The company that is now Mackays of Cambridge Limited was founded following an approach, in June 1912, by Donald Mackay, great-grandfather of the present Joint Managing Directors, to John Alsop who ran a wheel-wrighting and fence-making firm called Britannia Ironworks. "You have a fine business Mr. Alsop do you want to sell it?" was the forthright approach Donald made to Mr Alsop who had not been thinking of retirement. But the opening offer was a good one and Mr Alsop accepted it. A deal was struck and sealed, in the traditional manner of the times, over the anvil.
The partnership between Donald Mackay and his son Duncan was then in being and there was no looking back. The two working together set high standards for those following.
Then, as now, there was a need for reliable sources of supply of tools, materials and engineering work to service the developing industry of the region. It seemed a logical move to set up a retail organisation in parallel with engineering to satisfy those needs. By the nineteen thirties the retail shop had become so successful that new larger premises were built to a design that has remained almost unaltered to this day.
But the partnership was to come to a sudden end with the death of Duncan in 1936 at a time when his 4 children were still at school. The eldest, Joan, was about to leave to take up a college place she had won. But old Donald, left to hold the fort on his own, demanded that Joan gave up the idea of college to come and help him in the office. Money was scarce and she had little choice. In effect she became apprentice to her grandfather and has remained with the firm ever since. Joan learned his methods at first hand and progressed to supervise the financial and general affairs of the organisation. The survival of the firm during the difficult period that was to follow is undoubtedly due to the diligence of Joan who, in due time, was joined by her brother Donald, and her aunt, Isabella.
Isabella, by then in her sixties, had given up her career as a school teacher to nurse her father in his old age. On his death she became the sole owner of the firm. She was known fondly by the staff and customers as "Auntie". The only instruction she had from her father had been, "if that boy is any good, find him a job in the firm". She must have thought he was because in 1953 she marched Donald, with his sister Joan, down to the solicitor’s office and asked for a partnership deed to be drawn up. She gave a quarter of the firm each to Joan and Donald and retained a half in her own name. Later, because she resented capital transfer tax, she moved more over to her younger partners and was told to look after herself and stay alive for at least seven years. She did much better. Thirty years later she was still playing a useful part in the running of the firm. Almost to the end she handled insurance and PAYE and made up the wage packets. On her ninetieth birthday she made a splendid speech in which she proclaimed "you are not getting rid of me yet, I’m going to be recycled".
During the war period the firm had been engaged in making equipment for portable air-landing strips. A reserved occupation tag had been slapped on the workforce. After the war, Joan, Donald and Auntie worked as a team to rebuild the company. Their policy was to do what anyone wanted as long as it was connected with engineering. The versatility thus developed helped the firm through several grave recessions. They made astronomical progress with the design and construction of parabolic aerials for the new science of radio astronomy and were involved in making the first pressure vessels for crystal growing for the micro-chip industry. Customers have included Rutherford, Kapitza, Ryle and many other great scholars and scientists.
As the company grew it acquired adjoining property with a view to expansion. This usually came available in times of recession when money was scarce. At these times Auntie could be relied upon to dip into her nest egg. She had always been on the point of buying herself a fur coat. "Bang goes my fur coat" she would say. Now, every time we contemplate a major investment someone says "Bang goes my fur coat".
The tale wouldn’t be complete without a twist. In 1969 Donald was involved in erecting a spiral stair out of a kit of cast iron parts. At the top, instead of landing in the right place the staircase was pointing out into mid-air and had to be taken down again. There must be a better way he thought. Out of it came a new method of putting spiral staircases together. The method was patented and manufacturing rights sold to Arthur Guinness. They built it into a successful company, which later was the subject of a management buy-out. That firm, Crescents of Cambridge, now enjoys an enviable reputation world-wide. It is a matter of pride that several successful firms have had their origins at 85 East Road.
Since 1998 Mackays have traded from two sites. Mackay Engineering and Mackay Storage Systems moved to 120 Church End, Cherry Hinton. The shop is still at its original site at 85 East Road and has expanded into space vacated by the engineering departments.
Sadly, in March 2009, Joan passed away, aged 90, leaving Duncan Mackay and Neil Mackay, as Joint Managing Directors, and Donald Mackay in charge of the company. As directors of a fine company, we are well aware that we could have achieved none of it alone. Much of the credit for our success goes to the good staff and tradesmen who have devoted their lives to working with us. We appreciate everything they do in the furtherance of the ambition which we know they share with us to see Mackays of Cambridge Limited flourishing for many more years way into the next century and beyond.