MacRobertsons' was another Australian success story on a large scale - everything founder, industrialist and philanthropist, Macpherson Robertson needed as an ingredient for their products was Australian grown or made, including, when the price of the cocoa bean went up so much and so quickly after World War II, their own New Guinea grown chocolate beans. Some insights into Mr. Macpherson Robertson run under 'Extras' - he was one dynamic, amazing gentleman with a love for Australia and Australians.
His father, David Robertson, was born in 1833 of Scottish parents in Montevideo, South America, and was attracted to Ballarat and the Victorian gold rush from Leith, Scotland. He arrived in Melbourne on the ship Oliver Cromwell in 1854, and proceeded immediately to the gold diggings of Ballarat, Victoria, and later to Bendigo. In 1859, he married an Irish girl from Inniskillin, Margaret Browne. David was an incurable optimist; he had seen the "Welcome Nugget", that hundredweight and a half of pure gold carted through the streets of Ballarat, and he believed that he, too, would be lucky.
But like many other optimistic diggers he was doomed to disappointment, and when Macpherson Robertson, the eldest of seven children, was born on September 6th 1859 at Ballarat, the family was having a desperate struggle for existence. In the sixties he took a job as a carpenter for the first hospital at Rockhampton, Queensland; then he drifted to Fiji as a carpenter, and finally sent his family hack to Scotland to live with young Macpherson's grandmother for a few years — hoping to follow later. He never did.
Though the family would eventually be reunited, Macpherson blamed his father for the penury that forced him to leave school at the age of 10 and become a breadwinner. According to some anecdotes, his mother was rejected by his grandmother when the family returned to Scotland and, beig the eldest child, Macpherson had to work to help make ends meet.
In the next two years he tried ten different jobs, from cowhand — he says he often envied the well-fed cows — to a humble job in a manufacturing confectionary house at Leith. That was the job that fortune had planned for him, for the world has produced only one MacRobertson in confectionary. At that job he was a genius. His morning meal was an inadequate supply of sour milk and weak porridge; his lunch was dry bread; and in the evening he returned to all that his mother could afford— a bowl of porridge and sour milk. That meal never varied.
When his grandmother died and left £70, young Robertson, now head of the house, used that money to bring his three siblings his mother and another child on the way back to Australia. They reached Melbourne in 1874. Next day he secured a job in a sausage-making shop at 2/6 a week; and that day, too, he eventually his father, whom the family had not seen for five years. Young Robertson longed to get back into confectionery, and he secured the consent of his mother to become indentured to the Victorian Confectionery Company.
When his apprenticeship was ended he had to look around for a job, and he obtained work with Black and Spence, in North Melbourne, at 35/ a week. He worked there for 18 months, and then he took the decision of his life. He talked the matter over with his mother, secured her approval, and decided to become a manufacturing confectioner.
Factory building, 183 Kerr Street, Fitzroy
His business, which he named after himself - Macpherson 'Mac' Robertson - was formed in a very humble, way on June 10, 1880, by Mr. Robertson at the age of 19. The "factory" was a bathroom in a small dwelling place facing Kerr street, Fitzroy, and the "plant" consisted of a deal table, some plaster of paris moulds, a tin pannikin, and a sixpenny nailcan, which he improvised as a furnace for the melting of his sugar syrups. He was obliged to borrow the money to buy his first bag of sugar, which weighed 140lb.
The first sweets manufactured were sugar dolls, sugar mice and similar confections. Mac, as he became known, manufactured on the Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and on Fridays and Saturdays he carried his sweets on trays placed on his head, and delivered the goods from door to door around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, eventually establishing a regular trade for his wares.
From this inauspicious beginning, his business expanded quickly, drawing in most of the family. Five years later (1885) the employees numbered 10. In this year the factory was burnt down, but was shortly afterwards re-erected. By the late 1880s MacRobertson's Steam Confectionery Works had over thirty employees and had begun to expand by acquiring and demolishing nearby housing. In 1891 the staff had grown to 150; in 1913 the employees numbered 924; and in 1915 they had increased to 1074. In 1920 the firm was engaging 1,359 hands; the business ended up employing 2,000 workers and pays half a million pounds annually in wages.
Initially trade revolved around boiled sweets, the development of the chocolates for which MacRobertson's became famous, did not take place until later. Eventually the chocolate trade formed the greater portion of MacRobertson's trade. The success in this style of chocolate encouraged MacRobertson's to produce the most elaborate and ornate boxes of chocolates, ribboned and decorated in an attractive way.
