Helen McKay was born in Ballarat on 2 March, 1858. Her parents, William and Christiana Reddie, arrived in Ballarat in April 1857 from Kirkcaldy in Fifeshire, Scotland. Helen was their seventh child and the first born in Australia. Her father worked at the Trial Saw Mills and the family lived on site in the workers village on the slopes of Mount Buninyong.
Helen married Thomas McKay, also of Scottish origin, at the Presbyterian Church in Buninyong in March 1879. Thomas was an engine driver with Victorian Railways and his job took them all over western Victoria. They had 13 children born in either Ballarat, Ararat or Port Fairy. Sadly, one daughter died in infancy.
Thomas died in 1905 and Helen was left to raise her children alone. They lived on the corner of Stawell and Eureka Streets overlooking the site of the Eureka Stockade, which at that time was abandoned and neglected land with open mine holes.
Helen and her family spent a lot of their own time working to beautify the grounds, and Helen became instrumental in the formation of the Eureka Stockade Progress Association. The association’s first meeting was held in February 1912 with the aim of creating parkland and building a community hall. To help raise funds, Helen and her daughters regularly set up a tent at the stockade and sold lollies, ice cream and biscuits. Some of the items were donated, and others they made themselves.
In 1953, memorial gates were erected in front of the hall to commemorate Helen McKay’s work. As a foundation and life member of the association, she spent 40 years raising funds to improve and develop the park. Members of the McKay family continued to serve on the Progress Association until the early 2000s.
Helen’s interests included her children and their families, carpet bowls and community affairs. She died suddenly in 1947 at the age of 90, two days after playing a game of carpet bowls. She was mother of 13, grandmother of 38 and great grandmother of 95. She was held in the highest esteem by all who knew her. Helen is buried in Ballarat New Cemetery, Presbyterian A, Section 10, Grave 22.