Essay

Wheat, wages and weapons

The story of the Sunshine Harvester Works

TWELVE KILOMETRES WEST of Melbourne’s central business district lies Sunshine, a growing urban centre that once housed Australia’s largest manufacturing industry. [i] Sunshine’s history holds tales of Australia’s transformation from a colony providing raw materials to the British Empire to an exporter of quality manufactured goods – and innovative political ideals – back to Britain. The doorway to this history opens with a golden grain.

In the mid-­nineteenth century, most European countries were self-­sufficient grain producers. By the end of that century, industrialisation and the globalisation of trade combined with declining transport and handling costs to make a global wheat market viable. Wheat was a high-­value commodity crop capable of withstanding the long journey from a colonial frontier. Australia’s wheat production had previously been entirely for domestic consumption, but between 1875 and 1913 it effectively doubled to meet the growing export market. At the onset of World War I, three quarters of the wheat consumed in Britain was being imported from the colonies. [ii]

Australia became a key food bowl for the British Empire by expanding production into the Mallee country of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales and the wheatbelt of Western Australia. Land considered ‘unoccupied’ and ‘unproductive’ under the legal and moral fiction of terra nullius was ‘improved’. From the 1870s, successive state governments sought to populate and transform marginal lands and communities of regional Australia through policies of closer settlement, which involved subdividing land for agricultural development. As artfully conveyed by historian Richard Broome and others in Mallee Country: Land, People, History (Monash University Publishing, 2019), this inland expansion was made possible through technological advances in agricultural machinery imported from Europe and North America, in partnership with local innovations that responded to the uniquely Australian conditions of challenging ecologies and labour shortages characteristic of settler-­colonial farming. [iii]

Harvesting wheat had always been a two-­step effort. Stripping or reaping wheat required winnowing or threshing to finish the grain. But in 1884, on a family farm in Drummartin, Hugh Victor McKay (1865–1926) invented a machine that streamlined this process.[iv] His innovation revolutionised global wheat-­growing. In 1885, the first five McKay harvesters were built by Melbourne plough makers McCalman Garde and Co. and sold on a commercial basis. The McKay Harvester Co. was formed in 1886, with an office in Ballarat and machines manufactured by various Victorian contractors.[v] And in 1895, McKay named his Sunshine Harvester, inspired by an 1894 lecture given by a visiting Reverend Talmage from Brooklyn: ‘[M]y religion is sunshine, and the difference between earth and Heaven is that the sunshine on earth sometimes gets clouded over.’ [vi] Growth was rapid: in 1905, a record of 1,926 Sunshine Harvesters were produced in-­house at the Ballarat factory. [vii]

But Australia was sometimes too sunny. The Federation Drought at the turn of the twentieth century was arguably the worst drought the nation has experienced, striking down the pastoral and agricultural industries.[viii] In 1902, with over two hundred Sunshine Harvesters ready for sale and the temporary elimination of local demand, McKay ventured abroad. With his salesman brother, Sam, he found his first market in Argentina. By 1910, the McKay Harvester Co. had agents across Australia and in Argentina, Chile and South Africa. More than 10,000 Sunshine harvesters were shipped overseas until transport was halted by difficulties associated with World War I. [ix]

In 1906, production was relocated to the idle Braybrook Implement Works and surrounding land in Braybrook Junction, and the Sunshine Harvester Works was established. Braybrook’s proximity to rail and shipping facilities reduced transportation costs, as it was located at the intersection of the Ballarat and Bendigo rail lines to the west of Melbourne. It also came with less legislative oversight, as it fell outside the jurisdiction of the Factories Act and related wages boards. [x] In 1907, the area around Braybrook Junction was renamed ‘Sunshine’ in honour of what had become the largest manufacturing enterprise in the Southern Hemisphere. [xi]

The vision shaping the Sunshine Harvester Works and the accompanying worker housing was influenced by the garden city movement established by English urbanist Ebenezer Howard, author of To-­Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898). Practical inspiration came from the Cadbury and Lever Brothers’ company towns in England: Bourneville and Port Sunlight. The Sunshine estate was managed by Scotsman Andrew Small and motivated by a ‘model community of worker freeholders opposed to militant unionism’. [xii] Workers were given avenues of trees and a public park, bandstand, tennis court, technical college, mechanics’ institute, public library and rifle club, all in close proximity to a railway station, church and hospital. [xiii] The HV McKay Memorial Gardens and the unique street layout and octagonal park in Albion are enduring reminders of Sunshine’s garden city heritage. [xiv] A favourable interpretation of McKay’s legacy is of generosity towards Harvester workers, their families and wider civil society. An alternate view – suggested by Melbourne historian Charles Fahey and others – is that McKay sought to nullify union influence and demands for higher wages through a system of paternalistic corporate welfare that increased worker loyalty and productivity. [xv]

As the twentieth century began in newly federated Australia, progressive ideas were blossoming. As La Trobe historian Clare Wright attests, enlightened ideals of women’s suffrage and workers’ rights at this time carved out Australia’s place as a political world leader. [xvi] A growing tide of industrial disputes in late nineteenth-­century Australia also spurred the establishment of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court in 1904.

