Details: Parent Category: History Category: Recollections | Published: 28 January 2015 | Hits: 367488








This is the story of the McKie family down a path through the gardens of the past that led to where I'm standing.  Other paths converged and merged as the McKies met and wed and bred.  Where possible I've glimpsed backwards up those paths as far as records would allow. 

The setting is Newcastle upon Tyne in northeast England and my path winds through a time when the gardens there flowered with exotic blooms and their seeds and nectar changed the entire world.  This was the blossoming of the late industrial and early scientific revolution and it flowered most brilliantly in Newcastle.

I've been to trace a couple of lines of ancestry back six generations to around the turn of the 19th century. Six generations ago, around the turn of the century, lived sixty-four individuals who each contributed a little less 1.6% of their genome to me, half of them on my mother's side and half on my father's.  Yet I can't name half a dozen of them.  But I do know one was called McKie.  So, this is about his descendants; and the path they took; and some things a few of them contributed to Newcastle's fortunes; and who they met on the way.

In six generations, unless there is duplication due to copulating cousins, we all have 126 ancestors.  Over half of mine remain obscure to me but I know the majority had one thing in common, they lived in or around Newcastle upon Tyne.  Thus, they contributed to the prosperity, fertility and skill of that blossoming town during the century and a half when the garden there was at its most fecund. So, it's also a tale of one city.

My mother's family is the subject of a separate article on this website. 


The McKie Family - in the mists of time

The Mc-Aodhs, sons of Aodh, originated in Scotland. The name is said to derive from the pre-Christian god of fire (Aodh) that was once something guttural, like: 'agh'.  There are several variants on the spelling.   The most dominant spelling today is McKay. 

The 'McKie' spelling obviously goes back to a single couple, perhaps in the Elizabethan period, and is probably due to a mutation in the pronunciation.  As the language has evolved so did the pronunciation of the name.  McKie, spelt our way, is the closest phonetically to the most common pronunciation: 'ie' as in 'pie'.   Perhaps its an Irish version but it might have gone the other way.

In his book Scots-Irish Links 1575-1725 David Dobson lists several McKies in Ireland who travelled to and from Scotland Kirkcudbright and Wigtonshire between 1643 to 1690.   That part of Scotland has very close Irish connections and it's from Ireland that Christianity was reintroduced to Northern England in the medieval period. For more information go to the chapter on Northern Christianity in my travels to Northern England.

According to another reference the spelling is Scottish (Trials of Scotland, 1486 - 1660) where a Mackie was tried for, and acquitted of, 'slaughter' in 1606.  Mackie is another related line of spelling pronounced 'mack-ee'.  My mother's aunt Isobel married a Scotsman, Andrew Mackie, and two of her favourite cousins (Thompson and George) and a number of their offspring have that name.

By at the turn of the 18th century the two main clusters of people with the name McKie were in south western Scotland, with another group, probably about half the size, immediately across the water in Ireland.

This spelling confusion is a constant annoyance to members of our family.  We are constantly telling people who try to write it the wrong way: "It's 'ie', as in 'pie'? Why are you trying to spell it 'ay', as in 'hay'?"  And as to the other common mispronunciation:  "In English 'ie' is not pronounced 'ee', as in see, or McKee."

The name, spelt our way, is not particularly common, even in Scotland or Ireland.

At the first relatively reliable and comprehensive Census of England, Wales & Scotland in 1841 there were just 1,282 people in Britain named McKie, 86% of them in Scotland, with around 70% of those in one big cluster around Kirkcudbright.  We have most of their names and ages and even know a little of what they did.  That part of Scotland is rural with very few significant towns. Just Dumfries to the east and Ayr to the north.  Almost all were farmers or farm labourers.  A handful were tradespeople (bookseller, grocer, tacker). A few professionals (Gas Manager, Inspector of the Poor) and others semi-skilled labourers (dyker, carter etc). 

We can guess that there were around 600 McKies in Northern Ireland.

There were less than 200 individuals in England. The biggest group was in Lancashire.  Many of these McKies had recently hailed from Ireland, attracted by the prospect of jobs in the 'dark satanic mills' or perhaps fleeing the potato famine.  The next largest group, in Northumberland and Durham, hailed almost entirely from south west Scotland. 



Location Country Number Percentage
Lancashire England 67 5.2%
Northumberland England 29 2.3%
Cumberland England 18 1.4%
Durham England 18 1.4%
Surrey England 10 0.8%
Westmorland England 10 0.8%
Shropshire England 8 0.6%
Yorkshire England 8 0.6%
Kent England 4 0.3%
Cheshire England 3 0.2%
Cornwall England 2 0.2%
Nottinghamshire England 2 0.2%
Individuals/travellers England 5 0.4%
Wigtownshire Scotland 289 22.5%
Kirkcudbrightshire Scotland 266 20.7%
Ayrshire Scotland 209 16.3%
Lanarkshire Scotland 107 8.3%
Dumfriesshire Scotland 68 5.3%
Renfrewshire Scotland 30 2.3%
Midlothian Scotland 23 1.8%
Aberdeenshire Scotland 20 1.6%
Stirlingshire Scotland 14 1.1%
Dunbartonshire Scotland 11 0.9%
Fife Scotland 10 0.8%
Haddingtonshire (East Lothian) Scotland 10 0.8%
Cromarty Scotland 9 0.7%
Perthshire Scotland 9 0.7%
Banffshire Scotland 8 0.6%
Forfarshire (Angus) Scotland 6 0.5%
Moray Scotland 2 0.2%
Individuals/travellers Scotland 6 0.5%
Glamorganshire Wales 1 0.1%
Every McKie in the 1841 Census   1,282 100.0%



We have long known that each of us inherited the colony of cells that each of us calls 'me' from our natural parents.  Likewise, they did from theirs, and so on, in such a way that there is no possibility that any two fraternal siblings can be identical. Unless you shared the same first cell you and your brother or sister are certain to have a different mix of your grandparents' genes. But there are two exceptions to this mixing and these provides two particular lines we can follow back along our line of decent like a thread back to the common ancestor of everyone, thanks to new understanding of this process, just within my lifetime, and advances in computer technology.

One is the genome of the mitochondria in the cells of every one of us.  These come exclusively from our mother, her mother and so on back to the last common female ancestor.  Our fathers have nothing to do with that.

The other, like a family name, is the Y chromosome that each boy inherits exclusively from his father.  His mother has no input to that little part of his genome that makes him male or his sister female.  That little part came from a single male spermatozoon of his father's; that successfully fertilised his mother's egg-cell (ova); that multiplied to become him.

Thus, the sex of a child is entirely due to which of the father's sperm successfully fertilises the ova.  Numerous studies (eg) have found no discernible difference in speed or size or strength or persistence between spermatozoa bearing a Y or an X chromosome.  So, it is untrue, and 'an old wives' tale', that the mother can predetermine the sex of her baby in some way, for example by timing copulation or altering the environmental conditions in her womb. 

But it's possible that a father can.  On average more boys are born than girls indicating that men produce slightly more male than female sperm.  As more boys are born at the end of wars it has been speculated that men can hormonally influence their sperm gender balance.  So perhaps individual men of a particular age do produce a lot more male sperm while others produce more female - this is untested.   Thus, any bias towards one sex or another is entirely up to the father.  Maybe exercise or diet or stress or injury or even frequency of ejaculation can be factors?  Yet the biggest factor remains chance.  Like the flip of a coin each event is independent of the last; so six girls or boys in a row is not particularly unusual.

All things being regular, in our culture, a family name and a boy's Y chromosome go together.  So, all McKie males should be able to trace their Y chromosome back to the original man of that name: McKie begat; McKie begat...  And all McKie males of that name should share the same Y chromosome.


DNA Ancestry Report of Richard McKie

The following Y chromosome SIR marker profile for Richard McKie has been obtained through PCR analysis of Y-DNA SIR loci. Y-DNA is passed down from father to son along the direct paternal lineage. All males who have descended from the same paternal lineage (same forefather) as Richard McKie are expected to have exactly the same or very similar Y-DNA SIR marker profile as Richard's profile shown below. If two males have completely different Y-DNA SIR marker profiles, it will conclusively confirm that they did not descend from the same paternal lineage, regardless of a common surname.

DYS19a 11
DYS385a 11
DYS385b 14
DYS388 12
DYS389i 13
DYS389ii 30
DYS39O 24
DYS391 10
DYS392 13
DYS393 13
DYS426 12
DYS437 15
DYS438 12
DYS439 12
DYS447 25
DYS448 19
DYS460 10
YCA11a 19
YCA11b 24




In 1841 our direct (Y chromosome) line of McKies and their families accounted for just six of the 29 McKies in Northumberland and probably quite a few more in Ayrshire.



Distribution of McKie in 1841



My Y chromosome provides much more ancient knowledge.


Description of Richard McKie's predicted Y-DNA Haplogroup: Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b

The defining mutation for individuals who belong to Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b is a positive test for SNP marker M343.

The man who founded Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b was born approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years ago prior to the end of the last Ice Age in southern Europe, Iberia or West Asia.

Members of Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b are believed to be descendants of Cro-Magnon people, the first modern humans to enter Europe.  When the ice sheets retracted at the end of the ice age, descendants of the R1b lineage migrated throughout western Europe. There is recent fossil and DNA evidence that the Cro-Magnon people may have interbred with the larger-brained and more robust but less communal Neanderthals.

Today, Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b is found predominantly in western Europe, including England, Ireland, and parts of Spain and Portugal. It is especially concentrated in the west of Ireland where it can approach 100% of the population.

Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b is a dominant paternal family group of Western Europe. It can also be found in lower frequencies in Eastern Europe, Western and Central Asia and parts of North Africa and South Asia.

This Y-DNA Haplogroup contains the well-known Atlantic Modal STR Haplotype (AMH). AMH is the most frequently occurring haplotype amongst human males with an Atlantic European ancestry.

It is also the haplotype of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish King in the Dark Ages who is the common ancestor of many people of Irish patrilineal descent.

Elsewhere the Genetic Genealogy website tells me that my version of the Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b, shared by almost all McKie males, is most commonly found in the people of Ireland and Spain.

Although it is nothing to do with this essay, my version of mtDNA Haplogroup H, inherited from my mother, her mother and so on, is most commonly found in the people of Central Portugal and the Pyrenees.  But it is found throughout Europe, including Russia and Turkey, and among the Druze population largely found in Syria and Lebanon. 

Now I realise why I felt less conspicuous in Syria than in other parts of the Middle East.

Source: Genetic Genealogy - my additions/comments in blue


As I have no reason to believe that mine is not a true copy of the McKie Y chromosome as far back as this McKie male over 230 years ago, my haplogroup is informative in another way. 

The nearest Y chromosome relative in the Genetic Genealogy database is not called McKie at all but Geddes.  He and I have a common male ancestor 17 or less generations back.  I initially thought that a genetic generation was about 25 years but more recent investigation has found that historically a male generation was closer to 35 years and a female generation around five years less (30 years), on average.   Thus, Ryan John Geddes' and my common ancestor probably lived during the 15th century, very likely in Scotland.   This was after the Scottish Wars of Independence, during the Stewart Dynasty, or perhaps as late as the Scottish Reformation or the Scottish Enlightenment.

There's a McLean within 22 generations but the nearest McKay listed and I share a male ancestor within 35 generations, who lived during the 13th century.  Of course, there may be many closer who have not used this DNA analysis service.

So if there has been no irregularity in Ryan Geddes' ancestry or mine, like stray roosters in the hen coop, we can assume that the change in spelling to McKie occurred somewhere after the middle ages.  

Using various on-line resources, I have been able to trace the McKie line back six generations to Alexander McKie born around 1781 in Scotland.  He was an agricultural labourer married to Jannet Sloan. They are the best match from census birth and marriage records as parents of William McKie who I know was my ancestor and was born in 1804.  If these are his parents it means he came from in Girvan, Ayrshire in Scotland.

Just two generations back I have a Domville line, my father's mother, that could be my nearest claim to being in any way 'noble'. See my Grandmother's Family later on.


My Ancestors - into the 19th Century

It seems that my great great great grandfather William McKie left Scotland for England as a young man and found work in Gateshead, Durham just across the Tyne from Newcastle.   Margaret (probably Davidson) was an older woman.  She was also born in Scotland.  They were married in Gateshead, in the parish of St. Mary, on the 21st of April 1828.  She was 31 and he was just 24. 

It's probable that she was a widow because, according to the 1841 census, her eldest daughter Elizabeth, was born three years before their marriage.   Their next daughter Jane, was born in 1831 followed by Alexander McKie in 1833 and then James McKie in 1835.

Like other members of our family since, they lived far distant from their parents and so lacked the support and family lore that grandparents can provide.  The trip back to Ayrshire was over a hundred miles, a two days journey by coach or horse, longer on foot.

It would be another eight years before the Newcastle & Carlisle Railway completed the distance to Carlisle.  In any case early passenger trains on the completed sections were horse-drawn and not a lot faster than a coach.  The first connecting steam train service to Ayr would have to wait until 1886.

At the time of their marriage Margaret's family name was Davidson but as she was probably widowed this may not have been her maiden name.  There is no identifiable record of a matching marriage and death as 'Davidson' is very common in both England and Scotland.  A future researcher may need to wait for DNA analysis to catch up before we can work that out. 

Either Margaret brought some capital to the marriage or William worked very hard or cleverly.  After a couple of years in Gateshead they moved across the river to the parish of All Saints in Newcastle and set up a factory to manufacture lemonade.  This was between the birth of Alexander and James - in 1834-35.

Lemonade is frequently mentioned in accounts of the time but there are few earlier references to the manufacturers.

Possibly Margaret had associations with lemonade and soda water manufacturing in Ayr?  The first commercial manufacture of Soda Water using the Priestly process was Thwaites' Soda Water in Dublin, established 30 years earlier.  The close association between south-west Scotland and Ireland meant there may have been a firm there already trading in soda water and lemonade. 

There certainly was one 15 years later that may have preceded the one they set up in Newcastle:


The Ayrshire Directory (1851)

Kilmanock Bottling s



Newcastle upon Tyne was an ideal location for this business. At that time, it was close to being the wealthiest city in the country and the centre of the northern glass industry for bottle making. 

A contemporary commentator sang of the town's virtues (the language is marvellous - quite unlike that a century later):


Richardson's descriptive Companion through Newcastle upon Tyne
 and Gateshead (1838)




GEOGRAPHICALLY and relatively observed, the mere seat of Newcastle on the map of the world fixes on it high distinction, cut out as it has been by nature for a secure and spacious shipping resort. It stands in 54deg. 58min. 30sec. north lat.; and 1deg. 37min. 30sec. west longitude, from the meridian of Greenwich, being 273 miles NN.W. of London; 117 SE of Edinburgh; 56 east of Carlisle; 76 NW. by N. of York, and 15 north of Durham.
Thus, it presents itself as the chief port and market of a vast length and breadth of country, there being no sufficient haven for ships of magnitude from the Humber to the Forth, except the Tyne.

Notice of the river, and the advantages by which it is characterised, having been taken in our chapter on commerce, from what has been there observed, with many other peculiar points appertaining to locality, which might be mentioned, Newcastle, it will be perceived, notwithstanding, its having ceased to be the resort of royalty, and the rendezvous of courtiers, must, under any circumstances, have stood high and flourished as a celebrated maritime emporium.
If this were the case -and, if it were competent, without the aid of its subterranean stores to have raised itself to high commercial repute—to what height may it not yet aspire with the inexhaustible elements of mineral Wealth which are its own special endowment?
Stocked to repletion with the favours of nature—loaded with her gratuities and best offerings of land and sea—possessing a rich combination of liberal intellect, experience, science, skill, emulation, industry—and “ though last, not least," famed for the rearing and culture of that prime race of mariners who have handed over and confirmed to their sovereign the dominion of the seas, to what degree of human celebrity may not Newcastle, with the family of towns and townships brought up around it, of which it is the acknowledged mother—to what point of commercial glory may it not becomingly aspire? ...
... In 1610, a plan of the town was published by Speed, which contains only 26 streets, lanes, &c. In 1723 another survey of it was published by Corbridge, which contains about 70; and the rapid progress it has since made may be conceived by there being now more than 500 streets, lanes, chares [a narrow medieval street or alley], courts, &c.
Little regard to elegance or even regularity seems to have been paid in the erection of its ancient streets, which are, some very narrow, and others very crooked and inconvenient ; and, perhaps no town exhibits so remarkable a contrast in the style of ancient and modern shops and dwellings as Newcastle, as will be strikingly apparent by a walk through the town.




During the 1830's there were regular outbreaks of cholera in Newcastle, as in the rest of England, and indeed in Sydney Australia.  Few people could afford town water piped into their homes.  Fountain (public) water varied in quality. At the very least it needed to be boiled before drinking.  Safer drinking alternatives were beer, ginger beer, soda water and/or lemonade.  As a result, lemonade was sold in large volumes as a non-alcoholic alternative to beer and was favoured by religious sects that frowned on intoxicating beverages.  It seems likely that both William and Margaret were Presbyterians, doing God's work.

Tea of course had long been used to flavour boiled water but at that time it was still very expensive worth its weight in gold, and the china used to serve it was also a mark of wealth.  The middle classes, including members of my family, met in tea shops to enjoy it and invariably offered it to special guests in their homes, a tradition now but a mark of social status then.  Not until the advent of steam ships and railways did the cost of tea fall to today's relative prices.  In Boston in 1773 destroying tea had marked the beginning of a revolution.

To manufacture lemonade a source of lemons was the least of their concerns.  First and foremost, William and Margaret McKie required a reliable source of water; bottles and casks to contain their product; boiling and pressure vessels; and fuel, gas or coal, to run their equipment. 

Obviously, there was no electricity distribution in 1835 but Newcastle had coal of course, and now gas was becoming available:


Richardson's descriptive Companion through Newcastle upon Tyne
and Gateshead (1838)





The first gasholders were built in Forth-street, in 1817, from which, on the 10th of January 1818, a partial lighting of the town with gas commenced. The same company afterwards erected works in Manor-place, where there are two other holders, and in 1833, and 1837, the company erected two other similar holders at the North-shore, the whole of which are capable of containing nearly 200,000 cubic feet of gas, the quantity frequently consumed in the town on a Saturday night.




The business was obviously doing well in the late 1830's and early 1840's and it was time for a move to larger premises.

They found appropriate factory space with accommodation adjacent to expand their lemonade factory in Dispensary Square, adjacent to Blackfriars. This was around 1845, give or take a year or two.  

There was reliable water, possibly of dubious quality, and other water using industry, including a slaughterhouse, nearby.  This water would certainly have required industrial scale boiling and clarification with a suitable flocculent and filter. 

Perhaps I have acquired some residual memory, through my father, about sand filters, activated charcoal and diatomaceous earth, how else would a desk-bound public servant know about such things? 

But my father had a vast and varied knowledge about lots of things.  It was not necessarily handed down from his father.  For example, my brother, Peter McKie, has had reason to clarify huge tanks of water for television commercials and the film industry. His intellectual ability to do this may be in his genes but I imagine that he had the help of a technical manual or two as well.  Lamarck eat your heart out.



Richardson's descriptive Companion through Newcastle upon Tyne
and Gateshead (1838)





...Water still being insufficiently supplied, the corporation in 1770, granted a lease for 227 years to Mr. Ralph Lodge and other proprietors at the annual rent of 13s. 4d., to dig and make a reservoir at the south end of the town moor, and to lay pipes for bringing water to it from Coxlodge grounds, and from the reservoir into the town; also, for supplying water for a certain number of fire-plugs ordered by the corporation. In 1777, the common council expended £500. in aqueducts for conveying an additional quantity of water to the town from Spring Gardens; and for more than half a century the management of the supply, which was derived partly from this last source, partly from the reservoirs on the town moor, with others at Gateshead, and the great pond at Carr’s Hill, was vested in a Joint Stock Company. At length, in 1833, a project was set on foot by a new company for again having recourse to the river, from which it was proposed to afford the necessary supply on less expensive terms; but soon after the new plan had been brought into operation by forming reservoirs and erecting an engine at Low Elswick, which is allowed to be a piece of the most perfect machinery in the kingdom, the two companies became incorporated, and the supply has been since continued under certain new regulations, from the various sources Thus, successively opened.




By the time of the 1851 census Elizabeth had left home and was probably married, possibly as Elizabeth Davidson.

The McKies were now providing accommodation to Robert Courage a Tallow Chandler. 

A Tallow Chandler made tallow candles that were used for lighting by the majority of people who could not afford wax candles or that newfangled gas lighting.  The tallow was produced by rendering animal fat from slaughterhouses, presumably the one in Dispensary Lane.  Tallow candles were sold by the pound.  The process was very smelly and, like those scented things sold in tourist and gift shops today, the candles were particularly smelly when burnt - like a barbeque - pleasant if you like the smell of burnt meat fat.  As a result, they would soon be replaced by gas lighting, except in the homes of the very poor.  Thus, technological change would soon make Robert Courage, and his fellow tallow chandlers, redundant.

It's as well William, Margaret and Jane moved across the river, because in 1854 much of the industrial part of Gateshead was consumed by the Great Fire.

The port was at that time at the centre of the wool trade and the fire began in an old wool store but spread to a substantial modern store holding chemicals, including 2800 tons of sulphur and 128 tons of nitrate of soda. 

These were the chemicals Peter and I used as children, trying to make our own explosives.  See my recollections elsewhere on this site ( Making Gunpowder).  But as we discovered, sodium nitrate is hydrophilic and not much use for making gunpowder. 

Nevertheless, it obviously dried out as the fire took hold in the sulphur.  There were a couple of small warning explosions, as the fire grew, followed by an almighty explosion, never equalled since, even by the Luftwaffe, that was heard over 40 miles away and showered Newcastle across the river in heavy stones and timber beams. It left a huge crater 40 feet deep and 50 feet across.  A fire-storm followed that devastated much of Gateshead.

Great Fire 1854
This hand-coloured woodblock engraving from the Illustrated London News, 14 October 1854
also serves to show what the city looked like at the time - just before photography was invented.


Science and Technology

Technological change was rapid in this period. Soon they were making soda water.  The McKie lemonade business required new machines and knowledge.   In addition to a good supply of potable water, water filtration and heating required a knowledge of chemistry and biology for water purification and blending syrups and added salts and sugars. 

Carbon dioxide, required to put the bubbles in soda water, could not be extracted in large volumes from air or made as a by-product of fertiliser manufacture as it is today. 

It's always been a natural by-product of beer and wine making and puts the little bubbles in cakes and bread. It could be pressurised with a suitable pump from the head space above wine or beer fermentation but entrapped nitrogen would limit its compression or it could be manufactured in a pressure vessel using the method suggested by Joseph Priestley and used in Dublin: by applying strong acid (sulphuric was most available) to chalk or crushed limestone.

Over the next century these processes would change dramatically.  Compressors would be built that could compress CO2 produced by calcining lime [CaCO3→ CaO + CO2] and later to cool air to the point that dry ice (solid CO2) forms.

There was no shortage of modern scientific knowledge in Newcastle.

From 1793 the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle (the Lit and Phil) had been a hub of scientific discussion in the north of England. In 1825 the current building that houses it was completed, providing meeting rooms and a library. 

At the time the McKies were establishing their business Newcastle was abuzz with the new discoveries.   The first platypus seen in England was sent not to London but to Newcastle.  John Hunter, governor of NSW Australia, was a member of the Lit and Phil and had one sent to the members for their consternation and consideration. 

As I imagine everyone knows, a platypus is an amphibious mammal that lays eggs and has a duck bill, one of the few remaining monotremes on earth.  As my great great great grandparents were setting up their factory Charles Darwin was in Sydney Town grappling with one in a local creek and discovering the poisonous spur on the hind legs of the male. 

Soon the discoveries of Lyle and Darwin and Wallace would overthrow many old scientific paradigms in addition to making nonsense of religious dogma. 