MacRobertson's confectioners were buying fruit for their jams prior to selling that part of the company off, and preserving fruit and using some of these, sultanas as one example, in their sweets from the late 1890's, especially their very popular mixed chocolates range, all smothered in Old Gold chocolate. By 1922 their chocolate covered maraschino cherries were a popular item. A maraschino cherry is a preserved, sweetened cherry, typically made from light-coloured sweet cherries such as the Royal Ann, Rainier, or Gold varieties.
In 1928 Mac was described in an article for The Brisbane Courier (16th January) as “an athletic young man of 68 – white of hair, erect, kindly and brimful of energy. He is a democrat to the finger tips and takes a personal interest in his staff that is good to see.”
Mac Robertson with staff members outside the MacRoberbson's factory
In public the man and the enterprise were synonymous. Dressed immaculately in white, he presided over his Great White City at Fitzroy, a complex of white-painted factories housing several thousand white-uniformed employees. As thanks for the loyalty shown to him by a family who had worked for the factory for three generations, MacRobertson rewarded them with the gift of a house.
He established an ‘Employees’ Sick and Accident Fund’ and supported the union movement and the eight hour day. However not all staff were content with the MacRobertson employee regulations. A letter to the local newspaper from an employee with the pseudonym ‘Disinterested’ complained about the strict standards of uniform. At the factory an inspector measured the width of hair ribbons and forbade the girls for wearing jewellery during working hours.
183 Kerr Street, Fitzroy
He would often be seen in public riding in a carriage through the streets of Fitzroy pulled by two white ponies. He owned two Arab horses, which he trained to lie down, kneel, sit and shake hands, and one, Sultan, was once called the finest educated horse in Australia. He was a fitness fanatic who worked out in his gym daily and could still jump a 142cm bar in his 60s — at a time in history when going to the gym just wasn’t a common thing to do.
By 1900, MacRoberton’s business had swallowed up several blocks of Fitzroy real estate and business was booming. His entrepreneurial interests expanded to transport, design, sport and philanthropy MacRobertson was a recognisable figure in Fitzroy owing to his larger than life personality and distinctive white suit. He even crossed paths with notorious Melbourne gangster Squizzy Taylor when his commercial manager Arthur Trotter was shot in his home on 403 George St, Fitzroy by a member of the Taylor gang.
Wherever possible Robertson insited Australian raw materials be used, but in many instances it is necessary to purchase from abroad. Large quantities of ingredients are converted into confectionery, and statistics clearly show the rapid rise of the business. In 1912, 343 tons of cocoa beans were used. In 1920 the figures had increased to 701 tons for the year; and in 1925 the consumption was 1,100 tons. The use of sugar also increased enormously. In 1925 he converted 1,500 tons of cane sugar into confectionery.
Robertson was the instigator of and major partner in Maize Products Pty Ltd, which pioneered the Australian manufacture of glucose, made condensed and powdered milk. Subsidiary companies handled his container, paper and printing requirements. In the making of the chocolates, caramels, etc. large quantities of condensed milk are used. Mr. Robertson, with other manufacturers, investigated the possibility of establishing a milk condensing enterprise under their own control, the result, the Federal Milk Company was formed.
Shortly after its formation, a Melbourne newspaper reported: "The infant milk factory of Bacchus Marsh (the Federal Milk Company) although only about three months old, has already outgrown - its clothes, and a new (or duplicate) outfit is to be provided. That should be sufficient proof to the most pessimistic that the undertaking has been a huge success.
"Since October last we published the "pedigree" of the new Company, which consists principally of leading Melbourne confectioners, including MacRobertson, Hoadley's, Swallow, & Ariell, and Allens, who entered into negotiations with the Bacchus Marsh Dairymen's Co-operative Association to supply them with fresh milk. Operations were commenced on 6th March of this year."
Macpherson Robertson was the driving force behind the firm's phenomenal expansion. Some of his flair for product innovation, eye-catching packaging and skilful promotion reflected his world tour of 1893, when he worked in the United States of America. His impressions of 'Colossal America' were published in the Ballarat Courier in 1894. Robertson introduced chewing-gum and fairy floss to Australia, promoting Pepsin Gum through his cycling school, and through testimonials from prominent sportsmen.
MacRobertson's establishment in Fitzroy covered about three acres of land, and 260 employes are seen at work all clad in snow white linen in this veritable beehive of industry. The enterprise shown in this establishment is worthy of emulation, but to keep up the pace with MacRobertson, who is a man of many parts, is a task more easily attempted than accomplished by competitors.