McKay soon came before this court. He sought an exemption from the Excise Tariff Act 1906 to protect the market for his machines, but also wanted to be free to set the wages for his employees. In the famous Harvester Judgement of 1907, Justice Higgins determined that workers had a right to earn a ‘fair and reasonable wage’, deemed enough to support a family of five. [xvii] Unusually for the time, the court heard evidence not only from male workers but also from their wives, inspired by the work of Australian women’s suffrage leader Vida Goldstein – that year, Goldstein had published cost-­of-­living tables that identified the lowest wage a man and his family would need to pay for bare necessities. [xviii] The case is celebrated as the foundation of a basic minimum wage in Australia, despite being later overruled as unconstitutional by the High Court. [xix]

London was watching these developments. English public servant Ernest Aves’s 1908 report from a visit to Australia and New Zealand drew directly from the experience of the Victorian wages’ boards. The Harvester Judgement influenced legislative reform in Britain that protected workers’ rights, including the British Trade Boards Acts (1909 and 1918) and later the Wages Councils Act 1945. [xx]

‘The continued dry weather in Australia is getting serious, and hence, you will understand my extreme concern to properly develop the Russian trade,’ McKay wrote in 1912 to business colleague DB Fergusson as he travelled by train from St Petersburg to Moscow. [xxi] McKay was visiting England, Germany and Russia seeking an expanded market for his agricultural implements, again spurred on by the effects of drought in Australia. He understood Russia’s ‘prolific population, plodding perseverance, and all-­pervading agriculture’ as the ‘secret of its security’. [xxii] He returned from the trip convinced that closer settlement schemes were vital for the nation’s future and that the future of manufacturing was in specialisation. [xxiii] McKay’s innovations accelerated what environmental historian Cameron Muir calls the ‘broken promise of agricultural progress’, enabling an industrialised agriculture that would desecrate both country and culture as settlement expanded inland. [xxiv]

 

THE ONSET OF World War I set the Sunshine Harvester Works on a new course in its relationship with Europe. Until June 1915, Australia did not possess the machinery or formula required to produce modern artillery shells. In order to supply for war, the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (McKay was on the board) ‘secured by direct application to the Imperial Government the formula for special steel’. McKay was in England at this time, where he sourced machinery to enable this production. By the end of that year, Australian-­made shell cases produced by the Sunshine Harvester Works were being used by British field artillery. [xxv] By 1917, 250 employees from company offices in Sunshine, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Argentina were in battlefields across Europe. McKay served on Australia’s Federal Munitions Committee, advised the contract and supply board of the Department of Defence; he then chaired the Australian War Materials Disposal Board in London in 1919. For his contribution to war services, he received an Order of the British Empire. [xxvi]

The Sunshine Harvester Works also made a significant contribution in World War II. A Bulletin cartoon depicts German soldiers being slashed down by horse-drawn Sunshine Harvesters, capturing Australia’s – and the company’s – dual role in providing military and food aid. During the war, the company sent 20,000 Sunshine drills and cultivators, binders and disc harrows, and 400,000 shell bodies to Britain. By the later stages of the war, over 640 Sunshine employees were enrolled in military service. Women led fundraising efforts to support Sunshine employees and workers in England. [xxvii]

 

THE TENACIOUS McKAY died in 1926. His final year was spent up the Bendigo line at Rupertswood Estate in Sunbury, famous for its part in another Australian–English exchange as the birthplace of the Ashes Test cricket series. [xxviii] McKay did not live to see the Great Depression of the 1930s, nor the environmental degradation of global dust bowls that accompanied the expansion of industrialised agriculture onto marginal land. He missed the subsequent merger of his company with Massy-­Harris in Canada, the diversification of Sunshine’s workforce through mass migration from wider Europe after World War II and the company’s absorption into the Canadian agricultural firm Massey Ferguson in the 1950s. Manufacturing production in Sunshine itself ceased in the mid-­1980s, when the town began its transition into a retail and commercial centre. [xxix]

And so the remarkable story of the Sunshine Harvester – like that of many other Australian-­born manufacturing industries – ended on distant shores.

 

 

REFERENCES

[i] Churchward, M. & Dale-Hallett, L. (2007), The Sunshine Harvester Works, Sunshine, Victoria, Australia in Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2735, Accessed 04 March 2020.

[ii] Knick Harley, C. (1980), ‘Transportation, the world wheat trade, and the Kuznets Cycle, 1850–1913’, Explorations in Economic History, 17(3), 218-250. Knick Harley argues that the expansion of the frontier followed the capacity for wheat production and access to markets.

[iii] Broome, R., Fahey, C., Gaynor, A. & Holmes, K. (2020), Mallee Country: Land, People, History, Monash University Publishing, Clayton. See also Fahey, C., Lack, J., & Dale-Hallett, L. (2003), ‘Resurrecting the Sunshine Harvester Works: Representing and Reinterpreting the Experience of Industrial Work in Twentieth-Century Australia’, Labour History, 85, 9-28.

[iv] Lack, J. (1986), ‘McKay, Hugh Victor (1865–1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.10, Melbourne University Press, pp 291-294.

