McKAY, Donald John

Donald John McKay


Le Bons Bay, Banks Peninsula, New Zealand

A Brief Profile written by Don McKay, July 2011.

I was born on the 10th January 1934 and lived on my parent’s farm at Le Bons Bay, Banks Peninsula.

My father was Donald Leicester McKay [1] – always called Leicester – son of Donald McKay and grandson of William Mackay who came from The Kyle of Tongue in the north of Scotland and settled above the Summit Road overlooking Duvauchelles, near the top of Little Akaloa. Dad’s mother was Elizabeth Haakensen, whose family originated from Denmark and Sweden.

My mother’s maiden name was Gladys Coade whose father was Isaac (John) Coade, an Australian miner and prospector. While he was working around New Zealand, including Banks Peninsula he met and married Rachael Reynish, daughter of George Reynish, Pigeon Bay. After living and working in the bush at Mokau in the North Island he took his family back to Australia where he part owned a coal gold mine.

He was a sapper in the Australian Army in WW1 and together with Spr. T.F Burke was awarded the Military Medal for helping a large proportion of about 80 soldiers who couldn’t swim to withdraw across the River Yser under heavy gun fire. Sadly, he was killed just before the end of the war. After John’s death, near the end of World War One Rachael returned to Banks Peninsula with her three children and later married Jim Mackay, whose wife Annie, (nee Reynish, Rachael’s sister and aunt of my mother) had died during the 1918 plague.

To further complicate things Jim was a younger brother of Donald, my grandfather. All this has lead to me having a great number of relations on the Peninsula. When first married, my father and mother lived with the family in the original Haakensen homestead, which is situated near the top of Le Bons Bay, down a steep hill about 300 or 400 metres from the main road.    

When Mum went into labour Dad had to yoke up the bullocks and take Mum up to the road on a sledge! I am not sure how she got from there to Akaroa, but it may have been by the Indian Chief  motor cycle and sidecar. However, I was eventually born at Lyndhurst Hospital in Christchurch.

My primary schooling was at Le Bons Bay School at the bottom of the hill, about two miles away. I think there were about eighteen or nineteen children at the school when I started in 1939, but the roll went down to about nine or eleven by the time I left at standard six. For a while there were three children in my class, Janice Crotty, Jean O’Dell, and me, but most of the time there was only Janice and me. This was quite good, as I was always first, second, or third in the class. (I have never achieved that since.)

During World War 2 days I sometimes used to go to Home Guard training with my father on Saturdays, and I remember one day being given a .22 rifle to train with and take home. How excited I was – I was only about 8 to 10 years old!! But my excitement soon changed to disappointment, because on the next Saturday it was taken away from me and I was given a wooden gun instead. However I did follow the signallers around a bit and learnt Morse code and semaphore.

I remember one incident at the end of the war – either VE Day or VJ Day – when there was a celebration dance at the Gaiety Hall, Akaroa, and at about midnight some of us boys decided to ring the Fire Brigade Bell. Two or three boys gave it a good ring and then we saw the policeman’s car coming along the street. The others took off like lightning, but the hill behind the bell tower was steep and covered in brush, and it was quite dark. I slipped, and the constable caught me. He threatened to lock me up in the cell for the night. I hadn’t even rung it, but as I was the only one there when he arrived he didn’t believe me. He probably had a chuckle, but I certainly got a fright.

After eight years at Le Bons Bay Primary School I spent three years at Christchurch Boys High School during which time I learnt the bagpipes from Andy Shirlaw and Ken Boyce, and continued my piano lessons under the tuition of Claude Davies. All of these teachers had some connection with Banks Peninsula.

The other big thing in my life, and my parent’s in those days was grasseeding. At that time our whole farm was in cocksfoot and I remember my father anxiously waiting and watching for the bloom to “go off”. It would start in December with what looked like a small wisp of smoke which would then spread out and cover the whole hill side and work up the hill as though the whole paddock was on fire. I think this would happen three times and was a great sight. This was a good indicator as to how good the crop would be. Then, a few weeks later, after the kernels had set hard, men would arrive and our house would be full grasseeders, some staying until the end of reaping and some until the end of threshing.

