portrait is held by the department of paediatrics, University of Melbourne.

Their cousin Samuel Stuart McKay (1908-1975), exporter, was born on 29 July 1908 in Buenos Aires, elder son of Samuel McKay, manufacturer, and his wife Helen Stuart, née Howe. Educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, Stuart (as he was known to distinguish him from his father) worked in the machine-tool division of McPherson's Pty Ltd. He went to Sunshine in 1930 to join H. V. McKay's experimental department under Headlie Taylor. In 1937 he was placed in charge of Australian sales and service of the improved Massey Harris tractor distributed by the new Australian company.

Stuart McKay was sent to England in 1942 as managing director of the Sunshine Harvester Co. Ltd to supervise the supply of machinery sent to boost wartime food production. Returning home in 1946, he was appointed general sales manager and a company director, positions he retained with Massey Ferguson (Australia). Dissatisfaction with the Canadian management's control over Sunshine workers and country agents led him to resign in 1956.

President of the Agricultural Engineering Society of Australia and of the Tractor Trade Association of Australia, McKay was vice-president of the Institute of Export. He was an enthusiastic skier who presided over the Ski Club of Victoria. At the Congregational Church, Strathfield, Sydney, on 19 October 1935 he had married Jeanette Emily Herron. Survived by his wife and four daughters, he died of a coronary occlusion on 22 March 1975 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $143,693. The S. S. McKay memorial medal honours his thirty years service to the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McKay, Cecil McKay (Melb, 1974)
  • D. McNeill, The McKays of Drummartin and Sunshine (Melb, 1984)
  • Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, Presidential Address, 1949
  • IPA Review, Mar 1968
  • J. Lack, 'The Legend of H. V. McKay', Victorian Historical Magazine, 61, Aug 1990, p 2
  • Table Talk, 6 Sept 1928
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3, 28 Sept 1940
  • Footscray Advertiser, 31 Jan 1968
  • Sunshine Advocate, 8 Feb 1968
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 Nov 1974
  • H. V. McKay/Massey Ferguson Iseki Archives (University of Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack and Dorothy McNeill, 'McKay, Cecil Newton (1899–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 June 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

Cecil Newton McKay (1899-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

Cecil Newton McKay (1899-1968), by unknown photographer, 1946

Museum Victoria

Life Summary [details]


9 October, 1899
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


25 January, 1968 (aged 68)
East Melbourne, 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.