The platypus would soon demonstrate that mammalian ancestry dates from a relatively recent hundred million years or so and a little further back they have a common ancestor with the McKie family - well, with your family too. But it would take until my generation to discover that the Universe is breathtakingly larger than anyone then dared to imagine and is now thought to be 13.8 billion years old.

The Lit and Phil had close associations with similar societies across Britain and Europe, particularly France. In 1834 Benoît Clapeyron stated the Ideal Gas equation and in 1857 Carl Wilhelm Siemens would patent the Siemens cycle, cooling gasses by repeated compression heat removal and decompression as used in most refrigerators and air conditioners today.

As Richardson notes, the population of Newcastle was growing rapidly, passing 53,000 in 1831, and the Centre of the city was under reconstruction, the origin of the many fine buildings we see today around Gray's monument as evidence of its wealth.  For the first time a police force had been formed, charged with keeping the new streets safe.  Gas lamps were already being used as street lights in parts of the city, these would soon be replaced by advanced gas lamps using a mantle to provide brilliant white light. 

As Newcastle expanded in the 1850's new suburbs spread out beyond the city walls and town moor. Science, technology and engineering dominated the thriving city.

In 1835, when William and Margaret McKie were founding their lemonade manufacturing business, Newcastle was giving birth to the industry that would dominate the next century - the passenger railway. 

Less than a mile from McKie's lemonade factory, in Forth Street, George Stephenson and his son Robert were at work. 

A decade earlier Robert Stephenson and Company had been established by the Stephensons to manufacture locomotives for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. 

Soon the world's first passenger railways were spreading out around Newcastle like roots from a bulb.  Part way to Carlisle in 1838, then to Darlington in 1844 and to Berwick in 1847.  No doubt some workers at the factory, and then passengers on the trains, were washing away the dust with a McKie lemonade.

Might Newcastle's 'golden period' have been a result of 'something in the water'?

Around the world huge fortunes would soon be made by 'railway barons', more often through associated land development and constructing new towns in the Americas and the Empire, than by the fares charged to travel.  With railways came the electric telegraph and the first opening-up of communications. 

Now even time changed.  It had to be unified where the trains ran, instead of being set locally, by the midday sun, in each town.  Greenwich Mean Time or 'railway time' as it was called, was adopted across Britain in 1847-8. And one hour 'Time Zones' soon divided the entire planet, giving us an International Date Line.

George Stephenson had developed the first successful miner's safety lamp and the first practical steam locomotives for passenger trains, based on the experience gained around the city moving coal, first with steam run mine elevators and cable cars and then with self-powered locomotives.

He is, justifiably, called the 'Father of Railways'.  He was very rough around the edges and plain speaking and was not liked in London. 

As a younger man he had been an engineman at Killingworth Colliery, responsible for all the machinery: pumps; lift engines and so on.  The mine was subject to repeated explosions due to 'firedamp' and in 1814 responsibility fell to him deal with yet another explosion and fire, resulting from a naked flame.  So he began experimenting with designs for a mine safety lamp using local sources of  'fire damp' directly to test his designs. 

Meanwhile the problem had attracted Sir Humphry Davy, the aristocratic scientist whose achievements are too long to list here but included isolating the elements: Barium; Calcium; Potassium; Sodium and Boron; and identifying Chlorine as an element.  Davy was also at first the employer and then the mentor of physicist and electrical pioneer Michael Faraday and was later President of the Royal Society.  He was famed for his scientific demonstrations to the upper classes and he was responsible for a ground-breaking electrical demonstration discussed later.

Davy approached the problem scientifically, first analysing 'fire damp' to discover that it was mostly methane and then devising a screen sufficiently fine to prevent a flame passing through it.  The resulting Davy Lamp won prizes totalling £3,000.  But Stevenson had already demonstrated his, practically superior, lamp at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle.  When this was pointed out the colliery owners, who had already recognised Davy with £2,000, awarded a measly one hundred guineas (a guinea is £1/1/-) to Stephenson in consolation.  The people of Newcastle were outraged at this insult.   A local committee raised £1,000 by subscription and awarded it to Stephenson.

Stephenson called his miner's lamp the 'Geordie' after the Newcastle patriots who had defended the city during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 on behalf of George II and were despised as 'Geordies' in a popular song supporting the rebellion.  Probably thanks to him, the name was soon attached to the people of Newcastle and the Tyne Valley in general. 

It was that local prize that allowed Stephenson to go on to his greatest achievements.

The incident also helped to reinforce the Newcastle culture of independence and suspicion of those from the South.  This still existed as recently as the late 1970's, when my grandmother's elderly neighbours proudly announced that they had been to Spain but had never been south of York in the UK.  How did we survive in that dangerous den of iniquity: London? 

George's son Robert Stephenson, on the other hand had no such prejudice. He was well educated, in leading schools and university, and was quite at home in society.   Together the Stephensons combined modern scientific and engineering knowledge and a wealth of practical experience as well as business acumen and political nous.  


Stephenson's Innovative 'Rocket' - designed in 1829 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway
This was the prototype for locomotives to come with:  large driving wheels, directly connected to (nearly) horizontal cylinders;
a separate firebox with multiple boiler fire-tubes, and a blastpipe to draw the fire.
It could not be a lot bigger/heavier or it would have broken the old iron rails of the day.   Science Museum, London (my photo)



By 1847 the practice of pulling goods trains by steam and passenger trains by horse had pretty well disappeared but there was still some nostalgia for the horse, as this little piece shows.  No prizes for guessing how I came to see it.


Carlisle Patriot 24 September 1847

Horse or Steam



In 1847 Robert Stevenson designed and supervised the construction of the innovative High Level Bridge across the Tyne that is still in use today. It is a truly remarkable achievement, exploiting the most advanced technology of the day.  Wendy and I recently travelled over it on our way from London to Edinburgh.


High Level Bridge
The High Level Rail Bridge Newcastle to Gateshead with the Swing Bridge in the foreground (my photo)


It was but one of half a dozen equally innovative bridges he would design.  He was personally responsible for dozens of railways across the world with ever improving locomotives.  He was one of the people, who through his inventiveness and industry, put the 'Great' before Britain.  He is buried in Westminster Abby.

In Australia, the first locomotive on the Sydney to Parramatta railway was built by the Stephensons in Newcastle upon Tyne.


Locomotive No1
Locomotive No1, built by Stephenson & Company for the Sydney to Parramatta Railway
less than a mile from William and Margaret McKie's lemonade factory
The little girl in the foreground is their great great great great granddaughter, Emily (my photo)


The Stephensons weren't alone, another locally born engineer George William Armstrong had taken an interest in hydraulics, designing innovative cranes.  He set up a manufacturing facility on the banks of the Tyne at Elswick in 1847.  The business was very successful, contributing significantly to the town's population growth.  By 1870 the company premises stretched for three-quarters of a mile along the riverside.  

It's nice to think of them all drinking McKie lemonade as they worked on their drawings, like today's computer nerds and their soft-drink.

Armstrong designed the first modern, rifled, breech loading, field gun.  This was used around the world and by both sides in the American Civil War and soon adopted by the Navy, initially for long range targets. 

Remember that up until then warships were still wooden sailing vessels with a gun-deck and muzzle loading cannon to deliver broadsides.


USS Constitution
USS Constitution - still the flagship of the US Navy
One of the most powerful warships afloat in 1816
She thrashed several British ships in the War of 1812 (my photo)


Soon the first ironclad wooden ships would replace these, followed by all-steel, steam driven battleships with gun turrets. 

To fit their guns warships needed to navigate up the Tyne and the old multi-arch masonry 'new bridge' (that you can see in the early woodblock picture above) was in the way.  So in 1876 Armstrong’s company paid for its demolition and the new Swing Bridge that you can see in the photograph above to be built, allowing their passage. 

In the 1880 Armstrong's Elswick works would begin building the new style of warship from the keel up.  They soon became the most innovative heavy engineering business in the world.  It was they who built and installed the steam-driven pumping engines, hydraulic accumulators and hydraulic pumping engines to operate London’s Tower Bridge.  Armstrong was knighted in 1859 after giving his gun patents to the government. In 1887, in Queen Victoria's golden jubilee year, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside.

Both steam-power and shipbuilding were to play an important part later in the McKie saga but for the moment the family was focussed on soft-drink production.

The railways also heralded significant developments in the iron industry.  Early trains had to be small and relatively light like the Rocket or they broke the brittle cast iron rails.  In 1820 another local man, John Birkinshaw, had gained a patent for rolling wrought-iron rails. The Stephensons immediately saw the potential and took him in as partner. Wrought-iron was a much more malleable and less brittle material than cast iron and the industry scaled up production, facilitating the manufacture of rails that did not break so that locomotives, wagons and carriages could grow to their now familiar size. 


In June 1842 the new railways were endorsed and adopted by royalty
when Queen Victoria was 'charmed' by her first experience of train travel
Each Monarch since has been incomplete without a Royal Train - not just in Britain
This is her Diamond Jubilee locomotive from 1897 - National Railway Museum, York (my photo)


The invention of rolled wrought-iron in Newcastle made the railways possible and soon facilitated the construction of innovative new bridges and ships and the first skyscraper buildings and what would be mankind's tallest structure: the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

By the 1850's puddling furnaces, already used to make thousands of tons of wrought iron, were evolving, using regenerative reheating, (the Siemens-Martin process) into open hearth furnaces and Bessemer was trialling his bottom-blown iron conversion furnace, using air, in Sheffield, 130 miles to the South.  The new product was steel.  The Bessemer process was faster and cheaper but suffered from nitrogen embrittlement, a problem not fully resolved until the mid-20th century when tonnage oxygen plants became available.

Steel that once took a skilled blacksmith days to make in small quantities, by repeatedly folding wrought iron, could now be made in thousands of tons in a matter of hours, revolutionising engineering. It was a new 'miracle material' - increasingly alloyed to other metals like: manganese; nickel; chromium; lead; and copper.   These new materials would change the fortunes of the McKie family for generations. 

In the next century and a half this new steel industry would provide the means of making electricity, building ships, and constructing modern guns and bombs and aircraft.  Great fortunes would be made. Steel technology would revolutionise everything, including the kitchen sink, helping mankind to reach the Moon, and provide a career opportunity to at least one McKie descendent.  Enormous iron ore and metallurgical coal exports would help to keep Australia 'the lucky country'.

All this had its genesis in the endeavours of those few men, with the support of their wives and daughters, who thrived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the mid-19th century.



jas mckie soda bottle
A soda water bottle marked Jas. McKie and Son




The next generation arrives

By 1847 William McKie was taking an active interest in the life of the community.  He was a member of the expatriate Scottish Diaspora in Newcastle and his sons followed in his footsteps, despite being first generation Englishmen. We have to imagine him bearded in the garb of the day: a long black frockcoat and top hat, perhaps with a silver-headed cane.

William and several associates on the committee of management took out advertisements in several newspapers in support of arrangements for the Close Schools.  It suggests rather strong religious prejudices:


Newcastle Courant 28 May 1847
Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury 22 May 1847 
(this is less than half the actual length - most of it a religious rant)

Close schools



In to this upright environment a new McKie unexpectedly arrived in 1849, after a 13-year gap, when Margaret was 53.  Their daughter Jane, now 17, had become a dressmaker, a profession, and a name, that is commonplace among my ancestors on both sides of my family.  In the following census little George was listed as their son. 

But ten years later neither Jane nor George still lived with them and I can find no further convincing record of either. Perhaps they emigrated.

The two older boys Alexander and James were now young men about town.  Alex McKie met a good Scottish (he would have said Scotch) girl Mary Watt. They were both 18 when they married in 1852.  Maybe she lost a baby or two because there is no child for some time but they eventually had three girls and a boy (Margaret, 1856; George William, 1859; Annie, 1865; Janet, 1867).

James, my great great grandfather, would soon follow his brother's lead.   James had met a local girl, Elizabeth Lawson, and married her in 1857 when they were both 21 years old.  The boys may have met their future wives at their Scots Church (Presbyterian) where they were Baptised.  Church was the great nineteenth century meeting and mating place.

Elizabeth was the daughter of James and Frances Lawson (nee Dowse).  They lived in nearby Orchard St in the same Parish (St John). 

Meanwhile, William or Alexander or James (its not clear which) were sorting out the problems of being an employer and the foibles of mankind, confounded by that dreadful curse: alcohol.



Newcastle Guardian and Tyne Mercury 26 November 1859

Steeling a barrel


Elizabeth and James' first child James (Junior), my great grandfather, was born in 1859; followed by Margaret Jane, 1860; Frances Ann, 1861; Elizabeth, 1863; Mary, 1865; and my great uncle, Jacob Lawson McKie, 1870.   Jacob is important later in our story.

In December 2017 David Hopper, Frances McKie's great grandson contacted me. David's provided the following information:


Below is a photograph of Frances 1861-1909.

She married a John Reid and she had 2 sons: Stanley & Lionel. Stanley was my grandfather.

His brother Lionel left home and went work in the Russian oilfields as a secretary. He was an early member of the SIS working in Russia during WW1 and the revolution. He was awarded a military OBE in Vladivostok in 1917. The SIS later became MI6 which he worked for mainly in the Eastern Bloc until his death in 1953.

Frances was deaf later in life and she had a very unhappy marriage until her untimely death in 1909, possibly suicide?

Frances Mckie 800 Frances McKie - provided by David Hopper


This stimulated me to get to the bottom of this, to me at least, confusing 'cousin' thing:


Family Relationships

A board term commonly used to denote the child of an uncle or aunt; a kinsman or kinswoman; or one having ancestors or traditions in common.  A family member.

Uncle and Aunt
These include your parents' siblings (their brothers and sisters), and their spouses. There is no need for a genetic connection. The wedded or de facto spouse of an uncle or aunt is entitled to the honorific title 'aunt' or 'uncle' (do not use 'by marriage'*). 

Niece and Nephew
The children of one's sibling's and their spouses' children. Like 'uncle' and 'aunt', they should not be described as nieces and nephews 'by marriage'*.

First Cousin, Full Cousin
The children of one's parents' brothers and sisters. First cousins share one set of grandparents, half their DNA pool was in common.

Double First Cousins
If a pair of brothers marries a pair of sisters, their respective children are 'double first cousins'. They share both sets of grandparents, the same DNA pool.  In effect they are biological siblings.

Second Cousins
The children of one's parents' cousins are one's second cousins. Thus, your child and your cousin's child are second cousins. Second cousins share at least one great-grandparent, and have at least an eighth of their DNA in common.

Third Cousins
The children of a one's parents' second cousins are one's third cousins. Third cousins share at least one great-great-grandparent or at least one sixteenth of their DNA. 
Fourth cousins share at least one great-great-great-grandparent and so on.

First Cousin Once Removed
A relationship that is 'removed' exists in different 'genealogical generations'. A 'genealogical generation' refers to the order of birth (from a common ancestor) not persons of a similar age.
One's parent's first cousin is one's first cousin 'once removed'. If your great-grandparent is that person's grandparent (or vice versa) you are first cousins once removed and you have at least a sixth of your DNA in common.
If your great-great-grandparent was that person's grandparent (or vice versa) you are first cousins twice removed. As the earlier generations recede into the past all your thrice 'removed' cousins have probably become dust. 
Second, third, fourth (and so on) cousins can also be once, twice, thrice (and so on) removed.

Grandaunt and Granduncle
The siblings of your grandparents.

Great-Grandaunts and Great-Granduncles
The siblings of your great-grandparents.

Family by marriage or common law: one's spouse's parents, spouses of siblings, and spouses of spouse's siblings.

Affinity Relatives
The in-laws who are biologically related to one's spouse.

Step-father Step-mother
The partners of one's mother or father.

Birth Mother
The mother of a child she gave birth to.

Biological Mother, Natural Mother
The mother of a child to whom she provided the defining biological material (nuclear DNA irrespective of the source of mitochondrial DNA or other cell structures). Read More...

Adoptive Mother, Adoptive Father
The parent of a child they did not give birth to or provide defining biological material to but cares for; is legally responsible for and accepts as their child.

Surrogate Mother
Mother of a child she carried and gave birth to but to whom she did not provide the defining biological material.

Natural Father, Biological Father
The male who the provided defining biological material to a child.

*Guidance provided by Jennifer Crichton's 'Family Reunion'


Thus, David is my second cousin.  He's also second cousin to my brother Peter, as well as to our first cousins: Shelia; Pamela; Patricia; and Jane.

Back to the story:

Both Alex and James now took active roles in the business and both declared themselves proprietors in the 1861 census, when it was still located at Dispensary Lane.

Now the lemonade business could be called McKie & Sons.

As the city grew so the McKie lemonade manufacturing enterprise also grew. New products were developed, like ginger beer, and the business was renamed a soda water factory.  But the original location was less than ideal.   It was time for a move to a more salubrious location.

A hundred years later the whole Dispensary Lane and Square area would be condemned as a slum. 


9 Dispensary Lane 1935
A century later - a slum


The buildings they occupied there have since been demolished and rebuilt as up-market dwellings.  Dispensary Lane's most recent claim to fame was a rape - perpetrated by a 'painted man' - a rapist wearing makeup.

With the new Water Corporation came the first public baths, a grand building constructed out in what was then the semi-rural Parish of St John, serviced by a newly constructed Bath Road off Northumberland Street. 


Richardson's descriptive Companion through Newcastle upon Tyne
and Gateshead (1838)





After a number of meetings for the purpose of deciding upon the best plans and arrangements, it was finally determined, at a meeting of the shareholders and others, held on Tuesday, August, 27th., 1837, to immediately proceed to erect the public baths* according to designs submitted by J. Dobson, Esq., architect, who had visited most establishments of the kind in England, for the purpose, if possible, of improving upon their construction.
From the opportunities Mr. Dobson had of exercising his judgment, there could only be expected a most satisfactory result. Though, not yet finished, it is not difficult to describe the plan on which this accession to the health and comfort of the town will be completed.
The building occupies an area of 176 feet by 134, in the centre of a field of 12 acres, on the north of Saville-row and Ellison-place, into which the principal entrance is from Northumberland Street.
This eligible piece of ground, is part of the property of the trustees of the hospital of St. Mary Magdalen; and having remained unoccupied by building, it has been leased to the shareholders in the undertaking for a period of 99 years, renewable within the term, and will now be ornamentally laid out with walks and plantations, and converted into one of the most classical appendages that this or any other town can boast.
The entrance into the baths will be by a handsome front in the east; on the left of the entrance there is a suite of baths appropriated to the use of ladies, and on the right will be the gentlemen’s bath. There will be two open plunge baths - one for gentlemen 100 feet by 50; the other for the working classes 96 feet by 30, increasing in depth from 3 feet to 5ft. 6in.
The former of these plunge baths is surrounded by warm, tepid, medicated, shower, vapour, and hot air baths, with suitable and commodious dressing rooms for ladies, gentlemen, and boys.

*Upon the corporation granting this contract, the committee invited the skill of the town and neighbourhood in order to determine, by analysis, the most wholesome water that could be obtained for the supply of the town and the result of the tests proved the purity of the Coxlodge springs, which was confirmed by professor Black of Edinburgh, and Dr Saunders, an eminent chemist of London.


The Baths Today
The same Public Baths in 2010
The City Hall was subsequently added to the other end
As an aside, you can see the Civic Centre in the background - this figures in my mother's family



What better new location could there be for a soda water factory than adjacent to the Coxlodge springs, recently endorsed by professor Black of Edinburgh, and Dr Saunders?  And so 400 yards down Bath Road from the new baths, west towards Northumberland Street, land was acquired and William McKie and his sons, Alexander and James, set up the McKie and Sons Soda Water Factory, with new, finer, accommodation for the family. 

The year Jacob was born there was a little drama in Carliol Street when Mr Turnbull's horse ran amok.   


Newcastle Courant 12 August 1870

Horse runs amok


A swinging boat was a kind of two-person swing, popular in the north-east of England at the time (a shuggy boat), where a couple would sit at either end and pull on ropes to swing the 'boat' higher until the ends were swinging above the fulcrum, the origin of the word 'skylarking'. The modern fairground equivalent is a swinging 'Pirate Ship'.  Why there were several in Carliol Street near the gaol in 1870 is a mystery that Google Street View fails to shed any light on.

So, a couple skylarking scared a horse that ran amok and generated a media report.  As a result of this unlikely set of circumstances they inadvertently left a message for generations to follow, confirming that the McKies had moved to Bath Road before August 1870; that the McKie sons were in the process of taking over the reins from their father; that they no longer called themselves lemonade manufacturers; and that they had previously owned at least one horse.



Collage of maps of Newcastle upon Tyne
[1830 topmost - Google Earth bottommost]
showing McKie manufacturing establishments




By the time of the 1871 census William and Margaret had taken a step into semi-retirement, with the assistance of a Scottish servant named Janet Hair. 

In 1874 the business was news across the region. This was one occasion when the adage: 'there's no such thing as bad publicity' was true:  An employee, Ellen Barrett, fell into the River Tyne while out for the night with her boyfriend. 

Her young man Robert Marr was arraigned for her murder. 

He had bought her a shawl earlier in the evening and perhaps wanted a favour in return and after the public houses closed, they made their way to the quayside and sought the privacy provided by a 20 ton crane.  Several other young people were also in the area and heard them quarrel. She wanted to 'come away'. 

Then they saw Robert running off.  So, they looked for Ellen, in vain.  Two days later her body was found on the other side of the river in a decomposed state. 

Did Ellen fall or was she pushed?  


Morpeth Herald 30 May 1874
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser 4 June 1874
Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough 5 June 1874
York Herald 20 July 1874 20

Murder most foul Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette 23 May 1874



Ellen had friends who also worked at the factory who were very distressed. Her large funeral cortège was routed past the McKie Soda Water factory.

Robert Marr was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to penal servitude for a period of 12 years. He left the dock protesting his innocence, as well he may have been as the evidence was circumstantial. But he was never going to walk free.  If it had been an accident, he hadn't attempted to save her.  He hadn't even given the alarm but ran away.  He probably couldn't swim and panicked but he'd pay for that.

At around the same time in 1875 Alexander McKie too had died at the age of 41.  He left his wife Mary McKie a widow with four children, aged 8 to 19.  The business name was back to McKie and Son, singular.

If Alex's death wasn't bad enough at the age of 19, James McKie Junior, James' son, impregnated Mary Ann Ritchie who was also 18 or 19. They were married in the second quarter of 1878 and around three months later their first child Mary Ann McKie (junior) was born.

Were they forced to marry or where they in love? 

Although premarital sex was a common occurrence, it was considered very lower class and not the norm or to be hushed-up in respectable middle-class society. This was particularly the case in our family where the patriarch had spent his life bettering himself from an itinerant labourer to become a respected businessman and a pillar of the Presbyterian Church. The timing of this birth was something they wanted to cover-up so they lied about the baby's age in the 1881 census. 

All this seems ridiculous today, when none of their descendants would marry someone they hadn't lived with first or who they considered to be a suitable potential life partner. But then it's unlikely they would give birth to an unwanted child either.

Had the family been comfortably a bit higher up the social ladder or less enthusiastically religious the pregnancy might have been handled differently.   Mary Ann herself may have been surprised at being obliged to marry. She was the daughter of Ann Ritchie or possibly Isabella her sister, neither of whom was married.  Ann and Isabella were the daughters of Robert and Mary Ritchie and they both worked as servants. 

It seems that there was retribution.  James McKie Junior was expelled from the family home in Bath Road.  My great grandfather's family initially moved to 12 &14 Thorpe Street, since demolished and now what looks like public housing in Google Street View.  Then they moved to 65 Meldon Terrace Heaton and this is where my grandfather spent his childhood.  You can still see this modest terrace-house on Street View. 

On August 20 1879 one James McKie, of Bath Road, Newcastle-on-Tyne, soda water manufacturer, was declared bankrupt. 


Western Daily Press 20 August 1879 (and others)




But two years later James McKie and Sons, Soda Water Manufacturing, remained a going concern in Bath Road, employing 15 Men, 4 Boys and 4 Women.  So we can conclude that either there was a temporary problem in the business or it was James Junior who was unable to satisfy his creditors in 1879.