Ken Mackay and Clyde McKay reaping. 
photo by Donald John McKay, 1953.

Once reaping started gangs of men could be seen reaping around most of the hills in Le Bons and the other bays. It was hard work, but I think my mother worked hardest of all. She used to provide a full cooked breakfast, prepare and take morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea out to the paddock for the men. The tea was always taken out in those clay jars which I think vinegar and whisky used to come in. 

Morning tea and afternoon tea were called smoko’s. It was often my job to help take the lunch / smoko food out. She would then have to prepare a big cooked dinner with pudding. After doing the dishes she would darn the men’s socks, patch their trousers and shirts, and do  any ironing that was needed. Baking and washing was squeezed into the day too. No washing machine in those days.
She had to light up the fire in the copper and boil the clothes, wash clothes in the tubs using a scrub board, then wring them out with a hand wringer and peg them on the clothes line.

I must say that work of this type was typical of the work that most farmers wives did in those days. Many used to make their own bread, and we still had an outside oven house, quite a large brick oven just for baking bread. Mum also used to make enough butter to last us throughout the winter. This was kept in a barrel of brine. During the year any extra hen eggs were rubbed with Ovoline and stored away for the winter. Ovoline was a paste which was bought in jars and rubbed into the egg shell to seal it. Later, we used to cut the tops of four gallon kerosene tins and have two or three of them full of eggs in a solution of Norton’s Egg Preserver.

The cupboards were always filled with bottled fruit, sauces and chutneys for the winter. Somehow, the women used to do all these things, and still find time to help on the farm when an extra hand was needed. Rolls of bacon and ham would be hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen, and these would keep for very many months. We didn’t have a refrigerator, so Mum used to put her jellies etc. in the running water of our near-by creek to set. It did get too much for her and for some years Dad did employ a girl to help during grasseeding.
When I was about seven or eight I was often the billy boy. It was quite hard work lugging the big billy of water, usually with a cup or so of oatmeal mixed in, around the steep hills through the stubble. Then, at about nine or ten years of age I got my first reap hook and I probably thought that I was a man. After that I used to tender for the right to cut cocksfoot on the roadsides. The roads were divided into sections for the tender process and I always tendered for Dawber’s Road and sometimes for the main road to the foot of the hill. I think I used to tender about 30 shillings per section, depending how much cocksfoot was growing there. This was threshed with a flail, often with Dad’s help.

Next came threshing time and Dad would yoke up our working bullocks and drag the threshing machine out to the various threshing floors in the paddocks. The crackle of non silenced threshing machines used to echo around the bay. Our old threshing machine is now in Orton Bradley Park’s Museum at Charteris Bay. Sometimes there were also the thuds of flails, as a few people did not have threshing machines or only had a small amount to thresh.

After threshing was finished the seed had to have an initial riddle, and be bagged to remove the larger straws and rubbish, and then transported to home sheds by bullocks and sledge for final cleaning and bagging up. This was all done by hand. If the seed contained fog grass we would riddle it by the edge of the threshing sheet so that the wind would blow the lighter fog grass away and leave the heavier cocksfoot on the sheet for bagging. Dad would then take a sample to Wright Stevenson & Co. in Christchurch and they would offer him a price per pound. After it was sold Bert Williams used to transport it to the Little River Railway Station where it was transferred to the train to be taken to Wright Stevenson’s in Addington, Christchurch.

Contrary to what many people seem to be saying now, I remember the summers being much hotter and drier then than they are now. The grass used to get so dry that we used to sledge down the hills on snow sledges that we used to make. I think the winters were colder winters though, with more snow and frosts. In 1939 we had an extra big snowfall and it was up to the top of the fences on the flat at the bottom of the hills.

