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Ralph McKay (1885–1959)

by D. Kerville and John Lack

This article was published:

Ralph McKay (1885-1959), engineer and industrialist, was born on 19 May 1885 at Numurkah, Victoria, second son of Nathaniel Breakey McKay, schoolteacher, and his wife Emma, née Thompson, both Victorian born. Nathaniel was a brother of Hugh Victor McKay, who gave employment at his Sunshine Harvester Works to four of his eight brothers and most of their eleven sons. Educated at state schools at Mildura and Ballarat, Ralph completed a fitting-and-turning course at the Ballarat School of Mines.

He entered his uncle's employment at Ballarat in 1898 as part of the office staff. Later, while working as an expert setting up machines in the field, he displayed an ingenuity which H. V. McKay quickly recognized. Ralph joined the engineering department and became a foreman. By 1907, when the factory had been relocated at Braybrook Junction (Sunshine), Melbourne, Ralph was in the experimental shop, and in 1910 he was made engineer-in-chief. An energetic doer and thinker, he always had notepad, pencil and eraser at the ready. His experiments with internal combustion engines, harvesters, seed-drills and ploughs led to numerous patents, taken out jointly with his uncle.

In 1913 Ralph visited Europe with H. V. McKay. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 March 1916, but his uncle secured his release for war work, and sent him to the United States of America to study new technology and to buy advanced machine tools. On his return, Ralph installed and supervised Australia's first seamless brass-and-copper tubing plant, and assisted in setting up a mild steel shafting-mill. He was appointed factory superintendent in 1921. That year he made another trip to the U.S.A. and Europe to examine the latest assembly-line technology and labour-management practices. The modernization of the Melbourne factory appears to have been substantially his work. In 1922, on the basis of his observations overseas, he introduced female labour to the production line.

Following H. V. McKay's death in 1926, tensions increased between Ralph and other members of the family and firm, especially his uncle Sam McKay (1871-1932), who had become managing director. Ralph opposed the 1930 merger with the Australian interests of rival Canadians, Massey Harris. Differences with Headlie Taylor, inventor and production supervisor of the header harvester, came to a climax in 1931. Ralph resigned, and was paid £1500 for the manufacturing rights to his joint patents.

With insufficient capital to initiate full-line production, McKay created for himself a lucrative niche in the industry by supplying specialist parts to large firms, a pattern he had observed in the U.S.A. At Ascot Vale he established a plant to manufacture plough discs and circular coulters, items previously imported. Skilled tradesmen followed him from Sunshine, the firm gave him some plant, and he added salvaged materials, including a boiler purchased from scrap dealer 'Ma' Dalley. Cecil McKay, general manager of H. V. McKay Massey Harris Pty Ltd from 1932, arranged to buy the firm's disc requirements from Ralph.

A 'workaholic', Ralph McKay was engineer, plant manager, sales director, purchasing officer and quality controller. Regarded as a demanding and strict but fair employer, he held less uncompromising attitudes towards trade unions than H. V. McKay. In 1935 he established a new factory at Maidstone, which benefited from tariff protection, the stimulus of World War II, and the opportunity to re-equip cheaply at war's end.

McKay had married Hilda Ada McGrath on 21 April 1908 at Allendale with Methodist forms; they were divorced on 9 September 1926. He married Gladys May Stuart Sinclair on 6 May 1927 at Norwood, Adelaide. Stocky and powerfully built, the youthful oarsman, squash player and wrestler became in middle age a keen shooter, fisherman and yachtsman. His blunt and somewhat abrasive manner mellowed with the years, and he grew more relaxed, holidaying (from 1942) with his family on their property, Barwood, at Nagambie. He was also at various times active as a Braybrook shire president, and in the Footscray Football and Rotary clubs.

In 1950 McKay formed his enterprise (reputedly the largest privately owned engineering business in Australia) into a public company as Ralph McKay Ltd. One-quarter of the shares went to his brother Oscar (1893-1971), who had joined Ralph as factory manager after working at Sunshine and farming in Western Australia. Oscar assumed daily management of the business in the 1950s. Their brother Victor Rex (1887-1953) also held a directorship.

Ralph McKay died on 6 August 1959 at Nagambie and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, and their daughter and son survived him, as did the two daughters and three sons of his first marriage. The Sunshine Advocate claimed that, apart from H. V. McKay himself, 'possibly no other person made such an impact on the activities of the Sunshine Harvester Works'. His own company, renowned for the quality of its products, further testified to his prodigious abilities and energies.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Heagney, Are Women Taking Men's Jobs? (Melb, 1935)
  • D. McNeill, The McKays of Drummartin and Sunshine (Melb, 1984)
  • Sunshine Advocate, 1 Dec 1928, 13 Aug 1959
  • Ralph McKay Ltd records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Massey Ferguson Iseki records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

D. Kerville and John Lack, 'McKay, Ralph (1885–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 April 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]


19 May, 1885
Numurkah, Victoria, Australia


6 August, 1959 (aged 74)
Nagambie, 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.