It seems that it was James Junior who was unable to call on the family assets as he had been cut off and was now out of the succession.

Old William McKie the patriarch died a year later 1880 at the age of 77, possibly exacerbated by the scandal, and it's probable that he was responsible for young James's financial plight or possibly for a reversal of the bankruptcy. Margaret outlived him by four years and died at the very old age at the time of 87.

The stigma of the marriage seems to have been more about hushing-up my great grandmother's background than about a child arriving early.  Although she contributed a sixteenth of my DNA, I had never even been told what my great grandmother's maiden name was - I always assumed it was Lawson.  I did know that there was a family scandal about an unplanned pregnancy involving a maid. But that was as much as I was ever told.  Through a process of elimination, delving into the records, I now discover that my great grandmother was Mary Ann Ritchie.

Her anonymous father is one of the three of my sixteen great great grandparents who remain unknown to me, it's interesting that all the known men had a skilled trade or were in business.  Presumably my great grandmother's father was her mother's employer or an associate of her employer.  Maybe he was someone academically brilliant?  There were a lot of candidates in Newcastle back then. 

Mary Ann's unmarried mother was one of my great great grandmothers.  Her father, my great great great grandfather, was Robert Ritchie, a joiner from Gateshead.  His wife was Mary but it's not possible to identify their parents.  Like McKie, the Ritchie family name has origins in Scotland and Ireland. At the turn of the century the name distribution was similar to McKie but they are far more numerous. 

James McKie (senior) was now in full control of the business as can be seen in the early photograph below.  But it is now Jacob McKie who will succeed.



Bath Road Newcastle Upon Tyne 1898
James McKie and Sons in 1898 - in Bath Road (now Northumberland Road). Northumberland Street is in the distance.
The Public Baths are on the same side, a block behind the camera.
The side street, Ridley Place, is now John Dobson St, the major crossroad in the 2010 image above.
 Note the gas street lights. This type employed the newly introduced gas mantle, producing a brilliant white light.
These were leading edge technology and delayed the introduction of electric lighting in locations like this and in Sydney.



Around the time of the 1898 photograph Bath Road was renamed, rather confusingly, to 'Northumberland Road' and the baths became the Northumberland Road Baths.

As the colour photograph from 2010 shows, the baths are still there today, but I doubt that gentlemen of the upper class still have an exclusive section.




McKie  Sons  Ginger Beer 1
Ginger Beer bottle marked Jas. McKie and Son Northumberland Road
What happened to 'Sons' ?
Note that we now have a telephone



Mary Ann McKie bore James McKie Junior five children: Mary Ann McKie (junior) in 1878; James William Lawson McKie, my grandfather, in 1881; Margaret a year later; then Thomas another year later; and finally, Laura in 1887. 

Then some time after Laura was born, Mary Ann McKie (the elder), my great grandmother, completely disappears from the records. She was no longer a member the household of James McKie Junior in the census of 1891.

I have been unable to find a death notice for her anywhere in England.  But there was a married woman called Mary Ann McKie, in a single berth, leaving for New Zealand in 1908.  There was also a press article in the Northern Echo of 6 November 1900 about the wife of one J McKie, who may or may not be related, who was sewing for maintenance on the grounds of desertion.

By 1891 James' sister, Margaret Jane McKie, had moved in at 65 Meldon Terrace and they now had a live-in servant too: Mary Heywood (aged 18). 

There must be a lot of drama at home when my grandfather had his mother either leave, or perhaps die, at the age of 9 or 10 and he acquired his aunt in her place. 

In September 1897 James McKie (senior) died leaving Jacob McKie in control of the water business.


Hartlepool Mail 30 September 1897

Death Notice James McKie


Notice the business name is 'McKie and Son', singular.

Then in 1905 Margaret Jane died at the age of 41.  Five years later in 1910, James Junior was dead too at the age of 51.  I don't know the cause.  But my father talked darkly of alcoholism in the family, warning Peter and me not to over-indulge.  Given his circumstances he may have simply given up.  All the McKie men were dying young, except old William who lived to the age of 77.  As we will see, at least one death was a suspected 'felo de se'.

Both of James' and Mary Ann's boys: my grandfather, JWL, and Thomas McKie had left home soon after their aunt died. 

My grandfather's unmarried sisters Mary Ann (31) and Laura (23), now parentless, moved in with their uncle, Jacob McKie, at Number 1 Northumberland Road.  Jacob was now the inheritor of the McKie Water business together with their aunts Elizabeth and Mary.  In the census Laura is listed as a typist in the business. 

They and my ancestor had parted ways.


The Scientific Revolution

The Telephone

In the 1870's those new telephone fandangles were expensive and not a lot of use if no one else you knew had one. 

The McKie water business was an early adopter, no doubt to accommodate wealthy customers.  The first telephone was invented by the Scotsman, Alexander Graham Bell.  It had restricted range and required shouting into a variety of not very practical microphones, some even using pools of mercury, to convert sound to an electrical signal. 

Most microphones, particularly those in phones today, that are based on electret materials, require some kind of electrical amplifier to convert sound waves bouncing off a diaphragm into a useful electrical signal.  This was a major handicap prior to the invention of thermionic valves or transistors.  What was required was a microphone that would be its own amplifier. Three men had a similar idea: using a small container of granulated carbon as a variable resistor, arranged so that it would change its resistance to current when compressed and decompressed by a diaphragm moving to soundwaves, like the eardrum and associated components in your ear. 

A patent dispute followed in the US, with Emile Berliner, the inventor of the modern Phonograph (with records we would recognise) claiming priority.  This was resolved when the patent for the granular carbon microphone was eventually granted to Thomas Alva Edison in 1877.

The Bell Telephone Company quickly acquired the Edison patent in 1879.  Suddenly Bell Telephones could make calls the length of England, or even more impressively, trans-continentally across the United States or Australia or Russia.

Edison's invention was of incredible importance.  So, it is this for which he should be most remembered, not the light bulb or the phonograph.  The carbon microphone is an unsung but pivotal invention of the late nineteenth century.  It was still in use in every telephone handset and telephone box in the world until well into the second half of the 20th century. I've still got one in a box somewhere. 

The carbon microphone was not fully replaced until the 1980's when smaller microphones requiring semiconductor amplification could be used, mostly after electronics had been incorporated into handsets to facilitate tone-dialling.  It was also the basis of the first hearing aids.

The carbon microphone allowed the first public address (PA) systems to be built, advancing a new type of political demagogue at mass political rallies.

Perhaps equally importantly, the first singers who had not been trained project their voice, could heard throughout a large theatre, setting the stage for radio, movies TV and electronic communications.  Imagine a world without microphones.


The electric light bulb

Edison is often credited with the invention of the electric light bulb too - or simply 'electric light'.  But this is not so.

At the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society new things were afoot. On 3rd February, 1879 Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, demonstrated his Incandescent Electric Lamp to an audience of over seven hundred people. Then on the 20th October, 1880, during a lecture, Swan gave the signal for all the seventy gas jets to be extinguished and switched on twenty of his own lamps, which ‘amazed the audience with its suddenness.’

Thus, in 1879 the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society’s lecture theatre had been the first public room in the world to be lit by electric light bulbs. 

This event was to change my family's future and the entire World forever.

Eleven months later, on December 31, 1879, in Menlo Park in the US Edison would make his first public demonstration of an incandescent light bulb.  It was said that he had developed the idea entirely independently.  Who knows, he was a great borrower and improver.  His US patent was applied for a full year after Swan's was granted in England.

But neither had 'invented' electric light.

Sir Humphrey Davy, George Stephenson's nemesis, had invented the electric arc lamp in the early 1800s.  Electric arc lamps were already replacing gas limelight, used in live theatres, and are still used for some theatrical purposes.  They were used in cinema projectors until the 1990's as well as military searchlights and lighthouses and provided the first practical electric light. 

As a boy I helped make a little one with a tinplate can as the reflector, using Meccano and pencil leads for electrodes. My father oversaw the project to ensure I didn't blind or electrocute myself.  A carbon arc can be exceedingly bright but the lamps continuously consume carbon electrodes and generate a lot of heat. 

In 1800's they required a large bank of batteries and/or a dedicated dynamo and they are not suitable for continuous use for more than a few hours.

It's difficult for us to recapture the marvel of bright electric light.  The public was enthralled. Crowds would gather for public demonstrations of lighting. Searchlights can still impress and are sometimes used for movie openings.

For example as early as July 1880, Lt. Col Cracknell, Superintendent of Telegraphs for NSW (Australia), publicly lit one of the caverns at Jenolan Cave’s with electric light using arc lamps.  A small dam was then built and a turbo generator, using an American Leffel wheel, was installed to light the caves, in one of the first public electric light installations in the World.  You can still see the original plumbing as well as the more modern replacement turbines along the river walk below the dam.   The caves of course are spectacular and much loved by the McKies in Australia.  People travelled from England, when it took months, just to see them.



Jenolan Jenolan
Jenolan Jenolan
Jenolan Jenolan


Jenolan Caves Electrification - 1889  (my photos)


But arc lamps were poorly matched to domestic lighting.  Not only do they consume the electrodes but they also produce ozone that smells and may be harmful; considerable heat; and dangerous ultraviolet radiation.  The challenge was to produce an affordable long-lasting pollution free electric lamp suitable for continuous domestic use, that was at least as bright and reliable as a contemporary gas mantel.

Gas mantles are still used in the gas lamps people take camping.  They produce a dimmable bright white light that can be the equivalent of an incandescent bulb of several hundred Watts. 


Gas Lamps Westminster AbbeyTwin mantle gas lamps - still in daily use at Westminster Abbey - very bright


Almost every house I've lived in as an adult, including this one, was once lit by gas mantles and I've pulled out the remnants of old gas pipes from three of them.   

Edison realised that if an electric bulb could be developed, electricity from his direct current (DC) dynamos could be reticulated through cables and sold to a mass market to compete with gas.

He was in the process of developing perhaps the World's first commercial research laboratories. This complex, over two blocks in West Orange, New Jersey, included chemistry, physics, and metallurgy laboratories; a machine shop; a pattern shop; a research library; and rooms for experiments.  It came to be known as the 'Invention Factory' with dozens, and later, hundreds, of engineers and scientists developing patentable ideas.  Edison realised the bankable importance of his reputation as the world's greatest inventor.  Thus, the inventions and developments generated by his labs were almost always attributed to him personally. 

In this he had the financial backing of J. P. Morgan and the members of the Vanderbilt family, in addition to many smaller investors.  Whereas Swan was a scientist, for whom invention was a by-product of his curiosity and experimentation, largely backed by his own resources and interests.

Wanting to avoid another patent dispute like the one with Berliner over his microphone, Edison signed-up Swan in a joint company to manufacture and market light bulbs and he subsequently used a copy of this 'Ediswan Lamp' in demonstrations of 'his' invention.


Ediswan Catalogue
Ediswan Catalogue 1893  (Wikipedia commons)


The world's first commercial manufacture of Ediswan light bulbs began in South Benwell, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1881, just 2 miles (about 3 kilometres) from the McKie Soda Water factory. 

To differentiate between the bulbs, Edison developed the Edison Screw socket.  The unique appearance of the Edison version of the bulb helped reduce confusion in the American public's mind as to who had invented it. 

The original socket used by both is described in the publication Electric Illumination in 1885:  "As in the Swan and Edison systems...  When the lamp is dropped into position and rotated to lock the bayonet joint, the heads of its two terminal screws slide over the above-mentioned curved springs...  making a good contact, which is rubbed clean every time the lamp is removed or inserted." 



Generation of another kind

In Newcastle electricity was the new excitement.  To claim that Newcastle was the only birthplace of electricity, as an everyday source of household energy, would be an exaggeration, given the efforts of Westinghouse and Edison in the United States.  But it was Swan's electric light bulb in Newcastle that began the revolution and now demanded new methods of generation and distribution. 

The young McKie boys, James William Lawson McKie and Thomas McKie, were in the right place at the right time. 

At the turn of the century my grandfather and his brother Tom both began training as electrical engineers.  Evidently someone in their family had seen its potential (I know, another pun) and paid for their education.  It may have been their aunt, Margaret J McKie.

While still in his early twenties Tom had met Bridget Nicholson, who was five years older than he.  They were married in 1909, moving to 16 Wansbeck Terrace, Ashington. 


Tom and Bridget McKie 2
Tom and Bridget McKie 1920's


One of the strengths of Tyneside area was technical education.  In this, various prominent members of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society played an important part by endowing educational institutions and persuading the University of Durham to begin teaching science and engineering.  Notable among the key players were Armstrong and Whitworth. 

Several of the prominent electrical pioneers in the region attended the Durham College of Science and later, Armstrong College in Newcastle, where my father went.  It was part of the genesis of the University of Newcastle, that has such illustrious alumni as Peter Higgs, after whom the 'God Particle', the Higgs Boson, is named.

One such graduate of Durham College of Science was John Henry Holmes who in 1883 established J.H. Holmes Electrical Engineering Company. 

My grandfather James William Lawson McKie joined J.H. Holmes Electrical Engineering, rising to chief engineer.

John Holmes' business was based on his patented solution to a problem that plagued DC systems more than AC, like those beginning to be used on ships.  To quote from Wikipedia:

The "quick-break" switch overcame the problem of a switch's contacts developing electric arcing whenever the circuit was opened or closed. Arcing would cause pitting on one contact and the build-up of residue on the other, and the switch's useful life would be diminished. Holmes' invention ensured that the contacts would separate or come together very quickly, however much or little pressure was exerted by the user on the switch actuator. The action of this "quick break" mechanism meant that there was insufficient time for an arc to form, and the switch would thus have a long working life. This "quick break" technology is still in use in almost every ordinary light switch in the world today, numbering in the billions, as well as in many other forms of electric switch.

A century later the 'quick make-and-break' concept would be a design claim in one of my father's patents. This one for a 'Quick acting make-and-break microswitch'  US 3309476 A.  Who says memes (persistent ideas) aren't handed on, down the generations?

The adoption of the new electric light bulbs was very fast. To the homeowner and in factories electric light was revolutionary, allowing work to continue through the night.  In England then in the US large private homes and theatres quickly installed electricity alternators (AC) or Holmes Dynamos (DC), followed by entire localities.

In Australia the NSW town of Tamworth was the first in Australia to install electric bulbs in street lights and illuminated 13km of road in 1888. In the same State, Young, Penrith, Moss Vale and Broken Hill all quickly followed.  Sydney was quite late, mainly because it had recently installed advanced gas lighting with mantels, one or two of which were retained for historical purposes until quite recently. 

Trams were originally horse drawn.  The first electric trams were installed by the Tynemouth and District Electric Traction Company in 1901.  The power was generated at Tanners Bank, North Shields.  Like those in Hong Kong the trams were double-decker, on 3-foot 6 gauge track and ran on 550V DC.   Hong Kong's still runs but like many such systems Newcastle's was pulled up before WW2 and replaced with busses.

By 1907 J.H. Holmes had installed electric power and lighting into 275 collieries, shipyards and railways, dockyards and quarries; 293 newspaper offices and paper mills; 811 steam ships and yachts; and 148 textile mills. The business, now including my grandfather, also designed portable lighting for ships sailing through the Suez Canal at night.

Holmes systems were DC, based on his Dynamo designs.  This is a little one:

110v dynamo by J. H. Holmes and Co  A 110v dynamo by J. H. Holmes and Co - circa 1900
coupled to a high-speed inverted vertical compound engine,
as may be found generating auxiliary power on a ship
by Browett, Lindley and Co - Exhibit at Bolton Steam Museum


After a fact-finding visit there in 1925, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers commented on the Firm's history: '...the Firm may therefore justly claim to be one of the earliest electrical engineering businesses in the country.'  I might add - ' and therefore in the world.'


James Lawson McKie
James William Lawson McKie 1920's


Meanwhile in 1877, Charles Algernon Parsons, a young man who had recently graduated from St. John's College, Cambridge, with a first-class honours degree, joined W.G. Armstrong at Elswick, as an apprentice.  Parsons believed in practical learning from the shop floor up, a tradition that both my father and my uncle would carry on a generation later when they would both work for the company Parsons founded.  More than that, they would both meet their future wives there. 

While working for W.G. Armstrong and later, Clarke, Chapman and Co, also on the Tyne, young Charles Parsons was attracted to the idea that reciprocating engines are essentially complex and irregular, a batch process, whereas a turbine spins a shaft directly, a continuous process.

Turbines, like water wheels, had been around for centuries but there were severe technical and materials science difficulties when it came to matching a steam or gas engine for power.   At a lecture in 1911 he explained his thoughts back then:

"It seemed to me that moderate surface velocities and speeds of rotation were essential if the turbine motor was to receive general acceptance as a prime mover. I therefore decided to split up the fall in pressure of the steam into small fractional expansions over a large number of turbines in series, so that the velocity of the steam nowhere should be great...I was also anxious to avoid the well-known cutting action on metal of steam at high velocity."

It helped that modern steel was now available and the metals he now had, as metallurgy advanced, could withstand the centrifugal forces and would deliver tens of thousands of hours of reliable service.

He sold his new engine to the Chilean Navy but the British Royal Navy was dubious of this newfangled technology.  So, Parsons built a launch, the Turbinia, capable of 34 knots and ran her in figure-eights around the Navy's fastest ship on sea trials.  Turbinia's speed was subsequently demonstrated to Queen Victoria.  After that steam turbines were adopted for newly built British destroyers, and continued in use until the County Class, in the early 1960s, important later in my family's story. 

Wendy and I recently visited Edinburgh where the retired Royal Yacht Britannia is on display, at her heart are the turbines, developing up to 12,000 shaft horsepower, that power her.

Royal Yacht 
Engine Room on Britannia - showing the turbine engines for one of the two shafts
The high pressure turbine is marked, the low pressure turbine is in the foreground (my photo)


This is a drop in the bucket compared to the 160,000 shp Parsons turbines on Cunard's first Queen Mary, for which my father made blades when an apprentice engineer at CA Parsons.   She is now an hotel and attraction at Long Beach California, where I saw her not long after Emily was born.

But of much more lasting importance was the application of steam turbines to electricity generation.  Parsons coupled his turbine to an alternator in what has become known as a turbo-alternator set.  An alternator generates alternating current (AC).  The new machine quickly took over from the older reciprocating engines driving dynamos. It was smaller, simpler, cleaner, neater, and therefore intellectually pleasing to a scientist or engineer.

Parsons proto-type steam turbine and dynamo
Parsons first prototype turbine driven (DC) dynamo - in the Science Museum in London
Don't be confused by the speedboat in the background.
The turbine is the long brass looking section near the centre - with its top housing removed (my photo)


The first public electric lighting in Sydney was in Hyde Park in 1903, employing a small C A Parsons turbine driven dynamo that can still be seen at the powerhouse museum.

This is that machine (with the upper turbine housing raised 7 or 8 cm on spacers), long since replaced with much larger machines, also initially from CA Parsons in Newcastle upon Tyne.


Parsons turbine driven Generator1
Parsons turbine driven Generator1

Powerhouse Museum Sydney
Explanation - from The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (my photos)



In the image below the turbine is being assembles to drive an alternator (AC) rather that a dynamo (DC).  

A dynamo requires a commutator (the device at the front of the red Holmes Dynamo above) that is very difficult to scale up to larger currents.   Whereas both an alternator and a turbine can more easily be scaled-up and matched so that now they typically convert superheated steam to up to a thousand megawatts of electrical power per unit. 

So today turbo-alternator sets generate over 80% of the world's electricity.


Assembling a turbo-alternator at CA Parsons in 1926

This is one of four in a typical modern turbo-alternator installation - this one from NEC in Japan.
Tens of thousands of such machines now keep the lights on; the trains and factories
and offices running; and the Internet alive, across the world.
Parsons original concept has changed very little.



Parson's 'turbine motor' is also the direct precursor of the 'gas turbine' or 'jet engine' that now powers the great majority of aircraft.

Parsons came from an aristocratic scientific family famed for practical ability and eccentricity.  His mother had learnt blacksmithing to help her husband build the largest astronomical telescope in the world. and his wife Katherine and daughter Rachel and would carry on the tradition after his death.  Katherine and Rachel Parsons both qualified engineers would found the Women's Engineering Society in 1919 a pioneering institution that indirectly paved the way for Leander's mother, Emily L S McKie, to become an engineer in the twenty-first century. Initially it was for smart young things of the upper classes. Eleanor Shelly-Rolls (Rolls Royce heir) and aviatrix Amy Johnson were early members.

Charles Parsons was the nearest thing my father had to a hero to be emulated, although he also admired Albert Einstein.


An end to Water

When their father died in in 1910 his younger brother Jacob had taken full control of the McKie water business Northumberland Road. 

Both James Junior's sons, my grandfather and his brother, had become Electrical Engineers, abandoning water forever. 

Jacob died in 1922 and the mineral water business disappeared.  I haven't been able to find out when. 

The land alone would have been valuable then and worth a fortune today, it's right in the heart of the commercial district.  Maybe it was sold when Jacob died.  In any case it's not there anymore.  Maybe it didn't survive the Great War or the following depression. 

But I wish I had been handed down a few dozen crates of something, because the bottles are now collector's items.   A bottle recently changed hands in an on-line auction for £280.37 - and it didn't even contain ginger beer.

By the 1911 census my grandfather, James William Lawson McKie, was a 31-year-old electrical engineer living as a boarder with the Hall family, at 30 Albany Gardens, Whitley Bay, Northumberland.  

At number 29 lived a young private school teacher, Margaret (Madge) Domville. 

Margaret Domville-
Margaret Domville


Was it love at first sight?  Compared to their parents a generation earlier and their siblings, they were both on the shelf.  He was 34 and she was 28.   

They were married in 1914, at the start of World War I. 

James and Madge had sufficient resources to buy a house at 58 Queens Road, Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, also a good address. Their first child, James Domville McKie, was born at the end of 1916. I wonder if an earlier pregnancy failed, as do so many today, with 'older' mothers. According to family lore, neither parent was lacking in libido.

58 Queens Road Monkseaton 2
58 Queens Road, Monkseaton today (Google Street View)

It was the middle Great War.  James was a bit too old to serve.  And in any case he was engaged in fitting out ships, coal mines and factories with electricity - very much a critical reserved occupation.  The business was booming and very soon had around 500 employees.


James Lawson McKie and Margaret
James William Lawson McKie and Margaret McKie (Domville)


James Domville McKie, my Uncle Jim, was born at home at the end of 1916. He was followed by my father, Stephen Domville McKie, born in December 1917.

Then came Margaret Domville McKie a year later, as the Great War came to an end, followed by Joan Domville McKie in 1920.


Radio Pioneer

My grandfather's principal interest, outside work, was radio experimentation and research.  

In the 1890's experiments based on James Clerk Maxwell's theory of electromagnetic radiation by Hertz, Tesla, Marconi and others demonstrated the practical transmission of radio waves but without a suitable amplifier they were limited to sending Morse code, using spark gaps to generate the necessary high frequencies.

Scientists at Edison's laboratory had identified thermionic emission, which became known as the Edison effect, but only as a nuisance that they thought was due to carbon atoms boiling off the heated element. 

Despite other advances in radio they failed to realise that it was actually electrons being emitted and hence to see it's potential (same pun - intended).

The English physicist John Ambrose Fleming realised that the thermionic emission was electrons - and could Thus,
provide a one way 'valve' directing the flow of electricity. In 1904 he patented the first vacuum-tube rectifier or thermionic valve also known as the Fleming valve.  Within a year a young American, Lee DeForest, realised that by placing 'grid' between the cathode and the anode he could regulate the flow of electric current through the valve by means of a control voltage applied to the grid. 

Thus, DeForest had invented, and in 1906 patented, the first triode: a device capable of electronic signal amplification. In early valve catalogues this quality is still called 'magnification'.

This device is still known as a valve (in England and Australia and so on) and as a vacuum tube or just 'tube' (in the US). 