By the early 1900s MacRobertson's had established a reputation for quality and variety and had secured a large share of the confectionery market, previously monopolised by English importers. Federation gave access to an Australia-wide market and later on the disruption of imports in World War I allowed Robertson to make further inroads.
He established his own engineering department to manufacture plant, and launched the exclusive 'Old Gold' line of chocolates. The largest confectionery works in the Commonwealth, with agencies in every State, it was known by the distinctive MacRobertson signature. It is not known why the phrase "old gold" was chosen by Mr. MacRobertson, but it is speculated it recalls his place of birth, the Victorian Goldfields mining town of Ballarat.
Mr. MacRobertson seems to have all the push and enterprise generally found in Americans which is blended with the determined perseverance characteristic of an Englishman. He designs all his own labels and boxes which are great improvement on the American wrappers and are most attractive. The number and variety of sweets made at this establishment is positively bewildering, they range from the modest boiled lollies to the high-class French and American sweets, and the fruits and flowers made all in sugar are constantly being mistaken for real.
Adjoining his chocolate factory was a bicycle department also managed by Mr. MacRobertson, and a bicycle school. The novelty here was a bicycle social, where the riders sat side by side. A light weight and heavy weight can ride at one and the same time. The machine balanced the same as a bicycle, however the handle could be moved to the middle and one of the seats placed behind it, and so transform the machine into a veritable bicycle. As part of his Cycling School and bicycle import business, MacRobertson heavily advertised the Sunbeam Bicycle Social. MacRobertson encouraged their use for wedding parties.
The 'Mac Robertson' signature used is actually Macpherson Robertson's' own signature and demonstrates not just great penmanship but hints of an appreciation of stories and art. The founders fondness for children, for making beautiful boxes with old and great characters on them, points to a love of literature and songs as well. Newspapers from Australia's past ran many reports attesting to his pursuit of making the packaging on par with what it contained
Macpherson Robertson's philosophy in life was the same for him as his chocolates - to be a little sweeter to his fellow human beings and helping them out when it's needed. He was a pioneer, philanthropist, with a keen interest in every aspect of devoting means to growing Australian individuals as much as Australian industry and Australian Made products - to him they were all the many parts of one whole.
Mr. Robertson was well known for his charitable gifts, his largest being £100 000 to celebrate Victoria’s centenary celebrations in 1934. Of that sum, £16,000 was for the Centenary air race, £40,000 for the Girls' High School (later re-named in his honour), and £21,000 for the Grange Road Bridge, and the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens. His gifts to Melbourne University amounted to more than £50,000. For many years he gave a Christmas present of £10,000, to be divided among charities of the Commonwealth. He also donated £10,000 for Sir Douglas Mawson's 1929 Antarctic expedition, which named MacRobertson Land after him. For that he was knighted in June, 1933.
The depression hit him very heavily, but he faced it resolutely. The value of his sales dropped, but his pay roll remained very much the same as it had been. When departmental managers suggested a reduction of staff Robertson shook his head and said, "No." He merely relinquished the immediate idea of profits and decided to stand the losses, and wait for better times.
In 1921 he promoted a romanticised book of his enterprise entitled A Young Man and a Nail Can. On New Year's Day 1935, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), for philanthropic services in Victoria. Robertson died on August 30, 1945. He was survived by two sons.
In 1967 MacRobertson's was acquired by English confectioner Cadbury's which in 1969 merged with Schweppes Australia to become Cadbury Schweppes. On 2 February 2010, Cadbury was purchased by Kraft Foods. Kraft Foods announced they would be splitting into two companies beginning on 1 October 2012. The confectionery business became Mondelez International, of which Cadbury is a subsidiary.
Mr. Robertson was a keen motorist and one of the first Australians to own a motor car. Unfortunately, he also made history by being the driver in the first car crash in Australia in which someone died. He was interviewed in the 1920s by an Adelaide newspaper during a visit to the city.
"Back in 1902," he said, "there were few motor cars in this country and the first one I drove was a little 5 h.p. Rochet car of French make. This was a single cylinder car with dry cell ignition, air-cooled, with engine on back axle. It started with a strip which was wound round a pulley on an extension of the crankshaft. When the strap was wound round this pulley you obtained a certain amount of leverage by placing the foot against the back axle, and then made a vigorous pull on the strap to start the car. If by any chance a backfire occurred you were shot forward against the front of the car. I have pulled this strap at periods, in a vain endeavor to start the car, with more vigor than a mule, and pushed it nearly as many miles as I have driven it.