The climate did change about 1950 though. In the mid 1950s our neighbour, bought a farm which included quite a bit of low hill country at Motukarara. Everybody was commenting that it was a bad move, as the grass dried up so much in the summer and he would not have enough feed for his stock. Lo and behold, after he shifted there the seasons changed and lack of grass didn’t seem to be a problem. One of his daughters mentioned this to me just a few years ago, confirming my memories.

In 1947 I started secondary school at Christchurch Boys High School, and while I was there I joined the school camera club. We had some really good instructors, including Len Casbolt and Frank McGregor. Also I used to spend a lot of time at my Uncle Stan MacKay’s as he was the “Star Sun” photographer and his son Ross was a skilled horse racing photographer. I used to admire their beautiful cameras and enlargers, - Graflex’s, Speed Graphics. Leica, Contax, Retina etc. New photographic equipment was virtually unavailable to the general public and even films were rationed, as it was still not very long after the Second World War. Imagine my excitement when I spotted a second hand Ensign Tropical camera in the window of H. E. Perry Ltd. in Colombo Street. From memory I think it was £13/10/00. I had to have it. It used 120 size roll film as well as 2¼ x 3¼ inch glass plates.

I sold my beloved push bike and returned a photo book that I had just purchased, but sadly, still not enough money. I was able to get just the right amount by selling my best pair of shoes to a shop in Sydenham. Many years later my mother happened to mention about that pair of shoes that had been stolen from me while boarding at Adams House. I just could not remember having any shoes stolen. Then suddenly it hit me and I felt very guilty.

I used that camera for two or three years photographing various events, weddings, and children. Of course, the exposure and distance had to be estimated as it had no range finder or exposure meter. I believed in processing my own films and prints, so in the beginning I used to black out the bathroom window and develop them there. However, this didn’t last very long, as Mum wasn’t too happy with the brown developer stains in the bath and on the lino, so the next job was to build a dark room which Eric Cairns, the local electrician wired up. It didn’t have running water so I used to wash the films and prints in the washhouse, and for very large prints I used the cow bails.

In those days photographers used to mix all their own chemicals – developer, stop bath, fixer, intensifiers, reducers, toners, emulsion hardeners etc. from the basic chemicals. The darkroom would look a bit like a chemist shop of the day with rows of shelves stacked with chemicals and a large cask/barrel of hypo crystals, and of course chemical scales and glass measuring utensils. I can still remember the chemicals and the purpose for which they were used in the most common developers, such as D72, D76, ID36, ID11 etc. The chemicals I mostly used are listed below, but I used to experiment with many others for different effects, contrasts, and lighting conditions.

Metol - sometimes called Elon - (developer for shadow detail)
Sodium Sulphite (preservative)
Hydroquinone (developer)
Sodium Carbonate (alkali / accelerator)
Potassium Bromide (restrainer)
Dissolved in water in the order listed.

Stop Bath:
Water with Glacial Acetic Acid

Hypo (Sodium Thiosulphate)
Potassium Metabisulphite

My first wedding job was for Ron Grant and Dawn Crotty at St. Andrews Church, Le Bons Bay on the 23rd. September 1950.

At some time during that period I purchased a second hand Thornton Pickard ¼ plate single lens reflex camera. This was similar to the Graflex cameras with a focal plane shutter to 1/1000 sec. These cameras were fairly slow to use as you had to focus, and then close down the lens to the correct aperture before taking the photo. Nevertheless professional photographers like my Uncle Stan, George Weigle, Charlie Waters and many others were able to take excellent sporting pictures with them. A little later the Graflex came with a pre-set diaphragm, which meant that they could be focused with the aperture wide open and the diaphragm would close automatically when the shutter was released. Then one just had to change the plate, wind up the shutter, which also lifted the mirror, and open up the diaphragm again. This was marvellous as it was a nice bright view on the ground glass!!

My next camera was a 120 Twin Lens Rollieflex and over time I think I had three. These were great wedding cameras as the shutter was very silent, so did not interfere with wedding ceremonies. Also, later on I had some Twin Lens Mamiyaflex cameras with interchangeable lenses.