Triode examples, showing the enormous technological development from 1918 (left) to the 1960s
The valves used in walkie-talkies and hearing aids got down to three centimetres long and the diameter of a pencil
Size reduction improved a number of performance characteristics and allowed much more compact chassis
but required much greater manufacturing precision
These were superseded by discrete transistors the size of a pea and then by the microchip and surface-mount devices 
(picture by RJB1 - via Wikimedia Commons)


The triode was probably the greatest invention of the early 20th century, surpassing even the contemporary Wright Brothers mastery of powered flight. The triode heralded the electronic age without which modern aircraft could not exist and it powered the first electronic computers that were an essential step to incredible scientific and engineering advances, including decoding our genome. 

Now electronic circuits could switch each other on and off in logic circuits or be made to oscillate indefinitely in a radio transmitter as the valve made up the losses due to power being absorbed by the aerial and its radiated transmission or magnify and transform the tiny electrical signals picked up by an aerial, until they were large and powerful enough to drive the voice coil of a booming loudspeaker.

AT&T purchased the DeForest patent and used it to make the first audio modulated radio broadcasts in the summer of 1913, transmitting realistic voice and music as we know it today, no longer restricted to a sequence of Morse Code dots and dashes.  The year before my grandparents were married modern Radio had been heard for the first time.

Initially Edison's carbon microphone had been inserted into the circuit to 'modulate' the amplitude of the signal, with voice or music, providing the first amplitude (or audio) modulated (AM) broadcasts.   But it was quickly realised that suitably designed valves could be used to amplify the tiny signals from higher quality microphones that could be connected by wire to the transmitting equipment. Not only that but in addition to driving loud speakers they could drive other devices, like the cutter that made the grooves in a record.

As in aircraft technology and many other fields major advances were made in radio valve technology and radio transmission during the First World War.  Soon both planes and radio messages were circling the globe.

Soon after moving in my grandfather created a workshop in the basement their home at Queens Road, Monkseaton, where he experimented with radio designs and transmission.  To facilitate his investigations, after the War was over, he had constructed the largest privately owned radio mast in the North of England, in their front garden.

Some time after we had settled in Australia my father was interviewing factory workers and one interviewee announced that he knew the name McKie because he had helped to build his father's radio mast.  It was quite famous.

The first public news and entertainment broadcast in Britain took place on November 14th 1922 from a 1.5kW medium wave transmitter broadcasting from the top of Marconi House in London.

So, my grandfather built a 12 valve receiver on which the family and friends could gather-round and listen to 'London Calling', the first entertainment radio and the beginning of the BBC, a considerable novelty.  It was like the beginning of television. 

His set must have been impressively large, as valves were similar in size to incandescent light bulbs.  It would have used a lot of power for that time, and generated a lot of heat, around that of an electric room heater.  All the valves would have been triodes. Multi-grid valves were not yet commercially available. 

I have made a guess at the circuit based on contemporary records and designs my father built and told me about. 

The audio section is probably easiest to guess at because I know he wound his own output transformers and the business he worked in wound commercial motors and dynamos. This suggests a push-pull design requiring five triodes and a purpose-wound output transformer driving the loud speaker. Proper balance is extremely critical to avoid distortion and such transformers weren't an off-the-shelf item back then.  So, it's not surprising that my father in turn often wound his own coils and transformers and I grew up with dozens of rolls of different gauge winding wire in a kitchen cupboard.

I'm assuming that JWL McKie's famous 'big receiver' was a superheterodyne design to improve sensitivity and selectivity.  The idea of intermediate frequency is attributed to Armstrong in 1918.  The concept was in the literature and use by radio enthusiasts as early as 1920.  My grandfather would certainly have experimented with this technology and his son, my father designed and built a wide range of devices using the same concept.  But it was difficult to implement with triodes and was very fussy back then.  It soon became commonplace after the invention of multi-grid and multi-element valves and became the dominant radio and television receiver technology from the 1930' to the present day. 

Early triode superheterodyne designs had a separate local oscillator and mixer.  A typical design would account for a further six valves with three IF stages.  The twelfth valve may have been initial RF amplification.  I'm assuming that he was using a DC mains supply directly for the HT rail and put the heaters in series, for reasons that will be obvious later.

It certainly would have been quite a wireless.

My grandfather instilled a love of research in my father who was encouraged to help in the workshop, to make his own crystal sets to listen to broadcasts and to perform other small experiments, like making his own lead sulphide crystals.

While melting lead one day my father used a soldered can so that the lead ran out through the soldered seam and scarred his foot.  He would show me the scar and tell me to be careful not the make the same mistake when melting lead.  He was around six or seven at the time of the accident. There was no suggestion that I should refrain from melting lead - but avoid the fumes and wash your hands before eating.

My father, in turn, helped me make my first crystal set, showing me how to neatly wind my coil.  The variable tuning condenser came from an old radio and I used my pocket money to buy a pair of earphones, my pride and joy.

Before suggesting the project, he'd raised my interest by giving me a mysterious device that turned out to be a cat's whisker holder, together with a (commercial) crystal of lead sulphide or perhaps one of the other suitable crystals to put into its crystal holder.  It came from 'Radio House', a hobby-shop in Sydney long since gone, and it looked exactly like this image I found on the net, like seeing a picture of an old friend:


crystal detector 01
Cat's Whisker crystal-detector
To the right is a housing that holds a suitable metallic crystal like lead sulphide
To the left is a bar with a ball socket that mounts the fine wire or cat's whisker
The whisker is moved over the crystal until a diode detector forms, heralded by hissing in the earphones.

I took my crystal set to school in fourth class for 'show and tell' but it refused to work having been shoved into a box for transport.  I was mocked by our teacher who said that if I spent as much time leaning my spelling list as I did on all this nonsense, I would do much better at school.

Interestingly if you put a battery and shunt across the cat's whisker junction it would emit a dull light in the dark, which might have been a little arc.  But we now know to be a light emitting diode or LED.  No one thought much of it at the time and it demonstrates that it takes an enquiring mind to look beyond the obvious.

Years ago, my mother wrote:  Stephen's personal memory of his father is of love and admiration for a man who always had time for him.

Thinking back, I could say the same thing about my father.

In the early 1920's amplification of electronic signals from a passive, but higher quality, microphone, using the new triodes and later, pentodes, brought in the Jazz Age and allowed a new style of singers, the crooners, to sing into the new microphones.

The same technology enabled the Public Address (PA) system that US President Woodrow Wilson used in 1919 to address a crowd of 75,000 in California.  Numerous innovations in the first years of the 1920's soon resulted in public radio transmission for entertainment, information and propaganda.

By the late 1920's President Wilson's feeble 25 W PA system was surpassed many times over with systems driving up to 200 loudspeaker horns.

Thus, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini was in no small measure due to the invention of the triode valve and then the pentode.  All the result of the evolution of the thermionic valve (vacuum tube) from a humble electric light bulb.

My grandfather did not invent a new type of valve.  Pentodes were not invented until 1926.  But he made pioneering advances in circuit design that my father was proud of and spoke about. 

Numerous other radio stations quickly followed the first amateur transmissions, addressing this audience with local content, including briefly my grandfather's own broadcasts. It was a bit like the 'dot com' explosion, when websites proliferated.

The Geneva Frequency Plan of 1926 put an end to this radio proliferation.  But by1926 my Grandfather no longer cared, he was dead.



Untimely death

In 1925 my grandfather was hit by a 'perfect storm'.   J.H. Holmes Electrical Engineering Company was failing and he felt personally responsible.  They had committed to direct current.  DC was great onboard ships and in individual enterprises with their own generator.  Local DC generators supplied rows of houses but now these individual groups of electricity users wanted to link together - in a grid. 

DC had many advantages including greater efficiency and fewer losses in the wiring but AC had two 'killer' advantages in a grid environment.  As already mentioned, alternators could be more easily scaled up in large power-stations; and in addition, AC can utilise electrical transformers.  Transformers allow AC voltages and currents to be easily be stepped up and down without any moving parts.  Using AC, voltages can be stepped up, and currents lowered, for transmission over long distances then stepped down again to be safely used in the home or public spaces.

In passing, transformers would not have been possible but for parallel advances in the steel industry.  Without 'soft magnetic iron' (ultra-mild steel) they would have overheated unacceptably. 

If you don't understand any of this read my article How Does Electricity Work? 

A possible but ultimately impractical DC solution was the 'genemotor' or 'rotary-convertor'.  The simplest version is where one voltage and current drives a motor and on the same shaft is a dynamo that provides a different voltage and current, in a similar way to a transformer.  More complex versions integrate the two with shared windings.

My grandfather was involved in rotary-convertor design to maintain the early dominance of DC.  But AC was now the new technology everyone wanted, in particular to run a new generation of entertainment devices called radios.




James WL McKie started sleeping at the factory, trying to keep things going but the business was sinking before his eyes.  On top of that, Madge was pregnant again.  How would he cope if the business failed?  He was already 45.  It could be the end of his career.  Maybe he was the failure?

He had a nervous breakdown.  He was home in bed on medication - laudanum.   He wrote a note.  What it said no one knows anymore, maybe it was a new idea for converting DC voltage and current, maybe he was distracted, because he drank all his laudanum.

My father Stephen, then seven years old, went in to see how his daddy was getting on.  Maybe he would do one of the beautiful explanatory sketches showing how things work, like the ones my father, in turn, did for me. 

How finding his father dead affected my father is hard to tell.  He believed in getting on with things.  It was the first of many deaths he would experience - another war was coming.

In 1901 Alphonse Constant Reyrolle, a French manufacturer of scientific instruments had moved his business to Hebburn on the Tyne and began to manufacture all things electrical from switchgear to electric motors and even plugs and sockets, directly competing with AC and equipment for the new grid concept. 

Three years later J.H. Holmes was absorbed by their competitor Reyrolle Limited and moved to Hebburn.  Holmes went on as a separately named division for many years.  Eventually Reyrolle too would be absorbed into Reyrolle Parsons. 

The AC grid has prevailed, until the 21st century, but now DC is making a partial comeback because of solar panels and advanced batteries.  It never fully went away.  Most older train and tram networks use DC but even there it was soon obtained from the AC grid and 'rectified' to DC for use in traction motors.  Nowadays with modern power semiconductors the latest train systems use AC directly.  Swings and roundabouts.

My grandfather would not live to see the merger; or the full triumph of AC; or the 1929 depression; or the Second World War. 

Madge McKie found herself, at 35 years old, a widow with herself and her four children to feed. 


Jim Stephen Margaret Joan 9 to5
The McKie children soon after the death of their father:
Jim (9 yrs old), Stephen (8), Margaret (7) and Joan (5)


Some women might have collapsed in grief or despair but not my grandmother.  She took things in hand. 

My father watched her tear-up the note, after which she probably burnt it.  A sympathetic doctor reported accidental death.  Madge put it about that her husband had died of the flue that was rife at the time.

Maybe her miscarriage was brought on by the stress.  Deliberate abortion was illegal and tantamount to murder back then. In either case it would have extremely unpleasant for her. 



Margaret (Madge) McKie (nee Domville)



Madge 1891 aged 5

Madge (Margaret Domville) 1891 - aged 5 years


My cousin Trish provided the following - in relation to our great-grandmother (Madge's mother) - based on earlier research by my Aunty Joan (my father's youngest sister):

"Her father Stephen Slinger (probably who Stephen McKie was named after) was born in 1816 in Middleton in Westmorland and married Jane Baine (born 1813) from Ingleton, which used to be in Westmorland but is now in the county of North Yorkshire. They married November 1838.

In the 1861 census for Appleby, Stephen was a farmer of 16 acres living with his wife Ann and 4 children. They were Polly, b.1844, Elizabeth (Madge’s mother) b. 2/7/1846, Jane Ann (her step mother) b. 1850 and Richard b. 1853."


Jane Ann step mother Polly ElizabethMother

 The three sisters. Pencilled on to photo: Jane Ann (step mother);
Auntie Polly;
Mother. “Mother” was Elizabeth Slinger, Joshua Domville’s first wife


"Great-grandfather Joshua's first wife was Elizabeth Slinger, and they had four children: Jane b.1872 and known as Jenny, Elizabeth b.1876, Joshua Stephen (Uncle Joe) b.1881 and Margaret “Madge” b. 21/4/1886."


Joshua Domville

Photo of Joshua Domville
Granny has written on the back “My very dear Father. Died March 25th 1916”
He has a definite twinkle!


"Elizabeth died giving birth to Madge or soon after.  Not long after her death Joshua married her younger sister Jane."


Jane Ann Domville nee Slinger

Madge’s (Granny Welch's) step mother and aunt, Jane Ann
Born Jane Ann Slinger, married Joshua Domville, her deceased sister’s husband


My mother wrote: The Church prohibited this in England so they travelled to Sweden to be married.  [This is corrected to Denmark by Trish] Denmark makes more sense given its close associations with Northern England (see My Mother's Family).

Although I can't understand why, this was regarded as scandalous, particularly in my mother's family, and spoken of darkly, in hushed tones: 'she was brought-up by her aunt you know'; and the suggestion that this was somehow improper.  I presume that the younger sister is thought to have 'had eyes on him' before her sister's death or that the 'proper thing' would have been for her to occupy another bedroom as a maiden aunt.

Anyway, the impropriety obviously didn't concern James, who's own upbringing had been a little unusual, to say the least.

Trish writes: "Our Granny (Madge) stayed in touch with the Slingers, her mother’s family, who lived in the small town of Appleby in Westmorland. I can remember Grandpa Welch, Granny, my mother Margaret and myself driving to Appleby to visit relatives. Unfortunately, I don't remember who they were, just that I hated going because I was always felt car sick on the 80 mile journey there from Newcastle."

"Richard, or Uncle Dick, trained to be a carpenter. His mother allowed him to carve patterns in a very large, beautiful old English oak cupboard. Mike and I had this cupboard until we moved to a smaller house and Jane took it. The removal men had a struggle moving it! We also have a small carved wood folder for papers with the letters JD and dated 1898. I wonder whether Uncle Dick carved it for his sister Jane Ann Domville (nee Slinger)?

Margaret and Joan used to say that Uncle Dick was very tall and that's where the tall gene came from. Margaret was 5’11” which was extremely tall for a person born in 1918."

The Domvilles seem to have been surprisingly well off given her father's job, that today would not be very lucrative. Madge's father Joshua, my great-grandfather, had joined the North Eastern Railway as a clerk in the office (around 1866) when he left school.  He remained a clerk in the accounts department at each census return and when he was old enough Madge's brother, Jacob Stephen Domville, got a job there too.  In the 1881 census they were living in Westgate, Newcastle upon Tyne. Trish reports that: "Granny used to say that it was a 'good' area in those days".

Possibly the railways paid very well or maybe their combined income allowed them to live in Albany Gardens when Madge met James McKie. Albany Gardens was, and still is, a very good middle class address. According to the census they were the sole occupants and were probably the owners. The houses there have a present value of well over a million pounds (in 2015), very high for the north of England. You can see some in the real estate pages but not in Google street view.  It is possible that the girls inherited the farm as they were obviously able to travel and did not feel bound by conventional values.  

There is also a possibility that Joshua or his father came into a remote inheritance on the Domville side?  Joshua senior (shown as John in the census). He was then listed as 'foreman to carpet manufacturer' but elsewhere (in the Census) as a 'warehouseman'. He married Ann Shaw and when my great grandfather, Joshua, was born, on 15/08/1849, they lived at at 62 Northgate in Darlington, Durham. He died on 25/03/1916.

When I was a child there was some suggestion that the Domvilles were related to other, better known Domvilles.  It's quite an unusual name so there may be some connection. There are the Domville baronets of St Alban's one of whom was Lord Mayor of London and an Army colonel Domville who was a contemporary, as well as the Admirals, mentioned below, but any link is tenuous. Joshua's father, came from Thorne, South Yorkshire. Maybe he was a black sheep. 

This is another name with two different spellings. In the very recent past these seem to have been used interchangeably within the same family, due no doubt to phonetic spelling (the same person is referred to in the National Library of Ireland as 'Domville' with two 'l's, while from Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland:  'Domvile', spelt with one 'l').

The name is quite unusual and has aristocratic Norman origins see: Ireland - The Protestant Plantations - on this website.  There are people like Sir Crompton Domville (two 'l's) running around Newcastle contemporary with my recent family.

Admiral Sir Compton Edward Domville (spelt both ways) was a hero of World War 1, but his son Admiral Sir Barry Edward Domvile (1878–1971) (one 'l') was interned during World War 2 as a traitor for outspokenly supporting Hitler (as incidentally, did quite a few English aristocrats; notoriously Mrs Simpson; and probably her lover King Edward VIII). 

It's tempting to think that the changes to the spelling may have been made by the press wanting to make the younger man's name into Dom-vile.  Like the American press changing 'Usama bin Laden' under which spelling he was known to the CIA and wrote several books to: 'Osama-bin-laden', to get rid of the 'Usa'.

Trish has written: "Madge (Granny) was extremely proud of her Domville heritage. She used to say sadly that her brother, Joe (Joshua) Domville, was the last Domville in the telephone book. Uncle Joe used to come for afternoon tea and I remember him as a sprightly, cheerful white haired elderly man."

Wedding Joshua Domville junior Grannys brother 1912

Wedding photo 1912. Uncle Joe’s wedding
Joe was Joshua Domville junior, Granny’s brother. Granny is in back row between 2 unnamed men
In the front row sits their father, Joshua Domville senior and step mother, Jane Ann Domville
It's interesting to see Jane Ann at different ages
Joe’s wife was called Cissie, her sister, the bridesmaid, was called Ethel
These names are coming back into fashion in UK!


When James died in 1925 Margaret McKie's only assets were the house and some sympathetic relatives and friends. 

So, she had a separate flat constructed and let it out to a tenant, offering serviced accommodation.  This was a fortunate decision. One of these residents was W (Bill?) Buckle, the chief draftsman at Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd - shipbuilders at Wallsend on the River Tyne, then one of the largest enterprises in the North East of England.

He introduced Madge to the Assistant Yard Manager at Swan Hunter's, Norman Welch who was four years her junior and unmarried.  And so began a long, very close, friendship that eventually led to marriage in 1933.

In 1934 the family moved from Monkseaton to a terrace house in Osborne Avenue, Jesmond in Newcastle upon Tyne.


31 Osborne Avenue
31 Osborne Avenue, Jesmond today (Google Street View)
The family subsequently moved to number 37


My mother first met Madge when she was 'walking out' with my father, probably around 1941 when my mother was 17 years old. 

It didn't go well.  My father's family was quite unfamiliar to my mother who was a single child in a different sort of family.  Here, few things were sacred and the siblings competed with each other in cynicism and rye jokes. 

Years later my mother would write of Madge: 
Her education was typical of middleclass girls in Victorian England to acquire social skills, manage domestic staff and be a good wife...  When Madge married James McKie, she had to run a home with domestic staff which included a cook, maid and nanny and she quickly became an astute housekeeper.

My mother clearly resented Madge steadfastly keeping this staff through thick and thin, rather than taking up a bucket and mop herself, and thought that taking-in paying guests was at odds with her other pretensions:

She discretely provided room and board to long-term paying guests and even after her second marriage, and removal to an even larger house, she continued to do this, always in a managerial role as hostess and always with the guests in separate quarters from the family.

I was left an ancient copy of The Book of Household Management, by Mrs. Isabella Beeton, which has somehow disappeared, but the introduction can be found Project Gutenberg eBook.  It's a nice reflection of the middleclass Victorian view of life:


From Mrs Beeton:


I. AS WITH THE COMMANDER OF AN ARMY, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house. Her spirit will be seen through the whole establishment; and just in proportion as she performs her duties intelligently and thoroughly, so will her domestics follow in her path. Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties; for on these are perpetually dependent the happiness, comfort, and well-being of a family. In this opinion we are borne out by the author of "The Vicar of Wakefield," who says: "The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens. She who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue, is a much greater character than ladies described in romances, whose whole occupation is to murder mankind with shafts from their quiver, or their eyes."

2. PURSUING THIS PICTURE, we may add, that to be a good housewife does not necessarily imply an abandonment of proper pleasures or amusing recreation; and we think it the more necessary to express this, as the performance of the duties of a mistress may, to some minds, perhaps seem to be incompatible with the enjoyment of life. Let us, however, now proceed to describe some of those home qualities and virtues which are necessary to the proper management of a Household, and then point out the plan which may be the most profitably pursued for the daily regulation of its affairs...



Given my mother's and her family's value-system that enthusiastically embraced petticoated philosophers and blustering heroines, if not virago queens, and believed in everyone 'mucking in' when there was work to be done, there was bound to be a clash.

I'm reminded of the rhetorical question beloved by both my mother and her mother:  'Who do you think you are (or does he think he is)? Lord Muck!' (or 'Lady Muck' as the case may be).

Once they married my father didn't help his young wife like her mother-in-law.  He accused his mother of putting on turns and exaggerating illnesses to get her way.

My mother wrote that:  His memory of his mother is of a remote lady who delegated much of her children's care to others and took little interest in their hopes and ambitions, providing they were well-mannered and mixed in the 'correct' circles.


Grandpa and Grandma Welch Margaret and Norman
Granny (Margaret McKie/Welch nee Domville) and Grandpa Welch outside 37 Osborne Avenue in July 1963
He was very neat here - notice the creases in his pants


It is my observation that none of her children gave two hoots for the correct circles, if by that she meant the English Class System.   But they certainly cared about the opinion of those they worked with or admired, their reputation and their 'word'.  'One never goes back on one's word'. 


Another rôle model

Norman Welch (Grandpa Welch) was already Assistant Yard Manager at the huge Wallsend Shipbuilding Yard of Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, on the River Tyne, one of the most prominent management positions in the City when he met my grandmother.  They were very close friends for years before they were married in 1933 and probably set a few tongues wagging.

Norman was the sixth child in an artistic family.  His father George was a vocalist & artist and was employed as a Clerk in Durham Cathedral.  But he died early, in his 50's, leaving his wife Kate to manage the family.  Two of Norman's sisters taught music, one of them violin. 

By the age of 20 Norman was an apprentice shipbuilder and one of his brothers, Arthur, was a motor mechanic when this was a very unusual job.  Only about one person in 200 owned a car before the First World War and cars were very expensive.

It is said in the newspaper article (below) about Norman that he was distantly related to Sir John Hunter, Chairman of Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd, and it was there that he became apprenticed. This was because his older sister, 'Aunt Nell', was married Thomas Charles Hunter,
second son of Sir George B Hunter, one of the founders of Swan Hunters.

In due course the future Company Chairman: John, would serve his time under my Grandpa Welch in the same tradition that Charles Parsons served his time on the shop floor at G W Armstrong.

He undoubtedly influenced many of my father's opinions and directed his education.  According to my mother he also saved her relationship with my father.  So Grandpa Welch's influence on me was not genetic but existential and cultural.

As a younger man Norman Welch was a motorbike enthusiast.  He owned a NUT 7 hp machine, manufactured in Newcastle by the bespoke motorcycle builders and designers Hugh Mason and Jock Hall.   Between 1912 and 1933, their motorcycle designs were very successful, winning and placing in International TT racing.


NUT Motorbikes
NUT motorbike advertisement and a restored NUT 680cc machine similar to Norman's


Norman won numerous trophies for speed trials, dirt track and road races before an accident which resulted in a steel plate being inserted in his leg.

He was also a rugby enthusiast and encouraged my father to play. I have inherited a number of pewter tankards inscribed to him each year as President of the Rugby Football Club.

He collected antiques had a valuable collection of Roman coins, some of which he had found fossicking along Hadrian's Wall.   These collections remained in England after his death and those things not sold must now be with one of my two English cousins.

Another life-long interest was Scouting, particularly assisting the production of "Gang Shows" which the Scouting Organisation put on in aid of charity.

He owned a flat-nose Morris Oxford four door tourer, a significant possession when cars were still very rare.  In 1929 he and Stephen travelled to the Morris Oxford Works at Cowley in the South of England to pick this up off the production line. 

Stephen learned to drive it at the age 12 on condition that he kept the car cleaned and serviced.

