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australian rowers profiles and history

Cecil N McKay

Mercantile Rowing Club (VIC)


Cecil McKay was a successful senior oarsman for the Club in the post WWI years. On note was his stroking of the 1930 winning Victorian Eight.

1930 Victorian crew with Cecil in the stroke seat

He commenced his rowing at Scotch College where he rowed in the first crew for three years, 1917-18-19. He stroked the crew in 1918 and 1919, winning in the famous 1919 race. In 1919, the race was initially a dead heat for first and second and decided by a re-row later on the same day.

He quickly made the senior ranks at Mercantile and after racing junior in the 1919-20. He rose to the Victorian crew in his first of club rowing in 1920, racing in the two seat. Given his unsuccessful season as a junior, clearly the selectors took a long term view to rebuilding the State's senior ranks.

The following season (1920-21), Cecil raced in the Club's senior eight which had excellent opposition from Civil Service, Albert Park and Corio Bay, finishing only with one win at the Melbourne Regatta. He also won a senior four later in the season.

Great success followed in 1921-22 season with Mercantile's senior eight taking out the State Championship and comprising the whole of the Victorian crew. The State crew vastly improved on the performances of the past two attempts but still finished second to the then dominant Murray Bridge crew from South Australia.

1922 Victorian crew on the Parramatta with Cecil in the two seat

Another successful season in 1922-23 was had with success in the Club's senior eight, taking out the State Championship as well as at other regattas. Mercantile was on top with the Club gaining more than three times the premiership points than the next club in the senior premiership.

Sadly the following 1923-24 season, Cecil only raced twice pre Christmas, both unsuccessfully. As the biography below indicates, other aspects of his life took prominence, most particularly at the family business, where he was rapidly taking on far greater responsibilities. His less than complete commitment to his sport was again repeated in 1924-25, but with Cecil now stroking the Club's eight.

Cecil's work and family commitments took their toll on his rowing activities until 1928, when Cecil returned to stroke the Club's senior eight post-Christmas with successes at Ballarat and Barwon regattas. This continued into the 1928-29 season repeating success at the same regattas. 

Finally in the 1929-30 he achieved his aim of a full season with the ultimate success, a King's Cup win. He stroked the Club's eight to the State Eight Championship, which then formed the base of the State crew. Success at Mnnum in the King's Cup followed. It was a great season for him, his Club and his State. Retirement from rowing and devotion to family and business followed.

He was a regular visitor to the Club and regattas in the years leading up to his death and always maintained an interest in the sport. 

The following biography appears in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and is written by John Lack and Dorothy McNeill. It provides much depth into his life.

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.

Andrew Guerin
February 2023

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