About this time too I obtained a flash gun and was able to take photos in the dark!! This was wonderful, and fairly new, having taken over from flash powder, which I never used, but there were a few people still using it in the 1940’s. I would go to functions with my pockets bulging with flash bulbs and of course always an empty pocket or two for the used bulbs.

When I was about 16 my cousin Ross MacKay got me to help him at the horse racing taking photos at the turn into the final straight for the “Friday Flash” paper. For that I used a ¼ plate Graflex and a Speed Graphic. After a couple of years Ross sold me one of his Speed Graphic cameras so at last I had my own.

At 18 years of age we all had to enlist in the Compulsory Military Training scheme (CMT). I enlisted and chose the Photographic Section of the RNZAF. However, they only took five recruits twice a year, and to complicate things I could only go in the winter because of the farm work. (We also milked about 35 cows at this time). Luckily, my uncle Stan and Flight Lt. Stan Brown – who lived in Le Bons at that time – knew the right people and I was put on hold until a space became available, when I was 20.

Trapping possums in the winter and working around a few shearing sheds during the shearing season added to my income. At times I used to play the piano for dances and march around the hall playing the bag pipes with the people tagging on behind. One night, about midnight, we marched from the Akaroa Volunteer Fire Brigade hall to the end of the main wharf, with many of the Akaroa Silver Band members playing their instruments. I think Ted McNabb was playing drums and Pat Higgins the cornet, and maybe Murray Brown the trombone. It was a very still calm night and we thought it sounded great. However, Pat Mora didn’t think so, as his wife was very sick, and we woke her up!

Electronic flash became available about this time and I remember my first one was a Dawe with a huge power supply involving massive capacitors and Sealed Lead Acid Gel batteries. I think it weighed about 20 pounds. There was also a booster set that came with it which weighed about the same. It had two heads with reflectors which were about 200mm in diameter and I used to take all of that with light stands, tripods, and camera on my father’s 1928 AJS motor bike. (Later I bought a new 1954 Twin AJS) Before that I used to use 500 Watt and 250 Watt photoflood lamps in large reflectors.

Over the next 17 years I had several more cameras including a later model 4x5 Pacemaker Speed Graphic with the Graflite Flash Gun with two reflectors to accommodate the different sized flash bulbs, and Grafmatic Cut Film Holders which held six sheets of cut film each. I still have that outfit. These cameras had two shutters - a front between the lens shutter and a back focal plane shutter. The focal plane shutter was not self capping, so one had to take the photograph, change the film or plate, close the front shutter so as not to fog the film, wind up the back shutter, and open the front shutter. This action became automatic and in fact only took about eight seconds or less. (Now we can take eight photos in one second).

Sometime in the late 1950’s I purchased an 8mm movie camera. This was the start of my movie, and then video phase. Up until the mid 1980’s I only made family/holiday films, but when video became affordable??? it was the start of several years making videos for medical teaching and videos of bands etc. It was very hard to keep up with the latest cameras and editing equipment (even at the prosumer level), as standards kept progressing upwards so rapidly.

Throughout the 1950’s I was busy photographing all sorts of events, school groups, debutante balls, weddings, children, and hundreds of aerial photos of Banks Peninsula bays, farms, and houses. Store keepers in most of the bays used to display samples and take orders for me. Mr. Archie Brown, the local barber acted as an agent for me in Akaroa, and later Mr. Jack Harvey.

 Banks Peninsula Sawmilling Co in Duvauchelles
photo by Donald John McKay, 1950.

During this time the 35mm camera format was becoming more popular with the advance in film speed and finer grain films, and I had various brands of these until the Nikon F became available about 1960. I purchased one of these and from then on I have stuck with the Nikon brand for my private 35mm work.