Before his marriage to Madge, Norman took the family on holidays in his car. He and the boys would camp while Madge and the girls stayed in a local hotel.

There was no impropriety in this.  My mother wrote of him at around the time of his death:   Stephen's personal memory of 'Dad Welch' is one of love and gratitude to a man who took him under his wing when he needed a father figure and was always there for him without ever being overtly demonstrative.  It was he who healed a breach between us during the early days of our friendship and he was best man at our wedding.  She would not have written these exact words without seeking my father's approval.

In due course he became Yard Manager and was known at Swan Hunter, and to the Navy, as The Admiral.

swan hunters 1946a
Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson Ltd 1946


My father told me that he knew several thousand workers by name and ability and could equally ask after many of their families, accurately remembering their domestic circumstances, as about the progress of their current task.


An interesting side-story:

Among these employees was William August Fisher who would later become better known as the spy: Rudolf Abel.

William's parents were exiled German speaking Russians living in Newcastle.

Fisher's father Heinrich had been an engineering professor and taught and had agitated against Imperial (Tsarist) rule alongside Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), at the Saint Petersburg Technological Institute. He was arrested by the regime in 1896 and internally exiled. And in 1901 he fled with his family to England.

It's thought that Heinrich remained active and chose Newcastle as a good base for gunrunning from the northeast coast to the Baltic countries.

Young William, their second son, was technically literate from an early age and a radio amateur. He won scholarships to Whitley Bay High School and Monkseaton High School.  After school he got a job as an apprentice draftsman at Swan Hunter's and attended Rutherford College.

At the time my grandfather's close friend Bill Buckle, who had introduced Norman to my grandmother, was rising to become chief draftsman at Swan Hunter's. Bill would certainly have known William who was 14 years older than my father. In 1921 young William left Swan Hunter's and moved to Russia with his family.

William was fluent in several languages including English, Russian and German and when the family returned to Russia, he worked as a translator and then in radio: first as an operator and then in radio research, before being recruited to train spies during the Second World War. In this role he was part of elaborate wartime spy games to disrupt the Germans and capture their agents.

Obviously, Britain, the US and Russia (the USSR) were allies in this at the time.

In 1948 when the war was over Vilyam 'Willie' Genrikhovich Fisher, now a Colonel in the KGB, was redeployed as a spy to the United States where, as Rudolf Abel; AKA Andrew Kayotis (Codename: MARK), he played a part, still undetermined, in the theft of US technical secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union.

In 1957 he was caught and, after being subjected to the usual persuasions, was tried and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Four and a bit years later, on February 10, 1962, he was swapped for US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. But because he was very well trained and the Americans failed to discover his real name, he became known as the spy who never talked (unlike Powers).

On his return the USSR he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. And his face appears on a Russian stamp - as Rudolf Abel (a jibe at the Americans perhaps).


stamp Soviet Intelligence Agents Rudolf Abel


He was reunited with his family and became popular as a lecturer on espionage before contracting lung cancer and dying at 68 years of age.

Part of his later life is depicted in the film 'Bridge of Spies'  See more at: The U-2 Incident on this website



As Yard Manager of the shipyard Norman was responsible for building many famous ships particularly destroyers, cruisers and minesweepers.  He went on the sea trials of all 'his' ships. There was a large collection of polished wooden gun plugs used to stop the muzzle of the guns on ceremonial occasions, each with the crest of a warship that he had supervised being built. Before the War Stephen was taken along on some of the ship trials.

During the War the Yard broke all British records for getting ships to sea. Pre-war it took two years to build a destroyer during the War his Yard was building a riveted destroyer or similar sized Naval vessel every six months.  This was extraordinary for a warship.

Using a production technique developed by the nearby Palmer's shipyard at Jarrow, also on the Tyne, the Americans, who did not suffer regular German bombing raids, could build a 'liberty cargo ship' in a month and a half.  But only by substituting welding for riveting.  Much of this welding was done by hand in the days before x-ray or ultrasonic testing and was notoriously unreliable.  The 'liberty ships' had a reputation for breaking up and sinking, irrespective of enemy action.

But it was just the teething problems that often assail new technology.  Now with automated welding and a range of modern weld-testing techniques, riveting has virtually disappeared and all ships and most steel structures are welded.

The last ship Norman was responsible for, before he retired, was a county-class destroyer H.M.S. London (D16) launched in 1961 and completed in 1963.  Those of you with a keen eye will remember that the County class Destroyers were the last British naval ships to be equipped with Parsons turbines. 

H.M.S. London - underway  (Wikipedia Commons)

She was pretty but not particularly noteworthy when compared to the career and battle honours some of his wartime ships.  She was decommissioned in 1981.

Her first Captain wrote:



A ship, like everything else, has a birthday, and although she may be deemed to exist after her keel is laid, it is not really until she is launched that she begins to develop a personality of her own, once she is afloat in her proper element. Thus, the story of London starts on 7th December, 1961, when her Royal Highness the Duchess of Gloucester performed the commissioning ceremony on a grey day at the Wallsend Shipyard of Messrs. Swan, Hunter and Wigham Richardson's...

The hand of 'Admiral' Norman Welch (with a little prompting) guided us towards completion: his memory was a little uncertain, but he was pretty certain that we were the hundredth warship with which he had been concerned. He retired shortly after we commissioned at the age—according to the best available sources—of about 75.

We wish him well in his retirement. Each of us, according to trade, will remember one or other of our associates better than others, and one cannot mention them all ...

 J. C. BARTOSIK Captain



For his efforts as Assistant Shipyard Manager during the War Norman received an MBE.

Norman Welch MBE all Our trusty and well beloved Norman Welch Esquire Greeting...
Norman's MBE awarded by George VI (Gazetted on 6 January 1946)


Thus, it was Grandpa Welch who was responsible for my father getting the required qualifications to become an electrical engineer and probably for him becoming a fighter pilot too. 

As a result, my father took his name for a period after his marriage to my grandmother, and for a short time was known was known as Stephen Welch.  I discovered this when I was taken on a tour of CA Parsons facilities where my father had worked as a young engineer.  His ex-colleague and friend remembered him as Stephen Welch.  But he was certainly Stephen McKie again by the time my mother met him, a few years later.

Norman (Grandpa) Welch died at home at the end of 1971 at the age of 81 three and a half years after Madge.   


The Admiral is Dead


Madge had died in 1968 at the age of 82.   Both had been cared for in their latter years by my father's sister, Margaret Domville McKie. So, Margaret's siblings agreed that she should inherit the house at 37 Osborne Avenue.  It was subdivided to supplement her income.


More information provided by Patricia (Trish) Taylor (nee Chapman) in January 2021


Dear Richard

Cousin Patricia here - although always known now as Trish.

I found your history of the McKie family really interesting and because of another lockdown in the U.K. have had plenty of time to study it and think about anything I could add. It really brought back memories of living at 37 Osborne Avenue, that's for sure!
Mum (Margaret) and I moved there in 1955 after my father died (at the age of 44- sound familiar?) and it was my home until college days and marriage in 1971.

I have information about Madge’s family, the Slingers, but will send that separately (now incorporated above).

First of all, I thought these photos may be of interest. You might have copies but worth sending anyway.


img001Madge on the beach in 1912. I hope it was a cold day!



IMG 1052

Wonderful photo of Norman Welch in his motor bike gear.
His nose had been flattened in a rugby tackle.
He also broke his leg very badly in a motorbike accident and whenever it was going to rain it ached.
It was a family custom to ask Grandpa if a brolly was going to be needed that day.
He was usually right! Grandpa Welch was a father figure to me as he had been to your father,
Stephen. I have only happy memories of him.


IMG 1059

Grandpa Welch on bike as a young man.


IMG 0245

Group in garden: Norman Welch is the young man in back row, on right.
His sister “Aunt Nell”, the lady on the left, married Thomas Charles Hunter,
second son of Sir George B Hunter, one of the founders of Swan Hunters ship builders.
That’s how Grandpa Welch became connected with Swan Hunters.



Group in garden at 31 Osborne Avenue.
You'll recognise Stephen in the back row behind Madge.
The lady to the right of Madge is Auntie Jenny, her sister.
Then Auntie Amy, a family friend.
The little lady in the back row is Auntie Gert, another family friend.
Madge had many unmarried friends- they were the generation of women who lost men folk in World War 1.


The photo says “Stephen’s 21st” on the back but wasn't he born in December? Not exactly a wild 21st.
[My comment: I agree. His birthday was in December. The Japanese chose his 24th birthday to attack Pearl Harbour (December 7) - an interesting present that probably won the war with Germany. So, both the tree and their clothes suggest that it's not his birthday.]


IMG 0325

Grandpa in his allotment in 1960’s.
I've sent this because you mentioned the smart creases in his trousers in the photo in the history blog.
He always wore a suit- even for gardening and always had creases in his trousers! I love this photo.


IMG 0329

Finally, the garden at no 31, with Stephen and Vera in the porch on the far left.
It’s a substantial house overlooking the Jesmond cricket ground.


You wrote about the paying guests that Madge took in as a widow and when married to Norman, a much more common thing to do in those times. Joan had happy memories of a genteel lady who still wore those elegant ankle boots that were buttoned all the way up. To Joan’s delight she taught her how to use a button hook. Fascinating to a child of about six.

Grandpa’s Roman coins were sold when Margaret moved out of no. 37. They brought very little money as there was no information about where they had come from and as usual, when you’re a buyer, things are valuable but as a seller they are not!

Margaret and Joan were educated at The Central High School, a highly regarded independent school for girls within walking distance of their home, 16 Brandling Park, Jesmond. (postcode NE2 4RR in case you're interested). They moved there from Monkseaton. It was a beautiful house but too many stairs according to Margaret, Joan and Madge. I don't know when they moved from there to Osborne Avenue- presumably when Madge and Norman married.

Did Stephen ever tell you stories about Mrs Schofield? She was a friend of Madge’s who had "second sight”. She would come for afternoon tea and in the middle of a conversation would suddenly come out with some prediction. Margaret and Joan told me several of the things she said which came true and one in particular might interest you. When Stephen was young- before the war- she told Madge that his back was going to be a problem for him all his life. The family thought that was a strange thing to say but it certainly came true! Very odd. Mrs Schofield eventually became an active church goer and stopped coming out with her predictions. She said it wasn’t God’s will for us to know the future.

Will finish now- hope you find it interesting! Will send brief information and photos of our great grandparents soon.

All the best





The next generation - new horizons

Stephen Domville McKie, my father, like his brother and sisters were children in that strange period of history between two World Wars.  It was a time of economic instability and very rapid social and technological change.

Their father died in 1925 when they were aged from 9 (Jim) to 5 (Joan) and after a couple of years their mother now in the forties began a relationship or close friendship with Norman Welch.  They were at school.

While Stephen's brother Jim was educated by the Freemasons and his sisters Margaret and Joan, by a family friend, it was Norman Welch who made sure that Stephen went to a Technical High School and nurtured his interests in technology, that had already taken root under his natural father's influence.

He may have then used his influence to get three of them (Jim, Stephen and Joan), engineering apprenticeships and a job at CA Parsons, a firm that supplied steam turbine engines to ships that Swan Hunter was building.  But as we have seen, their father had also managed a firm that was a competitor in the electrical generation industry and was a figure of some importance in the Freemasons, a confidential, if not entirely secret, society. 

Freemasonry permeated the English, and for that matter Australian, craftsman and engineering landscape.  My mother's father and his brothers and father were all plumbers and Masons too, in a different lodge, but all share an obligation to help their brothers in need. It was these men who formed the core of the Home Guard in WW2.

Norman took the family on holidays in his car, when there were very few cars in England.  As Jim and Stephen got older, they too would get cars of their own. 

Jim's car was an Austin Seven called 'Little Audrey'


Little Audrey
Jim (James Domville McKie) with 'Little Audrey' 
But why is he wearing slippers and a bowler hat?
(actually they are spats over his shoes, as Wendy pointed out)


Stephen's car was bigger (not hard) and more sporty but not as famous. One of his friends had an Alvis and if I remember correctly, he had a Singer le Mans. 

CA Parsons Motor Club2
CA Parsons Motor Club 1937-38  -  McKie, in the hat; Haken; McAlpine
The car in the background is a BSA Special Three Wheel Sports - one of the first front-wheel-drive cars
  The removable steering wheel was in lieu of an ignition key


When they worked at CA Parsons the McKie brothers both met the girls they would marry but not before 'sewing a few wild oats'.  My mother, Vera Storey, then 16, was warned against Stephen McKie who with his sports car had led more than one girl astray. 

Stephen and Maura
Stephen and Maura
My mother preserved this picture to taunt him with - it was in an album she compiled.
Maura was one ex- girlfriend that my mother knew and particularly liked to mock
My father had big hands and apparently Maura once said: 'Your tiny hand is frozen' within Vera's hearing,
presumably quoting Puccini's 'La bohème'.  It became Maura's codename between them.


Initially Vera had wanted nothing to do with that dubious boy: 'Sid Mokie' as his engineering friends called him.

The nickname arose because the engineering apprentices each had clothes pegs with their names on them and someone defaced my father's, turning his initials S. D.  into SID and the 'c' in McKie into an 'o'. 

But Vera Storey was a little rebellious herself (as was her mother) as I have mentioned in: 'My Mother's Family' on this website. So, she either succumbed to his charms or saw him as a challenge.  Actually, he was quite shy and needed a motive to be social but he did like to flirt with a pretty woman.  It was like another persona he could switch on.

In 1939 Stephen had completed the industrial elements of his apprenticeship, like machining turbine blades, and had moved into the research division, beginning a thesis on high voltage insulation for submission for membership of the Institution of Engineers, when war was declared. 

The thesis would have to wait 'till he returned. He immediately volunteered to be trained as a fighter pilot.  He was in a reserved occupation and was a fraction too old to fly fighters. Bombers were suggested and refused, so there was a delay while some strings were pulled.   In the meantime, the RAF was losing men and got more desperate.  So he was in as a fighter pilot trainee on the 11th of July 1940.  Getting his 'wings' was one of the proudest moments of his life. He continued to mention it throughout his life.

He had spent his training being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe.  It was before the 'Battle of Britain' the Germans were trying to annihilate the RAF.  He once told me that his training consisted of picking up body parts.

He was strafed personally.  He was walking on the road to the base when an enemy aircraft dived on him from behind.  He said if the pilot had been a worse shot, he would be dead.  But he was right in the sights.  Fortunately for him aircraft guns are wide apart in the wings and focus is well ahead, designed for dog fighting.  So, the rounds went neatly past, either side of him.

He was trained too late for the 'Battle of Britain' and not among the 'few'.  Instead after 'getting his wings' he helped to regain air superiority, flying a Hawker Hurricane.  He was a fraction over six feet tall, much too tall for a Spitfire.  On coastal patrol he seems to have been relatively free to fly almost anywhere.  He frequently visited my mother in Newcastle.  He was once shot at, obviously unsuccessfully, by friendly guns over Salisbury Plain when he was taking a shortcut.  He later met one of the very gunners from that incident in Australia. 

At one point he and another pilot were quarantined, having come into contact with someone with some dread disease.  After some days with no obvious symptoms, he and his friend decided to get a lift Coventry with a fuel tanker driver who serviced the base. They went to the pictures (movies).  This was really bad idea if they had been infectious but worse if they had been attacked while travelling in an empty 'petrol lorry', otherwise known as a mobile bomb. Neither of these turned out to be a problem.  But a day later the first German raid on Coventry took place.  The cinema that they had gone to took a direct hit and was where most of the fatalities too place. When I contemplate how unlikely was my birth these stories add to the mystery.

Then it transpired that his squadron had been decimated attempting to repel the German attack. The Germans were using triangulated radio transmissions to mark targets in England, akin to today's GPS system, it's an interesting story for another time.


Jim Stephen Margaret Joan 1940-
The McKie children in 1940
Jim, Stephen, Margaret and Joan


Stephen had not escaped action altogether. On another occasion he crash-landed on fire, refusing to use his parachute. He claimed it was safer in the plane. Given these experiences Flight Sergeant McKie was told to attend officer training, preliminary to being sent to Canada as a flying instructor. Again, he disobeyed orders and instead flew to Newcastle and married my mother so she could follow him to Canada. 

Vera and Stephen Wedding-
Stephen and Vera McKie on the day of their Marriage


And anyway, he told us, he was now a Warrant Officer and senior man in the Sergeant's Mess.  To take a commission would have made him junior man in the Officer's Mess.  Then he would add that it was a sacrifice in status our mother was worth, particularly as he was going back to engineering - if he got out alive.

So, in 1942 he was posted to Calgary in Canada to the Empire Air Training Scheme, training young men from all the Allied countries in the final stage to the day they received their wings.  They also spent time in Winnipeg and Banff. 



Stephen Flying Canada - hand coloured
Stephen flying in Canada - Harvard Mk2a (T6 Texan) Trainer - hand coloured



He was 24 and she was 19. On his 24th birthday the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbour: 'a date which will live in infamy' and now, suddenly, the War against Germany was winable.

I have provided more details about Canada from my mother's perspective, elsewhere. A very large proportion of the young men trained to fly, including a lot of Australians and Poles, were subsequently killed in action. It made them both cautious about getting too close to people.

He used to tell two stories about training Poles, some of whom had very limited English, to fly.  One was probably apocryphal.  It's alleged that the instructor signed to the student to follow his actions but became frustrated when the student wouldn't take over and fly the aircraft himself.  He tried letting go of the stick but then the student did the same thing.  Eventually he decided to demonstrate that he no longer had control and the student was on his own.  He bent down and disconnected the stick waving it around to make his point.  He was horrified to see the student bend down and a minute or two later to see him waving his stick around too with a big grin.

Stephen would sometimes modify the story and claim that the instructor had thrown his stick from the plane. But that would be like one of those tall stories that end: " ...and then I was killed". 

More believable was that he had inadvertently said something that a student had taken to be an insult to his mother, causing the student to put the aircraft into a dive, with a knee behind the stick, until he apologised.


Flying instructor McKie Canada Vera age 20 Canada

Flying Instructor McKie age 25 - Vera McKie age 20


Then there was a crash on the ground while he was taxiing.  It cut his aircraft, number 13, in half on Friday the 13th.  Stephen sustained a spinal injury that would dog him for the rest of his life.  And, otherwise ultra-rational, he would become superstitious about the number 13 as well as ominous things he had dreamt about, like a bag on the floor in front of the passenger seat of a car. 

He was invalided back to England in 1944 to undergo spinal surgery.  During his recovery he received a temporary commission as engineering officer at Acklington an RAF base in Northumberland where a squadron (probably 504) was flying the new Gloster Meteor jets.  That they had no propellers amazed the other pilots. He was very familiar with steam turbines and immediately understood the still secret gas turbine technology. But he was grounded and never flew one.

He was in and out of hospital.  According to my mother I was conceived in a convalescent hospital (Hoylake, Cheshire) during an experiment to see 'if everything still worked', early in 1945.


RAF Rehabilitation Centre Hoylake 1944
RAF Rehabilitation Centre, Hoylake  - hand coloured by Stephen
(also known as a conception centre)


After his discharge from the RAF in 1946 they bought a house at 5 Woodbine Ave, Gosforth in Newcastle, that can be seen in Google Street View, and Stephen resumed his career in research and development with Parsons where he completed his thesis on high voltage insulation.  A year later my brother Peter Storey McKie was conceived. 




It was continuing health problems from his war service that caused Stephen and his family to abandon Newcastle upon Tyne to seek a warmer climate, 117 years after William and Margaret McKie had abandoned Scotland for Newcastle.  

Pragmatic as ever, Stephen built a powerful shortwave receiver and they started listening to broadcasts from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, where young men he had trained to fly had come from.  These quickly confirmed Australia, and specifically Sydney, as the preferred destination.

As I have mentioned Stephen's older brother James Domville McKie also trained at Parsons.  He completed his engineering qualifications during the war.  He married Joyce Smith and they began a family, conceiving my cousin Sheila in 1944.  But demobilisation required engineers. Jim was called-up and in August 1944 was commissioned as an engineering officer in REME and sent to India, soon to decommission war equipment, so that secrets would be preserved and to avoid a glut of war surplus equipment like the gluts that had caused previous post-war recessions.

After his return he was employed by Glover's Cables, a company manufacturing high voltage, gas insulated, cables of the kind used to distribute the grid underground in major cities.

As chance would have it, Jim was posted to Australia to head-up Glover's technical support in Sydney, much to my mother's chagrin because it looked like we had followed them.

So, in August 1948 my parents sold up their home and packed up their two infant sons and flew to Sydney to establish a new life.  Obviously, they had had a mortgage and flying was very expensive then, so they arrived in Australia with very few financial resources remaining.

Stephen's first job was with the National Standards Laboratory, then at Sydney University. 


Stephen and Vera winter 1949 -
Stephen and Vera in Sydney - winter 1949 - hand coloured


They had a great project for a young Novocastrian Engineer: to develop stress gauges and related instrumentation to check the stresses in the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Bridge was designed by the British firm: Dorman Long and Co Ltd of Middlesbrough, before the days of computers or finite element analysis.

A similar rail-only bridge had already been built in New York over the Hell Gate Narrows of the East River.

1103px-Hell Gate Bridge ca 1917
Hell Gate Bridge - over the East River in New York - completed in 1916
Again, I have my own photo somewhere - but this will have to do
Photo: Detroit Publishing Co (Wikipedia Commons - cropped top and bottom)


This inspired Sydney's Chief Engineer, Bradfield's choice of design.  But the Sydney bridge was to be a fraction longer, higher and considerably wider.  So, to verify their design concepts for this innovative undertaking Dorman Long began a similar but much smaller and simpler bridge first: the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle upon Tyne.  

For Stephen the job was like 'Taking coals to Newcastle' but it was unlikely that he had seen the American bridge on our way over. You need to be up high.  We had a good view of it when I lived there in the late 1970's.

It turned out that the Sydney bridge was substantially over-designed, making it one of the heaviest steel structures ever built.  But that was all to the good as the steel specified was imported - you guessed it - from England. 

But Sydney and NSW got the last laugh.   The project was financed with a very long term, very low interest loan from London.  The interest rate was so much below the usual cost of finance that the NSW Government didn't pay it off until the end of the century, when it was virtually petty cash due to inflation.

The approaches and associated underground train and tram infrastructure also consumed a vast quantity of steel. This made in the NSW town of Port Kembla and in Newcastle NSW.  The works themselves and new the transport systems that resulted, continued to provide employment for thousands in the State all kindly financed by British loans - right through a World Depression.




Two iconic bridges like the earlier one in New York (my photo)
The principle is the same but the execution is quite different for the larger bridge


From there Stephen moved to Amalgamated Wireless Australasia (AWA) when it was still majority government owned after taking a critical communications and manufacturing role before and during the war.   But Stephen would soon be on his way to the private sector.

With both McKie brothers in Sydney I grew up with chatter at family gatherings about electrical explosions; and switches; and arcs; and generation; and how stupid some people can be around electricity. 

After AWA Stephen sold electronic instruments and research equipment, I remember PH meters, for Philips Electrical Industries (Philips of Eindhoven) then he, bizarrely, became Assistant Manager at the Johnson & Johnson.  I remember wide ribbons of fluffy fabric passing through a machine in their tampon factory in 'The Rocks' in Sydney. 

Actually, tampons were not the only product they made.  They also made Modess sanitary pads but it's the tampons I remember.  The machines sometimes played up and we had a bag of sample rejects in a cupboard at home that peter and I used for cleaning things.  I had no idea there was any alternative use, until one day my mother came rushing out to stop me getting the grime off my scooter with one in the front garden.  I used to ride my scooter to school until it was stolen when I was in fifth class. It's probably as well I hadn't taken one to school for emergency grime removal. They had a convenient string, just right for tying to the handle bar.

He was there very briefly, taken aback by their culture of long and boozy lunches, before becoming the Factory Manager at the Sefton Works of Australian General Electric (AGE): manufacturing electric ovens; washing machines and flat-plate ironing machines.