[v] 70 Years: The Story of Seventy Years Development of One of Australia’s Great Industries: H. V. McKay Massey Harris Pty. Ltd, Sunshine Harvester Works. 1954. National Library of Australia: nla.obj-2176877620, Accessed 01 March 2020.

[vi] Churchward, M. (2011), Origin of the ‘Sunshine’ Brandname, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/10190, Accessed 04 March 2020. See also Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1833850, Accessed 04 March 2020.

[vii] 70 Years: The Story of Seventy Years Development of One of Australia’s Great Industries: H. V. McKay Massey Harris Pty. Ltd, Sunshine Harvester Works, 15.

[viii] Garden, D. ‘The Federation Drought of 1895–1903, El Nino and society in Australia’, in (eds) Massard-Guilbaud, G. & Mosley, S. (2010), Common Ground: Integrating the Social and Environmental in History, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne.

[ix] 70 Years: The Story of Seventy Years Development of One of Australia’s Great Industries: H. V. McKay Massey Harris Pty. Ltd, Sunshine Harvester Works, 18.

[x] Churchward, M. and Dale-Hallett, L. (2007), The Sunshine Harvester Works, Sunshine, Victoria, Australia, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2735, Accessed 12 February 2020.

[xi] Numurkah Leader, 2 August 1907.

[xii] Lack, J. (1986), ‘McKay, Hugh Victor (1865 - 1926)’.

[xiii] Sunshine Advocate, 1 March 1924.

[xiv] Victorian Heritage Database, ‘H V McKay Memorial Gardens’, VHR no.H1953, https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/11984, Accessed 22 February 2020.

[xv] Fahey, C., Lack, J., & Dale-Hallett, L. (2003), ‘Resurrecting the Sunshine Harvester Works: Representing and Reinterpreting the Experience of Industrial Work in Twentieth-Century Australia’, Labour History, 85, 9-28, 11.

[xvi] Wright, C. (2018) You Daughters of Freedom: Australian’s Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne. See also Wright, C. ‘“A Splendid Object Lesson”: A Transnational Perspective on the Birth of the Australian Nation’, Journal of Women’s History, 26(4), 12-36.

[xvii] Fahey, C. & Lack, J. (2001) ‘A Kind of Elysium Where Nobody Has Anything Difficult to Do’: H.B. Higgins, H.V. McKay and the Agricultural Implement Makers, 1901-26’ Labour History, 80, 99-119.

[xviii] This was published in Goldstein’s 1907 Nineteenth Century and After article ‘Socialism of today – An Australian view’. See Brownfoot, J. N. ‘Goldstein, Vida Jane (1869–1949)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/goldstein-vida-jane-6418/text10975, published first in hardcopy 1983, Accessed 1 March 2020. The judgement is critically viewed by historian Andrew Wells as reproducing systemic gender inequality while benefiting from the appropriation of Indigenous land. See Wells, A. (1998), ‘State Regulation for a Moral Economy: Peter Macarthy and the meaning of the Harvester Judgement’, The Journal of Industrial Relations, 40(3), 371-382, 380.

[xix] Fahey, C. & Lack, J. (2001)

[xx] Hamilton, R. S. (ed) (2011) Waltzing Matilda and the Sunshine Harvester Factory: The early history of the Arbitration Court, the Australian minimum wage, working hours and paid leave, Fair Work Australia, Melbourne.

[xxi] ‘Letter – H. V. McKay, to D. B. Ferguson, Business Matters, 6 Dec 1912’, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1833850, Accessed 22 February 2020.

[xxii] Register, 3 August 1912. For more on the relationship between closer settlement ideals and agricultural expansion see Fahey, C. ‘Agricultural Settlement in Victoria’s Last Frontier: The Mallee, 1890–1951’Agricultural History 91(2), 187-214.

[xxiii] ‘Letter – H. V. McKay, to D. B. Ferguson, Business Matters, 6 Dec 1912’, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1833850, Accessed 22 February 2020.

[xxiv] Muir, C. (2014) The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History, Routledge, New York.

[xxv] Muir, C. (2014) The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History, Routledge, New York.

[xxvi] Cosic, S. (2013), ‘Sunshine Harvester Works, Contributions to the War Effort, World War I, 1914-1920’, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/12510, Accessed 22 February 2020.

[xxvii] Cosic, S. (2013) ‘Sunshine Harvester Works, Contributions to the War Effort, World War II, 1940-1945’, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/12518, Accessed 22 February 2020. The cartoon referred to is by Eric Julliffe (1907–2001), who began contributing to The Bulletin in the 1940s. The cartoon’s specific publication date is unknown.

[xxviii] White, L. ‘Rupertswood and Sunbury: Commemorating Cricket and the Birthplace of ‘the Ashes’, in (eds) Baum, T. & Butler, R. (2014) Tourism and Cricket, Channel View Publications, Bristol.

[xxix] ‘Letter - H. V. McKay, to Braybrook Implement Co., Tender for Plant & Works, 30 Apr 1904’, Museums Victoria Collections https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1825782, Accessed 22 February 2020.

 

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review