In 1961 I obtained a job as Medical Photographer at Burwood Hospital, Christchurch, but continued to travel back to the Peninsula in the weekends to photograph various events and process my films, as at that time I didn’t have my own darkroom in Christchurch. The hospital job involved keeping a photographic record of patients admitted for Plastic Surgery, Dental, Orthopaedic and Surgical Operations, hospital events, and teaching slides (transparencies) for projection. I processed all of these on site. (Later on the colour slides were sent out for processing.) For this job I also had to do some study and sit examinations to become a Qualified Medical Photographer.
There I used Nikons and then the faithful Pentax K1000’s. I always used two cameras – one for black & white and the other for Ektachrome colour slides. For groups and display photos a Linhof 4x5 or my Speed Graphic was used.

In 1962 I married Denyse Gunn, and then in 1965 we built a house in the Christchurch suburb of Redwood. We had four children; Judith, Elizabeth, Stuart, and Patricia. During this time I still worked privately from home in Christchurch in the weekends and evenings where I had a nice dark room and a small studio. At that time too, I was employed part time photographing weddings for two of the larger studios in Christchurch. About 1963 I got my Amateur Radio Operators Certificate and that hobby took up a lot of time, continually building and experimenting. Other interests were welding and metal lathe work.

In the late 1970’s the ACC (Accident Compensation Commission) began sending me their clients to have scars and lumps, etc photographed. I estimate that I photographed about 7,000 clients for the ACC. I didn’t have any contract or receive a wage from the ACC, but charged for each job separately. I managed to procure that job as there weren’t any other qualified medical photographers set up to work privately in Christchurch. 

It was quite difficult as I still had a regular job at the hospital so I had to photograph in the evenings, sometimes at lunch time, and on Saturdays. My wife used to make the appointments, finish, pack, and deliver the photos to the various ACC branches. It was very important that I kept this work completely separate from my hospital work. I left the hospital job in 1992 to work full time with the ACC photography, which finished about 1997, with the end of the lump sum payments. By then I was processing and printing all of my colour negatives.

My cameras through this time ranged from Nikon, Bronica, Mamiyaflex, Mamiya RB 67 with various lenses, and of course the Speed Graphic. Then along came digital. As I had many Nikon lenses I stuck with that brand, progressing through four models to the full frame D700. This has been another big learning curve – especially the computer editing of these files.

Sometime in the 1980's I purchased a Sinclair ZX-Spectrum computer to make titles for video. I am not sure whether it had 48KB of RAM or the massive 128 KB that it could be upgraded to!!! Data was stored on a tiny tape called a Sinclair Microdrive which could store about 85KB of data. This was terrible, as the tape tended to get tangle up. The titles were very crude, but it was the start of a seemingly never ending episode of upgrading and building computers. I could never have imagined what they can do today. Wonder what tomorrow brings?

Now, at 77 years of age I try to keep my hand in by photographing and videoing a few church, family functions and bands, and digitising some of my thousands of old negatives for Jan Shuttleworth’s collection. What I really need though is a younger brain.

[1] It may be noticed that McKay is spelt several different ways. The original was Mackay. A mistake in the spelling was made when my grandfather’s birth was registered in Scotland and it was never corrected. Ross changed his back to the original, and his father Stanley used to spell his MacKay.


Unknown said...

Mistake:- I believe that it was a gold mine, not a coal mine that Isaac (John) Coade part owned in Korumburra, Victoria, Australia. Sorry about the mistake,Donald McKay

Early Canterbury Photography said...

thanks Donald, I have made the correction,

Unknown said...

My father had an accident in the 70s and Donald apparently used to go into Burwood and photograph patients. Any idea what might have happened to those? My dad still talks about it and I'd love to get hold of them for our family history.

Early Canterbury Photography said...

Hi, you could ask the hospital if they still have the x-rays, don't know how long they would hold them for.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Don McKay gave his negatives to Akaroa Museum in 2018 - about 40k negative images (but not of patients at Burwood etc.!). The Museum is working on digitising the collection and cataloguing it. There was an exhibition of a small selection from the collection in the summer of 2018-19 titled 'A Photographer's Eye: Don McKay's 1950s'.