Manager Sefton Works
Stephen McKie, Manager Sefton Works


Australian General Electric was owned jointly by General Electric, from America, and Associated Electrical Industries, from Britain.  Set in the same time frame, the television show 'Mad Men', looks like kindergarten compared to the ebb and flow of internal politics between British and American and local interests at AGE.  It was all cocktail parties and wives dressed up in cocktail dresses and high heels at one end of the room discussing women's interests and the men at the other discussing business decisions and who they did or didn't agree with, according to the power struggle state of play, and almost everyone smoking.


AGE Staff Ball 1952
Vera at the AGE Staff Ball 1952
the strange doll on the table was an early 'Hotpoint' advertising mascot - happy Hotpoint


After an internal, internecine war GE was forced to withdraw, due to an anti-trust action, and in 1955 AGE was transmogrified into AEI - Australian Electrical Industries, now fully owned by AEI of the UK but still licensed to use the GE brand name 'Hotpoint'. 

At cocktail parties, we children had to be in our best clothes and on our best behaviour, offering around hors-d'oeuvre then going off to play quietly and intelligently. 

At the works Christmas Party, we couldn't join in with the other kids or go on the great little train, even though we went to a very ordinary State primary school at Thornleigh and could mix it with anyone - including the occasional black eye received and/or inflicted.  We had to be the impeccably behaved kids in the suits hanging around the adults.


Stephen Vera Richard PeterAround 1952  - Peter in the middle 
That wasn't my mother's only necklace


We learnt the family's double standard.  At home our parents were often playful, squirting each other with the hose or slapping, pinching and tickling.  They weren't nudists but we all went to and from the shower or bath naked and seldom shut the bathroom door.  When the mood took them, they sun-baked naked on our back lawn.  But in public they were quite proper and formal, particularly as the work environment became increasingly Machiavellian. 

Meanwhile managing a factory with a couple of hundred employees was never dull.  There was an occasional industrial accident but the worst was a man on the way to work who jumped onto the platform at the local station from a train that wasn't stopping.  In those days there were no automatic doors or air-conditioning so people kept the doors open. 

Even walking in the streets had its dangers back then, like kids with rifles:


 girl shot  in  Sefton SMH Sep 28 1954
The Sydney Morning Herald - Sep 28, 1954
A family of 11 children... one of the other chaps...
It was a different world - the careless kids lost their rifle


As a result of this internecine manoeuvring Sefton and another factory, Villawood I think, was closed and manufacturing was consolidated at a bigger plant in Marion St, Auburn.  Stephen was relegated to Assistant Manager, a position he disliked, and somehow had himself shifted sideways into the shiny new research and development facility instead.  In this he had the support of the local British appointed head Harry George.  He and Vera remained friends with Harry and his wife Marjorie for many years after AEI.  They had a stunning daughter, Pricilla, who was perhaps a decade older than me.  Just as girls became interesting, I fell secretly in love with her but she scorned me.

Stephen had taken himself out of the political limelight and into a career backwater because the Machiavellians, with their objectives set a few days ahead, rather than months or years, saw no immediate use for R&D.


Product Development AEI
Stephen - AEI Product Development Department
Notice the secret wall oven - I have this photo because it was rejected as revealing too much


But back in research and development Stephen was 'happy as a sandlark' and got to delve into all his beloved interests including high voltage switchgear.  I went to work with him once in the school holidays when they were testing new plasma dispersion designs and arc suppressors for high voltage breakers, of the kind used in electricity sub-stations.  One of his team told me that if McKie put on his glasses they knew it was time to get behind something solid.

They were also engaged in developing new domestic appliances in the context of utility, electrical safety and ease of manufacture, like the wall oven in the photograph above and a pedestal fan.  Another I remember was a 'table griller' (code name: 'table gorilla'). One of the draftsmen had drawn a cartoon of a gorilla sitting on a table that Stephen had framed.  But AEI would never take it to market.  Indeed, soon they wouldn't take anything innovative to market ever again.  Eventually what remained of the failing appliance division would be taken over by Malleys, a competitor that was itself absorbed and absorbed again. The remnant of company was not finally wound-up until 2008.  The cancer of internal struggles for personal advancement by technical illiterates was complete.

Stephen's appliance development team was vindicated a decade later when Sunbeam successfully marketed their almost identical 'Vertical Grill' in the 1970's.  People still love the Sunbeam product 40 years later because it both toasts (bread or sandwiches) and grills meat on both sides at once with no cooking oil or fat.  They now sell for around $200 on eBay - no planned obsolescence there.

Throughout this whole period of his life, he followed his father's example and made and invented things at home.

Until we moved to a bigger house, the corner of our kitchen was a workshop with a solid worktop and a small vice.  The draw below contained small hand tools. The cupboard under it contained sheets of metals and various insulators, including asbestos and larger tools. Likewise, the cupboard above contained other materials and tools and on top were flasks of various chemicals, including plating solutions containing cyanide.  There were lots of containers of screws and rivets and small drill-bits and taps and dies.

It was conveniently adjacent to the electric oven for baking things like insulation and the sink for quenching something hot.  In the laundry we had a small cast iron gas cooker with a long burner and a smaller round one that were just right for heating soldering irons of different sizes. Even the bathroom was used to test fast revolving disks that might break-up. It was our closest room to a concrete bunker.

My mother was a keen and able cook and she could be making a meal or baking a cake in her part of the kitchen while Stephen was drilling of filing something in his.

At different times the sunroom or garage got taken over for projects or little home industries.  He made a number of patent applications and went on to patent several of these.  

When he was at Philips as a sales engineer, Stephen developed an infrared security system that reflected off mirrors on posts around our garden and could also be used to count traffic on Pennant Hills Road and several other such tasks.  Although they did not employ him in any development role whatsoever and the device was unlike anything they sold, Philips forced him to sell the rights to them and then shelved it. 

The Dutch-born head of Philips in Australia, Franciscus Nicolaas Leddy, was responsible. One day in the mid 1950's Leddy was shot, non-fatally, while leaving the company office in the City. My father had left by then but he was much amused by the large number of ex-colleagues whom the police investigating the shooting thought were suspects.  No one got caught.  Stephen claimed to have told them - I think it was his joke - that a shorter list would be of those who didn't want to see Leddy dead.  There's probably a Limerick in there somewhere:  'There was a sly Dutchman of Philips...'

On another occasion Stephen designed a prototype high frequency filter for a local radio company and then built a coil winding machine, using Meccano gears and a sewing machine motor.  He and my mother then made several hundred, or perhaps thousand, cute little IF transformers and other radio coils. They had white plastic bases about 2cm square with up to half a dozen pins pushed through, to which my mother soldered the wires and little white capacitors, in a production line.  The forma on which the coils were wound was made from a brown compound tube about 7mm ID.  Into this slid a ferrite tuning core on a brass screw shaft. An aluminium can over the top completed each neat little device. 

Another time he built a machine to be used by a factory somewhere to electrically seam/spot-weld little mesh cylinders, used as filters in agricultural sprays.  He and I, when I was aged about nine, went to our favourite haunt: Hare & Forbes (Hairy Forbes) in Parramatta, a war and industrial surplus barn that was like Aladdin's cave to me.  He chose a large transformer that we, I 'helped', stripped the core and outer windings from, replacing the secondary windings with long wide strips of copper sheet insulated with an intermediate layer of shellac treated craft paper (my job) to deliver just a few volts but a massive current.  The core was then reassembled and this became the heart of the welder. 

Years later when Peter and I were students and 'playing cars', I rebuilt a transformer almost the same way to match with newly available high current silicone diodes so that we could turnover a car engine without the need of a car battery.  It was brilliant for jump-starting.

On a later occasion I went with my father to 'Hairy Forbes' to gather components, mainly thumping big relays like those once used in lift motor rooms, for a test panel, to be used on a production line manufacturing home appliances. 

One of his projects was non-electrical and strictly low-tech.  We called it the Foofer.  It consisted of a solid yard long wooden rule set vertically in a wooden base.  A chrome plated bracket carrying a cylinder of powered French chalk could be set at any height along this.  Attached to this cylinder was a long rubber tube and a rubber squeeze bulb fitted with one-way valves.  So that when the bulb was squeezed a jet of French chalk was ejected horizontally.   In fashion shops and dressmaker's, woman would turn in front of this device and set at any desired height, it would mark an exactly horizontal hemline as their dress hung on them individually. 

He subcontracted out various components to other men in the neighbourhood and sold several hundred.  I continued to see them when my mother bought clothes years later.  I was bound to strict silence - once was enough.  No more exclaiming: 'Look, there's one of daddy's Foofers!'.

At different times we had plating baths for different metals in the garage, latterly for silver, together with a trichlorethylene (now trichloroethylene) vapour degreaser.

When people criticised my spelling, he would tell them that I could spell 'trichlorethylene' and 'carbon tetrachloride' both of which we had in big brown bottles on top of the kitchen cupboards. I could because they are among the few words spelt sensibly, not like: further, father, weather or indeed most words in English. These you just had to remember and when you couldn't you had to come up with a different way of writing it, hopefully in words that you could spell.

This was an endless handicap for me in school.  But at least it improved my vocabulary.  Stephen was sympathetic because he had had the same problem at school.  My frustrated mother just couldn't understand what my problem was. She had me tested - nothing wrong with the kid's IQ - he just can't spell.  In this I've had the last laugh.  Being able to spell correctly is now a redundant ability thanks to computers. Go suck Mr Perkis!

Stephen's various profitable projects paid for a holiday or a new (old, different) car, or something.  Many turned out to be break-even and were just for fun.

Initially, when a sales engineer, it must have been with Philips, Stephen drove a little Ford Prefect. It was post-war rubbish.  Bits frequently fell off it, including on one occasion on the way to Newcastle Australia, the carburettor, saved only by the fuel line.  But it was a company car and could fit in our garage. 

Then when he got the AGE job and needed to drive to Sefton at the end of 1951, he bought a large straight-eight 1937-38 pre-war Hudson. 

We thought it American but it had been assembled in Australia, due to the industry protection laws at the time, and did not have to be converted from right hand drive.  There was no possibility of it being housed in the garage, unless you wanted to climb out of a window. From then on, at 317 Pennant Hills Road, all our cars lived outdoors, two of them on the side lawn. The garage became, at different times, a storeroom and workshop.

Hudson 1951
The Hudson in 1951  - me, Peter, Vera
It's at Collaroy Beach in the winter - there's another photo that makes that clear


The Hudson needed a lot of work, including an engine overhaul and paint job, but eventually it ran smoothly, except when Stephen tried a new invention that injected water and partially opened the intake manifold when idling or running downhill to save fuel. Then it sounded like an 'ack-ack gun' and people ran out of or into their houses. 

This was the least successful of numerous additions he made to his two first cars in Australia, including a spark monitor, window demisters and a fuel consumption gauge, in addition to the more usual battery voltage and ammeter.  The Hudson was great on tar roads but hopeless on rutted unsealed country roads, like the one beyond Canberra to Cooma as we discovered one holiday when we were ignominiously overtaken and left in his dust by a Holden that had superior suspension, honed for the 1953 'Redex Trial' car rally around Australia.

One breeze that fluttered the curtains across my father's past was when his youngest sister Joan, no longer at Parsons but now a young Nurse, came to Sydney and stayed in our sunroom. For a period, it was renamed 'Aunty Joan's Room'.  But then she found other accommodation nearer the Hospital.  As I recall it was at Rose Bay.  There may have been a man involved.  I particularly remember her being dismissive of a popular song that asserted that: 'Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage'.  The versions I remember were by Frank Sinatra, who made it popular and Doris Day who, as it turned out, didn't believe it either.

After a couple of years, in the 1954, Aunty Joan returned to Newcastle in England.


Joan McKie Departing in1954 s
Aunty Joan departing Sydney forever in 1954 
The Sydney McKies +1 less Stephen - taking the photo
Sydney people may be struck by the 50's skyline before all the high-rise buildings
and look at all the rigging - on a steamship


In England she got married in 1962, and had a daughter, my cousin Jane (Peta Jane).  She was widowed shortly after and cut all references to her late husband from her life.  She didn't remarry and died in 2014 having cut the Australian siblings out of her life too. Apparently, this was over a perceived slight to Jane on a visit to Sydney with her boyfriend, Keith.  I remember Jane being perfectly pleasant and welcome at the time.


Cousin Jane Christmas 87
Cousin Jane - Christmas at Beecroft - Christmas 1987


They could certainly have stayed at my house in inner city Paddington.  A far more removed Danish cousin and her boyfriend did.  But apparently Jane's uncles and their wives were expected to provide superior accommodation out in the suburbs and didn't.  Brenda subsequently visited Joan in Newcastle and was very welcome.  The problem was with the older generation.

Early in my life I had some experience with assertive nurses.  In the early 1950's my father was in and out of the Repatriation Hospital at Concord in Sydney, from which he emerged after his penultimate operation with an 'iron' back brace, a heavy bar of spinally curved steel with a waist girdle and other straps, clad in brown leather.  It might not have been heavy on him but to a little boy of five or six it was an awesome and almost unmovable thing.  My father hated it and soon refused to wear it, saying that it would cause dependence.

Nevertheless, he did become dependent on a bewildering array of pills - and at one stage on Benzedrine inhalers that he bought by the dozen.  Both my parents also smoked imported un-filtered Kensitas cigarettes that were purchased on a regular order by the carton. They smoked heavily, a packet or more a day each, well into their sixties, when their first smoking related heart and peripheral vascular problems began.  Then they both gave up - cold turkey.



Kensitas - The butler on the packet has a tiny packet on his tray. 
My father told me that that packet has the same image on it; and so on; into infinity.
I loved that idea.



Stephen was fascinated by any new technology and materials, ceramic magnets, sintered bearings, polytetrafluoroethylene.

When the first transistors became available in England but not in Australia, he had my grandmother bring a bag of them in, together with a smuggled LP record of My Fair Lady, then unavailable in Australia due to licensing and copyright restrictions prior to the show being staged.  The transistors went into some experimental circuits and were quickly superseded. I still have the record.

Naturally we always had an excellent Hi-Fi setup.  In the 1950's this was still mono (single channel not stereo) with a 12-inch speaker in a giant folded tuned base enclosure cleverly concealed within a mobile cocktail cabinet that was made as a 'foreign order' in the factory Stephen was then managing.  There was obviously a cross-over to a midrange and tweeter.  The audio was based on the famous Mullard 5 valve 10-watt amplifier design and the radio tuner was Stephen's design. They were home assembled on a novel vertical chassis and the turntable disappeared or rose magically into a separate side console that sat next to his chair, while still playing.  He loved special effects records that could rattle the windows.  But mostly he played romantic classical music: Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Brahms, Rachmaninov and so on. 

It was before TV and we listened to radio most of the time.  Stephen and Vera also went to the cinema frequently usually on Saturday night and we would have a baby sitter.  This also influenced the records they bought.  When Drive-In theatres arrived, we would go as a family, our parents canoodling in the front seat, us annoying each other in the enormous back, eating fish and chips and drinking milkshakes.

After the Hudson we got a 1950 Packard, still second-hand but now maintained by the authorised agents Pendlebury in Parramatta.  It had come to Australia for Princess Elizabeth's aborted 1952 visit when her father died. It was a beautiful car that ran almost silently, like a Rolls Royce. 


1950 Packard
Ours was pale blue I have a photo somewhere - meanwhile this is a similar car



Stephen had the Packard for some years until the mid-1960's when they could afford to buy new cars.  Then he had a couple of Chrysler Valiant's followed by several V8 Holden Statesmans (men?). 

Stephen also had a strong interest in Astronomy. He transformed a disc of raw Pyrex into a high precision optical mirror which he built into a 6-inch Newtonian telescope - a huge grey tube ten feet long on a wheeled mount.  For quite a while it stood in the corner of our lounge-room. It was eventually made redundant by Sydney smog and street-lights.  Peter still has it on his farm in the country.  Stephen spent a lot of time photographing and painting the Moon, speculating on the dark side, long before the first Russian spacecraft or American space crew photographed it from behind.

He liked painting in oils.  He painted my mother, fully clothed and wearing make-up, for the Women's Weekly art competition, winning a minor prize: a large signed print of a painting of trees in a country setting with purple hills by the famous indigenous artist Albert Namatjira that remained in the Family Room over the stairs for many years. 


Vera portrait
Looking at this photo now I'm not sure how it won a prize
But it was huge - and size counts in an art prize competition



He also painted more realistic nudes that were hung at home - to the embarrassment of my cousins.  After the prize he had a local reputation as an artist and a few minor commissions.  He was also invited to judge at some local fêtes and so on. 

In Canada and then England he had been a keen photographer and between 1946 and 1948 when we left England maintained a photographic studio and fully equipped darkroom.  To supplement their income, they let a room to a friend and he made photographic portraits of numerous people. He also made some nude studies of my mother that stood on her dressing table throughout their marriage.  My mother destroyed them the week Stephen died. 

Around 1960 Stephen was asked if he could assist a couple of importers of domestic appliances that wanted to bring in products were potentially unsafe and needed to meet Australian standards.  He worked with the Japanese manufacturers to make inexpensive modifications and improvements much to their delight 'McKie San'.  He soon realised that it was earning more per hour than in his regular job.  So, in 1962 he left AEI to formally establish a consultancy: redesigning appliances and equipment to improve manufacturability and to meet Australian safety Standards and Specifications, particularly in the electric and electronic industries.  Vera was his first secretary and assistant until the business took hold.

He was soon nominated as an industry member on various relevant Standards Committees and took the work very seriously.  He said their task was not to protect the normal user, or even a fool, but to protect the dammed fools from themselves. 'Damn' was about as strong a word as he allowed himself.

Work showered in, not just from the Japanese but from Germany and Italy and the US.  Can you imagine a commercial dohnut maker, actually working with boiling fat, in the middle of your living room or a huge early microwave oven, with a giant electromagnet, instead of today's compact ceramic magnet and magnetron?

In the middle of this period, I turned 21 years old and Vera saw it as an opportunity to display a bit of their growing prosperity.  A reception place was booked and formal invitations printed. I had virtually nothing to do with it. It was not the sort of party that some of my university friends might have expected in the way of the 1960's - dark lights, loud music and people smashed out of their brains.  But it turned out to be good fun with everyone in formal clothes, being very mature and grown-up.


21st Birthday 
The McKie Family in 1966
Peter, Pamela, Stephen, Sheila, Richard, Vera, Joyce, Jim


Very soon we were able to have a showroom-new car and then a second. Not long after, we moved into a new, much larger, house at 19 Lyndon Way Beecroft, with three garages into which we could actually fit three of our four cars plus a couple of spare engines peter had accumulated. 


 Stephen and Vera-
I'll drink to that...


But for Peter and me this would not last long.  We were about to move out and begin our own, independent, lives. 

Stephen and Vera continued to build the business with international companies wanting to market their products in Australia. The Japanese were still prominent but I was able to get an Italian client's washing machine and dishwasher for my home at rock-bottom prices and another Italian client's first-rate sewing machine that I had to reassemble after testing, that I hope my daughter still has. Julia?

Soon after we moved to Beecroft Stephen met Hans Schmidt-Harms who engaged him for some domestic product development. The Schmidt-Harms family came to dinner and there was a certain tension along the lines of the famous Faulty Towers episode - Don't mention the War.  Hans had been a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe.  The tension was broken when they both refused the carrots.  It transpired that they had both declared that if they ever got out of this alive, they would never eat another carrot.  Great hilarity and relief.  They became firm friends.

Other dinner guests included a number of Japanese clients.  Some years earlier Vera had taken up Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, and regularly won prizes in competitions. To this she added Japanese food preparation.  We all brushed up our chopstick skills, Japanese chopsticks are much finer than the more usual ones they provide in Chinese restaurants.  We soon acquired a taste for raw fish, raw egg and wasabi, at least as an Entrée.  The Main was usually more Australian, we weren't trying to be Japanese.  Japanese are so innately polite that it was hard to tell if this acknowledgement of their culture was appreciated but we all gained new appreciations and skills.

Like many Engineers, Lawyers and other professionals of his day Stephen hadn't attended a university.  He was a professionally qualified engineer by virtue of his apprenticeship and a thesis on high voltage insulation and being accepted as a Senior Member of the Institution of Radio and Electronics Engineers, Australia (IREE), and a founder member of the Medical Electronics Society that the IREE subsequently absorbed. The IREE was subsequently absorbed, in turn, into the Institution of Engineers.



Return to Newcastle - and shattered illusions

In 1973, Brenda, my first wife, and I travelled around Europe and then went to England to find work and perhaps to settle in London.  It was close to family starting time.  We stayed with, and then visited, my mother's mother, Grandma, several times and saw my father's sisters Margaret and Joan and their girls Patricia and Jane, my cousins. But my father's parents and his step-father were already dead. 

We toyed with buying a house in England but that didn't work out so in the end we didn't start our family in England at all but in the United States.  Emily was born in New York.  From there we again visited England and again stayed with Grandma and saw my aunts and cousins. 


 Emily age one and Grandma
Brenda, Grandma (my mother's mother)
and Emily McKie - age 12 months


As I have mentioned I was able to visit CA Parsons but not Swan Hunter, it was already gone as a major shipbuilder.

Less than 20 years after Norman (Grandpa Welch) retired the company began closing its shipbuilding activities.  It remains as a ship designer to this day but no longer builds ships.

The first closures were in the 1980's.  Finally, the Wallsend Yard, a shadow of its former self, closed in 2006.

Now, CA Parsons has gone from Newcastle, along with all the other world class businesses that once jostled for position along the Tyne. 

When I visited the plant back in the 1970's CA Parsons was already in trouble.  Turbo-alternator sets were now so large that Parsons could no longer run them up to speed on site in Newcastle. They had neither sufficient steam nor a big enough dummy load to absorb full power.  They had to ship them to the customer and test on site. 

This was fine for tried-and-true designs but new and innovative designs, like million volt water cooled alternators, were likely to have bugs and customers were less than pleased to have several hundred million dollars of investment blow-up then take months to resolve.  In the worst scenario a blade might come loose, destroying part the turbine itself or an electrical fault could destroy the alternator.

It was like everything else.  Newcastle upon Tyne is just too small now.  The meeting room at the Lit & Phil will never launch the 'next latest marvel' again.  The world had moved on.  And so have the descendants of William and Margaret McKie.

And as Byron remarked 'not a pinch of dust remains' of all those mighty achievements; all those efforts; all that sweat; all those lives.

In the spring of 1982, my Grandma died too.  My parents made their one and only trip 'home' to England. It was a devastating experience.  This was not the Newcastle they remembered.  Things were smaller, and more decrepit.  My mother had never seen the house her parents lived in.  They moved there long after we left England and the home, they once had over the plumbing business, was smaller than she remembered and now run-down. 

I thought Grandma's house was quite nice.  It's in a good area and amply big for a couple whoes family have moved on, or for a single person.  It's a neat semi, with a small pleasant back garden, just one room smaller than the one Wendy and I live in now.  But to Vera and Stephen, used to a fully air-conditioned house four times the size with modern plumbing and three modern toilets this was living rough.  Grandma boiled the kettle to wash the dishes.  She didn't even have a refrigerator let alone a freezer. She shopped regularly and had a cool pantry and didn't need one.

Stephen's early homes were not much bigger.  His gilded memories, polished over thirty-five years of absence, were shattered and Vera, quite unfairly and to no purpose, fought with her cousin, Orick, over the nick-knacks and trivialities of her mother's estate, completely ignoring the fact that he and his wife Doris had been there for 'Aunty Minnie', for many years, when she had not. Maybe it was a bad conscience?

They returned to Australia vowing never to go back again.

But I've been back. I quite like the place and after my initial surprise back in 1973 I've never had an inflated view, it's just as I expect.

Newcastle remains a nice place to visit, particularly when the sun is out and the trees are green.  But it's hard to imagine, when wandering past the depressingly unoriginal shops at Eldon Square, filled with second-rate goods on their second-last stop on the way to the tip; or the wrapper and newspaper littered bus station; that this town once led the world in so many ways.  Even Fenwicks seems transmogrified - or maybe it's just me.