"My first venture in an American car was a 5 h.p. Oldsmobile, with tiller steerer, dry cell ignition, air-cooled engine, started with a handle. The trips I used to take in that Oldsmobile when I compare the cars of the past with those of today, amaze me. Many a trip I have taken from which I have returned in freight trains, hay drays, milk carts, and sundry other vehicles, leaving the old car by the wayside and returning for it next day. "Modern motorists have but a faint idea of what it was to drive a car in those days. One's patience and resourcefulness were tested to the extreme. Today, with fool proof, high-powered cars, with definite ignition, electric lighting, powerful brakes, and high-class durable tyres, it is different.
'On one occasion venturing from Melbourne to Bacchus Marsh I had 28 punctures. I tried to patch every one of them. Tyres and solution were not so good in those days. The Oldsmobile got a good deal of bumping on the hard road through deflating of tyres. At last in desperation I discarded the spent and perforated tubes. Then I cut some long dry grass and stuffed the covers and wound them on the wheels with wire and reached home in the early hours of next day.
"On another occasion through faulty tyres I stuffed the covers with cut up chaffbags, bought from a farmer by the wayside and returned. "Time is a great healer," Mr. MacRobertson concluded, ''and I often sit in that old car and reflect on the incidents of the past with a certain amount of pleasure in the fact that it indicated to me that I had some spirit of enthusiasm, adventure and energy — obstacles to surmount as it were - and perhaps that is the vim of life."
At the time of this visit to Adelaide, Robertson owned ten Packard cars which he kept for family use. Of the 84 horses he used to employ for transportation purposes there were only 24 left. They were all being replaced, he said, by motor lorries. A car for every occasion was included in Mr. Mac. Robertson's Garage — and they are all Packards: a Straight Eight Runabout, a Twin-Six Runabout, a Single-Six 5-passenger Tourer, a Single Six Runabout, a Single Six Runabout,a Single Six Sedan, a Twin-Six Californian Top Tourer, and a Single-Six 7-Passenger Tourer.
MacRoberton's Great White City
Macroberton's manufacturing complex of 15 purpose-built factories spread over eight blocks in Fitzroy bounded by Smith, Napier, Johnston and Rose Streets, was known as the Great White City of Fitzroy. Most of those buildings are still standing.
The MacRobertson business had quickly outgrown the humble bathroom beginnings depicted in ‘The Young Man and the Nail Can’ and the family home was quickly swallowed up by the rapidly expanding premises. By 1896 the factory already covered three acres of land in Fitzroy and employed 260 workers. Each building was painted a fresh white to contrast with the grimy industrial streets of Fitzroy.
To perpetuate the image of cleanliness and wholesomeness, all factory staff wore white uniforms and MacRobertson himself became an iconic figure in a white suit and hat. Mac often adopted a white suit as his own clothing both at work and in public, conscientiously aligning himself with his brand.
Most of the MacRobertson factory buildings, while still stand today, have been converted into residential apartments. The factory clock is still set into the front of the original office and some white walls remain, while others have been sandblasted back to their original red brick. The distinctive maroon MacRobertson signature is still visible on many of these buildings and a lane way has been named after the founder.
416 Gore Street, Fitzroy
416 Gore Street was constructed in the 1920s when MacRobertson's employed 2500 staff to produce 700 lines of chocolates and lollies. The building was dedicated to production of the famous Old Gold selection, considered the ultimate gift for chocolate lovers. Over 700 varieties of confectionary were produced at 416 Gore Street, from luxury chocolates for export to well-known products like Cherry Ripe and Freddo Frog.
Media reports at the time of the building's opening reported that the new six-storey Old Gold chocolate factory was probably one of the finest set of workrooms in the whole of Australasia. "This six-story building is of the most modern construction, and has an area of 80,000 square feet - with intermediate fire-proof doors—reinforced concrete columns, beams and floors; two isolated stairways and three electric lifts. This building is for chocolate manufacturing, and for the production of first-class chocolate confectionery; all the raw materials are raised to the top floor, then shot or pumped to the lower floors for manufacture into the finished article, ready for delivery."
The confectionary factory interiors have been retained.
The building's machinery included melangeurs (to mix chocolate and sugar), refiners (to smooth the chocolate mixture) and conches (to mix and store the chocolate for the desired seventy-two hours). There were storage reservoirs, moulding rooms, enrobing (coating) machines, and a packing department.
The building’s landmark status was established by a roof installation of 1100 electric lamps spread over 40 metres that operated in sequence to write the distinctive MacRobertson’s signature. At six stories in height, the building was the highest in Fitzroy until the public housing towers built in the 1960s.