The son of Irish emigrants who built Australia’s largest manufacturing company

Hugh Victor McKay helped bring ‘the Sunshine’ to agriculture down under

Hugh Victor McKay (1865-1926) was born at Raywood in Victoria, the fifth of 12 children of Nathaniel McKay and his wife Mary. They had emigrated to Australia from Co Monaghan in 1852, drawn like thousands of others to the Victorian goldfields.

Nathaniel abandoned gold mining to become a stonemason and then became a farmer. The children had limited schooling, but all eight sons became successful in a variety of fields. Hugh Victor left school when he was 13 to help on the family farm and it was in agriculture that he was to make a great impact.

As an adult he became aware of a Victorian government prize available to a person who succeeded in building a machine that was capable of combining the four activities required in harvesting cereal crops: stripping, threshing, winnowing and bagging. In 1885, with his father and brother John, he assembled a stripper-harvester from pieces of equipment on the farm. This was a prototype and Hugh Victor went on to build harvesters under contact as the McKay Harvesting Machinery Company. The company traded successfully until the Australian banking crash of 1892-93 caused its closure.

McKay was not deterred and with the backing of rural businessmen he established The Harvester Company and produced an improved machine he called "the Sunshine". Orders trickled in at first, but as more farmers bought Sunshine harvesters, production increased. Fifty were sold in 1896 and sales rose to 500 in 1901. An export trade developed with machines being sent to South Africa and Argentina. By 1905 the Sunshine Harvester works in Ballarat were employing 500 people. A succession of improvements to the manufacturing process improved efficiency and output continued to grow - some 1,916 machines were sold in 1905-6. McKay seized the opportunity to purchase the Braybrook Implement Company on the outskirts of Melbourne in order to expand Sunshine Harvesters.


He sought tariff protection from foreign competitors that he asserted were copying Sunshine harvesters and this led him into campaigns and legal disputes. They culminated in the Harvester Judgement of 1907 in which the judge dictated minimum wage rates for an eight-hour day. Three years later the agricultural implement makers’ union called a strike to which the company replied with a lock-out that lasted 13 weeks and left the union bankrupt. The impacts on industrial relations in Australia lasted for decades and the concept of a minimum wage was to endure.

McKay decided to invest in industrial peace by creating a company town at Braybrook, which was now known as Sunshine. Modelled on examples such as Port Sunlight (Lever Brothers) and Bourneville (Cadbury's) it provided housing and sporting and cultural facilities. Several McKay families lived at Sunshine including Hugh Victor's until he moved to a grand mansion, Rupertswood near Sunbury.

The Sunshine Harvester Works was the largest manufacturing company in Australia by the 1920s with buildings extending over 12 hectares. By this stage it was making a wide range of agricultural machines and continued to innovate and invest. Henry Victor ruled the organisation as a director with absolute control which continued until his death from lung cancer at the age of 60 on May 21st 1926. The business continued, eventually merging with that of Massey Harris.

Hugh Victor McKay paid at least one visit to Ireland. In the collection cared for by Museums Victoria is a photograph of him with a group enjoying a ride in a horse-drawn carriage somewhere in Ireland and another shows him and Mrs McKay at the Giants Causeway, Co Antrim. Several photos feature HV MacKay and friends in Ireland riding in a white Lanchester touring car. It is likely that the Irish visit took place after a visit to the Western Front in 1914. Another image in the Museums Victoria collection is of him looking at the shattered remains of the medieval Wool Hall in the Belgian town of Ypres.

The HV McKay Charitable Trust created at the time of his death carries his name on. It offers support to community ventures in rural Australia. One of his last acts was to lay the foundation stone of the Presbyterian church at Sunshine a few days before his death. It is situated in the HV McKay Memorial Gardens that continue to provide a pleasant amenity for the people of Sunshine.

This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr J Patrick Greene, CEO and Museum Director of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world