I pined for the old Pumphrey's coffee house of my grandpa's era with its copper topped tables, cross-stitched samplers and black-dressed-white-aproned waitresses that was still there during my first visits.  Just the place to drop in for tea and a gentile 'repast' on a grey Newcastle winter's day:


Pumphrey's Pumphrey's



Pumphrey's Coffee House - February 1975


I'd enthused about it to Wendy as a place for afternoon tea.  But alas the name was now being used for an undernourished facsimile of an American style coffee franchise - not a scone in sight.

I've concluded that Newcastle, the town of my birth and two centuries of ancestors, on my mother's side as well as my father's, was once confident enough to have a style of its own and thumb its nose at the rest of the country.  But now it just wants to be... like everywhere else.

Their imaginary Novocastrian identity was not the only thing that came crashing down for my parents.

Soon after their return from England one of Stephen's most lucrative patents was infringed by an upstart emergency lighting company. 

And here we circle right back to the electric lights.  The patent was for a non-inductive electronic ballast, replacing the component in conventional fluorescent lighting that creates the most losses.  This low-energy fluorescent lighting system was protected by Stephen's patent for: A method for determining the values of components for a control circuit for a gas discharge lamp (EP 0011508 A1).

Unlike Edison or Swan he refused to compromise with the infringers who had made him and insulting offer in compensation for their theft of his circuit design. 

If this was a Greek Tragedy, we would look for the fatal flaws that led to his downfall.  And, sure enough, we would discover hubris among them.

This matter exposed all Stephen's fatal flaws.  Although he was contradicted repeatedly, he thought that everyone agreed that 'a man is only as good as his word' and once one had shaken hands on a deal it was cast in stone.  He had unreasonable confidence in his own beliefs, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. He had (from my point of view) ridiculous faith in the law and particularly in certain professionals, like judges and senior public servants.  He was superstitious, believing, for example, that 'good will prevail', for no rational reason and contrary to everyday experience, and he believed in omens and prophetic dreams.  In addition to these he had the usual frailties like a vengeful streak; and a greedy streak.  But in this case his greatest fatal flaw of all was pride.

After an initial explosive exchange in which they called his bluff, he concluded the infringers were people without honour.  He had his pride and the law on his side. So instead of negotiating a smaller than he wanted royalty he called in the lawyers.

The lawyers, deliberately or inadvertently, gave him to understand that the infringement was worth millions in compensation. They had drafted the claims but failed to stress that a circuit diagram is almost impossible to patent.  That's why the patent attempts to circumscribe the component values necessary for the thing to work.  Thus, began a decade long struggle through the courts.  Royalty revenues from other users were held in escrow and the Scandinavian manufacture took fright and ceased production.  But in any case, the circuit was soon to be superseded by other low energy fluorescent lamps and then by LED lighting.

In our own professional lives and for different reasons Peter and I had had dealings with the infringing company and doubted that they could actually come up with millions should they loose. But now Stephen would listen to no one, except his lawyers who were his major and growing creditor. He pointed out that the other side had a big building and a government contract. We countered that one was rented and the other temporary.

I had the temerity to suggest his best cause was to accept the infringer's offer, as the patent, for what was essentially a circuit design, might be difficult to defend.  Peter had similar doubts. We were ignored but our mother was listening and getting increasingly concerned as the case wore on.

The matter was beginning to consume Stephen's life and his increasing health problems were making their big house with its stairs unmanageable.  In 1989 Vera persuaded him to retire to a 'retirement resort': 'CastleRidge' and offered her small inheritance to provide the required capital.  He had remortgaged the house to fight the patent battle and insisted he now needed the residual.  Fortunately, this was one battle that she won. They moved and soon they became pensioners. 


Luckily, they had two pensions - he was a returned serviceman with growing incapacity.

Vera quickly became involved in the life and politics of CastleRidge and beyond to the State Committee assisting the re-drafting of the legislation.  



Stephen and Vera- 1990s
Stephen in Retirement - Vera politically active


For a time, Stephen took and interest too, fighting the 'battle of the emergency-button battery-back-up' with another resident (the fool) and had a new lease of life.   Then after further spinal surgery in 1991 he began using a wheelchair. 

Meanwhile the patent dispute festered.  Year by year Stephen fought on until at last he, and his accountant who was a partner in the lighting business had nothing left.  The lawyers moved against them for unpaid fees. They were ruined. 

Shortly afterwards the infringers successfully had a key claim disallowed and any deferred royally payments were lost also. After this ignominious defeat depression set in and his driving became erratic.  After several incidents when he was the target of road rage because of his habit of wildly and dangerously cutting around in traffic, Vera and his doctor conspired to have his licence revoked. 

The 81-year-old fighter pilot was grounded.  So he took to an electric wheelchair for a year or so, then he was completely bedridden.  Vera, by then getting frail herself could no longer cope, so he went into full-care accommodation.  Within weeks, in what was excellent hotel-style accommodation, he was morbidly depressed. 

I was visiting one morning when he mumbled: "doctor's coming today and its sckkk", drawing a finger across his throat.  It was the last conversation we had. 

James Domville McKie, Stephen's brother, had preceded him by a year.

My mother was five years younger than he.  Six years later, she too, elected to stop eating and passed away peacefully in hospital.  We had some nice long conversations, when she told me some of the things I've written here, but the last thing she said to me was an angry: 'Don't wake me up!'  I never did again.


My Inheritance

It will by now be obvious that I have not received a large financial inheritance.  This is good as it has saved me from having to put my money where my mouth is. 

I have long argued to anyone who would listen that financial inheritance is the enemy of the egalitarian ideal.  Narrowing the gap between rich and poor is not just some high ideal, it is essential for a modern consumer economy to reach its optimum performance and give work to those who want it.

I don't favour punitive taxes on the successful because I can see merit in rewarding endeavour.  But can't see any social benefit in subsequently rewarding people in the next generation with the benefits of rewards allowed to their forebears. There's no incentive in financial inheritance, except perhaps, to murder.  If anything, windfall wealth is likely to be a brake on individual striving. Worse, inheritance can be cumulative, creating dynasties.

We need an inheritance tax to pay for universal education and health so that every child gets a fair start in life together with a universal value added tax rather than a hodgepodge of avoidable income and company taxes. 

But the inheritance of ideas; values; knowledge; and expectation is another matter.

Unless a child is expected to succeed, to overcome rather than succumb, they will have great difficulty in life.  Unless they learn that human knowledge is ever expanding, one grain on top of another, there is a risk that they will think that everything is already known.  Unless they know that all ideas are just human ideas and they are human and with application can possess any of them too, there is a risk that they will think that only geniuses can program a computer or understand Einstein or speak another language. 

Both my father and uncle became electrical engineers like their father and their uncle.  Both moved their families to Australia.  Margaret and Joan stayed and or went home to Newcastle upon Tyne where they each married and each had one daughter and each were soon widowed.  Jim also had girls ending the McKie name in that strand of the family - but not the genes or memes.  I also had girls and thought that my brother Peter's son Daniel would be the only one to carry the name forward.  But by a twist of fate my grandson is Leander McKie.

Stephen McKie's sons were encouraged to use tools and their brains as he had been by his father.  It wasn't so we could become inventors or mechanics or even engineers.  It was so we could experience the satisfaction of making things; of understanding how things work; and discovering something new. The joy of creation.

That was why, one very early Christmas, Santa Clause left a tent in the room with the tree and in it was a big black wooden tool box with RSM written on the top and real tools inside - not plastic toys.  Anyway, we didn't have much plastic then, except Bakelite.

I had those tools well into adulthood.  The Tool Box eventually became our combined Meccano box when Peter and I had stopped fighting over such things.

One thing I made with those tools was a put-put boat. Stephen made the first one to show me the principle.  You cut both ends off a can then cut the cylinder down the side seam to flatten out a bit of tinplate and you fashion it into a boat - I won't bore you with how to cut the metal.  Then you put a big copper soldering iron on the gas and with a brush paint the joints you will be soldering with Baker's Fluid (flux).  When the boat is soldered and tested for leaks you fit the engine - six inches of 1/8 inch OD soft copper tube...  That's all I'll tell you or it'll get boring.  The main point is that at a very early age both Peter and I were encouraged make such things out of sharp metal using adult tools like tinsnips, soldering irons and a hand brace and to burn methylated spirits to run them.

Another year Santa left an electric train set on wide gauge rails.  It stopped and started when the signal lights changed, thanks to a relay, signal lights and a switch that Santa had installed to automate it.  The train was the victor in the 'great train crash of 1954' with Colin Spencer's wind-up one and then with Peter's.  Somehow, they got on the same track going in the opposite direction.

In due course the broken trains got relegated to a box somewhere and then the tip.  But the train had a variable-voltage transformer that lasted for years, it ran my Meccano motor and figured in lots of experiments, for example with my electro-magnet.

Daddy had bought me a spiral notebook like one for shorthand in which he would make wonderful sketches or simplified engineering drawings explaining how things worked and the basic laws I needed to understand radio components sufficiently well to build circuits or understand lenses or any other subject I wanted to know about or he thought I might find interesting.  And we had a well-thumbed 'Machinery's Handbook'.

Later at university I realised that a lot of what I had learned was 'rule of thumb' and lacked academic rigour.  But the thing was, it worked.  And the simple version was perfect for a little boy who just wanted to wind a coil or build a radio or to electrocute his teacher (a tale told elsewhere).

Around the time Aunty Joan was in Australia so I was eight or nine 'Santa' gave me 'My Amplifier'.   This was a box maybe eighteen inches wide and high and nine inches deep (500x500x250 in today's length).  Made out of pale wood and 3 ply and nicely clear lacquered to a golden colour.  Behind a grill at the top right was mounted a loud speaker and below to a volume knob that was also the off switch.  Down the left-hand side was a long strip of spring loaded plastic terminals, of the kind that you can in clip a wire into.  The bottom pair were black and provided 6.3 V AC for valve heaters. Above them was a green earth terminal and then a yellow audio input.  The red terminals above provided a range of potentially dangerous DC voltages (a fortuitous pun) to drive one or more valves.  It had no back, or maybe I took it off, so I could watch the heaters in valves that drove it glow red, if the 'pop' the loudspeaker gave was not enough.  As my small hand approached the yellow terminal a slight hum got louder and louder.

On that Christmas day I plugged in my crystal set and instantly had my own radio.

Cars were another thing we needed to know about.  When he was twelve my father was told that if he learned to service his stepfather's car, he could drive it. 

Long before I was old enough to drive my father asked me to stop an oil leak by removing the tappet covers from our car and replacing the gaskets.  Disappointingly, there was no promise that I might drive that car and I never did.  The job was simple: just unbolt the tappet covers from the side of the car's straight-eight side-valve engine block; clean the pressed steel covers in kerosene; cut-out new cork gaskets; gasket-glue them in place and re-bolt them.  A child could and did do it.

I received high praise from one and all, several adults being invited to look into the engine compartment, to view my handiwork, with appropriate oohs and ahs of approbation while privately thinking: 'at least the stupid kid I might make a motor mechanic'. 

When I was around ten or eleven, with more encouragement from my father, I began repairing old radios.

I have an early Marconi radio valve in which one can clearly see a series of grids between the cathode (the white bar at the centre) and anode (the outer metal drum-like component). There are three fine wire screens or grids each created by a spiral of wire supported on two vertical bars rising from the glass base (as in a light bulb). The outer suppressor grid is just inside the anode, followed by the screen grid and finally the control grid, close to the cathode. The little knob on the side is for connecting to the screen grid so the valve could directly plug-replace an earlier triode.  New screen circuitry would be added by a radio technician and connected to this side terminal.

Pentodes and even more complex multi-grid valves became the workhorses of the electronics industry and were the active component in amplifiers and radios, and then TV, for the next 50 years.  Some audiophiles still love them.

This one came from a very old radio that was beyond repair that I bought for parts with pocket money. The other valves had blown or been broken.  It is very early and has a 4.0 volt heater (filament) so it was incompatible in circuits with later valves that soon standardised on 6.3V heaters, but it was beautiful and I've kept it ever since.



Marconi MTP4 Pentode-s

Marconi MTP4 Pentode-data1932
G Marconi data sheet from 1932
It's part of a new valve series specially for AC Mains (alternating current supply)
Note the modern data presentation style - this is ground-breaking technology
A cost of 25/- in 1932 is equivalent to $111 each at today's values
(Australian Reserve Bank Inflation Calculator)
Relatively, a whole radio receiver cost about the same as a wide-screen television receiver today



You may have noticed that the operating anode voltage is 250 volts. The supply rail voltage in later sets was often as high as 330V. My transceiver, mentioned elsewhere ran at 500V.  And of course, TV voltages were very high.  Repairing these radios as a boy required working at these potentially lethal voltages.

After taking the chassis it out of its case and an inspection for things obviously burnt broken or loose, my next fault-finding step was to turn it on to see if all the heaters were on and check that no grids or anodes were getting red hot.  I got very good at it.  I diagnosed the fault in a friend's mom's radio and to her consternation had it working again in minutes - a brief moment of fame.  I've lost count of how many old radios and TVs in cheap hotel rooms I've temporally got going with a scrap of wire, foil or insulating tape.

Since being introduced to radios at a young age I've never paid much attention to warnings about opening an appliance.  I've a healthy respect for the danger but can perfectly well identify the dangerous areas and treat them accordingly.

On paper it looks like a miracle that Peter and I were not injured in some way. There were a lot of dangerous things around.  But the thing was, we knew they were very dangerous so we were extra cautious. 

We grew up with cautionary tales.  Like the one when a fellow at CA Parsons research attempted to make some nitro-glycerine but unsure if he had succeeded dropped his test-tube-full out of the second storey window.  He blew-out all the downstairs windows and terminated his employment.  We were invited to consider what he should have done instead, like putting a drop on an anvil and remotely dropping a suspended weight on it.  It was assumed that at some point we might face this dilemma.   

So, we never attempted to set-off suspected explosives, or a home-made rocket, without a long wick or wire around the corner of the house. On more than one occasion this turned out to be very good practice.  Similar stories related to poisons (most of the chemicals in the house) and potential carcinogens (like any chemical with a benzene ring), high voltages, unstable loads and structures and shonky car supports (jacks, stands and so on).

I was recently telling someone of the cautionary experiment when Stephen put a little ether on a saucer on our kitchen floor to show it spontaneously catch fire - careful the flames are hard to see.  This was because we had a gas refrigerator in our kitchen then.  As soon as the vapour from the saucer rose high enough, the gas pilot light caused the fame to flash back to the saucer.  To this day I consider nearby flames when using solvents and was amused years later when a friend's petrol-soaked overalls blew-up his parent's laundry.

As a result, we were generally more cautious than most when it came to these things.

And so one generation sets the scene for the next. But there are some traditions that do get broken.

Looking back over this partial list, I wonder why I've not followed directly in my father's footsteps.  Sure, I've always wanted to know how things work and have enjoyed making my version of some of them.  After all they are made by other human beings and must be comprehensible, even, as Pooh would say: 'to a bear of very little brain'. 

But my brother Peter has been more like our father and perhaps his grandfather.  He's always designed and built and invented. 

Peter has half a dozen patents in the US and has successfully defended at least one patent there, where there is a much more rigorous examination process but then the onus is on the infringer to prove their innocence. It probably helps that someone called Steven Spielberg is cited as co-inventor on several to do with the film industry - for example have a look at: Dolly track switch (US D401951 S)

I too have had a couple of tilts at a patent. The last was over two decades ago. I made the application then I thought better of it.  The potential cost was high and the lousy Australian protection, with the onus on the patent holder to prove validity, means that they are effectively indefensible if infringed by someone with deeper pockets.  It was for an intelligent learning system using bar-coded multiple choice booklets (WO1993017407 A1).  The hardware is a smart bar-code reader designed by Leon Dearden.  I designed the rest, including the functional design and the firmware specification, the barcodes, their encryption and the coding protocols.   Like all patents there was a brief window of opportunity that has closed now.

I've probably been closer to emulating my Uncle Jim. Mind you, I did once see him down a manhole in a Sydney street examining a cable joint and I briefly thought that he worked on the cable joints himself. 

Apart from a brief time at the British Iron and Steel Research Association and British Steel laboratories at Battersea in London or as a cadet in BHP steelworks then visiting customers, I've generally had a desk job.  Like Jim I had daughters who, I think, are not as easy to enthuse about physics and related engineering as the boys in our family seem to have been. 


Me  - almost two - learning about currents and voltage


I was encouraged to think about electricity from a very early age.

The photograph of me playing with water was taken when I was two years old in Newcastle upon Tyne in England, in the summer of 1947 before we came to Australia. 

I don't know when the flow of electricity was first likened to water but when I was not much older, we had a wonderful demonstration of water-power in our laundry in Thornleigh on the, then semi-rural, outskirts of Sydney.  

The clothes were first washed in hot soapy water in a gas heated 'Copper' then transferred to the 'spinner' before the first rinse in the large double laundry tubs.  They were then spun again before the second rinse; and again, before being hung out.

Beneath the spinning drum was a water turbine.  Thus, the spinner worked entirely from water pressure (and flow).  No electricity was involved.  The water used for spinning the drum was then saved in the tubs for rinsing - but it wasn't a huge amount.    Here was a demonstration both of how water from a dam could spin an alternator and simultaneously of pressure and flow - voltage and current.

Later we got a washing machine, with an electric motor driven wringer. But my mother still liked the 'spinner' for delicate things.

When we moved from that house, we got an automatic machine but we all missed the 'Copper'.  My mother thought there was no substitute for actually boiling the sheets and nightclothes if there was a childish infection in the house. It was also great for all sorts of boyhood experiments; as well as for dying fabrics; cooking hams and Christmas puddings and sterilising bottles for jam.  The high-volume gas outlet was great for filling big balloons; with the aid of the garden hose and a pump.

Thanks to Stephen, and things like this, I understood water power perfectly well; as an analogy for electricity, certainly well before the age of seven.  

I knew the pressure was due to the height of the water in the local header reservoir (relative to the height of our tap); in turn due to the energy supplied by the pumping station.  

The main pumping station was coal-fired and a local point of interest as we drove past. It was on Victoria Road near West Ryde Station.  Today water (and sewerage) is pumped using electric motors.

Family outings, with my uncle's family, or with the Spencer's next door, were often to the various dams around Sydney.  My uncle was an expert in high voltage gas-filled cables.  John Spencer was an engineer with Sydney Tramways.

Conversations ran to dams and bridges and high voltage transmission and generation as well as the stupidity, born of ignorance, of several other professions.

By the age of nine I had graduated past crystal sets and the addition of a simple triode amplifier and was on the way to repairing and modifying five and six-valve superheterodyne (superhet) radios.  

These had only around two dozen important components to be checked with a multimeter (my most prized possession); and usually the fault was immediately obvious. But because there is a local oscillator and at least two intermediate frequency (IF) filters they could easily get out of alignment; and fixing this could take me many happy hours to get just right. 

There was also the matter of the high tension 'rail' that typically ran at between 200 and 400 volts, DC; delivering a very nasty shock. Retribution for a silly mistake also took the form of sparks, smoke, or red-hot anodes. 

A little while later, when in high school, I ran my bedside light in series with a large oil filled non-polar capacitor that I had picked-up in a disposals store for a few shillings.  As current builds before voltage this had a negative phase angle of close to 90o and thus failed to register more than a few watts on the electricity meter.  It was dimmed but hundred-watt bulb still gave more than 30 watts of free light; not that I paid the bill. I did it just because I could.  Another valuable lesson about electricity.  But I suspect that it's not legal.

At University I initially enrolled in Electrical Engineering but the challenge of advanced mathematics, combined with a new and exciting social environment following my release from an all-boys school, soon caused me to opt for Philosophy (for wisdom) and Economics (for economics - a future job) instead.  So, I graduated in Arts with contributions from some unusual engineering and science units.  But technical things still occupied me.  I built my own sound systems and to those tinkering I soon added computers.

After jobs in Government and the Steel industry in Australia Brenda and I moved to London where I got a job as a Research Officer at the British Iron and Steel Research Association (BISRA) in the Battersea research laboratories.  Industrial action by coal miners and the first oil crisis, resulting in a three-day-week in the UK to conserve electricity, were still fresh in our minds.  So, energy was an urgent subject for analysis - resulting in a forward looking report examining energy futures for the steel industry. 

Returning to Sydney several years later my new employer, the State Government, was putting together a 'NSW Economy Study Group'. I was seconded to write the Iron and Steel report.  The group, that included some of the most prominent names in future government, looked at everything from transport to land use and of course, electricity.  After months of work a foot-and-a-half thick pile of reports was proudly presented to then Premier Neville Wran.  He took one look at the far-reaching recommendations and ordered the entire thing to be shredded.  The Study Group was quietly dispersed.

I was off to the State's office in New York as Industrial Adviser, talking to US and Canadian firms to encourage them to consider investment in NSW industry.

Soon I would become a father and everything would be richer. The following forty or so years are far too rich and complex to report here. Suffice it to say that my career has been largely chosen to satisfy my particular interests and has always retained a technical and increasingly a computing element. 

By the time my children were old enough for their first crystal set the world had moved on and they had a much more reliable and simpler germanium diode to replace the cat's whisker.  But it was hard to get the commitment required to string up aerials and make a good earth, when they'd grown up with radio on demand; their own VHS tapes; and colour TV.

Emily had early video games and a very primitive computer that used an audio tape to load and save programs and data.  At one stage a similar computer drove an early robot arm.


 Programming robot
From the DIDD Staff Newsletter  - July 1985 - a different robot is pictured on the right
The small demonstration robot fascinated the general public
All it did was sit in the window and move blocks around from one pile to another all day
But it had a shielding flaw - sometimes when a cab pulled up outside and used the radio the robot got epilepsy
Blocks could go flying - then a human had to put the blocks back in their starting places and reset it


The demonstration robot came as a kit - in a hundred or so pieces. After delegating its assembly to an engineer on my team with no result except some broken components, I took it home and built it myself.  Repairing the damage then devising an amusing sequence of block piles and swaps for a continuous program loop, repeating every ten minutes or so, kept me amused for quite a few evenings.  Emily loved it too.

Julia grew up with quite sophisticated computers and the older children playing computer games.  She could boot up and open the games she liked not long after she could talk.  The supervisors at after-school-care, when she was in kindergarten, relied on her to boot-up the machine.  She liked to optimise virtual racing cars, and later, populate her own zoo before moving on to Sim City then The Sims, controlling the lives of computer-generated people. 

Nevertheless, they both, somewhat reluctantly, helped make a crystal set and used them long enough to confirm that they worked.  They both had electronics kits as well and learnt to solder.  Julia, also somewhat reluctantly, inserted components and did most of the soldering for a kit robot that used light sensors and simple electronic switches on a microchip, emulating neurons, to follow a trail of black tape stuck to the floor.

Later Julia and I built her first computer by replacing the mother board and CPU in an old case; adding a used hard drive; a video card and so on, before configuring the whole thing.  She then maintained it until she got a better offer.

I never expected them to have to afford a good HiFi system by building it themselves, as my father and I both did.  I fear that the whole field of radio and TV as a hobby has gone the way of the dodo. I don't even repair things with an obvious fault now because it will very likely cost more than a new one.  I've even thrown away a printer rather than buy new ink for it. The new one cost less.

But my children and step-children know their way around contemporary technology, particularly their phones that seem to be repaired and patched up regularly.  An inventive streak has been passed on.

So, we come to the nature or nurture debate.  Perhaps engineering aptitude something on that McKie Y chromosome.  For example, Peter's son Daniel McKie is also an industrial designer and manufacturing manager, despite being separated from his father during much of his upbringing.

If it is a Y chromosome thing it doesn't account for the girls' technical aptitude.  Likewise, my father's sister Joan originally worked in the office at CA Parsons before becoming a nurse during the War and my cousin Pamela, Jim's daughter, became a radiographer.

