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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mackay, John Hilton (1877–1952)

by C. J. Gregory

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Hilton Mackay (1877-1952), engineer and grazier, was born on 2 May 1877 at Everton, Victoria, fourth child and second son of George Edward Mackay, squatter, and his wife Jane Frances, née Howe. Educated at the University of Melbourne (B.C.E., 1901; M.C.E., 1903), Mackay won the final year exhibition in engineering and a Trinity College scholarship in 1897 and in 1899 the Dixson scholarships in civil engineering and architecture and in hydraulic engineering, mining and metallurgy. From 1899, when he joined the Victorian Institute of Engineers, until 1903, when the University of Tasmania offered him a twelve months lectureship, he was associated with L. H. Reynolds, George Higgins and the Australian Gold Dredging Co. Ltd in the design and construction of minerals and harbour dredging machinery.

On 27 June 1903 at St Peter's Church of England, Melbourne, Mackay married Fanny Mildred, daughter of a former commissioner of railways, William Henry Greene. Although reluctant to sever connexions with Higgins, with whom he was working as chief draughtsman on the Adelaide Outer Harbour works applying cutting machinery to dredging, Mackay left for Hobart in August. His lectureship was confirmed and reclassified from mining to engineering next year when the professor of mining resigned. But students were very few.

For the next sixteen years Mackay battled constantly against poor conditions, eking out his low salary by taking fees for testing plant and by practising privately in vacation. He was appointed to the chair of engineering in 1912 after being offered the directorship of the Charters Towers, Queensland, School of Mines. In 1916 he was refused leave of absence to join the army and in 1920 he resigned. The university council, on which he had sat since 1918, acknowledged that 'from small beginnings and with inadequate assistance [he] raised the School of Engineering to a worthy place among the Universities of Australia'.

Having an adventurous spirit and a love for the land Mackay, in 1906, had bought a heavily timbered property at Roger River for sawmilling. During university vacations he and his wife travelled back and forth to Mill Farm by means of a smart tandem, spending several nights en route. Ever busy supervising, Mackay expanded the enterprise to a chain of six sawmills. The blackwood to line Parliament House in Canberra was shipped out from his estate. In 1935 he introduced Romney Marsh and Border Leicester sheep to the property which, by the 1980s, still in the hands of the family, was reputed to have achieved one of the highest outputs per man in Australia. Mackay also had an interest in a 22,000-acre (8903 ha) Queensland property which he acquired for his son in 1925.

A tall, well-built man, always immaculately dressed, Mackay died on 5 May 1952 at Port Sorell and was buried at the Don. He was survived by his wife and son and left an estate valued for probate at £80,589.

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Citation details

C. J. Gregory, 'Mackay, John Hilton (1877–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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