My daughter Emily is now an Engineer and Julia has graduated in Medical Science but is not quite sure what to do with it.  At the time of writing, she is about to undertake post-graduate studies in computer science.  Her half-brother Lachlan, with no genetic link to me, has a PhD in Marine Science but I might claim some influence as far as High School.

As Julia would no doubt tell me there is a lot to our genetic inheritance beyond the Y chromosome.  It carries a mere handful of our genes. And as we all know; family resemblance goes well beyond the sex of a child.

It's possible that my father was mildly dyslexic. My father, my brother and I all had great difficulty learning to spell.  On the other hand, we had little or no difficulty with grammar, comprehension or vocabulary - just don't ask us to spell it.  I can handwrite, equally poorly, almost as fast backwards (mirror writing) with my left as forwards with my right - it's a party trick.

In compensation for poor spelling, at least the last two generations of McKie males were born with excellent mechanical comprehension and spatial perception.  We have all conceived of and build entirely novel devices and novel solutions to a range of practical problems.  I would go so far as to say that my father was, and my brother is, exceptional in this area.

Likewise, Jim, Stephen's brother was inventive and is cited in at least one patent, for a cable connector, as a co-inventor.  He was naturally left handed but, like me, he could use right handed tools, like scissors, with dexterity and most other tools in either hand. I don't know if he could do my mirror-writing party trick.

I once thought that everyone could do this, I have a hand preference for most tasks but I just change hands if that one gets tired or if you want to do the other side, like when drawing a picture, cleaning your teeth or shaving.  I have since discovered that some people can't even use a screwdriver or a spanner or turn a tap with the other hand.  That inability could be environmental but, like left-handedness, it's probably genetic.

So, to what degree are my ideas inherited from my father and in turn handed on to those I helped to bring up?   After summarising his technical and artistic accomplishments my mother said of him in her eulogy to him:

All of this was shared with Richard and Peter as they grew up, together with his broad philosophy of life, love of animals, music and art and huge enjoyment of debate on almost any subject. It was said of the McKies that what in other families would be a knock- down argument was to them a friendly discussion!!

As I have said elsewhere my mother was also a great influence. She too was always very handy. The daughter of a plumber.  As I said in my eulogy to her:

She could cook and sew very well and we once timed her knitting and found that she was faster than the Australian champion (as published). She had a special technique, learned on the ship returning from Canada. At first, she knitted, crocheted and sewed out of necessity, later she added needle point and did it out of love.

She was always an avid reader, getting through a book every few days, and I have an image of her on the couch feet curled under her reading and occasionally letting out a laugh. My father would say ‘someone’s just fallen off a cliff’. He claimed she only laughed at disasters. But in fact, she had a fine sense of humour, even if the joke was a little off colour. I would never dare tell my father the sort of joke that I would tell my mother. She had read Miller; and Lawrence; and Roth. She was difficult to shock.

She was always interested in music and drama. She acted in amateur productions and subscribed to seats either for the orchestra or ballet for most of her life, introducing both my daughters to plays and ballet at an early age.

She claimed that her beloved father was her greatest influence but then, why was she so like her mother? 

Similarly, my father said his step-father was a great influence, yet he followed in his natural-father's footsteps.  He was seven when his father died.  As the Jesuit motto says: 'Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man' (attributed to Francis Xavier).

Elsewhere I have said that the family religion is most often handed down by one's mother.  My mother, like most mothers, was the font of religion in the family and so we were initially High Church Anglican.  But she fell out with the local Low Church minister, stopped going to Church and then fell out with religion altogether.   She read too much and had seen too much during the War to be an avid believer in an all-loving God. My epiphany, when I realised all religion was just man-made myths, was hers too.

My father wasn't a regular churchgoer and seemed not to know what to do in Church, he mumbled hymns and always wanted to avoid giving offence.  He would tell us that he believed that death is final - there is nothing after - everything goes black.  But he would add that no one can really know and you should have whatever religion suits you best.  His brother Jim, a vocal unbeliever, had somehow become one of my Godfathers. The other was killed in heroic circumstances.  At my confirmation he gave me a Bible that I still have and have since used as a reference on numerous occasions. It's inscribed 'To Richard from Uncle Jim 5th October 1961'. Their sister Margaret married a clergyman and I think Joan may have gone to church in Australia, but Jane might correct me.


Appendix - A commentary on the past

The past is done and dusted.  There's nothing we can do to change it, and so we are obliged to embrace it as the means by which we got to here, the present. 

So why bother about the past at all? 

My family, for as many generations as I can trace, came from Northern England and before that Scotland with an Irish admixture, and possibly, one line from France in 1066.

I've tried to make this more than a simple tale of men begetting sons as in the first book of  The New Testament that begins with the lines:


The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren... and so on until... Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon... and so on until... And after they were brought to Babylon:
Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel; And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor; And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud; And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob;  And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Matthew Chapter 1
I've skipped a dozen or so begats - there are 42 in total - you can always look it up in full


Yet that's an all-time best-seller.  So, to begin about begetting must be de rigueur and infinitely better than: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

I take my hat off to the author of Matthew.  I had trouble going back further than six generations, let alone his 43 back to Abraham.  

The author of Luke's Gospel came up with an entirely different genealogy for Jesus (Luke 3:23), this one via Nathan rather than Solomon, taking an extra seventeen generations back to King David to account for the actual historical time difference of around a millennium. He also went all the way back to Adam - 75 generations, around two thousand years, providing theologians with a date for the Biblical creation. 

Despite all this genealogical research, soon their sub-editors would remove the issue altogether (excuse the pun) by changing the paternity of Jesus entirely. 

In creating these family genealogies these primitive ancients were labouring under a misunderstanding. They thought they had but a dozen ancestors in six generations - consisting of their father's paternal line plus the women who provided a fertile womb for each man's seed. Bearing and nurturing the man's child was the limit of the woman's involvement.  This was an idea that persisted until the Enlightenment and still pervades some legal systems.

The scientific view is that mothers provide half of our nuclear DNA and more genetic material than do fathers to their offspring, due to providing cell structure and the contained mitochondria.  The post-enlightenment view, that I hope is obvious to everyone, is that our ancestors include both our parents, then all four grandparents, then eight great-grandparents, then sixteen, and so on. 

So, following just one paternal line (Harry begat Sam), does not reflect our true ancestry.  The sixth ancestral cohort consisted of 64 individuals who contributed equally to our genes, assuming no overlaps due to cousins marrying. In that time we accumulated 126 ancestors each of whom contributed to our existence and to our extended family. 

Good news!  When we correct for their misunderstanding of biology Matthew and Luke are not in conflict after all.  Thank goodness for that, the Word of God is not contradictory after all, at least on this one occasion.  It just seems to be. And a little confused about biology.

This is because continuing the mathematical series by twos (64, 128, 256, 512, 1,024, 2,048, 4,096,  8,192, 16,384... and so on)  yields over 17 trillion ancestral lines after Luke's 44 generations.  As the entire population of the planet was only about 500 million for most of human existence there was obviously a lot of overlap in these lines, due to distant and not so distant cousins inbreeding.  

Six generations ago one line of my ancestry originated among a few thousand people living in small villages and farms in south west Scotland.  There were around a thousand people with my name and a lot of distant cousins marrying into each other's families. So by the time I go back ten generations a large number of my ancestral lines will lead to the same person. 

This is most obvious when scrupulous records have been kept for a couple of dozen generations, as in the case of European royalty where for generations cousins have been the only acceptable marriage choices. 

For example, we know that Prince Phillip and Queen Elizabeth are cousins, both descended from both Christian IX of Denmark and from Queen Victoria.  So if Charles traces his genealogy back from either parent he quickly gets to the same pair of ancestors twice over (Victoria & Albert and Christian IX & Louise of Hesse-Kassel).  In turn these husbands and wives of the monarchs are related to their spouse a generation or two earlier so many areas of Charles' tree overlap and entangle like a patch of brambles.  This is obvious when we consider that there was nothing like a million European aristocrats in the time of Elizabeth I, and just a few thousand produced reproducing descendants. So, unlike a more common person, Charles is related to each his more fecund Elizabethan ancestors many hundreds of times.  As their lines die out the in-breeding becomes more intense.  He talks to plants.

Likewise, Charles and Diana were seventh cousins once removed.  But they were also related to each other more distantly, through far too many different lines and shared ancestors to enumerate here.  Had the Palace been looking for another relative for him to marry, beyond the Spencer girls, a quick genetic test would have revealed that thousands of apparently common girls in England, Germany, France, Sweden, Greece, Russia and so on are also distant cousins due to his ancestors exercising their 'droit du seigneur' over the village virgins and their propensity to keep mistresses.

A small village or town or farming community was just like the aristocracy: cousins married cousins.  Every now and then people left and formed affiliations elsewhere.  Sometimes an entire town was dispersed by war or other catastrophe or simply evaporated when their original reason for being faded.  This is commonplace in less populated areas as in the past. Hundreds of towns have disappeared within just a couple of centuries in Australia, much to the distress of those who cling to a single locality. 

In a similar way aristocratic families disappear, sometimes dramatically, as was the case of the Holstein-Gottorp-Romanovs of Russia, like all European royals, close cousins to Charles. 

Even today the occasional aristocratic European woman or man flouts their marriage vows with a commoner or two; or marries a commoner; or an Australian.  In these cases there is a mixing, like paint smeared together on an artist's pallet.  If the artist keeps mixing eventually all the colours will have a little bit of each other until eventually there is only one colour. 

In ten generations the mixing will be moderate, by thirty generations it will be substantial, constrained somewhat by language and national divides.  But in a thousand years we have around two trillion theoretical ancestral lines, many of them bundled through the same person.  That's why it's reliably said that every single European is related in some degree to the Emperor Charlemagne, the King of the Franks who died in 814 CE and had ten known wives and concubines and eighteen acknowledged children who themselves had numerous offspring, several of the girls being nuns with sons.  Most of us are related, many times over, to these nuns and his other offspring.

So, the authors of Matthew and Luke could have made up almost any genealogy they liked to relate Jesus to David. This was fundamental to their claim that Jesus was the Messiah, because all the major Messianic prophecies indicate the Messiah must be a descendant of King David (Ezekiel 34:23, 37:21-28; Isaiah 11:1-9; Jeremiah 23:5, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; and Hosea 3:4-5). 

The more imaginative route and contradictory names suggest that imagination, a knowledge of history and some simple maths complemented Luke's actual genealogical research.  According to Wikipedia: 'The composition of the writings, as well as the range of vocabulary used, indicate that the author of Luke was an educated man'.  Some scholars believe him to have been a Greek doctor. So, he was unlikely to repeat the author of Mathew's mistake of reporting only 27 generations (less than 650 years) back to King David.

After the actual gap of around a thousand years everyone in the known world was related to King David.  As I have said the need to go to all this genealogical trouble lay in the erroneous belief that babies grew from the seed of a man alone.

We are certain that they were wrong and we are now more knowledgeable. Otherwise in-vitro-fertilisation, IVF, would not be possible.   The ancients had no idea that babies grow from the living cell of a woman complete with its mitochondria and is 'fertilised' by similarly living chromosomes from the sperm from a man.   IVF and chromosomal transfer between cells would have amazed and challenged their faith as it has some theologians, even today.  In particular, modern IVF fertilisation procedures make nonsense of the ancient belief, that a god, or some 'spark', is necessary to give 'new life' to already living cells at the moment of fertilisation, traditionally known as conception.

Were either cell dead the zygote and blastocyst would not form.  See The Chemistry of Life on this website.

Thus, a few decades later, Gospel sub-editors would make all that ancestry research and imagination redundant by claiming that the father of Jesus was no longer Joseph but God himself.  Ancient people, ignorant of IVF and biology, could then believe in the Virgin Birth. 

Like Jesus, you and I can certainly claim to be descended from King David many times over, even if you are an aboriginal Australians or North American, provided you have at least one European, Middle Eastern, Asian or North African ancestor. 

But this is theoretical.  While you can certainly find many lines of inheritance back that far, actually having any of their genes is a lottery. Human beings have only about 20,500 genes. After fifteen generations the number of our ancestral lines substantially exceeds the number of genes we have. Further, genes mutate and evolve regularly. Without an overlap, like in-breeding in a small village or membership of an exclusive religious group or class, some ancestors soon cease to be of any genetic importance.   So the influence of a particular ancestor depends on how much overlap there is. 

Unless your forebears remained in the same small village throughout the past three hundred years or if you happen to be from a similar in-bred group like European aristocracy or an exclusive religious group, once you get past fifteen generations who your forebears were individually becomes irrelevant - no trace of them maybe left.   In the lottery of life your genes could have come instead from almost anywhere, maybe King David. 

So, how far back is it reasonable to go?  For most of us who are not royal or from an isolated community fifteen generations is the limit before the genetic contribution of some of our individual ancestors is diluted to nothing.  Not so culture.  Consider an institution like Lloyd's of London.  It's over 300 years old, so its founders; their staff; and the original members have been dead for most of its life.  Yet it's traditions, memes if you like, go back to it's foundation.  So it can be with families.  Consider your family religion or your other fundamental beliefs.  Consider the Common Law and many societal values and beliefs. Consider science.  Consider received history.  Such memes can be far more persistent than genes.

Culture and memory

The immediate past is very important to us but there is a qualitative difference between the short-term history we need to make rational personal choices, like expecting my car to be where I left it; to knowing who my great grandfather was; or the causes of the Great War.  I have written elsewhere about recorded and oral history.  Much of it is myth or tales enhanced in the retelling: 'bunk', as Henry Ford proclaimed.

The first and foremost reason for needing that knowledge of the past that we call memory can be seen when memory fades.  We are our memories.  These depend on those different structures in our brain that store the past experiences very recent; short-term and long term.  Some are responsible for our beliefs and abilities others our relationships and without some basic, primitive memories we can't function at all.

In simple animals the ability to spin a web or run around is due to structures that are genetically passed on, like a leg or an eye, and the abilities that the neurons program for are innate, inherited.  But in humans even simple abilities, for example the ability to walk, has to be partly learned. In other words, the brain structures have to be formed or 'stored' in our memory.

If this brain organisation is lost, we progressively cease to exist as 'us' as our old personality disappears, like the Cheshire Cat, until we reach a vegetative state.  A person only has a personality by virtue of experience, belief and knowledge.  Of course, someone without a mind is unaware of the loss. Medical death is now defined as that moment when the brain stops working with no prospect of consciousness returning.  On the bright side, be this loss of brain structure gradual or sudden, we can have no actual awareness of our death.  Fade to black.

In our wider perception of the world around us, certain qualities of experience extend over long periods of time, allowing us to expect them to continue, like the existence of our family and our place in it, the laws of physics or even broader: our understanding of 'human nature'. Without a knowledge of the past that misty unknowable place, the future, becomes totally opaque.  We need a sense of history to guess at the motivations and beliefs of others and to make judgements about our own purpose and scope for action tomorrow; or whenever.

Unless our families were researched and written about in the past for some reason, most of us have a scanty view of past generations.  Maybe our parents took an interest or our grandparents.  But most of their tales are memories of people and places distorted by time or stories retold and elaborated to add interest and drama - oral history. 

When I was a child, England was a mythical place like Heaven or Treasure Island or the riverside in Wind in the Willows.  I had left there when I had not yet turned three years old and had no real recollections, just some photographs and a vague memory of a girl playmate called Lana. This could be a false or recovered memory as it came back to me as I began writing this.  Lana if you are out there...

My first reliable memories were of New York on the flight over in 1948; being on the plane; and seeing my Uncle Jim, who met us off the plane, through a sort of hatch at Sydney Airport.



317 Pennant Hills Road 1948 2 317 Pennant Hills Road 1948

Early Australian memories - I can tell you a great deal about these photos:
that were taken at - 317 Pennant Hills Road Thornleigh NSW Australia - 1948-49
Front garden: me in the hat from laundry cupboard - The side lawn - sandstone flagged driveway behind
Back garden:  vegies - beans, peas, corn, rhubarb - Sheep: Rusty and Michael in the paddock
Peter in the pram - red-back spiders in the wheelbarrow - McDonalds below the back fence
I could go on and on - it's clear as yesterday - yet I remember nothing about England before


Maybe a memory of my mother's father was still there somewhere but soon all four of my grandparents were mythical creatures who inhabited the world of literature - that 'Isle set in a sceptred sea'.  It was a land ten thousand miles away that might as well have been on the moon. But it loomed large at school.  Australia was still part of the British Empire with Canada New Zealand and South Africa, along with uncountable smaller countries around the globe.  The world map on the classroom wall seemed mostly red - well it had a lot more red than green or any other country's colour.

I knew England was a place to be proud of.  It had been built by engineers and scientists like my uncle and my father and their fathers.  It was a brave country defended to the death by men and women like my mother's parents; where bombs had recently fallen like rain, and my father had landed his Hurricane fighter in flames; where sweets and even butter were still rationed.  But at school in Australia, it was not something for a 'pommy kid' to shout about.

When it comes to tracing our family back beyond those we knew and loved, one motivation may be to establish an inherited claim to property or title, for example: Aboriginality; or aristocracy.  Another could be 'bragging rights': to be able to claim at parties a descendants' affiliation with their ancestor who achieved something they haven't.  A third and perhaps the most legitimate is an interest in how we came to have our particular genetically conferred abilities and appearance; or the source of our family traditions like: a particular trade or craft; attaching value to scholarship or the arts; or our religion. 

Sometimes we have old letters, diaries or other family documents that have greater solidity than these fallible tales and comfortable fictions handed down.  More reliable sources include contemporary records, some of which may now be found in the Cloud.

In developing this history, I relied heavily on old public records of births deaths and marriages and the British census during the 1800's and early 1900's when individuals were named and their age location, occupation and relationship within the household were noted.  Modern censuses are far less useful for these purposes. They collect much more information but individuals can't be identified.  The British records aren't complete. In particular, not all deaths are recorded.  Also, people occasionally lied about their age or didn't actually know.  There was also a reporting problem. To determine the year when someone was born, they should have been asked: "How old will you be this year?" not: "How old are you?"  So, there can be a year variation in the date of birth if their birthday falls after the question is asked.

Now there is another even more reliable guide to our origins. Recently, within my lifetime, we have come to understand a lot more about genetics and inheritance, enabling the new art of DNA Ancestry mapping.


DNA Ancestry Mapping

DNA populations today original

These maps show the locations today that have the largest populations with my father's Y chromosome and my mother's mitochondria.  
The letters are in order of population size. G is missing on my father's map due to its location - far away in Venezuela.  
Apart from sizable population in Switzerland, and smaller ones in the UK, Belgium and Denmark, the vast preponderance today are in Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries and this suggests an Iberian origin for the McKie Y.  
Similarly, my mother's mitochondria is very rare in the UK and by far most commonly found in Sweden followed by populations in northern Spain and the Czech Republic.  It is also found in most European Jewish communities.  
This suggests that her great grandmother (or an earlier woman in that line) was not from the UK and that the likely origin of the mitochondrial line was in Sweden. 


These maps relate to just two of my grandparents.   My 'DNA Ancestry' tells me nothing about the other two. To do that I would need to be more sophisticated and look at other gene variants I have inherited from those grandparents. But I don't have their DNA they are dead and burnt, so I would need to go to my first cousins to find a match. This is all just too hard, unless it was something obvious like dwarfism or a cleft palate.

So until the family DNA is mapped generation upon generation and matched to everyone else, this kind of DNA Ancestry mapping will tell considerably less than half the story.   It's main utility in this case is to illustrate the end of a genetic line. 

My mother was the last girl to inherit her mitochondria and although my brother and I carry it, we can't pass it on.  Similarly, my brother's son Daniel is the last to have my father's Y chromosome.  The last McKie in this line.

Yet mapping one's DNA is not entirely useless because others in the family can glean something about the origins of a proportion of the less visible genes they are carrying too.  Although my daughters don't carry my mother's mitochondria, nor my father's Y chromosome, they have inherited a quarter of their nuclear DNA from each.  Somewhere in there is perhaps a bit of Viking and perhaps a bit of Jew.  And if they have their DNA mapped, they can learn something of their mother's ancestry. 

Like my daughters, my cousins can now be relatively sure of Iberian blood and imagine an early Conquistador landing in Scotland or Ireland as the origin of the ancient McKies.

Thus, in a few generations many people may know a lot more about their real origins and will, hopefully, be less prejudiced about foreigners.  No more disliking those outrageous Spaniards or those smug Swedes for us.

As I said at the outset, following back one's family name is equivalent to following back the trail of the Y chromosome.  This relationship between the Y and his family name is only broken when a boy is not the son of the father who gives him his name or the family name somehow got changed between generations. Each such break marks the point when a little human indiscretion, act of love, or contractual change took place. Each change marks a point of drama or historical interest in the lives of our ancestors.

Now my daughter Emily has a son and I a grandson.  Maybe one day Leander will wonder about his ancestors and how he came to have his mother's family name rather than his father's.

Many of our family values are preserved or reinforced by grandparents.  Like me as a child, Leander lives far from part of his family.  But I lived far from both sets of grandparents and travelling to see them was effectively impossible for me as a child.  Incredible as it will seem to him, there was no Skype and even the phone was prohibitively expensive.

At Christmases and birthdays, parcels containing strange clothes; omnibus books about the adventures of Rupert the Bear; Enid Blyton's Famous Five, Secret Seven and Noddy; or Coronation cut-outs and pictures of the crown jewels (circa 1953) would appear, confirming the grandparental existence.

But there my ancestors remained, like characters in the A A Milne; or Ratty and Mole messing about in boats; or in Toyland, with Noddy, Big Ears and Police Constable Plod.  There children grew up having adventures like the Famous Five or Secret Seven. 

On my first return to England in 1974, fresh from high-rise Sydney, via fast developing Singapore, I was amazed.  It was quite different to the image I grew up with.  I felt that I had somehow been transported to Toyland. Everything was much smaller than I had expected, with row upon row of terraced houses and high-street shops bright with all that red and blue paint, set amid brilliant rolling green fields and copses. It was quiet unlike Sydney, my adopted city, or Australia's rural pallet of blue greys, yellows and ochre; and sunshine.

That reality is different to expectation is a revelation that I have experienced repeatedly since, every time I travel to somewhere new.

Separating reality from myth to discover how my earlier ancestors imposed their personalities and values and advantages on my grandparents and so to my parents and on to me has turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. And there is more than one skeleton in the family closet.

Leander may one day want to know how those influences, genes and memes, passed down to him, in turn.

As each of us is a colony of cells formed when that one fertilised cell multiplied after conception so each person in turn can be seen as a single cell in the greater corporation that is our society so that it's impossible to separate a person from their environment. In this story I've tried to find out about both.

I've tried to set my father's father's father's father's life in context. But unlike the ancients we know that mothers play an equal or more than equal part in each of our pasts and soon the fathers of our father's fathers fade into insignificance in the sea of our genes, although they ultimately narrow again to just a few individuals and then to just one common ancestor: Y-chromosomal Adam who lived not three to six thousand years ago as the Bible variously asserts, but between 163,900 and 260,200 years ago.

My tale was not a testament, or even a gospel, but I hope you enjoyed it nevertheless.

And so ends this investigation of just one path of my ancestry, my Y chromosome.  Like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, it leads all the way from a farm in the countryside to OZ.  But if I'd imagined that it would take weeks of research and lost sleep I might never have begun. 

Now, in retirement, I continue to take an interest in all things real and imaginary.  So, I expect that my grandchildren (and step- grandchildren), as soon as they can reason, can answer simple questions about the real things that surround them starting with: "Where does the bath water come from?  Where does the bathwater go? What are those wires in the street? and Where dose the electricity come from?"  Just as, when a little older, I expected my own children to be able to tell me how the picture got from a camera in the TV studio to a screen in our living room or how does DNA replicate?

What's next?

There is quite a bit more about my life and My Mother's Family and Emily's mother's family on this website. So, I don't intend to duplicate that here. 

Perhaps the main Gap is Julia's mother's family. I'll have to see what can be done about that. Maybe after she retires.